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I grew up in a big family in a small council house in Middle Terrace, Grahamstown. I have many happy memories. And many not-so-happy ones.
There were tough days, but somehow my aunts and grandparents looking after the extended family, crowded under one roof, always managed.
Poverty is the real mother of invention. I learnt, for example, that a tea bag could be used several times over. And this before recycling became a fad!
There is no need, of course, to romanticise poverty and inequality. We must characterise our undignified South African realities for what they were, and still are, if we are to dream and effect new realities.
But it is also true, as the often-misunderstood Jacob Dlamini captured in Native Nostalgia, that we live(d) in our townships. Some of us even actualised our potential.
Which brings me to one such set of happy recollections from my own childhood scenes growing up in Middle Terrace, Grahamstown. I spent many hours in the community library lost in books. I was lucky. The library was next to our house and so I only needed to jump the fence and I was a minute away from magical worlds that looked and felt and smelt very different to my own life.
I fell in love with Enid Blyton, like many millions of kids the world over.
I’m pretty sure I read every single book in The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series. And I will never forget my friends in The Magic Faraway Tree. How I miss Silky, Moonface and Saucepan Man!
When I was up The Magic Faraway Tree I was a happy child. It didn’t matter that there might have been no bread in the bread bin when I got home from school. I could always imagine eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with my favourite characters. (Mind you, the thought was disgusting for years! Only as an adult did an American friend rescue me from ignorance – jelly for them turned out to be what we call jam, not only desert!)
Also, when I was in the library I could not be smacked by mom who was frustrated at dad’s disappearance. I wasn’t a witness to violence between neighbours. I was in a happy place. I was in a safe place. Books gave me joy. The world of books, quite frankly, helped me escape the harsh reality of a childhood located in our familiar landscape of violence, poverty and inequality. Thank you Blyton, Dixon, Peck, Kellerman, Orwell, Nagel, Okri, Brooks and other literary giants.
I really was lucky. Some of my peers – and siblings and cousins – responded to our tough upbringing by dropping out of school or falling pregnant as teens. I can’t blame them. How can I? I know the utter hopelessness of our community that provided conditions ripe for antisocial behaviour.
I had no guidance at home, and so my reading list was very bizarre and random: in between so-called children’s book I was reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Virginia Andrews’s Flowers In The Attic (please don’t laugh at me, dear reader!) and even that pseudo-profound classic The Road Less Traveled by M Scott Peck. And that is fine. We must read anything and everything in our sight. Even Fifty Shades of Grey. We must become a reading nation.
Perhaps the most important book for me, as a teen, was What Does It All Mean? by philosopher Thomas Nagel. This book was given to me early in high school by my gifted history teacher, Mr Grant. I have little doubt that this early introduction to analytic philosophy explains my lifelong love affair with the discipline. I took it home and read it in my grandad’s old Ford. It introduced me to academic philosophy. Now I’m an annoying philosophy student and part-time lecturer for life. That’s what books do. They help you find your true self.
Here is the ultimate moral of my book nostalgia, though. If we want to break down barriers between ourselves across race, linguistic and cultural lines, we must promote reading. Fiction forces you to live in other people’s worlds. It develops our empathetic capacities. Sure, reading isn’t a substitute for dismantling apartheid geography and is no substitute for living in each other’s spaces. But it can and does help to build bridges. Reading will help us to humanise each other. In a time of violence, we must spread the word about the power of books to make South African life a little easier.
These benefits require well-stocked libraries in every school and community, managed by librarians who are valued and paid due compensation for their vital role.
Why are we marching against e-tolls but not for libraries? Why?
* This column is based on a talk given by Eusebius McKaiser at the University of the Free State last week as part of South African Library Week. McKaiser is author of the best-selling A Bantu In My Bathroom. He hosts Talk At Nine on Talk Radio 702. Follow him on Twitter @eusebius