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The art of the spoken word

Sally Mills, Networks and Communications Co-ordinator at Nal’ibali, explores how the work of literacy activist Mpho Khosi inspires literacy:

The streets are alive and so are the minds of the young people who walk them. Brisk with triumph, pounding with frustration, clumsy with desperation or tripping with excitement, the streets feel the beat and the urgency of the youth and give rise to a voice that will not go unheard in the modern sound of the spoken word.

Putting pens to paper and microphones at the lips of those with something to say, spoken word is an art form that evolved from poetry, and, where poetry was once a mask of refinement, exclusive to the wealthy and the educated, spoken word or slam poetry now comes with a fresh flavour, straight from the streets and focuses on word play and the interest-piquing allure of storytelling.

Most importantly, it brings a curiosity of language. Circling in on language from such a different direction is perhaps its strongest weapon in helping to fight the battle on illiteracy in our country, says Mpho Khosi. Khosi is a poet, author, storyteller, father and one of the 13 young people who make up the Word 'n Sound Literature Company, a Johannesburg-based organisation that gives a platform for the expression of the spoken word. We are in conversation ahead of World Poetry Day this Saturday, 21 March.

Mpho’s sentiment resonates strongly with my own work at Nal’ibali, the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign. At Nal’ibali we believe that children grow into literacy through stories and forays into print that are both messy and meaningful, fun and inspired. And ones that don’t necessarily take place in the classroom. And where Mpho is bringing together seasoned practitioners with young people to encourage and inspire them, the parallels with literacy learning strike me yet again.

True to his word, Mpho has introduced his own daughter to poetry and spoken word, at first in gentle, playful ways through nursery rhymes, and later by taking her along to his monthly poetry shows. Exposing her to the power of words and to literacy role models, he has already started to see the development in her own self-expression. At just age nine, she is starting to bring literary techniques such as rhyme, rhythm and repetition into her own poems, playing with the words and even making a few new ones of her own!

So while urban artists are proclaiming their gospel on the sidewalks of our capital, and Mpho is helping to mould a new generation of poets, perhaps break open the crayons or a treasury of children’s poems and get rhyming with your little ones because literacy learning can take place in more ways than one.

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