“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
Maybe this Honors Thesis project won’t seem so daunting if I just write one story at a time instead of thinking that I need to write five.
“To be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone – just plain going at it, in pain and delight.” – John Hersey.
Writing is not easy. Once in a while, it just pours out of me. Today is not one of those days. Today it feels like I’m trying to knock down a 10ft brick wall by bashing my head against it. All I’m managing to do is give myself a headache. Writing is not easy.
I just found out that the Hatfield Branch of the Harare City Library is closed indefinitely. Whilst this greatly saddens me, I cannot say that I am surprised. I last went to the library in 2006 and even then it was open only in name, but not in reality. Very often I would get to the library and find it closed. At first it was open 8-6pm on weekdays, and then it was on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays only until it became a game of “guess the day the librarian decides to show up to work”. The grass around the library was never cut and was almost as tall as me.
I remember the first day I went to the Hatfield library. My sister had decided we needed a new library since we were fast running out of books we wanted to read in her school library. That was back in 2003, when Zimbabwe was really only at the beginning of collapse. It was an overcast day, and it was really dark in the library as there was only one light. I was disappointed by my surroundings. I had many ideas in my mind about what my first foray into a public library would be like. I imagined finally finding “my people”, bookworms like myself who would not accuse me of being “too white” just because I loved to read. We would have a special corner reserved for us in the corner where we could all read in peace, occasionally stopping to tell each other about what fascinating new word we had discovered. What I got was an empty library, dark and musty, that looked like no one ever came there. There were no chairs in the place. I’m sure someone had stolen them. There was just the librarian, a man in his early thirties who hit on my seventeen year old sister even though she was in school uniform and he was wearing a wedding ring.
Despite the disappointing atmosphere, my sister and I still rummaged around until we found some books to keep us occupied for the next couple of weeks. I think we were allowed to check out five books at a time and I remember us negotiating who would get the extra book. We checked them out and left. The whole situation wasn’t very satisfying for this bookworm who has stalked libraries for most of her life.
When I started this post, I was hoping to produce a piece that showed the Hatfield library in a positive light and made it seem like a huge part of my life, but I realise that I can’t do that. I went to the library probably once or twice a year and that was during school holidays when the school library wasn’t open. Very often I was scared to go to the library. It was in a bit of an isolated spot and one never knew what one might meet in that tall grass, maybe a snake, maybe a thief. On the days I braved the grass, the librarian wouldn’t be there. Liked I said at the start of this piece, the library may be closed officially now, but it’s been closed in reality for a very long time. Some say that libraries are closing in Zimbabwe because we have no reading culture as if a reading culture is something you can walk into a store and buy and list amongst your property. A reading culture is cultivated. It starts in nursery school when we start to learn how to read. It’s cultivated in the early years of primary school when children have daily reading that they are supposed to read out aloud supervised at home. But what happens after that? Where do budding readers go after that? If the school doesn’t have a library and parents, who nowadays are so often expected to but textbooks, cannot buy books, where does a budding bookworm go? They should go to the library, but in Hatfield there is no library to go to.
I am very lucky. My mother had a wonderful collection of books. My primary school had a good, if small collection and it was only open on Mondays at lunchtime, but it was open. In high school, I went to the Dominican Convent which has an excellent collection. However, I imagine that in Zimbabwe there are children out there who are just the way I was, always looking for something new to read, but they have no access to books. There are children who might discover a love of reading if they were ever to hold anything other than a school textbook in their hands.
The Hatfield library was inadequate but it was there. I did not enjoy my visits there, but that didn’t matter once I got home and opened my books. Once I escaped to into that world, the library became my best friend because it gave me access to books that I otherwise would not have been able to get. I strongly believe that the reason people don’t read books in Zimbabwe is not because they don’t want to read, but because they do not have access. Libraries make books accessible by making it affordable to read books. My father bought me a 34-page book a few months ago for $10. Who can afford those kinds of prices? But $10 a year for access to the thousands of books in the library seems a steal.
There is a lot that needs to be done to get the Harare City libraries back on their feet again. Last year, the Africa Report published “The House that Books Built”, a piece by Petina Gappah about the challenges she faced as she took on the task of reviving the libraries. It’s depressing to see how far the libraries have fallen, but heartening to see that there are people who are committed to restoring them to their former glory.
One day, the Hatfield library will reopen, hopefully with the grass cut and more commitment to passing a broom through once in a while. When it does, I hope whoever is in charge remembers that the library belongs to the community. The only way for a library to survive is for it to prove its worth to those it serves. I hope that one day I will walk into the library and find groups of children sitting around tables engrossed in good books, sharing the magic that comes from reading an extraordinary story. Libraries need to reach out to the community, to schools reminding them that they are still there. I would be a very different person now if I had not had the access to libraries that I did as a child. All I want is for children who love reading to have a safe place they can go to read. Libraries should be that place.
I’m in a World Literature course this semester and today we start going over my absolute favourite literary period, Romanticism. I can’t explain to you how excited I feel in the morning when I know that I am going to be studying Wordsworth, Keats, Blake and all the other super awesome romantic poets. I was introduced to the Romantics by my A Level Literature teacher, and I have been in love since. There is a magic to Romantic poetry and it’s because the poets believed in the magic of childhood.
I just can’t get enough of the Romantics. I love William Blake and his iconoclastic work. Whilst the others were writing about nature and escaping the city, Blake showed the horrors of the city and why everyone else was so eager to get away. “London” from Songs of Experience sums up everything that was wrong with London as a result of the Industrial Revolution and who Blake thought was responsible. Blake was incredible. He not only wrote, but also illustrated and published. So when he published a book, he was involved at every stage of its production. And like a lot of a people, he talked to God, but unlike most people he believed that God spoke back to him saying his ideas came to him as holy visions. Gotta love the romantics!
My favourite poet is William Wordsworth without a doubt. I only know a handful of poems by heart and all of them are Wordsworth poems. I’m not in love with The Preludes, but I’m sold on everything else. My favourite poem is “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” where Wordsworth talks about the power of memory, and the fact that we lose something when we lose our childhoods. When we are young we are close to God, but the older we get, the further away we get. We lose some of the magic, but through memory we can recollect some of those times and feel that bliss again. “O joy! that in our embers is something that doth live, that nature yet remembers what was fugitive.”
I’m so excited! I can’t wait to get to class:-) Is there any particular period in literature that gets you excited?
This H-Town girl is headed home. The internet in Zimbabwe is terribly slow, so expect it to be quiet on the blog until July, but expect lots of stories about my trip when I get back. The last time I went home, I came back an economics major. I wonder what crazy ideas I’ll come back with this time:-)
I’m an H-town girl!
Today it feels good to be an African.
“I am an African. I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa. The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear. The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share. The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair. This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned. This thing that we have done today, in this small corner of a great continent that has contributed so decisively to the evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes.
Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now!
Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace!
However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!
Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say – nothing can stop us now!” – Thabo Mbeki
Happy Africa Day
“I think that each artist, each writer gives him or herself the role that he or she wants to play.” – Petina Gappah
The next time someone asks me what it was like living in Zimbabwe during the economic meltdown from 2005-2008, I will tell them to read Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah. Her collection of stories is a snapshot of the lives of Zimbabweans responding to the situations they find themselves in due to the political situation and economic problems.
Her stories are about people from varying backgrounds including the foreign wife of a dead politician at his funeral at the Heroes’ Acre, and an apparently barren woman whose home is reduced to rubble by a government initiative to get rid of all shacks. These stories are amazing and Gappah has such a wonderful talent at conveying voice. I feel like I could meet any of her characters at Market Square waiting to get a kombi. Well maybe not all. The protagonist of her story “In the Heart of Golden Triangle” would never be caught dead in a kombi. But even she feels real as an example of the contradictions that Zimbabwe was full of then. Here is this woman whose children are at a private school that even the president cannot afford, and there are the people who work for her who she prepares a hamper for because their pay cannot keep up with inflation.
“The Mupandawana Dance Champion” is about an old man who becomes a dance champion at his local growth point after being forced into retirement when the shoe factory he works for closes. The image that stays with me is when he gets off the bus after working many years in the city only holding a plastic bag that contains his entire pension – 3 pairs of shoes that are a little too small for him. “The Maid of Lalapanzi” is a familiar story about what happens when young maids fall pregnant out of wedlock in Zimbabwe. When the baby’s father refuses to help her, Blandina kills herself as her employer will not take her back.
But perhaps the most powerful story is “Something Nice from London” which starts in the Harare International Airport, desolate because tourists no longer come to Zimbabwe. The narrator is having a conversation with a little boy who tells her that his mummy is bringing him something nice from London. In sharp contrast, the narrator is waiting for her dead brother’s body. The body is not on the plane and the rest of the story is about her attempts to bring her brother home. Mourning is a loud process in Zimbabwe. When a person dies, you gather at their home and for three days, you sing and cry for the deceased. The night before the burial, the body is brought home and placed in the largest room in the house. The whole extended family gathers there. There is no sitting. Everyone is on their feet, dancing and singing almost as if trying to sing the deceased’s way into heaven. So what do you do when there is no body? This story speaks of the crazy situations that Zimbabweans found themselves in because of the economic collapse.
I am totally in love with this collection and it left me feeling terribly homesick. The collection won the Guardian First Book Award as well as being shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories are entrenched in Zimbabwe, but have a universal appeal because they speak of the resilience that human beings have in the face of challenges.