A pivotal moment for author, poet, and anthropologist Lebohang Masango came after a children’s book she had written helped shift uniform policy at a school in Johannesburg.
“It could have been in 2018, possibly, or 2019. When a school in the north of Johannesburg was having a debate around whether little black girls should wear beads, a mom advocated for her child since the child had worn beads in her hair because of ‘Mpumi’s Magic Beads’, after seeing Masego’s illustrations and reading our story,” the author related.
“That sparked a debate at the school, and eventually, through various consultations with me in my capacity as an anthropologist, that school has added beads to their school code of conduct, and that was such an important moment for me because this entire Mpumis Magic Beads journey began because of my curiosity about what experiences are shaping little girls in South African schools.”
Masango recently revealed the latest titles in her children’s series, “Can Mpumi Count?” and “What is Mpumi’s Favourite Colour?” created specifically for early childhood development and foundation phases.
The books cater to little readers aged 3 to 8, and thanks to publisher New Africa Books, they are being stocked on the shelves of bookstores like The Book Lounge and Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town and Ethnic Kids and Books Circle Capital in Johannesburg.
A significant component of the magic that brings the books to life is the seamless partnership between Masango and her long-time collaborator, Masego Morulane, the illustrator, who has been involved from the inception of the first book to the current series.
The inception of Masango’s journey into children’s books came with “Mpumi’s Magic Beads”, a self-published undertaking released in December 2017. In May 2018, fate intervened in the form of Dusanka Stojakovic, founder of New Africa Books. Captivated by the story, Stojakovic offered to not only publish it but also have the story translated into all South African languages, making it accessible to children across the nation. The offer, Masango said, was irresistible.
According to the author, the book is an expression of appreciation for Johannesburg, the city that shaped her. It unfolds against the backdrop of some of her favourite inner-city locations, places she encountered in her childhood.
In addition to reflecting Masango’s early experiences, the children’s book is also a heartfelt tribute to black girls.
“Mpumi’s Magic Beads series is just a love letter, I suppose, in graphic and literary form to myself at that time, to my schoolmates and friends at that time, and to all the little girls of South Africa.”
Building on the success of “Mpumi’s Magic Beads,” which earned her accolades that include a South African Literary Award, Masango’s literary journey has continued with multiple book releases, including “Mpumi’s Feast of Love”, released earlier this year. She is now extending the “Mpumi” series to engage an even younger audience.
Masango’s skills as a writer extend well beyond her children’s series, however. Recognition has recently come via the 2023 Sunday Times Literary Awards long list for her non-fiction book “The Soft Life,” which delves into the modern dynamics of dating.
In a recent virtual interview, she delved into her journey as an author, crafting books for both children and adults and her commitment to writing stories that represent black women and girls.
Her passion for children being able to read in their languages also extends beyond the literature space and into education.
“It is a passion of mine for children to be able to access books in their languages, which is why the books are available in all 11 official languages,” she explained.
“I’m just hoping that as the years go by, our education department will strengthen the practice of teaching children in their languages, hopefully also into high school,” she said.
Masango envisions a future where children aren’t suddenly confronted with the challenge of tackling intricate subjects like physics or biology in English during grades 10 or 11, when they may have been studying them in languages like isiXhosa previously.
Masango’s strong inclination towards representing women and girls is also deeply rooted.
“If my work for children is like a love letter to little black girls, then I do feel that my work in anthropology is a love letter to black women,” she explained.
Based on her Master’s thesis in Social Anthropology, her non-fiction book “The Soft Life,” published in 2022, delves into the intricate political economy of love. The book centres on five diverse, driven, and ambitious women who aspire to fulfil their dreams while maintaining fulfilling relationships. The narrative reflects their desire to maximise their life experiences while navigating romantic relationships and friendships as additional sources of joy. They prioritise relationships where mutual investment and self-care are non-negotiable, refusing compromises that do not contribute positively to their personal growth.
In “The Soft Life,” readers gain an insider’s perspective on the luxurious lifestyles of these women. The book explores themes such as modern dating, the internet, feminism, and more.
“I intend to contribute to this conversation in a way that respects black women and their level of intelligence, self-worth, and understanding of themselves,” she explained.
As a children’s author, Masango has actively engaged in various literacy initiatives and events. More recently, she participated in the Nirox Words Children’s Storytelling Programme in collaboration with Ethnikids. Her participation in these events serves as a way for her to expand her impact and provide children who read her books with the opportunity to see someone who resembles them, presenting a world of possibilities.
“This woman looks like me. She kind of talks like me, and she also writes books; that is a possibility for me.”
“I believe we must be part of these literacy initiatives, serving as embodiments of possibility.”
Through her collaborations, storytelling, and engagement with social issues, Masango paints a vivid tapestry of inspiration, aspiration, and possibility for generations to come.
Currently, the author is conceptualising and adding to the Mpumi series almost daily while also planning to venture into natural science as a theme, all while completing her PhD in Anthropology.
As her literary universe expands, so does her impact. From advocating for children’s access to books in their languages to exploring the intricate landscapes of love in her non-fiction work, Masango’s contributions are marked by a deep commitment to empowerment and representation.
Story Credit: Phendu Kuta for bird story agency
Photo Credit: Masego Morulane