Doing our bit to save hope from the ashes

Valerie Benson, ExCom member and Uitsig resident, recalls how she joined Marina neighbour Jill Rumbelow to help salvage library books following the recent UCT fire.

The fires on Table Mountain on 18 April have significantly damaged our mountain and also various buildings at UCT including the Jagger Library.

Ten days later, Jill Rumbelow, a fellow Uitsig Peninsula resident, and I decided to sign up to help recover books and manuscripts from the library. Jill worked at UCT for many years and I did my undergraduate degree there. It was the first time that I have been back on this campus since 1991. We shared some of our UCT stories. Mine involved the Purple Rain protest.

We kitted ourselves out in old clothes and closed shoes, parked on campus and made our way to the tent to give our personal details, and to put on hard hats, medical masks and surgical gloves. We weren’t sure if the gloves were for our protection or to protect the books from us. There were about 40 people in our group. Some were volunteers, some were UCT staff and others were students.

After a safety lecture, we headed down to the library and were asked to form a human chain down the passageways of the library. Behind a partially boarded section, I could see workers in hard hats shoveling ash and rubble into wheelbarrows to be taken away. It wasn’t a pretty sight to see and showed that this was just the very beginning start of a massive project. The inside of the section of the library we were in had fire damaged walls, tarpaulins covering book cabinets and hanging electrical wires, hopefully switched off.

Our job was to pass crates of books to the person standing next to us and along the human chain of people in the passageways and out of the library doors. We also brought in empty crates and passed those down the human chain to those at the bottom levels who were loading the books into the crates. Some crates were full of books, some only contained one book and we hoped it was a very rare book to be in its own crate. I saw Dr Doolittle, Alice in Wonderland among others and hoped they were rare editions.

The camaraderie amongst the volunteers was amazing as it often is when Capetonians work together to achieve a community-orientated objective. People shared their experiences of seeing the fire, where they were when it started, and how they thought the fire had spread. Everyone listened avidly and nodded or shook their heads in agreement or disbelief.

Jill and I left after our shift, tired but feeling we had helped in some small way.

Volunteers are still urgently needed, so please do sign up to help using

It was tiring but I was, surprisingly, not stiff the day after our shift. It will be several weeks, if not months, before this recovery process is completed. Our team leader was saying that experienced artisans are desperately needed to handle the rarer items especially those in waterlogged areas of the library. Go on, please sign up!