I read because of two main reasons – the little pamphlets of short stories in IsiNdebele that used to be distributed at our primary school, and love for my Grade Six teacher. The first reason is perfectly safe to write about, but the second needs clearing from the Mrs. I hope to obtain “ethical” clearance sometime today.
When I went to Manyewu Primary School in Bulawayo, between Grades 3 and 4, there was a company that used to distribute little newsprint pamphlets of folktales, written in IsiNdebele. Perhaps some were in English, but I doubt. Anyhow, the illustration, as far as I recall, was great because you could follow the story by merely looking at the pictures. Then either the teacher or some great readers in class would read out a folktale, normally when we were outside the classroom, awaiting our turn to go inside a classroom occupied by another grade. This system was called “hot sitting” and designed to share not only classroom space but books as well. In short, it meant going through the syllabus in half the required time as students alternated attending school in the morning and the afternoon. There was a waiting period to go inside the classroom and it was this moment when stories of hare and baboon, the man and the leopard, the chameleon and the gecko and many others were read out loud. I was hooked. I read and re-read each one of these stories on my own and started my own library. The booklets were affordable, something like five cents I think. I sacrificed some of my “break” money to buy these. I do not remember volunteering to read or being asked to by my teachers. I was too quiet and probably looked stupid as one teacher once said. But I had read all of those booklets and had started experimenting with reading longer writings.
But those pamphlets come a distant second to my Grade Six teacher. She was called Miss Ndebele. I loved Miss Ndebele because she was beautiful and smelt great. She also wore high-heeled shoes and had a smile to outshine the brightest summer sun. She is the very first woman that I fell in love with not only for her looks but also because she noticed my love for reading and encouraged it. So I loved her desperately like any Grade Six boy would – not really knowing what that meant and completely clueless what I would do with her if she had said, “Here I am, love me.” We had by then, at Ntabeni Primary School, a “Corner Library” – a small bookshelf really – packed full of abridged English “classics” and other writings. Most of these were under the Ladybird Series. It was Miss Ndebele who noticed that I was a good reader of English and an even better writer of compositions in the language. The more I read out loud in class, the more I practised in private – both silently and loudly. I could not disappoint Miss Ndebele. Then my compositions started being paraded in our class, in other classes and ultimately taken to the Headmaster! And Miss Ndebele said she was very proud of me. Then she started directing my reading. Had I read Treasure Island? How about The Black Tulip? Around the World in Eighty Days was another fine book, she once said. Whatever she recommended I read, until there was no book I had not read in that Corner Library.
Then I joined Njube Library and spent most of my Saturdays immersed in books there. No wonder I made friends with two of the librarians who allowed me to borrow more than the two stipulated texts. Some of these were not even recorded but I returned all of them. In spite of, or because of, my love for Miss Ndebele, I regret to say that there were some books from the Corner Library that I borrowed permanently. The redemption lies in that I lent these to friends. Together (we would call ourselves the Chopper Squad, after an Australian TV series that used to air on ZTV – go ahead and laugh), we delighted (note this very English word), in trying out the expressions we picked up from these books. Words and expressions like, “Oh dear!” (I know, but it was once quaint to me and the rest of Chopper Squad), “what the blue blazes”, “bamboozle”, “helter-skelter”, and “sixes and sevens.” These were good for composition writing and even better for public speaking. To add more muscle to our vocabulary, we obsessed over the Students’ Companion and learnt, for example, that instead of saying you visited someone, you could say you darkened that person’s door. And so, yes Ngugiites, I became thoroughly colonised, if of course, you forget or ignore that I was equally good in my mother language, IsiNdebele.
As I got older, what drove me to read more was my association with fellow bookworms. I remember James Mabhunu introducing me to James Hadley Chase. I read those greasy over read books and got titillated like hell. As if that was not enough, then entered the Pace Setters, with their fast pace and African setting. After these, special mention must be made of two writers, Ayi Kwei Armah and Charles Mangua for introducing me to soft porn. I think I became aware of these two via John Kantompeni or the late Rainous Sibanda, I am not so sure now. I challenge anyone who read Why Are we So Blest? at sixteen or so and did not return to the sex scenes, to raise his/her hand. Ah, Mangua’s Son of a Woman excited me beyond the love of words. This marked my first “serious” attempts to write. As you might predict, the stories were steeped in “love” with sprinklings of erotica. My secondary school friends loved these. It was mostly girls who loved my stories and, when they asked to keep them, I would pretend to think hard about it, before saying yes. I wrote so many of those and gave them away. Then I continued reading, in order to improve my writing and to wow my readers and, of course, to attract girls and to share with fellow avid readers from my high school days what I had read. There was nothing as good as listening to someone relate their special episode in a book. James Mabhunu and John Kantompeni were masters at this. It was like reading the whole story all over again, and sometimes even better because some of the expressions that had escaped me took on new significance. Talk of an effective revision strategy for our literature course, this was better than a study guide. So I read carefully, all the more to make a detailed contribution during these narration sessions.
My infatuation with reading blossomed into love and I became an English major, which is to say, I majored in English and did not turn into an English man (to some extent, this is true). So, I had to read fiction at university in order to be certificated. There, I got to know the late Ruzvidzo Stanley Mupfudza, Memory Chirere, and others who would become fellow writers. These were the heady days of Zimbabwean writing and it was no surprise that we met at Chenjerai Hove’s sessions on creative writing. Those sessions opened up vast worlds of literature and it became fashionable for some of us to read beyond and deliberately outside the English Department syllabus as a form of rebellion against what we considered to be a lean and conservative reading list and way of criticising literature. For some of us then, evening soirees in residences or at drinking places turned out to be animated discussions of literature fueled by cheap wine of the student variety like “Late Harvest”. I did not want to look and sound like an idiot, so I read more, drank more cheap wine and talked more literature.
So, I read now because it is my job. I need to publish journal articles, present at conferences and teach literature. As a writer though, I read in search of that story that leaves me transfixed, in a special kind of “silence”. The kind of story that sucks you in and when you read the last word, you seem to float in a twilight zone. You wonder about many things, including how come there are so many splinters of yourself in a stranger’s story. You are also stunned by the story line and artistry. You think, how does (how dare, indeed) someone find those kinds of words and line them up like that to produce this? In many ways, such stories remind me of wordsmiths like my mother. When she is done telling a story, even a real-life one, there is always a moment of silence forcing her to ask, “Are you ok?” Sometimes I laugh as she is narrating a sad story and when she says, “There is nothing funny here, by the way”, I tell her it is how she finds the most expressive words that always leaves me in utter disbelief. Good writing is like that and I keep reading to have those moments that are like an addict’s proper “fix”. I’ve had many such fixes but the latest one has to be reading Petina Gappah’s stories in Rotten Row (2016). Incredibly artistic without calling attention to their artifice, these stories leave me in that moment of silence.
So, there it is. I clearly read for different reasons and these cannot be divorced from the earlier contexts or reasons for reading. I will never forget Miss Ndebele, that one is for sure. I will never forget my friends who shared smutty novels with me and I will always remember the nights of cheap wine and literary discussions and at times, “live” reading of segments from texts. Amazing what cheap wine and impassioned fellow university students can achieve. I am also appreciative of verbal artists like my mother who have made me read for beauty (overall effect and individual expression), and writers who create that moment of silence at the end of their story.
Thabisani Ndlovu is a senior lecturer of English and Cultural Studies at Walter Sisulu University. Before that, he was Deputy Director and lecturer at the International Human Rights Exchange at the University of the Witwatersrand. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies including Creatures Great and Small, Short Writings from Bulawayo III, Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe, The Caine Prize for African Writing 2009 and Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe. Other stories have appeared in online journals and magazines. His short story, 'When We Were Kings', will appear in Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories. Thabisani has also translated Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe into isiNdebele – Siqondephi Manje: Indatshana zaseZimbabwe. In 1992 he won first prize for isiNdebele poetry in the Budding Writers Association National Competition and, in 2005, the inaugural Intwasa koBulawayo Short Story Competition. If he is not writing fiction or poetry, Thabisani carries out humanist-inspired research. If not doing any of those things, he is likely to be thinking about the beautiful and terrible things in life, and trying to find words for them.