Libraries Burning

A few years ago, after Andrew and I first got married, we quit our jobs and blew our savings on the trip of a lifetime. We had friends in Australia and New Zealand who had offered us a place to stay (rent-free) for a few months. Some other American friends had gone to South Africa on a similar savings-blowing trip. They introduced us to their South African friends, Garth and Bridget, who extended hospitality by way of their Cape Town home’s back wing, complete with kitchenette and private entrance.

South Africa was first on our four-month travel itinerary. While there, Garth & Bridget gave us an old maroon Honda Accord to drive; they invited us to join them for dinner almost every night of our month-long stay. They welcomed us as though we were long-lost family members, as if they had known about us from birth and were overjoyed to lay eyes on us at last. Theirs was a welcome that far surpassed any Southern graces I have ever known.

Yet, I arrived in South Africa full of distinctively American anxieties. I was somewhat fearful of contracting malaria, worried about the place’s fledgling democracy and unrest resulting from its 40% unemployment rate, nervous about the rampant cases of HIV and AIDs, the sort of stuff – rapes and racial tensions – I’d read about in J.M. Coetze’s Disgrace.

In reality, the country was no less complex than that which I had imagined (though it was less dangerous), but it was also significantly more beautiful – in people and geography – than I could have guessed. Andrew and I spent days walking around Cape Town, driving across mountain ranges, drinking great South African wine. When we mentioned we wanted to see other sides of S.A., Bridget, a nurse, introduced us to some friends who worked in a poor township’s orphanage; the babies there, all HIV-positive, crawled all over us, touching our faces, hungry for human warmth.

A friend who had spent many years in Tanzania once said of the continent: “Africa just gets in your bones,” and it does. When we left, I felt a piece of it had become a part of me.

Happily, when I enrolled in my MFA program, I met a young woman named Maggie Messitt. Maggie is an American narrative journalist based in a small town in South Africa; in addition to telling the stories of her South African neighbors, she has singlehandedly started a non-profit organization charged with the purpose of teaching young South African women how to tell their personal stories and their country’s stories. She calls the nonprofit “Amazwi,” which means “voices” in Zulu.

In any country, the effort to train and empower writers to record their lives and celebrate their native cultures could be regarded as a significant contribution to humankind. But add to this the staggering numbers of parents who die before their children are old enough to speak (due to AIDs), the nonexistence of public libraries, and the view of education as luxury, and the importance of the written word looms even larger.

Amadou Hampate Ba, a Malian writer and UNESCO representative, has said, “In Africa, when a man dies, it’s a library burning.” Thanks to Maggie Messitt and her dedicated staff of volunteers, this is slightly less true for South Africans. Their “libraries” databases are being preserved; through the Amazwi students’ narratives, the stories, languages, wisdom and experience of elders are finding a place in a quietly emerging canon of African literature.

This morning, I received an email update from Amazwi which included a poem written by one of the program’s students, Amukelani Mashele. Inspired by her Shangan heritage, she writes:


I work hard to leave footprints wherever I step

I never let challenges bring me down, so I dare anyone

I refuse to let someone judge me because,

Of Xitsonga that I speak or fair colour of my skin

Who can love me more than my own self? …


I am my own favourite person …


I am proud to support an organization that seeks to preserve national history while empowering young women to find their own voices, women who “work hard to leave footprints wherever [they] step”; women who maintain such self-respect that they can write, without twittering with insecurity, “I am my own favourite person.”


To learn more about Amazwi’s aims and programs, and its new literary magazine, A., please click on the Amazwi link on my blogroll or go to



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