Bulawayo’s outstanding free library service for Africans

In fairly recent times, after many decades of general disinterest, Rhodesia’s Africans developed a keenness for self-improvement. This account from the mid 1970s, before widespread access to modern personal computers, demonstrates one aspect of how Rhodesia sought to meet this new demand.

Children in Bulawayo waiting their turn to borrow library books.
Children in Bulawayo waiting their turn to borrow library books.


The locale is Mzilikazi Square in the heart of the old part of Bulawayo’s African townships.  It is any afternoon after three o’clock; and eager crowds of Africans are flocking to the modern Mzilikazi Memorial Library.

There are young people of all descriptions: keen secondary students in their smart uniforms of grey for boys and stripes in different colours for girls, who carry their books with an air of purpose. They enter the library briskly and soon become lost in their various studies. The atmosphere is hushed  and yet vibrates with the intensity of the youngsters’ reading.

Younger children display enormous enthusiasm, sitting in groups on the lawns long before opening time showing their books to one another; many of them have changed from uniforms into pretty dresses and neat shirts.  As doors open the children stream into the library, but are gently checked by the library story-teller, who is also the caretaker.

As the afternoon wears on the older residents of the township seem to use the library as part of their daily lives, be it school leavers, housewives, business people, teachers, or office and factory workers passing through on their way home from work. When darkness falls the last readers leave reluctantly, and it is the end of another busy library day.

Mzilikazi Memorial Library, Bulawayo

The scene at Mzilikazi Library is repeated at each of the other four libraries, in Mpopoma, Njube, and Luveve townships, and at the magnificent new Magwegwe Regional Library, which is designed to cater for the rapidly developing housing schemes to the west of the city. All have been built by the Municipality of Bulawayo and are administered by the Department of Housing and Community Services.

During the financial year ended June, 1976, 235 000 books were issued on loan, 100 000 books were used on the premises, and membership passed the 12 000 mark; these figures speak for themselves. Indications are that the current year will be even busier, for issues were up by 35 per cent in the first two months.


Children wait for the Magwegwe Library to open.
Children sitting on the grass waiting for opening time at Magwegwe Library.


The story of Bulawayo’s free library service goes back to 1959, when the first lending library opened its doors to the public. It was a modest beginning, with a few hundred books, and a staff of two in a vacated mission hall in the poorest quarter of the town. But history was made by offering, for the first time in Rhodesia, a free public library service to African readers. The public’s response established beyond any doubt that libraries are a much needed and important amenity in the community. In the years that followed more libraries were built, and by 1976 five modern, well-equipped libraries with a total book stock of some 40 000 volumes and a staff of 20 serve the township residents of Bulawayo.

The library service is centred on the two main libraries – Mzilikazi Memorial Library and Magwegwe Regional Library.

The Mzilikazi Memorial Library is an interesting link with Matabele history. It was built in memory of the great Mzilikazi, first king and founder of the Matabele nation, who settled in Rhodesia with his people around 1840.  The building houses a bust of Mzilikazi, which guards the entrance impressively, and a small statue of his son and successor, Lobengula, stands in the adult lending section. On the walls are drawings from scenes of life among the Matabele 100 years or more ago, and a collection of Matabele history is being pieced together.


Bust of Mzilikazi son of Mashobana (by Diana Mills) admired by some Bulawayo school children
Bust of Mzilikazi, son of Matshobana, (by Diana Mills) admired by some Bulawayo school children.


The Magwegwe Regional Library is every modern reader’s dream, with its functional design, spacious rooms, enclosed gardens and exiting new books. It stands two storeys high on rising ground overlooking the surrounding townships and its square outline is prominent against the skyline. It forms the beginnings of the new civic centre at Magwegwe.


The impressive interior of the regional library at Magwegwe township in Bulawayo
The impressive interior of the regional library at Magwegwe township in Bulawayo.


The three branch libraries are smaller, but attractive, popular and very alive. They also are strategically placed within easy reach of schools, bus stops, and shopping centres; in this way the libraries reach every potential reader in the community, young and old, men and women, boys and girls. All the libraries are set in attractive gardens, with lawns and flowers.

Every resident of the townships is entitled to use the service. There is a nominal annual fee of 20 cents for adults and 5 cents for children just for registration purposes. This entitles a reader to borrow two books at a time for a period of two weeks. No charge is made for using the reading rooms, which provide newspapers and a wide range of periodicals and magazines, and are very popular.

Each library offers an adult lending and reference service and a separate service for children. Special attention is given to the large group of young adults who may borrow from both sections. A textbook section looks after the needs of external students, many of whom could never afford the set books. Prescribed works and suitable study material from Garde 1 through to “A” Level are stocked.

A schoolboy absorbed in a project at one of the libraries
A schoolboy absorbed in a project at one of the libraries


The libraries are designed to give ample space to students whose home study conditions are often unsuitable. Inter-library loans are arranged for books not in stock.  Special consideration is given to the needs of handicapped persons, and to slow readers and new literates.

Most of the books are in English, but libraries stock all the titles which have been published in Ndebele and Shona.  It is regrettable that so far these only amount to a few hundred and do not include children’s literature; instead, Ndebele stories and folk tales are told in all the children’s libraries at regular sessions. The children love and treasure tales from their own culture, and large numbers attend. The stories have been taped and played in the children’s wards of the local hospital.


Story-telling time at Mzilikazi Library
Story-telling time at Mzilikazi Library


Like their fellow readers the world over, Bulawayo readers have very wide interests. Most like to read for pleasure and relaxation, and on the fiction shelves African authors rank high, with names like Achebe, Ekwensi, Soyinka, Ngugi, Kayira, Temba, and our own Sigogo, Moyo, Chidzero, and Chakaipa being much in demand. As more African writers emerge their fans grow.

European fiction writers have an increasing following with a preference for tales of mystery, adventure and romance. Popular authors include Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, and Agatha Christie. In reading for general knowledge and information, readers show preference for biographies, African history and affairs, and science subjects, both pure, applied and social.

The children are insatiable; the young ones devour picture books, ABCs and simple texts, advancing to fairy tales and animal stories, and as they get older, coping with science and knowledge series, novels and adventure stories. Library reference books are extensively used by primary and secondary school children for projects.


Well stocked shelves at Mzilikazi Library
Well stocked shelves at Mzilikazi Library


Bulawayo township residents are proud of their libraries and happy with the service provided, as can be seen from their tremendous response. Parents encourage their children to join and often accompany them to the libraries, helping to mould the readers of tomorrow.  Young people develop their reading ability and taste, so the pattern is ever changing. Older people who learn to read, read on the libraries.  A whole new world is opened to a great many of these readers who would otherwise have remained isolated in their particular society.

The phenomenal growth of the library service over barely two decades promises exciting developments in reading trends. The role that the public libraries may play in the years of change that lie ahead is of tremendous significance. Their future is bright not only in Bulawayo but throughout the country.


Written in 1976 by Karen Jessen  –  Photos by Stephen Blake