Book centre up in flames

Book centre up in flames

MASERU-On June 27 Father Augustinus Khakhane was in deep sleep when he was startled by screams outside.
He scrambled out of the house to find the Mazenod Book Centre engulfed in a blazing fire.

“It was if I too was burning,” recalls Father Khakhane who is the book centre’s managing director.
In desperation, he broke windows to pour some water on the furious fire.
The fire brigade that arrived half an hour later struggled with the raging fire until the next morning but Father Khakhane says it was clear that they were fighting a lost cause. When it was all over the country’s biggest book depot had been reduced to ashes. Books worth more than M28 million had gone up in smoke.

“The warehouse was full as we had just bought tons of stock from South Africa and other local suppliers,” he said.
Some 120 jobs are now on the line and so is the livelihood of nearly a thousand people who are their dependents.

For the past two weeks Father Khakhane has been sorrowfully watching fumes from the smoldering fire that consumed one of Lesotho’s oldest book centres.
He says it is not only the books that have been destroyed but “history” as well. The Roman Catholic Church’s Oblates of Mary started the centre in 1932.

Only the Morija Book Depot is older.
“Watching it burn traumatised me so much as I didn’t know what to do.
“After a week reality sank in that it had happened and I had accepted the situation,” says Father Khakhane.

“I realised that crying was pointless as I had to find a way forward. Tomorrow, our psychologist father will be counselling them and maybe after that session they will feel better.”

The tragedy could not have come at a worse time. The centre was already in a crisis even before the fire.
The Covid-10 pandemic had reduced its sales to a trickle.
With schools closed, the centre was already struggling to collect its debts and was already burning through its cash reserves.

In the meantime there was no new stock coming in.
The centre had introduced shifts but was still managing to pay employees.
The fire however changed everything.
Father Khakhane says they will pay half salaries this month.
He says it is possible that they might have to cut some jobs.
“I am trying my best to protect them but I don’t know how but I do think God will provide.”

“Retrenching them will be adding more disturbances which can lead to a lot of things.”
Father Khakhane says the employees have started cleaning up in shifts but the recovery will be long.
Without new stock, the centre’s 13 shops around the country might soon run out of books.

“Our suppliers are willing to give us stock but transportation remains a major challenge,” said Khakhane, adding that most church books are imported from Italy, Singapore and Germany.
Yet even if they do get the books they no longer have a warehouse.

The centre supplies books to 80 percent of schools and churches in Lesotho.
The centre has negotiated some debt reprieve with most of its suppliers.
“This will be until we are stable again. Hopefully by July next year we will be fully functional,” he said.
’Mamohapi Ramabolu, Mazenod Book Centre Manager, says the centre was struggling even before the fire.

“We haven’t been generating income since the lockdown,” says Ramabolu who has worked at the centre for three decades.
“This feels like the end of us.”

She says they expect to pay half salaries for the next three months but much depends on the schools reopening and the centre’s insurers paying soon.
“I don’t know what we will do if the insurance doesn’t assist or we don’t get any funding.”
Ramabolu however says they managed to salvage one computer that has most of the records, meaning they still have a record of their debtors and creditors.

“I don’t know what we will do if the insurance doesn’t assist or we don’t get any funding,” she says.
“We have lost a lot and we don’t know where we will start.”
“I feel like my brain burnt in there as all was in there. It is a mess.”
The impact of the disaster at the centre goes beyond the business and the workers.

Ramabolu says the centre was providing bursaries to dozens of students in Mazenod.
“We want to keep them in school but the future looks bleak. We will however try our best.”

Mohale Lehlohonolo, a sub-editor at the Moeletsi oa Basotho, a Roman Catholic newspaper, worries that the centre might collapse.
The newspaper sells the bulk of its copies through the centre’s stores.
“We will lose our market as our copies are sold there,” Lehlohonolo.
Molupe Molupe, manager of the Meloling Book Centre, says they buy most of their stock from the centre.

Without the centre we are doomed, Molupe says,
He says the incident happened when his shop was already empty.
“I was still planning to buy some and this transpires. We are harshly affected,” he said.

Bokang Moroeng, general manager of the Morija Lesotho Book Depot, is equally worried.

The Morija Lesotho Book Depot and the Mazenod Book Centre might be competitors but they have a mutually beneficial working relationship.
They buy books from each other. So the demise of one will affect the other.
“But we will file their credits for now and still offer them books for resale and hopefully they will manage to repay with their profits,” Moroeng says.

’Mapule Motsopa

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