In my search for the origins of the clear dividing line between the macuti city and the city of stone and whitewash in Ilha, I am encouraged to visit the old library, placed on the ground floor of the municipal administration building. I have heard they have some old documents and books there, but that you have to cover your mouth and nose to survive the dust.
On entering the building my book lover’s heart skips a beat and my senses are overwhelmed by the strong smell of books not any more just dusty and with a tinge of stuffiness, but actively developing alternative acidic perfume mixtures originating from humidity, insects and old paper. Tables are piled high with shaky heaps of large encyclopædia sets, and on the floor there are loose pages from books in at least two scrips (latin and devanagari) and at least four different languages (Hindi, French, Portuguese and Latin).
In the middle of it all I find Felisbento Jorge, known as Aranha the spider because of his skills as a football goal keeper in an earlier carreer. Later he has been a guitarist as well, but Aranha is primarily a librarian and has been working on organising the library in Ilha de Moçambique since 2005. “Don’t worry”, he says, we are in the process of tidying up and organizing the library. There will be some new shelves here and here, and then we will finish organizing the books on the table here”. So my feeling that a hurricane had just swept through the room must be very far from the truth.
What did happen, however, was that after independence and the war, a library must have been the least of concerns. My friends say that after independence, most documents were moved to Maputo. Then apparently some were rumoured to be moved back and nobody knows what was lost in the process. This week I am in Maputo, and I will find out from the experts in the Moçambique National Archives.
Back in Ilha, there is a bound volume of the Boletim Official from 1882, which Aranha shows me. Some pages are completely eaten by worms. One corner of the bound volume looks a bit like an infiltrated swiss cheese. We both lament how such things can happen to old books.
Going through to the back room, the library actually is in perfect order with book rows on heavy wooden shelves filled with information about modern agricultural production in Mozambique in the 1950s, French classics and a whole shelf of hindi books which look like the size of novels. Nowadays nobody knows how to read hindi in Ilha any more, so noone can tell me if they are novels, Aranha claims. (Maybe I should try and revive the Nepali I learnt more than 10 years ago and see if it helps.)
The beautiful library has recently also suffered the fate of becoming the historical library only. An NGO from Portugal wanted to build its own library for Ilha. So a wall was knocked down in the Casa Girassol to fit a completely new library with more modern books and magazines recently – even if what Ilha needed, was help to finish renovating the perfectly fine library which has existed for more than a hundred years. There is also a library in the secondary school with a growing collection and a librarian.
Next week I will be looking for dusty old books in Maputo.