On book hunger (part I)

Something that should be taught at schools, since children are able to read, is the speech of Doris Lessing for the Nobel prize acceptance. A ceremony she could not attend due to health problems. On her prerecorded speech Lessing recalls her vivid memories back in Africa where people starve for books and for the bread of knowledge, while those in more favored countries have a different vision, giving up their time into the immediacy of short term information. Judging the world is a difficult task. Reason flows in a tight craft. Lessing shows the importance of a book, a coordinated mastery that bends along its pages. The mystic zone where oneself has an endless chemistry and a free road to expand. Going beyond his own imagination. And then grab emotions, physical sensations and deep voices, those that come from the immense forest of creativity. From the happiness and pain of others. Who, on their own time, on their own life and expectancy, give away everything they got, creating a grid of eternal worlds that are easily spread on the dominions of a book, on behalf of the simple task of the act of reading. Something everyone would find difficult to get through other sources.

I am standing in a doorway looking through clouds of blowing dust to where I am told there is still uncut forest. Yesterday I drove through miles of stumps, and charred remains of fires where, in 1956, there was the most wonderful forest I have ever seen, all now destroyed. People have to eat. They have to get fuel for fires.
This is north-west Zimbabwe early in the 80s, and I am visiting a friend who was a teacher in a school in London. He is here "to help Africa", as we put it. He is a gently idealistic soul and what he found in this school shocked him into a depression, from which it was hard to recover. This school is like every other built after Independence. It consists of four large brick rooms side by side, put straight into the dust, one two three four, with a half room at one end, which is the library. In these classrooms are blackboards, but my friend keeps the chalks in his pocket, as otherwise they would be stolen. There is no atlas or globe in the school, no textbooks, no exercise books or Biros. In the library there are no books of the kind the pupils would like to read, but only tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, detective stories, or titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.
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. [...]
[BY DORIS LESSING] • next part


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