International authors visited a festival in Natal to share their stories and to try to make a difference in the area. Brenda Gourley was won over.
We can all go down on our bended knees and thank the powers that be for the artists of this world. Every year here in Durban we have a succession of festivals organised by the University of Natal's centre for creative arts.
A few weeks ago, we were privileged to have the Time of the Writer festival, and what a marvellous time it was - not just for those of us who heard how writers from all over the world practised their craft, but also for the school children and even the street children whom the participating writers visited to talk about their craft.
The festival was much more than sophisticated conversations delivered to university and "book club" audiences seeking to be entertained by meeting and listening to some of their favourite writers - although this in itself is an excellent exercise.
Some writers came from quite desperate parts of Africa, and they described the difficulties they had in getting their work published. Goretti Kyomuhendo from Uganda described how difficult it is for women there to have their work published. She established a publishing operation that has now published nine books in four and a half years.
Each author described his or her latest book and then read aloud a chosen passage. Joanna Trollope shared the limelight with Ms Kyomuhendo, who told a story set in the Rwandan war, and Icelandic writer Einar Mar Gudmundsson, who described his novel set in a home for the mentally disturbed (a tale that is loosely based on his own brother's experience).
Ms Trollope then had to wade in with Marrying the Mistress, a concept that, in Africa, would raise few eyebrows, particularly given the other catastrophes with which the continent's inhabitants have to cope.
The charming Ms Trollope was not unaware of her dilemma, and she managed to introduce a humour and lightness of touch that beguiled us all. She told me that what she found most startling about South Africans is that within minutes of meeting new people you were heavily engaged in serious debate about large issues. No time for small talk here.
I was reminded of a diversity workshop that I once attended where a very articulate African-American professor described a continuum of attitudes or emotions involved in accepting "the Other". At one end was rejection and even hate. The continuum ran along past the middle where "tolerance" dwelt. At the other end was appreciation and even love.
Often it is the arts that bring us to this point of appreciation. If you can appreciate another culture's art and music and stories, the chances are that you are well on the way into the total acceptance zone.
This is what makes our centre so important to the university. If we are to accept any responsibility for nation-building, then it is surely through the arts that we will best achieve the appreciation so necessary to progress.
What makes distinguished writers, poets and playwrights come to this end of Africa when they could spend their time reading to audiences much more likely to buy books in larger numbers? Margaret Drabble, for example, does not need to come to South Africa, and if she wished she could do so under far less onerous conditions.
The key lies in a desire to make a difference. The festival programme included a visit by each writer to schools, often in deeply disadvantaged areas, to encourage the students to write. It even included exercises with street children. One writer wrote that the visits were the highlight of her trip to South Africa, and she described the whole exercise as "eye-opening, stimulating and huge fun besides".
One standard question for writers is "what determines what you write about?" The variety of answers at the festival was interesting. Many of the writers from Africa said simply: "I have a story to tell." Some, such as Ms Trollope, Ms Drabble and Mr Gudmundsson, said they write about things they know. Lest anybody was going to compare Drabble's stories to the stories of African wars and so on, she said with some acerbity and spirit that her stories are set in England and that England is, in many ways, a middle-class nation and she writes about middle-class people. "There are things far more dire than middle class, I assure you!" We needed no more assuring.
KwaZulu-Natal is a wonderful place for writers to be appreciated. Storytelling is a much valued skill, passed down from one generation to the next, in a culture that still maintains (although with increasing difficulty) an oral culture. History and legend, tales of valiance and tragedy, stories of drought and pestilence, that weave together all the lessons of environmental protection that many of us are still to learn, are imbibed during childhood - at least in the rural areas.
The university not only tries to make a space for the storytellers through festivals of various sorts, but it also has a centre for oral history documentation where we hope to capture these stories before the modern world obliterates them.
Given all the evidence that exists of a very real and widespread appreciation for the arts and cultural pursuits in general, can someone, somewhere, explain to me why the humanities are under such threat all over the world?
Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor
of the University of Natal at Durban.
The centre can be visited at http://www.und.ac.za/und/carts/