The first thing you realise about Relebogile Mothema, who I chatted to before lockdown, is that she is no ordinary schoolgirl. She might be only 10 going on 11 but there is wisdom and mature thinking about her that makes you wonder if she is not a creative spirit reborn.
“If more children could learn how to read and write, the world would be a much better place,” she tells you with the solemnity that defies her age.
A grade five learner at St Andrews School for Girls in Joburg, Relebogile is one of South Africa’s new breed of aspiring young authors who are endeavouring to turn the tide on literacy in South Africa.
“It’s a good thing that people are starting to think about getting children to read when they are very young,” she says. “When you can’t read or nobody tells you stories, what do you understand about life, who you are and what you need to do to make your life better?”
Her first book, entitled Bizzarcar, published by Bala Books, has caught the imagination of young readers around the country. So too has the storyline which takes grown up views on subjects like obesity and bullying.
“I know about those things,” she says. “I used to eat too much junk food. Of course, I was overweight and used to be bullied because of the way I looked. If I could write a book about what I felt and what I needed to do about eating healthy, I thought it would help other kids.”
She says her love of books and reading — “I really like stories like Much Ado About Nothing” — helped her to use her imagination and create.
“Kids are more aware about junk food and being overweight than adults think,” she says. “Nobody wants to be obese, or likes to be bullied. That’s why I wrote the book. It’s about finding solutions, being kind to yourself and others.”
Relebogile started her writing career at aged seven when she was enrolled in a 10-week writing course with Bala Books, a Soweto-based publisher that focuses on young and up-and-coming local writers.