Windhoek-Children’s author Helvi Itenge-Wheeler initially struggled with reading when she was a child.
“I struggled to do well in school because of a poor educational foundation,” Itenge-Wheeler reminisced about her childhood, relating that reading was nowhere near the foundation of her education.
Itenge-Wheeler, who was born at Tsandi in northern Namibia, says her mother took her and her six siblings to join their father in exile.
“In exile my education foundation was really poor because we didn’t have enough educational tools and proper teachers on which to build a solid foundation,” she told New Era.
Her father, Niilo, taught her how to read in Oshiwambo when she was ten years old and it was only when she was eleven years old that Itenge-Wheeler mastered the alphabet.
“When we returned to Namibia in 1989 I did not do very well in school, although I consider myself a hard worker,” said Itenge-Wheeler.
Itenge-Wheeler did not attain good enough grades to enter university when she sat for her Grade 12 final examination.
“But I made my way and ended up going to the US (United States of America),” she recounts.
In the US, life was not as rosy as she hoped because she had to work extra hard to attain a university qualifications. It took her two years to enter university because she had to undertake a bridging course.
“In the US I found it challenging at university because when they gave us assignments it took me forever to read because I didn’t grow up with (the culture of) reading,” she says.
It was so bad her peers were always ahead of her, even in reading text books and other reading material, she explained.
“I had to work extra hard to get to the level where I am. Even today I still struggle,” Itenge-Wheeler, who constantly emphasised the importance of inculcating a culture of reading, said.
When she had her first child, people encouraged her to read to her child while the child was still in the womb.
“I didn’t understand why I had to talk or even read to my unborn child. After all, I thought to myself that children learn to talk anyway so what was the reason for this?” she questioned.
Nevertheless, Itenge-Wheeler subscribed to children’s magazines. And, to her surprise, Itenge-Wheeler came across information stressing why it is important to read, talk and sing to children even before they are born.
“This is to enhance their vocabulary even before they start talking so I tried it. I didn’t take it too seriously but I tried it,” she related.
The challenge came when she wanted to read stories to her unborn baby in Oshiwambo. “I wanted to read to my child in my mother tongue. So I started looking for material and books from Namibia. I couldn’t find anything on the internet,” she recalled.
After searching and asking people to assist her, she realised that there was no reading material in Oshiwambo because all she could find were school textbooks.
“So I decided to create my own book with my child’s photos and I decided to call it Iilyo Yo Lutu or body parts in English,” Itenge-Wheeler said. She decided to show her creation to other Namibians in the diaspora, not knowing that would be the beginning of her writing career.
“They asked me to send them copies of my book and said they would pay for it because they wanted to teach their children how to read in their mother tongue. I thought to myself it’s not even professional, why do they want to buy this. I saw that they were paying a lot of money even in shipping costs,” she said.
That was when she learnt that a gap existed that somebody needed to fill in terms of Namibian children’s literature.
“I started thinking of ideas and not long after that I had my second child so I started teaching them words on Microsoft,” but shortly after that Itenge-Wheeler, her husband and their two children relocated to Kenya. And, in Kenya they wanted to learn Swahili.
There were children’s books but according to Itenge-Wheeler, they “were not as colourful and fun with English translations like the ones I had seen in the US. In the US you would find children’s books written in English with Spanish translations,” she explained.
Her first Swahili book ‘Wanyama’ which means animals sold like hot cakes.
“I was surprised that even the libraries were so impressed that they took the books immediately. It takes up to six months but they bought the books from me in less than a month after I approached them,” Itenge-Wheeler added.
The books are on the shelves in 56 libraries across Kenya, she says with a sense of pride.
When she came to Namibia, the first book she published was ‘Iinamwenyo’ about animals, with English translations.
The rest as they say is history, and, 13 years later, Itenge-Wheeler, a 39-year-old mother of two children, is a household name in children’s literature.
She has written more than 13 children’s books in languages such as Oshiwambo and Swahili with English translations.
Introducing Namibian children to books
Itenge-Wheeler’s dream is for parents to introduce their children to reading at a very early age. It thus saddens her that most books here only cater for children 13 years and older.
“Schools don’t really concentrate on lower primary and primary level in terms of introducing reading, but that is the age when we need to lay the foundation. I saw how I struggled and even today I still struggle,” a concerned Itenge-Wheeler noted.
Her children are living proof that laying a good reading foundation is possible.
“My children love to read. My youngest is eight and she reads novels for children aged 13. They perform well in school and not just in English but also mathematics, and this is because they are readers. So, I’m seeing the results of introducing reading at an early age,” she said proudly.
Preserving indigenous knowledge
Itenge-Wheeler said her love for preserving indigenous knowledge in the hope that local languages and cultures will not become extinct are part of the reasons why she writes.
“I want to preserve indigenous knowledge, especially traditional stories and I am researching how to enhance reading for young children,” adds Itenge-Wheeler.
“I always say that a writer must also be a reader. If I read a good story I start getting ideas that okay ‘maybe I can connect this to my community’ and even listening to people, how they speak and what they say.
“Also when I visit schools and children come to me telling me about the book I wrote, and how excited they are, and the parents are giving me feedback. That gives me the courage to keep writing,” she said.
“The challenge we have is we don’t have a culture of reading. There are books I published in 2012, but it takes about four to five years for them to sell, even if it’s just 500 or 1,000 copies. If they sold within a year or two I would be giving children new material each time,” she pointed out.
She encouraged parents to inculcate a reading culture and to establish home libraries.
“Children mimic what they see. If they see you reading at home they also start reading. If you put books around them they will start reading,” she said, adding that some parents would rather buy their children toys instead of books.
Business or passion
Writing is not a lucrative business in Namibia she maintains.
“It’s very challenging because there are not many readers. And people who are supposed to buy books are parents and they don’t really see the need for reading,” Itenge-Wheeler remarked.
“This is my passion. I will just keep creating programmes and work with parents to teach them the importance of reading for enhancing the reading ability of children,” Itenge-Wheeler said.