Never more than an arm’s reach from my desk at home, there are a handful of nondescript, tattered old books. These are my copies of the Stewart Xhosa Readers, published by the Lovedale Press. Do not judge these books by their brown paper bag and farm-school green covers (for that is how I remember these rows of green booklets lined up against the brick-and-plank shelves of numerous farm schools in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa), for through their pages wander stories and lives that cannot be contained in the pages of books. It is likely that the likes of Z.K Matthews, Nelson Mandela, A.P. Mda, Robert Sobukwe and many others learned to read from the Stewart Readers. For those of you unfamiliar with many of these names, these are African intellectual and political giants whose work and actions have influenced my own beyond measure.
I, too, learned to read Xhosa with the help of these books. I’d stumbled onto Lovedale Press by accident while looking for a topic on which to write my master’s thesis. My supervisor suggested I spend a day leafing through a relatively new archival collection at my university to see whether I could find something of interest. It was the Lovedale Press archives, containing containing more than a century-and-a-half’s material pertaining to all aspects of the press. I was reluctant to dig into those archives, but the rest, as they say, is history. Lovedale led me into a career in writing, publishing, and editing. One visit changed the course of my life.
One of the first things I realised was that I’d have to learn to read isiXhosa, a process that continues to this day. Among the first books I studied once I’d gained a measure of fluency was ImiZekeliso nama-Qhalo esiXhosa (Xhosa Sayings and Proverbs), by L.K. Siwisa. The second entry in the book is “Elokufa alityeli”—Death does not give a warning. Yet this time, it did, and no one listened.
The Lovedale Press was founded in 1823 to publish literature in isiXhosa. This makes it the oldest African-language press on the African continent, and the oldest press in South Africa that has survived by its original name. Lovedale (the press and the institution from which it gets its name) is entwined the history of colonization, and with the history of resistance. Publishing in an Indigenous language was always risky, but successive generations of committed individuals made it work, and it survived. In 2001, the Glasgow Mission Society sold the Press, and a group of employees bought it. Since then, they have struggled to keep the press alive.
In today’s South African Sunday Times, there is an article announcing that unless Lovedale can pay its debts by the end of the year, it will close its doors forever. The chronicle of this death has been foretold, and we have not listened. It was foretold in the stories about the need for, and importance of, Indigenous-language publishing. It was told in the threat to Indigenous languages. It was foretold in literacy statistics. It hid in the cuts to arts and social sciences. Oh, this death was foretold many times. This death did not come without warning, but we we have not listened. This one is on us.
It is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, and so I give thanks to the many Lovedale authors who have contributed to making me who I am today. I am not ready yet to say “Hambani kahle”.