Living Social Justice

A blog about responding to poverty and injustice, everyday and in all sorts of ways

Why teaching a child to read is about so much more than A,B,C

Literacy programme volunteer, Anneke Jagau, gives us a glimpse into the life of the little boy she’s teaching to read every week. 

The school in Kewtown that I visit every Tuesday for the literacy programme is not very far away but it always feels as though I’m driving into a completely different world. Kewtown is one of the poorest areas in Athlone. Out the window of my car, I see rows of badly maintained houses, grey blocks of flats and deteriorated playgrounds. Even during ‘school hours’, many youngsters of school going age hang around on the streets and at the shops. Names of the different gangs are spray painted on the walls to indicate territory. Sadly, the police have very little presence in this area; the gangs often have the last word.

My heart breaks when I hear the stories of the children. They grow up in a world that exposes them to too much too young. The little seven-year-old boy who I always read with is a cute little chap but he finds it hard to concentrate. He is very restless. In his eyes you can read the pain and the sadness, caused by the things that have happened in his life. Last week, he was wearing a little bracelet which he told me proudly he’d made himself. I asked him how he’d done it and he said, “Oh, very easy, I made it from a condom. They are always behind our flat. They throw them their when they are done. I just washed it and burned the soft plastic. Do you like it?”

We started reading a book about things around the house that can be dangerous. The book did not talk about used needles or condoms. Most kids do not need to learn about those things. One of the pages showed an illustration of kitchen knives and matches. The little boy told me that the school security officer had searched their classroom earlier that morning to look for dangerous things. One of the boys carried a knife and matches. He was planning to stab and burn one of his classmates. I asked my little student if he would ever do such a thing. I saw the tears in his eyes while he declared with a soft voice that he would never do that. Recently, his uncle was murdered in front of his eyes by members of a gang.

This is the world this kid calls home. Here, you don’t end a conflict by talking about it; you end it by ending the life of the person you are having the conflict with. Girls often don’t finish their matric because they fall pregnant, and many of the young men drop out of school because they don’t see the use of school knowledge. Joining a gang is a much quicker way to earn money, status and fame. There are way too few positive male role models. Most fathers, uncles and big brothers are part of gangs or in jail. The mothers are tired. Many of them have given up. My little student’s mom has never had time for him. She never asks him about school or if he did his homework.  She gives him food and if he still wanders about at 11pm she sends his uncle to give him a hiding and send him in bed.

Sometimes I feel like giving up. Will this boy ever learn to read and write? He is at the end of grade 2 but cannot even spell his name without making mistakes. He still does not know all the letters of the alphabet, despite hours or repetition. During our weekly hour together he just wants to play games and listen to stories. He becomes quickly frustrated when I want to practice letters, and make him read books. But, every week, while the other kids are playing, he waits outside the door of the literacy programme room for us to arrive. The entire week he looks forward to his two reading hours with the volunteers. I asked him why and he said, “Because you are so patient and you always have time for me. Because you make me believe that I can do it.”

Many of the children in the literacy programme can’t read yet. Not because they are not smart enough, but because nobody ever told them that they could do it. Nobody told them to believe in their own abilities. Nobody gave them permission to dream. Nobody told them that they did not have to drop out of school, or end up in prison. That there is another way of living life.

What Kewtown and many other areas like it need is renewed hope. But hope does not come from more money, subsidized housing or police in the area. Even repainted playgrounds and restored school libraries will do very little if there aren’t people willing to go into the houses, schools and clinics to make God’s hope tangible. By giving a few hours of my week to the literacy programme, I feel like I’m doing so much more than just helping a child learn to read. My hope is that I’m showing him Christ’s love in action.

– Anneke is a trained midwife from the Netherlands who now lives in Cape Town with her husband where she is involved in research to improve mother and child health in developing countries. She is a member of the Common Ground Wynberg congregation.

-If you’d like to find out more about volunteering with the literacy programme next year, please email

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One thought on “Why teaching a child to read is about so much more than A,B,C

  1. I LOVE this article. Thank you so much. Its full of pain, but full of hope.

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