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The dangers of the single story

Catherine Kell, Associate Professor of Linguistics specialising in literary studies at the University of the Western Cape, speaks to us about the danger of the single story and necessity of different narratives:

A group of lees-mammies (reading-mommies) talked to me about story-telling in their lives when they were young children growing up on wine farms in the Western Cape where their parents worked as labourers. The stories included fairytales, ghost stories, real-life family stories and animal fables, and they remembered lying close to their moms or grannies, of their hair being stroked as they fell asleep during the telling of the tale. Next day the story would pass through many recounts amongst the children - the little ones might ask the big ones if they knew the ending, or attempt possible endings themselves.

“It was as if we were turning the pages back to the exact spot where we fell asleep! We each made a picture in our own minds, our imagination worked, and we carried the stories forward. But then we always wanted the real ending.” The real ending needed to be known and needed to be correct. But by interrupting the narrative, and leaving the ending till another time, alternatives could be imagined and dreams could flourish.

In Langa, people reminiscing about story-telling in their lives as children echoed this, saying that when the recounts happened the next day you had to isijekula (add salt).

In the space of suspense between the known and the unknown, in the adding of the salt, the children used their imaginations to challenge the single story. Yes, they wanted the real ending, the safety of culture and tradition and the lessons that were often conveyed in such stories. But the delicious moment in-between is what ignited their imaginations. I believe this is a key to early literacy development.

Children can develop a sense of agency when they question a storyline. They can then develop their own idea of the story and come at it from a different angle, weighing up the alternatives and working out their place in the world. This is what critical literacy is all about. Through writing with agency, children achieve voice. Writing their own dreams and desires into stories is about finding voice. And dreams and desires are ignited through the circulation of stories in society. This enables them to extend their stock of images and ideas and populate their writing.

Now the lees-mammies have turned to reading stories with young children in their area in after-school groups. Armed with a box of big, beautiful and richly illustrated storybooks, the lees-mammies see their mission as providing multiple stories and a world of challenging images to children, along with another story about literacy. They say, “Children are not using their imaginations and don’t know how to tell stories any more”. “If you ask them to tell you a story they just say “gister het ek gaan speel” (yesterday I went to play). Here the women mimicked a boring factual recount of day-to-day details. But “…you must get their imaginations to work, you have to sketch a world for them, to take them beyond their everyday lives.” And “…the stories must let you fly away, they must let you escape from the everyday. You need to get away from the druk (pressure). The curriculum is so full. There is no space to just fly! The children need to be in a space where they feel they just cannot wait to see what will happen.” And “…then they have iets binne (something inside), and this is the beginning of writing essays, they can construct stories themselves”.

Imagining where a narrative could go rather than where it should go is a powerful thing to do. In the privacy of our own imaginations we do this all the time. Learning to bring it out into the real world, fashioning it for the public imagination is part of the crucial work of literacy teachers.

But such writing needs to be free of the fear of failure, currently so prevalent in our schools. It needs to be about taking risks, about flying. It needs to be about opening up and interrupting narratives, both the micro-narratives of the simply-told tale, and the macro-narratives about what literacy is and how it is best taught. The in-between moments, the spaces of imagination, are key. Perhaps it was in such moments that Steve Biko found the courage to interrupt the narrative of apartheid and imagine a different future. In “I write what I like” he fashioned alternatives. He challenged “the dangers of the single story”, the title of an inspiring talk recently given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I have borrowed as my title for this piece. Thank you, to her, to Biko and to all the thousands of writers who have populated my imagination with stories, dreams, reflections and the ability to think of different alternatives.

You can read the briefings Catherine Kell wrote (with Thabisa Xhalisa) on the work of the lees-mammies and the youth in Langa at

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