Charmaine Mrwebi, dreaming and writing in Setswana

Unable to find books written in her mother tongue, telling stories that related to her life, Charmaine Mrwebi wrote her own – and set up a distribution platform for her own and other writers’ books.

Charmaine Mrwebi uses her love of the performing arts to help kids in the Free State learn about their world. (Image: Charmaine Mrwebi)

Sulaiman Philip

Everyone should read says Charmaine Mrwebi. The published author, librarian and founder of the Charmza Literary Club says: “Our people should visit our libraries and become friends of books. Remember, any person who reads books on a daily basis, develops listening skills. Reading helps learners and students to perform better at school.”

Charmza Literary Club visits schools around Thaba ‘Nchu, her hometown, where she shares her love of reading and its importance through poetry readings and puppet shows. She wants to empower communities to be able to tell their stories in their own language. “We also teach adults the necessary writing steps on how to write their books, edit and publish them in their language.”

Mrwebi uses her monthly school visits to identify young writers to mentor, to encourage them and let them know they are not working in isolation. Once they have been identified, Mrwebi will, “…donate books to these writers after they have formed their book clubs, poetry groups and reading clubs”.

She says that these visits bring her the greatest joy, especially if she gets to tell stories in her mother tongue. “I love that the children can get to teach me new songs. Or tell me a story their grandmothers told them. The more books we read together or stories we tell the more they open up and feel safe sharing their experiences.”

As an author and poet, she feels blessed to belong to a community that passes on lore, history and culture from one generation to the next. The world is blessed, she says, by having writers who share their love of words. “When each one teaches the other, eventually we are going to have a community of writers telling stories and contributing towards solutions in our country. I feel that I have to keep pushing and investing in the seed of literature continuously even in the midst of challenges.”

Charmza Literary Club gives children the opportunity to tell stories in their mother tongue. (Image: Charmaine Mrwebi)

Among her first published books was Mantlwane… Ga re Tshamekeng (Mantlwane Let Us Play) based on a game she played as a child. “Mantlwane was a game I played as a child. It helps to build your imagination, it moulded who I am today. Children have so many distractions today that we are losing that ability to build whole worlds.”

Travel while standing still

Growing up in Thaba ‘Nchu, Mrwebi was a voracious reader. She has often spoken about how reading allowed her to travel the world without leaving her home. “There was one library in Thaba ‘Nchu and no mall. The first time I even heard about this thing called a mall was in a book. That is an important lesson I share. It does not matter where you come from, the world does not need to be a mystery. Or strange.”

But she yearned to find books written in Setswana, her mother tongue, about her own experiences. She believes it’s important to read, and write, your own literature. Writers, she says, think and dream in their mother tongue and something is lost when it is translated. Desperate to share her culture with the world, she has self-published four books in her mother tongue. “In the mother tongue a writer’s message is clear. In translation, something is lost.”

The desire to get more mother tongue books into print was the acorn that grew into Charmza Literary Club, her publishing business. Charmza is, as she explains, one house with many rooms that include publishing, her storytelling school visits, her poetry workshops and the work she does with the Performing Arts Council of the Free State.

“When I published my first book I thought book stores and distributors would jump to stock it. When that did not happen, I needed to create a platform to distribute my book so I created Charmza. I’ve got my books and the authors we publish out because we needed to learn how to be persistent and innovative.”

She is hopeful that, like her, there is a young Setswana writer who will be inspired to tell their own story. And who is Mrwebi inspired by? There is her grandmother of course, Ellen Kuzwayo, author of Call Me Woman.

Without missing a beat, however, she says Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian author of The Bride Price and The Joys of Motherhood. “Despite all her challenges – a single woman in a foreign country; raising four kids. Unemployed. She rose above it all. Her writing, her love of books lifted her up.”

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