By Ranka Primorac
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 16-18)]
Books for UNZA
Ranka Primorac, University of Southampton
It is an overcast morning in early August, and I am struggling to exit a Lusaka taxi with five kilos of books under my arm. This is the first day of my British Academy-funded research trip to Zambia: I am interested in Zambian literature, and I am determined to find out as much as I can about Zambian lives and fictions of all kinds, in the weeks to follow. The taxi driver’s name is George, and he is friendly and talkative: he has already told me he would give anything to go ‘overseas’ – especially to London, where I am based. (Travelling to the neighbouring countries in his home region does not count: in this regard George seems to be a little like Mansour, the perpetual would-be immigrant in Caryl Phillips’ The Atlantic Sound.) The books I am carrying are in a neat brown parcel addressed to Dr Vitalcy Chifwepa, the Head Librarian of UNZA – the University of Zambia, the country’s main seat of higher learning. They are a gift from the Leeds University’s Centre for African Studies, under their ‘Books for African Universities’ scheme. I have carried them to Lusaka and am about to hand-deliver them to the UNZA main library, a crumbling square building with walls of bare concrete.
Between 1960s (the decade of Zambia’s independence) and 1980s, this used to be a lush ‘garden’ campus, the modernist concrete of the buildings counter-balanced by flowering trees, manicured lawns and ornamental lakes. The nationalist ‘father’ of the Zambian nation, Kenneth Kaunda, set great store by culture and education, and UNZA was a flagship institution in the newly-independent nation. Four and a half decades on, it is not longer financially possible to continue watering the grounds, and when I arrive the campus lawns are yellowing and dry. But Kaunda (known here as ‘KK’) is still an important presence in Zambia’s public life, and UNZA still symbolises the hopes and aspirations of generations of young Zambians – even when they are tinged with ambivalence. Zambian author Malama Katulwende chose a photograph of campus buildings for the cover of his 2005 novel Bitterness; the 1999 collection of short fiction by Sekelani Banda, entitled Half a Turn, opens with a family feast in honour of a village son who has gained university entrance. Two weeks into my stay, I witness a graduation ceremony here: it is conducted in the open and punctuated by drums and jubilant ululation. The graduates -doffing mortar-boards in emerald green robes -are just as gleeful and exuberant as their counterparts anywhere else in the world.
Once inside the library, however, I soon realise that hopes and dreams are not matched by resources: the library stock is badly in need of updating, and staff members tell me that postgraduate projects are all too often constrained by the unavailability of research resources. Recent work in the field of Postcolonialism is particularly under-represented, and people talk longingly of having access to journal article databases. This is why the Leeds gift of theatre-related books is greeted with much excitement and gratitude. Inside the parcel I have been carrying are a dozen and a half recent volumes related to African theatre studies, and everyone – from the Head Librarian and his staff, to university administrators and ‘ordinary’ undergraduates who want to know what is in the box I am taking into the library building – is delighted and grateful. (When I tell my undergraduate acquaintances that, as geography students, they are unlikely to benefit from the books, they answer earnestly: ‘If one of us benefits, all of us benefit!’) During visits to the library over the coming days, I see the volumes being stamped and processed for library borrowing and use, and I acquire a new resolve: I want to take a leaf out of Leeds’ book and enlist the help of colleagues from the Postcolonial Studies Association and the broader academic community, for a book donation scheme called ‘Books for UNZA’. Details will be announced closer to the time of my next visit to Lusaka in 2010: watch this space.
This article is adapted from a larger piece, originally published in the October newsletter of the Postcolonial Studies Association. (www.postcolonialstudiesassociation.co.uk).