Children in Failed Nation-States Begging for Books — Some Perspective

In Doris Lessing's essay collection Time Bites, she describes visiting an refugee camp for Afghan women and children, in Pakistan in 1986. She writes that the boys begged foreign visitors for books, pens, paper. But all they ever got taught was to recite the Koran, and the girls received no education at all. Lessing's sense is that, given access to books, those boys might not have grown up to be the Taliban.

Lessing notes that children in Zimbabwe – the country where Lessing spent most of her own childhood -- incessantly beg foreign visitors for books. “A survey was made in the villages, and it turned out that what these book-starved people yearn for are romances, detective stories, poetry, adventures, biography, novels of all kinds, short stories. Exactly what a survey in this country would reveal... that is, among people who still read.”

She reports that the most popular book in Zimbabwe is Animal Farm, which kind of figures.

“A box of even elementary books may transform a village. A box of books may be, often is, greeted with tears. One man complained, 'They taught us how to read, but now there are no books.' Three years ago a Penguin classic cost more than a month's wages. But even with books that were so far from what was originally dreamed of in no time study classes began, literary classes, maths lessons, citizenship classes. The appearance of a box of released (will release again?) astonishing energies. A village sunk in apathy will come to life overnight. This is not a people who wait for handouts; a little encouragement, help, sets them off on all kinds of project. This week (January 2003) I heard from one of the Book Team. 'I was out this week. I was talking about books to people who haven't eaten for three days.'”

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