One of the major problems with the reading materials produced for children in South Africa is that they continue to tell a story about children living in middle-class or elite environments. Nathi Ngubane challenges this with the launch of an educational book series geared for children from underprivileged backgrounds.

Nkosinathi (Nathi) Ngubane, a Durban-born graphic designer, illustrator, and culturalist, recently launched Duma Says, an educational book series geared for children from underprivileged backgrounds.

The first book, Duma says: Wash your hands, wear a mask!, is about a boy (Duma) living in an informal settlement in South Africa with his family. Duma and his friends notice that many people are not wearing masks and hatch a plan to try and protect their community.

Ngubane, 30, (who now resides in Soweto) grew up in Mayville, Durban, and started drawing at the tender age of six.

“I have no idea where I got the talent to draw,” says Ngubane.

He jokes that while all his friends were terrible artists and only drew “stick-men”, he was perfectly drawing Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and other Disney characters. As Ngubane got older, he realised that it was time to take his artistic skills more seriously.

“I started developing my own style in my teen years,” – a style that Ngubane describes as modern, clean, friendly, and bright.

“When I matriculated from Open Air School (for children with special education needs), I was fortunate enough to land a space at the Durban University of Technology, where I graduated with a three-year diploma in graphic design in 2014,” says Ngubane.

While studying, Ngubane founded his own freelance business called Think Ahead Comix and after graduating he landed his first full-time job as a cartoonist for Citizen News. Ngubane now works as a full-time freelance graphic designer and illustrator. See some of his work here.

About a month ago, Nathi was contacted by his close friend Azad Essa (a journalist with Middle East Eye) who suggested that he write a children’s book about the coronavirus.

“I’ve always wanted to write my very own children’s book. When Azad contacted me I thought that this might be the opportunity to not only write my very first children’s book, but to also write something that will be meaningful, and help educate children of South Africa and around Africa.”

The need for children’s books like ‘Duma says’

One of the major problems with the reading materials produced for children in South Africa, is that they continue to tell a story about children living in middle-class or elite environments.

“A lot of the material does not speak to the experience of millions of children living in cramped housing or informal settlements, sometimes without electricity, internet or running water – an issue that directly impacts the spread of the virus,” says Ngubane.

He adds that “a lot of people are still not wearing masks and they are still not taking this pandemic seriously. The aim of this book is to teach children coming from a disadvantaged background to keep safe.”

When creating the book, Ngubane says he chose vibrant and bright colours, not only because it is more appealing to children, but because “they are a symbol of hope that there will be a better tomorrow”.

Ngubane wants South African youth to know, “what you are going through currently, it is only temporary, and we will beat this virus. I just want everybody to stay safe. Listen to [trustworthy] news, listen to governments, wear your mask, wash your hands, and we will get through this.”

He hopes to write several more books under “Duma says” to highlight the challenges faced by South Africa. For the immediate future, two more books are planned for release by the end of August.

The second book will focus on how Duma and Zihle hatch a plan for the children in their informal settlements to continue with their education.

The third installation will illustrate how Duma and his friends find novel ways to play with each other, while practising social distancing.

The entire series will be available in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa and Kiswahili (for children in East Africa) and the first book is already available to purchase on Amazon.

Ngubane and Essa are relying on donations to carry the series forward. The money goes towards paying translators, typesetters, and for a small batch of printed books to be sold and donated to libraries.

All the profits made from the printed material will go to Ngubane’s alma mater, Open Air School, in Durban.

The book has already been endorsed by, and is available on, the South African government’s official coronavirus resource portal.

Significantly, however, “Duma Says” has been gaining traction in some prominent circles.

Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, recently tweeted about the book, saying, “Here’s something for our young ones.”

Actress Thandie Newton (Mission Impossible 2, Norbit, The Pursuit of Happyness) has also expressed her support to Ngubane’s book in a recent tweet. Ngubane says the positive reception of the book has exceeded his expectations:

“I was so happy to hear that the book has gained the minister’s support. It has boosted my confidence and left me very inspired. I am just so happy that I am able to help in my own way as an artist.”

Ngubane says he plans on writing more books, both for children and for people his own age, beyond Covid-19.

“I want to publish at least 100 books by 2030,” says Ngubane.

Maverick Citizen jokingly told Nathi that we will be holding him to that, to which he fearlessly responded: “Bring it on!” DM/MC