Re-inventing Zimbabwe public libraries for a post Covid-19 conscious future
By Takura Zhangazha
A struggle cde recently reminded me, via social media, of the importance of libraries. He had tagged me in his own reflections on the importance of Walter Rodney’s epic book “ How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.”
And I remembered how I first encountered the same said book via initially the Waterfalls and eventually the Dzivarasekwa District Council library as an emerging teenager straight out of boarding high school. With a specific curiosity that queried why anyone would write a book with that title when a decent number of my relatives and friends were lauding the same said ‘Europe’ as the promised land.
More so in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the partial re-opening of education classes for primary and secondary school examination classes in Zimbabwe. Or even higher up in the education food chain, the partial re-opening of universities and technical colleges.
In this reminder one gets slightly overwhelmed with a little bit of nostalgia. This would be mainly as a result of the fact that in growing up in urban Zimbabwe, the library, was a place of knowledge acquisition and socializing during school holidays.
It quite ably, at that time, competed with the television or radio station because it was a permanent fixture and not reliant on electricity or your parents’ black and white occasionally functional television set. Or in contemporary times, your Wi-Fi internet receptor. Or if the radio, as hogged by elder relatives, had enough battery power or was broadcasting educational content (also referred to as edutainment) gave you time to learn about the world around you.
So the library was a physically safe educational and social space. You could quite literally go and grind out your Ordinary Level Mathematics there. (I know a number of cdes that eventually came to hate the library because of failing their exams after spending months if not years there.)
Or read some non-syllabus literature while keeping a lookout or writing a letter for a teenage love interest from high school.
In the process and incidentally you would wander past bookshelves of various literatures and other subject matters that would draw your attention in many different ways.
Because education in Zimbabwe has been/was always portrayed as sacrosanct and the only way out of black poverty, we tended to take it all very seriously.
Except that the library would always offer a couple of aberrations to the official education ‘pass or lose’ syllabus. It was a place and space for discovering and learning new things by way of reading that which you were not taught at formal school or at church Sunday school.
Nostalgia aside, key questions that are now emerging around the role of libraries in our education system are multi-fold. The first and most urgent one being that well, there are not really that many books that are still available to libraries in the contemporary.
This is as a direct result of the closure of publishing houses and the end effect of us having less diversity in published written/printed knowledge.
And I could list the publishing houses/companies that have either shut down or have taken on a strict profit motivated ‘educational syllabus’ approach to their print bottom lines.
The Zimbabwe Publishing House (ZPH) is barely functional. College Press and Longman are now focused largely on syllabus publishing. While Weaver Press still holds a candle for creative writing and publishing, it is without a doubt struggling.
Add to this the proliferation of the ephemerality of knowledge acquisition via the internet/ social media, the ‘book’ is slowly being phased out of our education system and historical social anthropology in Zimbabwe. That is to say, the book, as an emblem of knowledge acquisition and enlightenment is now being replaced by the mobile phone, laptop or depending on your class, the shared desktop computer.
What emerges as a result of this is regrettably a probable false-materialist consciousness among young Zimbabweans. We move from one thing to the next as it emerges via #hashtags or temporary and highly sexualized Instagram/WhatsApp/Facebook photos of our black bodies. As accepted and allowed via specifically controlled algorithms by the owners of these latter platforms.
But it is not a train smash if it can be balanced somehow in the era of Covid 19.
The library in both urban and rural settings is key to online and offline knowledge acquisition for young Zimbabweans in the contemporary despite Covid19.
Policy makers at both national and local government level have an obligation to review the nature of the library infrastructure that already exists and how to enhance it to contribute to socially distanced learning and knowledge acquisition in these Covid19 pandemic times.
Not only in the short term but more importantly for the long term. While schools have places they call libraries on their premises, we know that the long term library is to be found in the lived urban and rural communities where every child has access to knowledge that depending on the class character of their school they would not have been able to acquire. Especially in-between school holidays or Covid-19 motivated breaks or disruptions to education calendars.
So the public library remains not only important but fundamental to the progressive future of our Zimbabwean society as a safe, conscious and physical space for young Zimbabweans.
To conclude, I am personally aware that the fact or even specter of death via pandemics in the contemporary always looms large in the minds of young Zimbabweans.
The experience of the passing of my father in 1991 made the library a sanctuary of new possibilities and new ideas. Albeit in a different time context. And I learnt to understand the fortitude of my mother via reading and understanding lived African post-colonial experiences about materially recognized success and failure of an adult single/widowed mother.
What I do know and came to realise, while playing basketball for the Dzivarasekwa Raiders is that even though books and libraries do not come to fully define us. They help us to understand ourselves better. Even at young ages. That would be why, the library in Zimbabwe needs to be reinvented as relevant and important to our national consciousness. For posterity and not just our own nostalgia. Let the young cdes read at will. For free.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)