Given a chance to play

2008-01-15 00:00

There are no Barbie dolls here. No plastic fire engines. No Lego sets. In this Johannesburg township that is racked by Aids deaths and crushing poverty, buying your child a toy is not a priority — not even at Christmas.

In shack after musty, dark shack, one finds almost nothing — a jar of peanut butter here, a chipped crockery set there. Children sit around listlessly watching music videos.

But eight-year-old Lesand Lengwati now has a haven. On the second floor of the Alexandra community centre, squashed between the food pantry and the HIV testing clinic, is a small room lined with shelves of mostly second-hand toys.

Lesand’s mother died of Aids. Her father was shot by the police. But one day, her grandmother, who works as a maid, took Lesand to the centre for bread. And that’s when she discovered a place that would change her life: the toy library.

There are toy libraries in cities around the world, set up to serve the poor. In South Africa, there are 140 and counting. The government partially funds them and sees toys as critical to the development of children — indeed, the health of society.

“Many children in our country ... have never enjoyed childhood; instead, they have taken on the responsibilities of adults and ... they are often left vulnerable, becoming early victims to crime and drugs. Toy libraries can serve as an antidote to many of these social problems and play can help in the healing process,” said N- Botha, deputy minister of arts and culture, in an October 2007 speech.

In Alexandra, the five-year-old toy library is not just transforming the lives of its 149 members, but also the librarians who work here.

Like Lesand, Precious Mathe serendipitously stumbled upon the toy library. Two years ago, while taking her daughter Mpho to visit an aunt in Alexandra, Mathe came to the local clinic to take an HIV test.

The week before she first saw the library, Mathe’s church pastor had preached: “If there is something you want in life, you must go out and find it.’ She remembers those words well, because it was what made her walk in that day and inquire about volunteering. “[As a child], I had no toys at home. We were poor and my father stayed with another woman and had other children,” she says.

“I used to pray that someone would take me to McDonald’s and I could get one of those little plastic rhinos that came with the food. I think,” adds Mathe in a whisper, “that my life would have been different if I had had toys.”

She is a shy woman, and whispers a lot. When she was younger, Mathe dreamed of becoming a social worker or a nurse. She didn’t know anyone who did those sorts of things, but she would see the girls in white and blue dresses from the ancillary healthcare course at the mall, where she worked as a cashier at a fast-food fried-chicken stall. “One day I had to confront [my fears] and ask them about the course because I was so interested,” she says. She took a second job folding laundry, so she could enrol in a caregivers course. She never got her certificate because she could only afford the first semester. Instead, she got a new job cleaning convention centres. But she dreamed of doing something “more special”.

These days, Mathe and Lesand meet almost daily at the library where Mathe is now the librarian. Lesand is, quite possibly, the township’s most enthusiastic card-carrying toy-library member.

“Today, I would like to borrow ...” The little girl clasps her hands behind her tattered red wool sweater, squints as she assesses her choices and leans in towards Mathe, “a puzzle”. An excellent choice, replies the librarian.

“Children need stimulation. But many children are so disadvantaged that they have nothing before setting foot in pre-primary school. The vast majority don’t go to preschool. The playgrounds are abysmal,” says Cynthia Morrison, president of South Africa’s toy library association, noting that problems such as poor language and social skills start with a paucity of early stimulation.

Most toy libraries here are government-private partnerships. In the case of the Alexandra library, the British construction company Turner & Townsend and a local non-profit group help buy new toys and co-ordinate second-hand donations.

Morrison serves as a mentor to many of the new librarians and helps to organise toy library conferences and seminars, and to secure funding for new projects. “I have been hijacked by toy libraries,” she jokes, “because I have seen what they can do.”

Lesand and Mathe choose a puzzle of two children on a unicycle. They count out the 100 pieces together, to make sure they are all there. In fact, there are only 96 original pieces, but Mathe has made four duplicate pieces from cardboard – a regular procedure here.

What started as a volunteer job is now a full-time job for Mathe as the chief toy librarian. Her work involves everything from patching up dolls’ eyes to disinfecting building blocks to tracking down overdue xylophones. Her R1 600-a-month salary goes towards her bus fare, her daughter’s school fees and food. Mathe also gives money to her mother and her jailed brother’s family – and, if she can, puts a few coins away for a rainy day. She was recently diagnosed as HIV-positive. “Now I am even more grateful I found this work,” she says. “Otherwise, I might have died cleaning convention centres.”

Borrowers pay a small yearly membership fee and are each allowed two toys for two weeks. Lesand’s second choice today is a children’s book. Her grandfather at home can’t read to her as he is illiterate, but, a top English pupil herself, she can slowly make out the words. And she likes the pictures. The book is Sarah and the Circus, and, according to the inscription on the first page, it was custom made, once upon a time, for a little girl named Sarah, in Chicago, on her fifth birthday.

Who knows how it made its way to the Alexandra community centre. Maybe it was given to a charity. Maybe it was left behind on a family safari to Africa. Lesand doesn’t mind or care. For these two weeks, it’s hers. She signs her name on the library card, clasps her puzzle, gives a pleased Mathe a hug, and skips out to play.

— The Christian Science Monitor.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.