A books network in Zimbabwe is now a front-line virus response

Monitor readers still supply books, but now the group has found new purpose in helping communities prepare for the coronavirus pandemic.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters/File
Student Rutendo Madziva reads by candlelight during an electrical power cut in Marondera, Zimbabwe, last May. Reading material is available, but very costly.

“Thats a massive help,” texts Elvis when I send him yet another coronavirus fact sheet. “I going to send this to my folks and kinsmen.” He adds “uyilamulile,” in Ndebele, one of Zimbabwe’s 16 languages, and translates: “You have fought the battle for us.”

I am learning so much. But I am no longer – for now – sending out books to remote corners of Zimbabwe as I’ve done for the last eight or so years.

In 2011, Monitor readers began sending parcels of books to Zimbabwe after a couple of Home Forum essays I wrote mentioned the scarcity of books here. It wasn’t just the scarcity of books, but also the price of them. They remain far out of reach for all but the best-heeled. Before Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 lockdown began March 31, the lowest paid teachers at government schools were earning less than $250 per month. If it’s a choice between buying food and a new book on that wage, which would you choose? 

The books that Monitor readers sent to me went mainly to established libraries: school libraries, a library at a teaching college, the main Turner Memorial Library in downtown Mutare – the so-called diamond city, named for its proximity to the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe. I sent books to a teacher friend at a school that had seen few new books in a long time, and to a couple who ran evening classes from a garage in a high-density suburb of Harare. My condition was that recipients had to have asked for help with books or magazines. As best I could, I collated requests and passed the books along. I recorded parcel dispatch dates and reassured senders that I honestly didn’t think their packages had been lost, even if months had elapsed. Amazingly, the parcels of books have almost never gone astray, a testament to Zimpost, the national mail service.

First I’d settle the “reception fee” at the post office. Then, through FedEx and an astonishing network of local helpers, including students at the university where I was lecturing, I got the books, magazines, and sometimes crayons and sharpeners to where they were needed most. In the last three years, I’ve worked increasingly with individuals trying to set up mobile library clubs or build up library resources in remote, underserved parts of the country: Tsholotsho, Hwange, Gweru, Chipinge.

That all had to stop in April. Even though Zimbabwe and much of southern Africa is far behind the West on the COVID-19 curve, it was imperative not to encourage nonessential gatherings – such as at a mobile library, where a distributor physically brings the books, sometimes in a backpack – to a group of people to share. 

Late one night, I discussed with some dedicated project leaders – farmers, parents, administrators, a grad student – how to quickly redirect our efforts, given the coronavirus crisis. What we decided we wanted most was information about the pandemic to share. Could I find it, with my faster internet connection in Harare, and share it with them? They would in turn distribute it to those they knew hadn’t been reached. The best way to distribute the information was via text and WhatsApp. 

Smartphones are slightly less common in rural areas here. But almost everyone has an mbudzi, Shona for “goat,” a low-tech “brick” cellphone capable of sending and receiving text messages, calls, and mobile money transfers.

We patched together what we could find: public health diagrams, comic strips from UNICEF, and information from the World Health Organization and other international agencies. Elvis translated, where necessary. A well-known Zimbabwe activist based in Britain, Betty Makoni, helpfully did some Shona translations of critical terms in a Sunday newspaper article, scans of which then spiraled throughout the country via the library clubs.

These book lovers and library club leaders are on the ground in Zimbabwe, in touch with grassroots communities, and determined to help. A couple of them are also using the lockdown to study free online courses at U.S. institutions. Meanwhile, I have book parcels under my kitchen table, awaiting distribution. Some have U.S. postmarks, a symbol of global solidarity and hope in a post-COVID-19 future. 

Books and reading and literacy matter more than they ever did in Zimbabwe. They just look slightly different now.

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