Heartbreak in Huhudi

In our last full week as Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study fellows, Niq Mhlongo and I decided to do something I have long advocated for: take the books to the people.

We have both been to Gauteng, Kwazulu-Natal and Western Cape, the standards for writers. But now we were exploring the unknown. Our friend and literary supporter of note, Outlwile, suggested North West, which is his home province.

I had a one-day writing workshop and a launch at Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape over the weekend. We convinced Dancing the Death Drill author Fred Khumalo to join us.

It seemed like a perfect plan. Except it was not.

It began with being informed that the venue in Mahikeng was no longer available because it was being used for a political rally. We talked about not going because we were unsure whether there would be a turn-out at all, given that we were due to be in Mahikeng on the day after Supra Mahumapelo took “early retirement.”

A phone call from one of the organisers of the book initiative informing us that they had used their own funds to secure a venue at a hotel had us reversing our decision. We were aware that they were probably using funds they did not have. When we arrived, our audience was more than we expected it to be and, equally important, they bought books.

That there is no bookstore of note in a town the size of Mahikeng is one of the mysteries of our time. Indeed, that bookshops of note are generally in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Bloemfontein is unfortunate because there is a hunger for literature, from what I saw.

It was Vryburg, however, that showed us the rot in the civil service, and the few good people in it too. Outlwile had decided that a venue run by the Vryburg municipality would be a good place to have the event.

Having checked availability and everything else, he was informed that he would have to pay R1 200 for the venue. He decided he was willing to pay for it. Until he was told that he would have to pay R1 700 as a refundable deposit in addition to the R1 200.

Some of the residents of the town told us that there are people who haven’t had the deposit returned from as far back as April last year. We decided instead to look to Huhudi, the township in Vryburg.

When we arrived at the Huhudi library, we talked to a clerk about the possibility of doing a reading there. He gave us the number of the head of libraries so we could get permission. We had to call this senior man because the phone in the library was not working. The big man informed us initially that we could be there for two hours from 4pm to 6pm, which he later reduced to an hour. I suspect the reduction of time was after he asked Niq whether there would be a little something and Niq responded with a no.

Given that people were coming from work, we realised that it would be useless because we would probably have no audience. But we stayed chatting in the parking lot. It was then that a man called David, who turned out to be the librarian of Huhudi library, came through. “Why didn’t you talk to me earlier?” David asked. He would keep the place open until 10pm if that’s what we needed. And so it is that Outlwile started sending messages to all his reading friends to tell them about the new venue.

And they came.

A high school pupil, who has written a book, and her supportive father. Readers who had been sending messages on Facebook asking where we were and promising to come through. Teachers. Nurses. Outlwile’s mother, who was hosting us. A woman who founded a school after she realised that her daughter with Down’s syndrome was not getting enough attention from the teachers because the class was large. Clare, for that is her name, limits her classes to 15 and they take all children. Clare, who raised funds for the school by calling on her friends to take part in a sponsored walk from Tlokwe to Vryburg. Clare, who travels to Johannesburg so that she can buy books because there is no bookstore in Vryburg. And a raconteur of note called Stix.

It was Stix, a teacher, who informed us as we waited for David to borrow a floodlight from a car wash (the library hasn’t had electricity in a long time). The phone and electricity were not the only problems at the library. Like the rest of the township, the library also had no water.

“How long has it been?” I asked. Huhudi hadn’t had water for almost six months, Stix informed us — a great irony for Huhudi, which, I understood, means “running water” in Setswana. Interestingly, this lack of water is only in the township. In the formerly white side of town, the water runs without a problem. I suspect that come the elections the people of Huhudi and Vryburg will vote for the same people they have been giving their vote to since 1994.

A day after our book reading and discussion under a floodlight in a library, my heart hurt as I thought of Vryburg. Standing under a shower in the Northern Cape, I wondered what it must be like to love your town, as Clare, David and Stix clearly do, yet constantly feel that, as a result of corruption and incompetence, some things may never change. I wondered why a man like David is not the civil servant in charge of libraries instead of being a librarian for one.

Here is hoping that one man’s “early retirement” will make some difference in the province.

Zukiswa Wanner is a Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies Fellow

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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