Why I Speak So Well: My ‘Good English’ Origin Story


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This story is about paying it forward and giving back to the people and places that made me.


From as early as I was first conscious of this body I live in and what it means in this world – which was pretty early on in my childhood – the people I’ve met (mostly white adults) have asked both me and my parents the same question: where are you from from, and how did you come to speak so good? So we know that the question is usually more informed by and laden with a white-racist understanding of what Blacks are (in)capable of  than honest curiosity about my origins – but that’s a post for another day.

Instead, I want to tell you the origin story of how I came to speak so well and became a Kleva Black in the hopes that it will urge you to give generously towards a cause that is close to my heart.

It starts with a womyn called Bukelwa Selema. This is she.

In 1989, Mother Phamodi was looking for a day-care facility for me so I would be closer to home. I was being cared for by Granny Phamodi, up until then, who lived at the far-edge of the Black township I grew up in that was seeing escalating violence with each new extension of the long state of emergency the apartheid regime had declared, nation-wide.

During this time, my parents’ neighbour, Bukelwa Selema, had just started an after-care facility in the community of working-class civil servants, and was establishing it into the first Montessori school – the Zama Care Centre – in the entire sprawling township. Mother Phamodi would enrol me there, where a handful of us would be fed Weet-Bix (or some other wet, soggy cereal) in the mornings, tutored only in English in a lounge over-supplied with once-brightly coloured wooden toys, later nourished with canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, and then compelled to nap at a certain hour.


I played with every single one of these toys.

Not Gifted, but Invested In

The school was by no means well-resourced. As far as those went, it was what you would expect of any backyard township pre-school. Plastic tables and chairs, colouring books and crayons, some reading books, and those g-d-awful sleeping mats we were forced to use even though we weren’t tired. What was fundamentally different, though, was Mrs Selema’s commitment to a new way of teaching and learning that had, at the heart of its philosophy, a vision of learners as full and independent citizens, and nurtured our development through educational play that had us and our interests at its center.

I remember clearly, as a toddler, being able to recognise and name all the various kinds of water formations because we had made and painted polymer clay models of islands, bays and peninsulas and would fill them with water to make them look and feel true-to-form.

Once, when I was four or five, a small group of us went on an overnight stay at a campsite where, in the dead night, I would name the constellations in the Southern skies because we had just been on our own space exploration at school – learning about our galaxy, the planets and their moons, and our giant hot sun which governed their orbits.

And, because of my fascination with how the wooden alphabet models looked so much like the squiggles on the grown-up paper that wasn’t for colouring, I would be using them to form words by age three, and reading independently by age four. I was especially enthralled by the stories of Enid Blyton – the Three Golliwogs, in particular. Yes, this will always be my shame.


Up until I left the school at age 6, when it was about to be expanded to also offer grades 1 and 2, I was nurtured into an independent and whole person who was able to express himself confidently and articulate himself clearly. Sister Phamodi who is more than a decade my junior would benefit the same, as would all my cousins of her generation.

Giving Back

In spite of its rapid expansion during the time I was there (it would see a meteoric rise in its enrolment figures, three moves, the last of which was to a small holding where we learned in repurposed stables, and a renaming), the Zama Montessori Centre has now fallen on tough times.

Of its 65 learners (pre-school to grade 8, with a grade 9 class starting, next year), only 23 are fee-paying. The majority of the learners come from households headed by unemployed/menially employed parents…or children. As a result of this material poverty, many of the children are neglected and are vulnerable to violence, with some, ultimately, staying at the school full-time. The obvious consequence of this is that the school’s ability to offer its learners the facilities, supplies, support and care they need to escape their immediate material circumstances has been severely retarded. And, for their sake, the school’s closure is not an option. Especially not now, following the generous revitalisation of the school structures by the Benoni Aurora Rotary Club, that the school’s work can really kick-off in earnest.

So this is where you fit in:

It’s my birthday month which I normally try to ignore as best I can because it’s evil and must be stopped. This year, I wanted to use the powers of my birthday for good and help pay forward what Mrs Selema and the team at Zama did, not only for me and my family beyond teaching me the good English, but huge cohorts of children within the 35km radius it services, so that a new generation of young people can benefit from the foundation to a better future this school offers in the same way that I benefitted from its amazing work.

I Want You to Give

So I’ve teamed up with the school where we’ve set up a small-anyana fundraising campaign. Our cash-target is a meagre R50’000 within the next three months, with additional requests for support in kind. Click on the link, and make whatever contribution you are able to in the old tradition of: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

If the cockles of your deep and generous heart are warmed by this story, I want you to give.

If you identify with this story, I especially want you to give.

If you value my work, I would love for you to give.

Look at the Pretty Pictures

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DUE DILIGENCE: These are the school’s PBO registration and tax exemption details.

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