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The house that books built
Petina Gappah, The Africa Report
May 2011

Award-winning writer Petina Gappah is working to revive Harare City Library. She explains the importance of the library to the city's cultural life and launches The Africa Report's campaign to help support it.

To get to my office on the second floor of Harare City Library requires a strong stomach. You walk through the main doors of the library, then up the back stairs. There is no lift to the second floor. There was a book hoist once, but it doesn't work anymore. The binding room has been converted into a storeroom that houses exam scripts for Zimbabwe Open University. Next to the book hoist are toilets that no longer work: it is to walk past these that you need the strong stomach - and a clothes peg for your nose.

The library was established in 1902 as the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum - a lending and reference library for the colony's first settlers. It soon built branches in the suburbs of Greendale, Hatfield, Highlands, Mabelreign and Mount Pleasant. Effectively, the City of Salisbury had two racially separated library systems: the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and its satellite branches for whites, and a system of libraries for blacks in the townships, run from the proceeds of Salisbury's beer gardens.

In 1982, the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum separated, and the library portion of it became Harare City Library with its five branches. It still has only the five branches; there has been no expansion. Instead, there has been decay.

The library wears the hardship of the past decade in every torn and broken piece of furniture and in the mismatched curtains hanging askew at the windows. The collection in some of the branch libraries seems made up entirely of large-print books from the '60s and '70s. Some books have not been taken out since 1978. It is not a library for the asthmatic - the dust of years has settled into the books and all the fittings.

Worst of all, the roof is leaking. Above the reference library at Rotten Row are dirty splotches and what look like little white stalactites. There is not a single computer for use in the entire library. An enterprising soul has drilled a light bulb onto a fitting for fluorescent lamps. The telephone has been cut because of a bill that has not been paid for two years. The electricity bill too, has not been paid: like many institutions, the library is making part-monthly payments to keep the lights on.

On the bright side, the electricity is working, and I suspect this is partly because the library shares a grid with the headquarters of the ruling ZANU-PF party - the president's wailing motorcade occasionally silences the traffic on Rotten Row. Indeed, the library exemplifies the extent to which Harare, and Zimbabwe, has fallen in just 11 years, and the mammoth task required just to get things barely running again.

The decline of the library is particularly shocking to me because it is deeply associated with the happiest part of my childhood. When my family moved from the township of Glen Norah to Mabelreign, a modest suburb, I joined the Queen Victoria Memorial Library. Almost all my classmates at Alfred Beit School were members.

There I gorged on Enid Blytons and Malcolm Savilles, on Agatha Christies and on the Moses books by Barbara Kimenye. I became obsessed with exploration and wanted to go to Antarctica. The world came alive for me through that library, an experience that I shared with my friends and the many children who swarmed in and out. Throw a stone into the northern suburbs of Harare and you will hit an adult of 30-plus who was once a child member of the Harare City Library.

Its decline is thus not only a grievous wound to my memories, but also a shocking reminder of how much today's children are missing. I have decided to do something about it. I am currently in Zimbabwe on sabbatical leave from my job as a lawyer in Geneva. I have an office at the library because I now chair the committee that runs it.

The committee's vision for the library is as grandiose as it is simple: to make the library once again a central part of the cultural and spiritual life of the city. We want new books, computers, DVDs. A digital library. Most of all, we want a library that can sustain itself without handouts.

The reality, though, is that the immediate term, we will need such handouts. The library has been fortunate to attract attention of the A-Z Trust, a UK-based charity that recently hosted a fundraiser. The money will go towards restoring the building and repairing the roof. The main library building, built in 1962, is worth preserving for its architectural integrity: in 1964, its architects, Montgomerie and Oldfield, received a Royal Institute of British Architects Bronze Medal Award. If all goes according to plan, the building will be completed refurbished and functional by the time of its golden jubilee in 2012.

The committee has also started its own fundraising drive. We have asked some of the most profitable Zimbabwean businesses to consider the library in their corporate social responsibility schemes. We are lobbying the ministry of finance to remove duties and tariffs on imported books. We have also applied for a grant from the City of Harare - the Mayr is one of our Trustees, but considering the amount of monet that Harare needs to restore clinics, roads and schools, this is tantamount to grasping at straw.

We have already initiated an outreach programme. I have talked to school children to get them excited about reading, and my message has been simple: switch off the TV, pick up a book. We intend to take our outreach to the townships too, and, when the money allows, to invest in a mobile library that will bring books to outlying schools, hospitals and prisons. We have already entered into an agreement with an organisation sponsored by USAID to donate 2,000 books for poor children who could not otherwise access them.

The library has launched a dialogue that goes beyond the tedium of politics and focuses on other issues that matter to people. The first event in April addresses the notion of literacy and asked: what exactly does it mean that Zimbabwe has the high literacy rate in Africa? I have a fantasy that the library will be one of the spaces in which Harare interrogates the many stories of witchcraft that are reported without questioning in the newspapers. It will be the space in which people debate issues around foreign policy, around religion, around science, a space in which people discuss their responsibilities to the environment, where citizens ask just how well served are they by the press, a space in which individuals come alive as their horizons expand.

Information, education and knowledge: these are the three key tools to building a better-informed people, better decision-makers, better citizens, happier citizens.

Socrates is supposed to have said that a library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas: that is my persona vision of the library. I see it as a space that will get Harare reading and get people talking. With the hard work of my committee, the support of the people of Harare and the many friends we are gaining around the world, I am confident the day will come when I can walk to my office without having to hold my breath.

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