Dear YAGM volunteers,
I have a few thoughts about reading.
I read a lot before my YAGM year. To give you a ballpark, I definitely watched Netflix more than I read, but I have paid over $300 in library fines over the course of my life. $500 if you count the textbook that I lost in high school. In college, I majored in English Literature, in large part so that my homework would be reading books. Turns out that my homework was also to write papers, but I focused less of my efforts on that pursuit. Maybe all of these things point to a character flaw rather than build a case for my commitment to the written word. Who’s to say?
Nevertheless, I was familiar with reading, I brought way too many books with me (Tessa has an incredible library! Save yourself!), and I thought that I understood how books could shape my life.
That being said, before stepping off the plane in Joburg, I had never read a book from the African continent. Not a single book. Not that I remember. I had smacked into many books about Africa, gross reductions which lent themselves more readily to grasping colonization’s destructive power than to a meaningful understanding of how life can look on the vast and varied African continent.
As I spent time with wide eyes in my community and around the country, I came to see that travel books perform a similar, if less violent, reduction. While claiming to package the essential South Africa, those books invariably brushed aside the community that held me so closely throughout my year. Those books did not include a photo of my four-year-old host brother and his six, newly-missing baby teeth on any Top Ten list. I assure you that he is far more beautiful than Table Mountain. You will certainly see many beautiful things.
Reading books helped me to discover hidden treasures in my country of service. The treasures were voices that I had never heard before. They were hidden because I had not been looking. While Cry, The Beloved Country is complicated and important, it was written by a white South African who knew little about the Coloured experience in his country. Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town helped underline the damp edge of subtleties in my context. It’s helpful to read what wins book prizes alongside what is local and printed in far fewer copies.
My dear YAGMS, you are a blessed witness as you walk beside people who have been living their real lives long before you were a thought in their minds. So, too, are you blessed with books written by these people about their lives—books waiting for you in libraries upon you return, but perhaps in this time of your life, when you are humbled and vulnerable and living amongst the authors of these stories, perhaps there is no better time to read them. What a raw, wild gift.
So, I offer these humble suggestions as much as to you as to myself as I ride the Amtrak to Chicago and think about what it means to read as a form of active listening.
Here we go.
Read stories that name the river that runs close to your home. Let those stories help you with new and ancient ways of seeing.
Read books that use words from Tswana. Or Venda or Xhosa or Afrikaans or Zulu—a language that you hear from the people whose names you are learning. Be brave and try speaking these new words out loud.
Read something that uses words from a language that you seldom hear. Be reminded that these pieces that you have no chance in pronouncing represent immense worlds that you can never know.
Read books that help explain parts of your country about which you do not know what questions to ask.
Read an author whose name feels impossible to pronounce. Learn how to say that author’s name.
Read books that weren’t written with you in mind.
Read something that rests close to the heart of someone in your country group. Be reminded that each of us contains multitudes and your fellow volunteers are so worthy of a witness.
Talk to each other about what you’re reading when things feel too big. As you read, you are joining a community that begins with the volunteers who loved those books before you and circles wider into the human community who tell stories and who hear them. This is sacred, and you are so ready.
Taylor (Southern Africa 2015-2016)