‘Must have the precious’

What is precious?

The recent UCT fire and the panicked evacuation of residences has probably had all of us contemplating what we would grab if we had to escape our homes in a rush.

University of Cape Town students were told to grab their ‘essentials’ and run, and most (well those who were there at the time of course) took only their documents, laptops and phones, and the forward-thinking ones took their chargers too (no surprises there). Some managed to extract textbooks and a few clothes, but several were left with only the clothes they stood up in.

Of course, it is important to save human lives before all else and we can be so grateful that despite the devastation of some the buildings on our beautiful mountain, no person died, but the fire did get me thinking about a time I ran (not quite for my life) but in some ways I certainly was escaping.

 When I fled post-911 America, I took with me the five most precious gifts the world has ever given me – well one was still inside me, so he was slightly easier to carry. But it was a nightmare trying to decide what to take with us and what to leave behind.

In the end what went into the suitcases was the bare essentials: clothing and Lego (I know – not what you were expecting, right? But it was guaranteed to keep my youngsters busy for hours – and it had cost a great deal.) Naturally I crammed our important documents into my suitcase, along with all our photographs (It was back in the days before digital storage), which were loose in a large box – you can guess how heavy that bag was! The only albums I took were the children’s poorly scrapbooked baby albums, and i admit to thinking my husband could keep the wedding album – the fairytale had devolved into a miserable film noir by then.

Some precious belongings had to be abandoned though and I miss them still.

I took no furniture with me when we moved to the US, except for a box that was sent on, containing my grandmother’s lead crystal lamp, the only thing I wanted from my mother’s estate besides the hand-painted fruit bowl which my sister and I fought over (She won). The candelabra was magnificent: a cut glass extravanganza with the wiring (which I’d had redone from its original 1920’s job) running up the inside of the heavy, cut glass stem. The lampshade was a magnificent canopy also crafted from lead crystal carved into beautiful patterns and held in place by silver arms. When the lighbulbs were illuminated, it sent sparkling light across the room. I loved it. Clearly that couldn’t fit into a suitcase, and we didn’t qualify for anymore luggage. My husband assured me he would send it on, so I carefully packed it into a box again, along with my teddy bear from childhood and my ballet shoes (just in case no one believed this baby elephant once danced on her toes).

I so nearly baulked at carrying the photograph box all the way back to Africa, but at the last moment I panicked that he wouldn’t send things on and so I lugged a cardboard box filled with family pictures all the way through three airports and thank God I did, because in the end my carton-of-precious stayed behind in Utah and probably found its way to a yard sale or antique shop in downtown Salt Lake City. So at least I had our memories. But, if you’re rummaging through old treasures in Utah and come across a beauty like this, check its provenance. If it was found with a handmade bear, drop me a line…

You can keep the toe shoes – I don’t have the ankle strength left anyway.

I think in the end though, we decide what is important by our choices. We choose what is precious.

I chose my children. Best choice ever.

“The things which you get from your parents are valuable but the things which you earn by your blood become precious.”
― Sonal Takalkar

From the ashes of disaster…?

A Reflection on the UCT Fire

Watch | Cape Town fire: Dreadful scenes as UCT Library goes up in flames
photo by Gift of the Givers

The Library of Alexandria in 48BC, The Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu in 2013 and now the Special Collections housed in the Jagger Reading Room at UCT – all that knowledge and heritage destroyed by fire!

Whether such collections are lost through the power of nature, arson or a Kristallnacht type of book burning, the loss of scholarship is tragic. I went down a Google rabbit hole when looking up dates of the these fires and was horrified to realize just how many such fires have destroyed archives of learning over the centuries around the world, most maliciously done.

This photograph of people standing helplessly by as the Jagger Building burned is etched in my mind – It sums up the impotence so many Ikeys felt as part of our alma mater was ripped away by Nature and we were forced to watch it on Instagram or YouTube.

It seems as though some of the collection at UCT may have been protected by fireproof roller doors which were activated timeously but countless pieces were lost, and the Reading Room is gone.  Herbert Baker’s grand pillars seem to have survived though – read into that what you will!

My mother was a librarian. For her, books and the worlds embodied in them were sacrosanct: God help one of us who was caught writing in a book – If it was in pen, not even God would help you – such an act of sheer blasphemy was likely to damn us to hell (but not always heeded by herself as I was to discover recently on opening her copy of the Combined Works of Shakespeare. However, we’ll forgive her brief hypocrisy because it was a treat to see her writing again after 26 years without her in my life.)

She is the one who taught me to read when I was five and the magic of stories, with their worlds of excitement. I remember asking her if she regretted never having been able to travel the world, and she replied that she had been to all the ends of the earth and under it, in her precious books.

She was offered the position of setting up the first library at the new Koeberg Nuclear Plant in the seventies and was really excited at the prospect of being the guardian of research and scholarship there. However, she turned them down in the end. It was only as a parent myself, that I realized the incredible sacrifice she made for my sister and I in accepting a lowly clerical job in a bank (but which paid more) so we could attend the school of her choice, a prestigious girls’ school in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, closer to where we lived. She would have beggared herself in order to ensure we achieved the private school education she had never had.

It was the same when the time came for me to go to university. If I had not been fortunate to be offered a bursary to study at the University of Cape Town, she would have made a plan – she told me she had already contacted the bank manager about it, when my funding came through.

So, for me to see the Jagger building and its African Studies collections so easily obliterated, I can imagine Sylvia Markey groaning in despair and my own soul echoes her moans.

I remember my time in the eighties there: the burgeoning political awareness I experienced immersed in studying isiXhosa and Sesotho; realizing my own privilege and the power entrusted in me to make a difference in our nation; of standing alongside my friend, Xoliswa on Jammy steps as she declared, ‘Look! Bonteheuwel is burning’; of teargas and riot police swaggering along the freeway; of Xoliswa’s rich alto over the megaphone, as she stood outside the Jagger Library as it was known then, singing the haunting struggle songs. ‘We shall Overcome.’

And we did…

… until perhaps we didn’t.

If this fire has jolted anything from my middle-aged heart, it’s a need to do a Mister Chips (I know that’s really dating myself, but I like to think I am in the ‘noontime, not the evening of myself) type of reflection of how I’m doing on changing the world. As I grieve the loss of the writing treasures in Jagger, and the library there that nourished me, as well as the lecturers like Sam Mbiza across the road who educated me and inspired in me a love of the beauty of isiXhosa, and a respect for its cadences, I must ask myself whether I have done enough to promote the study of African literature across my teaching career, which ended up being mainly sharing my own mother tongue with others. Have I filled the world with love – of reading; have I filled the world with hope through education?

It is my hope that another such reckoning closer to the end of my life (a long time away of course, because I still plan to live long enough to be a problem to my own children) will allow me to rejoice in the scholarly works of those whose studies in African Languages started in schools where I have introduced the language to study; that someone I have taught will translate nuclear physics textbooks into isiXhosa; that someone I have taught will win a Nobel prize for literature, and that someone I have inspired is the guardian of the African Studies books at UCT… or the library at Koeberg. I must try harder.

We shall overcome.

We must.

Just no more fires.