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Hungry for books

In Zimbabwe, a police officer's request at a security checkpoint demonstrated his passion for reading.

By Kate Chambers / February 17, 2011

Zimbabwean students at a Harare book fair, July 2010

Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File


The policeman peered in through the open window of our car. "Can I borrow...?" he began. My heart sank.

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This was our sixth police checkpoint in an hour. We were in Marange district, Zimbabwe's eastern diamond heartland. The sand, silhouetted baobabs, and the ever-present security forces made it an eerie place.

Diamonds were first found in the area in 2006, sparking a massive gem rush. Students threw schoolbooks into the bushes in their hurry to dig, their teachers following them in a crazed search for instant riches.

In late 2008, President Robert Mugabe ordered a controversial military clampdown to reassert state control. The authorities have been battling ever since to get the diamonds certified blood-free. Foreigners venturing into the area are viewed with suspicion: They might be diamond buyers or illegal dealers.

With the policeman's eyes upon me, I steeled myself. I knew that like most of Zimbabwe's civil servants, policemen are badly underpaid. (In fact, public service unions are clamoring for a share of the state's diamond wealth to be put into long overdue salary increases.)

"... one of your books?" the policeman finished. He pointed to the dashboard.

My books! I'd almost forgotten them. Before leaving home, I had bundled three paperbacks into the car, hoping to while away a hot journey with a pleasant read.

New and once-read books have reappeared on Zimbabwe's flea markets and in city bookshops since a coalition government was formed between longtime President Mugabe and former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2009, putting a tentative stop to 10 years of economic downturn. Perhaps understandably, motivational books now appear to be the biggest sellers.

Not long ago, buying a good book in Zimbabwe was almost impossible. The government booksellers Kingstons sold flags and pens instead, its sparsely stocked shelves mirroring adjacent near-empty supermarkets. Our two favorite secondhand bookstores in Harare closed down, forced out of business by hyperinflation that topped 231 million percent.

Sometimes I felt I was starving for a nice novel. I wasn't the only one. Friends from the ethnic Shona majority begged to borrow magazines or novels sent to me by family members overseas. "Haven't you got anything for me to read?" they'd say. "Give us this day our daily bread" took on a whole new meaning: I realized that Zimbabweans around me didn't just want food, they also craved new texts to read, digest, and discuss.


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