Monday, December 10, 2007


Last night Doris Lessing, aged 88, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech she recalls her childhood in Africa and laments that children in Zimbabwe are starving for knowledge, while those in more privileged countries shun reading for the 'inanities' of the internet

From Saturday's issue of The Guardian

I am standing in a doorway looking through clouds of blowing dust to where I am told there is still uncut forest. Yesterday I drove through miles of stumps, and charred remains of fires where, in 1956, there was the most wonderful forest I have ever seen, all now destroyed. People have to eat. They have to get fuel for fires.

This is north-west Zimbabwe early in the 80s, and I am visiting a friend who was a teacher in a school in London. He is here "to help Africa", as we put it. He is a gently idealistic soul and what he found in this school shocked him into a depression, from which it was hard to recover. This school is like every other built after Independence. It consists of four large brick rooms side by side, put straight into the dust, one two three four, with a half room at one end, which is the library. In these classrooms are blackboards, but my friend keeps the chalks in his pocket, as otherwise they would be stolen. There is no atlas or globe in the school, no textbooks, no exercise books or Biros. In the library there are no books of the kind the pupils would like to read, but only tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, detective stories, or titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.

There is a goat trying to find sustenance in some aged grass. The headmaster has
embezzled the school funds and is suspended. My friend doesn't have any
money because everyone, pupils and teachers, borrow from him when he is
paid and will probably never pay it back. The pupils range from six to 26,
because some who did not get schooling as children are here to make it up.
Some pupils walk many miles every morning, rain or shine and across
rivers. They cannot do homework because there is no electricity in the
villages, and you can't study easily by the light of a burning log. The
girls have to fetch water and cook before they set off for school and when
they get back.
As I sit with my friend in his room, people shyly drop in, and everyone begs for books.
"Please send us books when you get back to London," one man
says. "They taught us to read but we have no books." Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.
I was there some days.
The dust blew. The pumps had broken and the women were having to fetch
water from the river. Another idealistic teacher from England was rather ill
after seeing what this "school" was like.
On the last day they slaughtered the goat. They cut it into bits and cooked it in a great tin.
This was the much anticipated end-of-term feast: boiled goat and porridge.
I drove away while it was still going on, back through the charred remains
and stumps of the forest.
I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes.
The next day I am to give a talk at a school in North London, a very good school. It is a
school for boys, with beautiful buildings and gardens. The children here
have a visit from some well-known person every week: these may be fathers,
relatives, even mothers of the pupils; a visit from a celebrity is not
unusual for them.

As I talk to them, the school in the blowing dust of north-west Zimbabwe is in my mind, and I
look at the mildly expectant English faces in front of me and try to tell
them about what I have seen in the last week. Classrooms without books,
without textbooks, or an atlas, or even a map pinned to a wall. A school where
the teachers beg to be sent books to tell them how to teach, they being
only 18 or 19 themselves. I tell these English boys how everybody begs for
books: "Please send us books." But there are no images in their
minds to match what I am telling them: of a school standing in dust
clouds, where water is short, and where the end-of-term treat is a
just-killed goat cooked in a great pot.

Is it really so impossible for these privileged students to imagine such bare poverty?
I do my best. They are polite.
I'm sure that some of them will one day win prizes.
Then the talk is over.
Afterwards I ask the teachers how the library is, and if the pupils read.
In this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to such
schools and even universities. "You know how it is," one of the
teachers says. "A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the
library is only half used."
Yes, indeed we do know how it is. All of us.

To read the rest of this long and quite remarkable address click here.

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