Chronicle To read and write – a question of dignity

Some years ago I met, almost on a daily basis, a group of street children – boys only – who were living in the centre of Maputo. They made their living by helping cars finding somewhere to park and then they watched the cars. I imagine that this is a universal way to make a living for street children.

These boys, who were between seven and twelve years old, had no reason what so ever to trust grown-ups. They had been cruelly deceived by the world that grown-ups represent – through war, homelessness, and poverty they had been forced to live in the dire situation that means living on the streets.

But after a couple of years – that is actually how long it took – they started to gain some trust for me. I noticed it because they weren’t lying to me all the time. There was no difference between telling the truth and lying in their lives; the only thing that mattered to them was to find a way to attract a few extra coins from people in order to survive.

Nevertheless they started to trust me in a way. One evening when they were all gathered around my car I asked them:

– What is that you want more than anything else?

I had imagined that they would say that they wanted a home, a mother; go to school, a real job, proper clothes and proper food, some shelter. But that was not the answer I they gave me. And they all gave me the same answer. They were unanimous.

They said:

– What I want more than anything in life is an identity card. With my photo and my name. It will tell everyone that I am me and no one else. That I’m not replaceable, that I am a human being and that I have a value.

Afterwards, I thought about that for a long time. And I though that I should not have been as surprised as I was. That is the most fundamental thing for us humans; that we know who we are, that we feel that we are worth something, that we are not regarded as useless or that we are replaceable cogs in the human machinery.

After some time I asked the boys how they thought they could conquer the dignity that they wanted, the much-wanted identity card. Once again their answer was unanimous:

– I have to learn to read and write, they all said, one after another. I cannot do it otherwise.

None of them could read, they couldn’t even write their own names. They were what you might call absolute illiterates.

The years went by. And what happened with this group of boys is what usually happens: they died and they were young. One was run over by a car, one died from malaria, and one died from some sort of stomach disease. One of the boys just disappeared; two became criminals and only one managed to break free from the hell that living on the streets is. His mother, after she had found a solution to her own misery, whatever it was, found him and she was able to take care of him.

That boy was also the only one of those boys who learned how to read and write. What he does today I don’t know. But I am certain of one thing – he is alive. The others were buried in the anonymous graves of the poor.

They never had an identity card. They didn’t even have tombstones on their graves.

Of course, illiteracy and dignity, the right to have an identity, is not something that needs to be based on the bottomless tragedies of a group of street children. It is enough that you are born poor, in a city or in the countryside, for school to be something unattainable. The letters will keep jumping; books and newspapers will remain worthless objects that lack meaning for these people.

It is possible to say, drastically, that they will never be able to learn to read well enough to understand why they are in the miserable situation they are.

Today, in 2012, illiteracy is still a kind of plague that haunts the world. I do not hesitate to use such a strong word. The worst thing with the disease called illiteracy is that it could have been extinct a long time ago – if we had wanted it bad enough. The money is there, as well as the knowledge and the logistics. It would cost some money. But that would be in the same way that vaccine and medicine cost money. Imagine what it would mean for the fight against HIV and AIDS if we were able to extinct illiteracy. How are young people who are not able to read and write supposed to access information on how they could protect themselves? There is radio and there are people who travel around and tell. But it is an illusion to believe that the written word is not the best tool for vital information.

But we must not forget that it is lethal to suffer from illiteracy.

So we could have extinct illiteracy a long time ago. If we had really decided to do it. I say that it is a disgrace that still, in the year 2012, we let millions and millions of children enter the world without being able to read and write. By doing that we deprive them of the most fundamental tools necessary in trying to understand the world. Also, we deprive them of the possibility of finding out who they are and how to discover their own identity.

To believe that it is possible to get an identity card without knowing how to read and write is an illusion.

Sometimes people ask me if t is possible to buy my books in Maputo. Instead of answering them I ask:

– Is it important?

It might seem arrogant of me. But it is not. What I am saying is that in a country where perhaps 60 – 70 % of the population are illiterates, there is only one book that matters; the ABC-book. It is more Important than any other book.

What I am telling you is the truth. We neither can nor should allow ourselves to prioritize anything else but to make sure that every child gets the opportunity to learn how to read and write. But at the same time we should not disregard the need and the necessity for access to books and magazines for those who can read.

In this context I don’t have to talk about the obvious fact that there are commercial interests in publishing. Nor do I have to say anything about the fact that we cannot live without bookstores where we can find older as well as newer literature.

But just as important is it that we have libraries in our societies. Where you can borrow books for free or for such a small amount that everyone, even the poorest can afford it.

The development of public libraries is one of the most important cultural efforts in our country in the last hundred years. Anyone who denies that doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. The development of libraries filled with books was one of the most significant forces when Sweden managed to lift up itself from the poverty that characterized our country just a few generations ago.

Authors from an older generation than me have in many ways bore witness about how important the public libraries were. That is where those who didn’t have any money could acquaint themselves with the literature of the world, the new and the old, the Swedish and the translated. The libraries have been of significant importance for me as well. I remember how it was when I went to school. When school had finished for the day I rushed to the library and lost myself in a book in the quiet reading hall. Today I can think to myself that I probably learned as much from what I read in that library as I did in school.

It is also possible for me to turn the question around and ask: what would have happened with our country if there hadn’t been libraries everywhere. I don’t have to think for a long time until I come to the conclusion that the answer is quite obvious: The cultural development, which always goes hand in hand with the economic one, would not have been possible without the presence of the public libraries. And you should not forget that a large portion of all literature are text books. In those books you can read and learn. How many prominent professionals have not been born poor and through the libraries they have managed to get an education and changed their lives?

When you look at the Swedish history it is also possible, in a sort of historical mirror, see the state in many African countries., for example in Mozambique. Today that country is on the brink of escaping the poverty inherited from Colonialism and the horrible civil war. You shouldn’t forget that Mozambique has only been independent for 35 years. Imagine if Sweden was 35 years old! If Gustav Vasa were the one who united Sweden and we say that Sweden as a state was founded in 1523 we would found ourselves in 1558.

The establishment of libraries in Mozambique will have a significant effect in the struggle against poverty, of that I am convinced. But libraries are not just building where books stand in row after row, sorted by category and author. Equally important and decisive is the presence of educated and good librarians. People who can help unaccustomed visitors find their way among all these books, skilled people who can help the unsecure find what he or she is looking for.

I am positive that the establishment of libraries must go hand in hand with the education of librarians. If you only focus on one of those things the libraries risk standing on only one leg. And you cannot do that forever. In the end you will fall.

Moreover, I think that a country like Sweden can do a lot to support the development of good libraries in Mozambique. We have experienced the same development. And we know what it meant. And what it still means.

Today the public libraries are in many ways threatened in Sweden. The municipalities are lowering the grants for purchasing newly published titles. There are fewer and fewer librarians; perhaps the opening hours are restricted. Furthermore, it becomes harder and harder to find the money to invite authors to meet their audience. Not only do I find the development in Sweden wrong and idiotic. I find it offensive. It is as if the politicians have forgotten their own history and voluntarily are dismantling one of the most important foundations in the Swedish cultural life. This is something we must fight against. I don’t want to experience the day the Swedish public libraries lose their status.

It is important to talk about this today because unfortunately one most likely has to expect such attacks on the libraries in Mozambique as well. I am sorry to say this but some people think that books are dangerous. I am also sorry to say that there are people who think it is good that the people of a country cannot read. People who read are armed. And words and pens are among the most dangerous weapons there is.

Therefore it should be clear to everyone that what we regard as obvious; having access to a library, librarians and books will always be a questioned reality. One always has to be prepared to fight for culture and it doesn’t matter if we speak about our own country or about a country in the South East of Africa.

It is not for nothing that I keep using the term “PUBLIC library”. Because the most important thing is that the library not becomes an exclusive institution, a place for an elite. On the contrary, it should be a place where the poor and the rich, the street child and the business man, should have the same equal rights to borrow books. I don’t have to mention that the books should be treated carefully and it should never be tolerated that any books are stolen. But my experience tells me that those who understand that through the public libraries they will have access to books they would never have been able to read are the ones that treat the books the best.

The libraries should also have one more important purpose. It will be a place where the national literature can find a haven. I remember that many years ago the great Mozambican poet José Craverina spoke about this. He was a great African poet who could have reached so many more readers if there had been some libraries where people could go and borrow his books. An author who is still active and one of my best friends, Mia Couto, says the same thing. His books will never gain as many readers as they deserve if there aren’t any libraries where they can be borrowed.

When I am standing here today I can think about the group of street children that I once knew who dreamt about their dignity, to learn how to read and write and who dreamt about an identity card. Perhaps one of them visited a library. The other could not do that because they died.

To fight against illiteracy is to fight for human dignity. Everyone’s right to an identity card a basic capability to find out who they are and to find out why life is so hard. Dignity and knowledge always go hand in hand.

Maybe one could say that libraries are the temples of dignity. A place where text books as well as drama, poetry and epic poetry are gathered. Accessible to everyone. Just like a church is – or in my opinion – should be open to each and everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

If that is the case, if my metaphor about the temple and dignity is correct, than the librarian becomes the guardian of this dignity, just as much as he or she is responsible for all the books in the shelves.

We are living in a world where the technological development is happening at a tremendous pace. And most of the development is positive. Take this wonderful technical innovation, which is called the Internet. With a phone line, a small computer or a smart phone and some electricity it is possible to sit far out in the African bush and be in the centre of the world. One can search information in almost any institution in the world. Take a well-known library like the British Library in London. For the first time ever most of their material is now available even for those who live far away from the centre of the world. Through Internet we no longer have to drag the heavy books to the remote places of the world where people are living as well.

Does this mean that the classical book, as we know it, will die? And if so, why will we need books and libraries and librarians in the future?

I think the question in itself is wrong. The book is still the superior tool for us in our search for knowledge and experiences of beauty. What is changing with the Internet are the means in which the book is distributed. Not the book as such. Indeed the libraries of the future will look different. It is not stranger than that there are libraries today that look completely different from the ones I experienced when I was young.

The common denominator is still the book and the librarian. There is no question about that. How books are distributed in a 1000 years from now I have no idea. But I am positive that the book in one shape or another is still here.

Dear friends!

I have talked about books and I have talked about dignity. I have talked about librarians as the guardians of books. We all owe it to the world to unite and fight against illiteracy and we will not surrender until the day when no human being will experience how the letters jump or how the book is something that doesn’t concern him or her. For every human being who learns how to read and write the libraries and the books become important. In the library, it is possible for him or her to seek information about their poverty, about their future, about the world they live in and the world that was.

We have a long way to go. But if we acknowledge the fact that having libraries is something we have in common, in Sweden as well as in Mozambique, for example, we will always benefit from each other’s experiences.

With those words I will finish what I came here to say. I dedicate my words to the street children who once told me what dignity is. I mourn them but I think to myself that it is possible to change the world in such a way that the death of others no longer is necessary in the same way.

Mia Couto has written in one of his books “cada homem e uma raca”, that “every human being, every individual, is her own race”.

It is possible to be startled by these words. But if you think for a moment you will understand what he means. He says that the individual is more important than the race, that the individual is not dependent upon the colour of his or her skin. Nor is he or she dependent upon their name or their culture.

As an author I understand what he means: I write for individuals, regardless of their name or the colour of their skin; regardless of what they do for a living or what sex they are. I write for the solidarity that exists between all the readers of the world.

And as a link between the reader and myself there is often a librarian, which none of us could really do without.

Let us make sure that the libraries are important to everyone. And let us make sure that illiteracy is extinct once and for all.

It is never too late. Everything is still possible.

Henning Mankell

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