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The Scrivener: Close To History

Brian Barratt recalls a tragic historical event – and his conflict with a new librarian.

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Dag Hammarskjöld was the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. On 18 September 1961, when he was on his way to see Moise Tsombe, leader of the Katanga secessionists in the Congo, he was killed in an aeroplane crash. He was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The crash occurred near the town of Ndola, on the Copperbelt of Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia). The United Nations Organisation erected the Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Library as a memorial in his honour at Mindolo Ecumenical Centre in Kitwe, another Copperbelt town.

At the time, I was Educational Manager of Kitwe Bookshop, which was run by USCL, the United Society for Christian Literature. The Society was, in turn, closely linked to Mindolo Ecumenical Centre. Mindolo was associated not only with many local churches and church bodies but also with the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Kitwe Bookshop supplied most of the schools in the Copperbelt area and the Northern Province, as well as a few libraries. It seemed logical that we should also supply the new library when it opened. We were, after all, linked by the organisations of which we were part. However, there was to be a problem. The newly appointed Swedish librarian made it quite clear that she would be ordering from larger suppliers in Britain. She believed, nay, she categorically knew that she would get better service and lower prices that way. My diplomatic efforts at persuasion failed.

It was thus that I called upon a higher power. The General Secretary of USCL in Zambia had the advantage of being a clergyman with close links to Mindolo and hence the World Council of Churches. The main argument was straighforward — the profit made by the commercial activities of Kitwe Bookshop was used to subsidise many small book kiosks in what were then known as African Townships. This wide distribution of religious and educational material supported everything that USCL, WCC and Mindolo stood for. To put it in simple terms, Kitwe Bookshop belonged to the same family as the Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Library.

My boss's appeal worked. After the first trial order, we received regular orders from the librarian, who discovered that efficient booksellers were not confined to London and Edinburgh.

There's nothing particularly startling about this story. I haven't recorded it in order to boast that I was an efficient bookseller. Rather, it's a story from real history, from the Africa I knew nearly half a century ago. The death of Dag Hammarskjöld was tragic, but I feel privileged to have been so close to historic events.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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