The Blessing of Books

Literature | By Kate Chambers, University Lecturer | 28 December 2016
PHOTO: © Kate Chambers

I started asking for and donating books in Zimbabwe back in late 2010. I was traveling along the Mutare to Masvingo road with my family. It was a hot day and we were near the Marange diamond fields.Predictably, we were stopped by a policeman. Security was especially tight in the area at that time. The officer came round to my window on the passenger side. He looked at the dashboard and saw some secondhand bo I started asking for and donating books in Zimbabwe back in late 2010. I was traveling along the Mutare to Masvingo road with my family. It was a hot day and we were near the Marange diamond fields. Predictably, we were stopped by a policeman. Security was especially tight in the area at that time. The officer came round to my window on the passenger side. He looked at the dashboard and saw some secondhand books I had there. Two of them had passed on to me by a friend, a third I’d found in Kingstons some time previously. He asked if he could have a book. Books are precious to me in the way that books always are when you spent hours of your childhood in a library. I wanted to give this officer a book - and I did - but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a teeny bit regretful to see it disappearing through my window! Books aren’t easy to come by in Zimbabwe, and anyway if you’ve got a family, they tend to be low-down on your list of buying priorities. I told a few people about this: my mum, my aunt, friends outside Zimbabwe. I even managed a small appeal in a newspaper. At the same time, there were more signs that books were one thing that maybe I and others could help with. A mother from a prominent government school near Mutare asked me if I could help with the school library. As books started to arrive in the post, I struck up a relationship with a teacher there and handed children’s books over to her to use as she felt best. Once people started to hear about the project, there were more donations -- and more requests.

Book parcels I’ve managed to put together from parcels sent to me have gone to colleges, schools, book clubs and libraries in Bulawayo, Plumtree and Masvingo as well as in Manicaland province. I hand out where I’m asked: normally someone at the institution (sometimes a former pupil), the book club approaches me. Or I hear about an appeal for books. One of the great things has been the number of Zimbabweans both in and outside the country who want to help. I’ve had piles of New African magazines and the Economist and National Geographics and novels and kids’ books, all of them delivered to me in labyrinthine ways. These days the post office imposes charges for anything received from outside Zimbabwe that’s fatter than a single magazine. Magazines are a big chunk of the piles I hand out. The reason is personal: I have a son.  I’ve always read to him but I quickly realised when he was of school-starting age that he wasn’t at all interested in reading “made-up” stories (his sister is). Give him a Top Gear magazine though and from the age of 4 he’d be glued to it even if he couldn’t understand any of what he was reading. Same with Popular Mechanics. A friend in publishing said this was a common phenomenon and that it was important to get boys “turning pages” in whatever way you could. When I was at school there was a kind of snobbery that said reading magazines didn’t count as “real” reading. Of course it does - and it can mean boys develop a reading habit where they might never have done previously. That son of mine is 12 now and though he’d still always prefer to read a magazine he will -- occasionally -- pick up a “made-up” story these days. This isn’t a big project: it really is just trying to help “one book at a time” in my spare time. I’ve no idea of the exact number of books that have been handed out so far. But it’s certainly in the thousands. Quite likely more. And none of it would happen without the generosity of people from Hawaii to Harare.

randomness