"Some of my fondest memories growing up are of time spent at the National Library in Maseru. I have now made the Bibliothèque Mazarine and American Library in Paris my new sanctuaries. They couldn't be further from home – but they feel just the same......"
I seek familiarity in foreign places. It is a survival mechanism I employ. Not the familiarity to be found in socializing with fellow compatriots while abroad, but the familiarity of spaces and places. Places that will not only feel like home, but also offer some semblance of sanctuary in my home away from home. It does not matter if I am staying for a few days, or on an extended sojourn – my habits remain the same.
Perhaps it is the feeling of being foreign and the need to alleviate the intensity of that very feeling that drives me to these places. In museums, I feel less alone. There is comfort in the knowledge that there will always be at least one other visitor that is as foreign as I. There is comfort in numbers for the foreigner who enjoys anonymity but who also inadvertently seeks the company of fellow foreigners. It is for this reason that I am to be found far away from the watering holes where my fellow compatriots might gather. That kind of socializing compromises the anonymity I enjoy and takes away from my need to be alone.
My other favoured places are libraries. For me libraries hold the memories of my childhood. I grew up in Lesotho, and some of my fondest memories are of time spent at the National Library in Maseru. A legacy of the British government, it was a small, albeit well-stocked library, which I dare say was put to much use by the community. This is where my many encounters with some of the literary greats began. The years passed and I moved from Dr. Seuss to Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis and others. My mother would simply see me to the entrance and pick me up hours later.
The library to me was multi-functional, a place of work and pleasure. When the schoolwork was done, I could then indulge my every fancy through the pages of the books I read. They still remain the perfect place to be anonymous and indulge the voyeur in me- there is something intriguing about watching people go about their business of being scholarly, unobserved. My first draw to the library was the books; even seeing the titles on the spines all lined up thrills me. Secondly, it is a sanctuary, a place to be still that is vaguely familiar. I can be anywhere in the world, yet the muted silence of a library, the whispering, the occasional all-too-human sounds; a cough here, a shuffle there, always feels familiar. These were the sounds of my childhood afternoons, where I could escape to faraway places, and travel to worlds beyond my imagination. Now, I do travel to these places and inhabit these foreign worlds. And yet I continue to seek the familiarity of my childhood memories.
I recently read an article in the New York Times written by Kamila Shamshie titled The demise of the Public Library. In the times of austerity for many European countries, budget cuts for school funding programmes and the advent of e-book readers, it does raise alarm bells about the redundancy of Libraries. South Africa's experience is no different, but our relationship with public libraries is of a different kind. In a country where even the literacy of educators is sometimes in question, inculcating a culture of reading in children becomes something of a challenge.
In a recent article in 'The Star' newspaper, For the love of reading, one book at a time, it was comforting to read that in communities around Johannesburg, public libraries are still being made use of extensively. In some cases though, it was equally clear that the libraries are used by many as a place to study and not a place to pass time on a free afternoon. The fiction section of some of these libraries, the article stated, were not sufficiently stocked. What a shame this is. The children who make use of these libraries will never see the point of opening up a book, letting their imaginations run wild, and getting lost in its pages just for the love of it. They will simply associate libraries with study and reference books. The affection, to which Mark Twain referred when he said; "A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection..." will never form a part of their memories. They may be places that feel familiar in years to come, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
I, on the other hand have made the Bibliothèque Mazarine and American Library in Paris my new sanctuaries. They couldn't be further from home – but they feel just the same.