The story of friendship brings inclusion and diversity into children’s literature, while highlighting the fight to officially recognise sign language in South Africa.
Mpumi and Jabu’s Magical Day is a recently released children’s book by Lebohang Masango, a social anthropologist and the author of Mpumi’s Magic Beads,and Claudine Storbeck, the director and associate professor of the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
The collaboration follows two children who meet on a playground and go off on an adventure. One, Mpumi, has magic beads that allow her to fly over the city with her friends. The other is Jabu, a Deaf boy looking for friendship, who helps the other children understand Deaf culture and South African sign language (SASL).
“Deaf children have never seen Deaf characters in books, and in their world ‘normal’ is hearing children. We want people to know that Deaf children are normal. They just use a different language,” Storbeck told the Wits Vuvuzela newspaper.
The joy of this partnership is apparent in the pages of the book, with the character Mpumi still carrying the wonder she had in Masango’s original book. The book was written in just one day. These two collaborators found inspiration and pleasure in working together, learning from each other’s backgrounds and experiences, which inform the book’s context.
Mpumi and Jabu explore the mutual effort necessary when striking up a new friendship – learning how to communicate and how to play together in ways that everyone enjoys. It’s a book that allows young Deaf children to not only see themselves represented in mainstream literature, but also for them to be principal characters with agency and knowledge to share within it.
“The book was all Claudine’s idea, there’s … segregation between books for hearing children and those for Deaf children, which is … surprising to me because both sets of children can read. It’s about letting each group know that friendship is a possibility no matter your difference.”
Recognising sign language
To many, this book will serve as an introduction to South African sign language and Deaf culture, and this was the main reason Storbeck approached Masango to develop the book. The Centre for Deaf Studies has started publishing books that cater specifically to the Deaf community, and highlight Deaf heroes, histories and poetry. An SASL vocabulary book is also available. All of these are free to download from the centre’s website.
South Africa’s Deaf community includes more than four million Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, many of whom have been activists in the effort to formalise their place in the country’s greater society. The fight to recognise SASL as the country’s 12th official language has continued for years, to facilitate a way for Deaf people to access information, jobs, healthcare and ordinary services and activities that many cannot without an interpreter. Deaf people are individuals with agency and are not treated as such in society and policy, who have a right to access and communicate in a language they can understand. The quest to make SASL an official language, as well as the capitalisation of the “D” in Deaf, highlights this.
“I want to emphasise that SASL is a right and not a privilege and is a language of the first line of commutation for Deaf people,” says Deputy Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities in the Presidency Hlengiwe Mkhize. Pan South African Language Board chairperson David wa Maahlamela adds,
“The SASL charter is premised on the ‘nothing about us without us’ disability movement. It is a product of years of extensive consultation with the Deaf community that has culminated to this call to action for our government and civil society to rally together and pledge their commitment to the principles of multilingualism and social cohesion that underpin the provisions of this charter.”
The South African sign language charter, which addresses issues related to communication, facilities and social justice matters, including access to information and interpreters, was launched in late August, just before Deaf Awareness Month (September).
“It was serendipity that caused us to launch so close to Deaf Awareness Month,” Storbeck says. “There were a couple of delays with getting this book done, and when it finally was, I … told them don’t worry, this is perfect timing.”