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.

Reading: Of Muggles and Magic

Choosing books for boys

In 2000, for a six-month period of about 10 years, I homeschooled my (then) four children, aged eight, six, three and not quite a year.

I may have been a teacher, but I was a high school educator, not a Primary School Wizard. So, I did it all wrong, but one thing I got right was the reading. And that was mainly because I made the eldest one read to himself and both he and I read often to the others (I when I was not busy with another of my whining, squirming, unwilling pupils – not that they seemed any different from some of my former senior students in those characteristics.)

There were no handy online classes or resources back in 2020 (we didn’t own a computer), just little workbooks I found at CNA. There were only a handful of internet users in South Africa at the time. I had never heard of Google and there was no YouTube to search for how-to videos; and no curriculum-aligned, packaged remote learning programme from school.  So, I force-fed times tables to the older two; tried desperately to get my Grade R child to learn to read (and by that, I mean I wondered how and what magic beans Grade 1 teachers sow to take an illiterate to the wonder of the world of books). I puzzled over how on earth to teach my pre-schooler to write his name, although I probably wondered more about how I would get the toddler’s scribbles off the rental apartment’s wall.

At the time, I felt as though I were neglecting Sean, the eldest, by leaving him to read for long periods at a time, or abandoning his sister, Caitlin, to stare longingly at the pages she couldn’t yet read, because the others took up so much of my time, but the time spent exploring books about his own interests, or yearning to be able to read in her case, have served them well. But I also made lots of time for snuggled-up, whole-family story time, when I read aloud to them, the old-fashioned way, ending before they’d had enough, when they pleaded for more. I made no-reading-before-lights-out the consequence for poor behaviour and so put reading on a pedestal as a treat.

My introverted eldest son, a timid eight-year-old who in Grade 2, was a little behind in reading. But he read copiously during this time (no doubt grateful to be away from the haranguing witch, instructing his siblings in the kitchen while scrubbing pots or ironing). He caught up his age lag (he was a November baby) and surpassed his biological age in reading several times over. Today, he has a Master’s degree in English and makes his living writing screenplays and directing films.  

My daughter seems to have thrived on her Mathematics drills and can now write CA(SA) after her MCom and name (the less said about her remembered trauma of my Muggle reading lessons the better). She too is a reader though.

Michael writes a blog with millions of followers for a living and so even if I didn’t teach him to write neatly, he can write!

And the puny Picasso is studying Fine Art at UCT Michaelis School of Art (Handy Andy cleaned the wall too.)

Now I plan to make my fifth child’s matric year miserable by looking over his shoulder at home – it’s only fair he should suffer too – his siblings would say. I shall also be thanking God for Curro’s Microsoft Teams teaching.

What is my point? It’s not to brag about my clever kids (although what mother could resist?), it’s to show that children survive crisis education, no matter how poorly we parents facilitate the learning. What they need is to read.  Studies show that irrespective of socio-economic class or type of school children attend, the readers are statistically the successful ones.

If you do anything with your children during this lockdown, encourage reading, both solitary and family sharing. Teach them to love it, to yearn for learning and to choose it. And read for your own pleasure.

Cut yourselves some slack. You’re doing a great job.

And thank the teachers who know the spells to unlock the doors that we can’t. They’re waving their wands online now. It’s not called Teams for nothing.