Nathi Ngubane’s journey to published author and illustrator

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The Daily Vox hosted a special Facebook Live with alumnus Nathi Ngubane. He is a freelance writer and illustrator who has written and illustrated a book series, Duma Says,  about children living in an informal settlement during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Watch the full conversation here

Tell me about your journey as an illustrator and what got you interested in it?

I started at a very young age because I watched a lot of cartoons. I’d spend hours glued to the television screen watching cartoons. That sparked my interest to become an artist. I started drawing these cartoons starting with Mickey Mouse. I’m sure every artist started with Disney characters. Before I knew it I realised I have a talent for this and I should keep going with it.

At what point did you decide that this was something you wanted to do professionally and make a career out of? 

That actually has to do with my surroundings and the support that I got from my parents, my siblings, and school. At school, I won a few competitions and the teachers in my school pushed me to become an artist. I would say that catapulted me to realise that this is exactly what I want to do. I had all of these amazing people around me supporting me. It’s been a great journey. Now I’m a writer for children’s books and that is very exciting. 

Did you have any challenges breaking into the industry professionally?

I wouldn’t say I had a lot of challenges breaking into this professionally because of the support I received. The only challenge I would say is as I get older, my vision becomes weaker because I’m visually impaired. That’s my only challenge.

So can you tell us a little bit about the idea behind Duma Says?

The idea was fueled by the lack of learning material for children in Africa on COVID-19. Most importantly it was fueled by the lack of representation. A lot of books were beautifully illustrated and written, but they weren’t representing the millions of children living in cramped housing.

I wanted to come in and fill out that gap with Duma and his friends. We wanted to tell stories for those who are living in very poor backgrounds. 

Why is it important to tell the stories of young black South African children in informal settlements?

The most important thing about representing black children living in cramped housing is for children coming from elite backgrounds to learn about other children and how they are living in these impoverished communities. It was to show what it’s like living where there’s lack of electricity, running water in the house and no internet access.

What was the process of putting it together like?

Coming up with the characters was quite challenging. My publisher and good friend, Azad Essa and I sent many emails back and forth. When I first came out with Duma I thought of who he is, how old is he, and who does he live with? I came up with his younger brother and his older sister. Then there were the other characters as well. After creating Duma, it felt much easier to create the rest of the characters. 

The book has been recognised by the Health minister and it has become part of the South African COVID-19 response. What does that feel like?

I’m still starstruck with the support that I’ve been getting for this book. It’s been translated into Braille by a company in Cape Town. I really connected well with that because I’m also visually impaired and I went to a special school. A company in Kenya translated the book into an audio book. I feel like I’m dreaming. It’s just so unreal for me right now.

What advice would you give to young illustrators about how to start their journeys?

I would say just create. Just draw right. Don’t let anyone stop you. Just don’t give up, and just create.

Why is it so important to create now at this moment?

Art doesn’t only help you as an artist cope with what is happening around you, but you also help others as well. There was a lot of anxiety around the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of kids had to stay at home. It was very important for me to help these kids learn while they are at home.

I also wanted to let them know this pandemic will pass and they are not alone. 

Read more: Books Helping Children To Understand COVID19

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