In South Africa, Families Are Throwing In a Load of Laundry and Picking Up a Book

At the Libromat, parents learn to read and share books with their children during the spin and dry cycles.
Nandipha Matyana, a participant in the Libromat pilot program in Cape Town, South Africa, shares a book with friends. (Photo: Stephen Coetzee)
Jan 1, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca L. Weber covers social justice, the arts, the environment, and more for The New York Times, CNN, Dwell, and many others. She lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Thirty-eight-year-old Nandipha Matyana works two days a month cleaning houses, but like more than a third of the population living in Khayelitsha, one of the vast, poor townships in Cape Town, South Africa, she faces chronic underemployment. With four children, she says she used to spend more than an hour a day washing laundry by hand.

That changed earlier this year when Libromat launched in her neighborhood nursery school to tackle two seemingly disconnected domestic challenges: improving early childhood literacy rates and getting the laundry done. Through the program, parents bring in their family’s dirty clothes and share books with their children during the spin and dry cycles.

The average load of laundry costs about $1, emancipating to those South Africans who on average spend seven to nine hours per week washing clothes, the equivalent of more than 15 twenty-four-hour shifts every year.

Though there are challenges with balancing domestic chores and taking care of family, the Libromat isn’t a carrot stick to get parents to read. For Matyana and others, the big pull was the promise of learning how to teach their children more effectively and receiving a certificate of course completion.

“I wanted to learn to teach my own child. It gave me a change of mind-set,” she says. “I read with them, I accommodate them.”

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The pilot program, with some 30 families meeting weekly, was a success.

During the initial session, children had a hard time settling down, and some adults were nervous about what was expected of them. The Libromat takes an “interactive book sharing” approach by focusing on picture books with few words. Adults point to images and ask questions to engage their kids.

“It’s not about words on a page. They’re entering a discussion about a picture on the page,” says Nicholas Dowdall, one of the educators on the Libromat team. “It’s pointing and naming and asking questions. Literacy is not a requirement. You don’t need to be able to read.”

Improvement in vocabulary, comprehension, attention, and concentration appeared almost immediately among the young learners. For practice, families took books home, where many of the children initiated reading time.

By the second and third sessions, everyone seemed more relaxed. Children were engaged rather than fidgety when the books came out, and the adults—including those with little to no literacy skills themselves—demonstrated more confidence.

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As early as January 2016, Libromat plans to build and open a dedicated building with a lending library and washing machines and dryers in the immediate area, and it hopes to expand soon thereafter. It would like to scale across the country as well as internationally.

A private donation of $200,000 will fund initial building, materials, and staff costs. Economic stability is top of mind, with a goal of laundry revenue covering operating costs within six months.

“It’s much better to build a child than to repair an adult,” says Mhlangabezi Masizana, the director of Thokozani Youth Centre, which hosted the initial pilot. “We’re finding new ways to involve parents.”

Early childhood literacy has long been shown to significantly impact development and school achievement, but these studies have traditionally been done in North America and Europe. New South African research in the same community shows that giving parents the necessary confidence, tools, and quality picture books has outcomes that mirror those in the developed world.

Libromat’s initial offerings focus on young children between one and three years old, with more sophisticated programs dealing with narrative and emotions for slightly older kids in the works. Family numeracy and other high-quality education programs will follow.

In the meantime, Matyana is happy her six-year-old daughter will enter school in January with some basic literacy skills. They will continue together in their new routine of spending at least as much time reading together as doing the laundry.