In Sokari’s most recent blog post she links to blogger Chatoyance who links to The Individual Voice who recently posted the entire text of Doris Lessing’s acceptance speech after Lessing had won the 2007 Nobel Price for Literature. Lessing writes about the hunger of Zimbabwean children and adults for books and of the crucial and central need for writers and publishers in Zimbabwe, throughout Africa and throughout the world. Lessing said:
I have seen a Teacher in a school where there was no textbooks, not even a bit of chalk for the blackboard – it was stolen – teach his class of six to eighteen year olds by moving stones in the dust, chanting “Two times two is…..” and so on. I have seen a girl, perhaps not more than twenty, similarly lacking textbooks, exercise books, biros – anything, teach the A, B, C in the dust with a stick, while the sun beat down and the dust swirled.
We are seeing here that great hunger for education in Africa, anywhere in the Third World, or whatever we call parts of the world where parents long to get an education for their children which will take them from poverty, to the advantage of an education.
Our education which is so threatened now.
I would like you to imagine yourselves, somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of water every afternoon from the town and the people are waiting for this precious water.
The Indian is standing with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn out of a book. She is reading Anna Karenin.
She is reading slowly, mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant. The Indian is distressed, because the young woman’s headscarf, which should be white, is yellow with dust. Dust lies between her breasts and on her arms. This man is distressed because of the lines of people, all thirsty, but he doesn’t have enough water for them. He is angry because he knows there are people dying out there, beyond the dust clouds. His brother, older, had been here holding the fort, but he had said he needed a break, had gone into town, really rather ill, because of the drought.
This man is curious. He says to the young woman. “What are you reading?”
“It is about Russia,” says the girl.
“Do you know where Russia is?” He hardly knows himself.
The young woman looks straight at him, full of dignity though her eyes are red from dust, “I was best in the class. My teacher said, I was best.”
The young woman resumes her reading: she wants to get to the end of the paragraph.
The Indian looks at the two little children and reaches for some Fanta, but the mother says “Fanta makes them thirsty.”
The Indian knows he shouldn’t do this but he reaches down to a great plastic container beside him, behind the counter and pours out two plastic mugs of water, which he hands to the children. He watches while the girl looks at her children drinking, her mouth moving. He gives her a mug of water. It hurts him to see her drinking it, so painfully thirsty is she.
Now she hands over to him a plastic water container, which he fills. The young woman and the children, watch him closely so that he doesn’t spill any.
She is bending again over the book. She reads slowly but the paragraph fascinates her and she reads it again.
“Varenka, with her white kerchief over her black hair, surrounded by the children and gaily and good-humouredly busy with them, and at the same visibly excited at the possibility of an offer of marriage from a man she cared for, looked very attractive. Koznyshev walked by her side and kept casting admiring glances at her. Looking at her, he recalled all the delightful things he had heard from her lips, all the good he knew about her, and became more and more conscious that the feeling he had for her was something rare, something he had felt but once before, long, long ago, in his early youth. The joy of being near her increased step by step, and at last reached such a point that, as he put a huge birch mushroom with a slender stalk and up-curling top into her basket, he looked into her eyes and, noting the flush of glad and frightened agitation that suffused her face, he was confused himself, and in silence gave her a smile that said too much.”
…This was hard, oh yes, it was hard, this stepping, one foot after another, through the dust that lay in soft deceiving mounds under her feet. Hard, hard – but she was used to hardship, was she not? Her mind was on the story she had been reading. She was thinking, “She is just like me, in her white headscarf, and she is looking after children, too. I could be her, that Russian girl. And the man there, he loves her and will ask her to marry him. (She had not finished more than that one paragraph) Yes, and a man will come for me, and take me away from all this, take me and the children, yes, he will love me and look after me.”
She steps on. The can of water is heavy on her shoulders. On she goes. The children can hear the water slop in the can. Half way she stops, sets down the can. Her children are whimpering and touching the can. She thinks that she cannot open it, because dust would blow in. There is no way she can open the can until she gets home.
“Wait” she tells her children, “Wait”
She has to pull herself together and go on.
She thinks. My teacher said there was a library there, bigger than the supermarket, a big building and it is full of books. The young woman is smiling as she moves on, the dust blowing in her face. I am clever, she thinks. Teacher said I am clever. The cleverest in the school – she said I was. My children will be clever, like me. I will take them to the library, the place full of books, and they will go to school, and they will be teachers – my teacher told me I could be a teacher. They will be far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and live a good life.
You may ask how that piece of the Russian novel ever ended up on that counter in the Indian store?
It would make a pretty story. Perhaps someone will tell it.
On goes that poor girl, held upright by thoughts of the water she would give her children once home, and drink a little herself. On she goes … through the dreaded dusts of an African drought.
We are a jaded lot, we in our world – our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.
We have a treasure-house – a treasure – of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come on it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.
We own a legacy of languages, poems, histories, and it is not one that will ever be exhausted. It is there, always.
We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.
Ask any modern storyteller, and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, fire, ice and the great winds that shaped us and our world.
The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise … but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill. It is our stories, the storyteller, that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, what we are at our best, when we are our most creative.
That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?
I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.