Sunday, December 23, 2007

Doris Lessing on the importance of books

A long speech that she gave after winning the Nobel Prize in literature...
The importance of books and storytellers, and how books are rare but cherished in Africa. excerpt:

There is a goat trying to find sustenance in some aged grass. The headmaster has embezzled the school funds and is suspended. My friend doesn't have any money because everyone, pupils and teachers, borrow from him when he is paid and will probably never pay it back. The pupils range from six to 26, because some who did not get schooling as children are here to make it up. Some pupils walk many miles every morning, rain or shine and across rivers. They cannot do homework because there is no electricity in the villages, and you can't study easily by the light of a burning log. The girls have to fetch water and cook before they set off for school and when they get back.

As I sit with my friend in his room, people shyly drop in, and everyone begs for books. "Please send us books when you get back to London," one man says. "They taught us to read but we have no books." Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.

I was there some days. The dust blew. The pumps had broken and the women were having to fetch water from the river. Another idealistic teacher from England was rather ill after seeing what this "school" was like.

On the last day they slaughtered the goat. They cut it into bits and cooked it in a great tin. This was the much anticipated end-of-term feast: boiled goat and porridge. I drove away while it was still going on, back through the charred remains and stumps of the forest.

I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes.

The next day I am to give a talk at a school in North London, a very good school. It is a school for boys, with beautiful buildings and gardens. The children here have a visit from some well-known person every week: these may be fathers, relatives, even mothers of the pupils; a visit from a celebrity is not unusual for them.

As I talk to them, the school in the blowing dust of north-west Zimbabwe is in my mind, and I look at the mildly expectant English faces in front of me and try to tell them about what I have seen in the last week. Classrooms without books, without textbooks, or an atlas, or even a map pinned to a wall. A school where the teachers beg to be sent books to tell them how to teach, they being only 18 or 19 themselves. I tell these English boys how everybody begs for books: "Please send us books." But there are no images in their minds to match what I am telling them: of a school standing in dust clouds, where water is short, and where the end-of-term treat is a just-killed goat cooked in a great pot.

Is it really so impossible for these privileged students to imagine such bare poverty?

I do my best. They are polite.

I'm sure that some of them will one day win prizes.

Then the talk is over. Afterwards I ask the teachers how the library is, and if the pupils read. In this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to such schools and even universities. "You know how it is," one of the teachers says. "A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used."

Yes, indeed we do know how it is. All of us.

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers....

Not long ago, a friend in Zimbabwe told me about a village where the people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education.

I belong to an organisation which started out with the intention of getting books into the villages. There was a group of people who in another connection had travelled Zimbabwe at its grassroots. They told me that the villages, unlike what is reported, are full of intelligent people, teachers retired, teachers on leave, children on holidays, old people. I myself paid for a little survey to discover what people in Zimbabwe wanted to read, and found the results were the same as those of a Swedish survey I had not known about. People want to read the same kind of books that people in Europe want to read - novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories, plays, and do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account. All of Shakespeare too. A problem with finding books for villagers is that they don't know what is available, so a set book, like The Mayor of Casterbridge, becomes popular simply because it just happens to be there. Animal Farm, for obvious reasons, is the most popular of all novels.

Our organisation was helped from the very start by Norway, and then by Sweden. Without this kind of support our supplies of books would have dried up. We got books from wherever we could. Remember, a good paperback from England costs a month's wages in Zimbabwe: that was before Mugabe's reign of terror. Now, with inflation, it would cost several years' wages. But having taken a box of books out to a village - and remember there is a terrible shortage of petrol - I can tell you that the box was greeted with tears. The library may be a plank on bricks under a tree. And within a week there will be literacy classes - people who can read teaching those who can't, citizenship classes - and in one remote village, since there were no novels written in the Tonga language, a couple of lads sat down to write novels in Tonga. There are six or so main languages in Zimbabwe and there are novels in all of them: violent, incestuous, full of crime and murder.

It is said that a people gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe's regime, but from the one before it, the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books, and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope.

This links up improbably with a fact: I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This kind of house has been built always, everywhere where there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls - Saxon England, for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, and it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books by post from England for her children. Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books.

Even today I get letters from people living in a village that might not have electricity or running water, just like our family in our elongated mud hut. "I shall be a writer too," they say, "because I've the same kind of house you were in."....

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