University met with love and support at the loss of a limb.
By Ilham Choonara
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 1 of VARSITY News.
Horror and disbelief surged through Cape Town on Sunday, 18 April as news spread of the Table Mountain fire. UCT students, staff and families might have said a little prayer that the beautiful and beloved campus grounds stay protected. But as the day progressed in clouds of smoke, the Cape Town community was struck into deeper devastation. Students were urgently evacuated from their residences and we received news of the Jagger Library up in flames.
The following 90 hours were met with urgency and shock but most importantly mobilization. Aid relief headed by the SRC and community organizations saw to the needs of displaced students immediately. Strangers offered their cars, homes, money, clothes and their time in those hours of need. As deadly flames licked at the university’s bones, a national and global community came together to help heal.
As students were safely returned to their residences, our focus shifted to the structural damages at the university. The UCT academic calendar was suspended for a week in the aftermath of the fire but as we collectively tried to catch our breath again, many students shared the sentiments of not wanting to sit and do nothing. As the smoke cleared in Cape Town, the air was still alive with community support.
We were presented with yet another opportunity to help restore parts of the Library that the fire left in its wake. The call for volunteers was heard by students, their parents, teachers, church groups, grandparents, and the list goes on. Although the request specifically asked for needed muscle for heavy lifting, people showed up from all walks of life simply through their want to help preserve knowledge.
Seeing the destroyed Reading Room as if it were a movie set is a sobering image, even the fire alarm was found black and melted. Nikki Crowster, director of Information Systems & Resources at UCT Libraries lamented: “our hearts are breaking but at the same time we are determined to save whatever we can.” Volunteers were seen forming a long human chain from the basement as they let the manuscripts, journals, research papers and videos pass through their hands out of the rubble to hopefully be restored.
When asked about the volunteering experience, students reflected that they were impressed with how much was salvaged and that some left the five-hour shift with an adrenaline rush. It is no doubt tiring and, at times, difficult to breathe in the basement with a mask on. Be that as it may, working for the sake of the greater good is always rewarding. In the human chain of healing, it is easy to make friends and meet people from all walks of life. People are just grateful for your help and you are happy to be there.
This fire has seen the coming together of all types of people for the sake of humanity. Our communities move together and mourn together. The destruction of the Jagger Library and its Special Collections section is seen as a national and international disaster due to the wealth of academia lost. However, we must never lose hope that we can still rely on each other. The difficult processes of supporting our students and salvaging our library are proof that we are strengthened through our difficulties. We will overcome the losses and create new horizons in this environment of support.
Please note that volunteers are still needed at the Jagger Library. Anyone can offer their time by registering here: http://www.lib.uct.ac.za/jagger-recovery
Volunteers are briefed, given a construction helmet, offered coffee, lunch, and breaks in the shift. You are surrounded by kind and caring people in joint communion of recovery.