Dancing. Debating. Telesales. Catering. Baby sitting. These are some of the jobs Zimkhitha Mlanzeli tried before finding her passion for writing and teaching literacy. Born in Motherwell in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), Zimkhitha dropped out of an electrical engineering degree at the PE University of Technology. “I roamed around the world looking for things that gave me pleasure. I was looking for ‘the thing that was’, ” she says.
“The thing that was” turned out to be a career as a published author and a job at the FunDza Literacy Trust in Muizenberg. “I thought that writing was for old white people in London. I discovered FunDza on Mxit, one of the platforms used for publishing stories written by its contributors. I read a few stories and then decided to write one myself. I sent it in, and to my surprise, I got paid for it.”
In that ‘eureka moment’ she realised a career in publishing could be hers and soon found herself on the staff at the non-profit organisation, dedicated to improving literacy among teens and young adults. She now mentors other aspirant writers to get their work published in the Fanz section on FunDza’s mobi network.
FunDza uses a platform familiar to the youth: the cellphone, making its virtual ‘library on a phone’ available at no cost to users of feature phones, smartphones and any device connected to the internet. Thousands of young people connect daily to get their reading fix.
FunDza has made impressive inroads into schools and beneficiary organisations with a series of paperbacks set at Harmony High, a fictional township high school. Told in a readable style, with lots of tension and pace, plots revolve around teenage angst, pregnancy, first romantic relationships, soccer drama and other familiar scenarios. Currently, FunDza is supporting 287 active beneficiary groups – schools, libraries, youth development groups and reading clubs across the country – with book donations.
FunDza’s office in Muizenberg is a buzzing newsroom, where intern Veronica Boyi and writer Masibulele Lunika have recently joined the team of facilitators, mentors, writers, bloggers and ‘literacy activists’.
Office manager Phoebe Sibonana is a Rwandan refugee who spent her formative years travelling through Africa, eventually settling in Cape Town. “It gives me great pleasure to know that the work we do helps to change the mindsets of young people. We receive such positive feedback from our beneficiaries telling us how our materials have helped prevent teens from joining gangs and even overcoming peer pressure in schools.”
FunDza’s stories are not mere entertainment; they provide vital information and non-judgmental advice for issues such as teen pregnancy, the ‘sugar daddy’ phenomenon, and the dangerous lure of drugs, alcohol and the ‘big city lights’.
Zimkhitha has become one of FunDza’s most popular short story writers, publishing her novel Blood Ties in paperback under the auspices of FunDza’s publishing partner, Cover2Cover Books.
She is one of many talented young adults flourishing under the mentorship of executive director Mignon Hardie, whose Stellenbosch MBA comes in handy when ensuring the financial sustainability of the NGO. Nothing gives her more pleasure than nurturing young writers, helping them access the rich tapestry of their own lives and honing their craft. More than 1 000 writers have had their work published through FunDza. “We have big dreams. Everyone who has joined FunDza has been changed by these dreams,” says Mignon.
FunDza grew out of the experiences of passionate English teacher Dorothy Dyer, who taught at LEAP Science and Maths School in Pinelands, a school catering for disadvantaged students. A dearth of books relevant to this demographic led Dorothy, author Ros Haden, Mignon and MD Palesa Morudu to launch Cover2Cover Books.
FunDza was launched by this for-profit publishing company to forward their social objectives. “Keeping the two organisations separate, one focused on publishing literature for sale, the other focused on outreach, is part of the secret of our success. When companies see the impact of our work, they are more than willing to come on board as sponsors,” explains Mignon.
Shelley Bolle, the newly appointed marketing and stakeholder relations officer, has a background in HIV/Aids awareness. “Literacy is a key component to any education and awareness campaign – and I understand now why so many campaigns fail. People are unable to read or understand the material. I am blown away by the work being done here. I am also an avid reader.”
Literacy helps mould dynamic all-rounders. Journalist graduate Ndibulele Sotondoshe started out at FunDza as a shy features writer. “Now, a year later, I can stand up in front of hundreds of students and do presentations. I am also a published author and I am inspiring different people in the community as a facilitator.”
Nandi Tshabane is responsible for the Popularising Reading Programme, which sponsors books to deepen the reading experience of young people. Previously employed by Doctors Without Borders, she is a community development professional who appreciates the value of literacy in her own life. “If you read you can get educated. If I was unable to read I would not have been able to study. The concept driving FunDza is so simple, yet so powerful.”
Fridays are workshop days for Zimkhitha, who is also a facilitator of FunDza’s campaign that encourages a culture of reading at schools through fun activities and games to improve language skills and broaden vocabulary. “My love for reading was always there. I wish I had known earlier what I know now. I read Mills & Boon. I read Jeffrey Archer. I am now catching up with the classics.”