Mzuzu University (Mzuni) has lost nearly 50 000 books and almost 100 computers following a fire which destroyed its library in the early hours of Friday.
The fire erupted near the library’s main counter around 2.30am and was first spotted by students who were preparing for end-of-semester examination.
The fire spread quickly to the bookshelves by the time fire-fighters arrived on the scene.
Students—who worked tirelessly to save books and computers—suspect the fire was caused by a neglected electrical fault near the library entrance.
They disclosed that on several occasions they had witnessed sparks usually occurred when switching over from the national power grid to backup generators.
But, in an interview, Mzuni vice-chancellor Dr Robert Ridley could neither confirm nor deny the claims.
“It’s too early to comment on the electrical issue, but it’s one of the possible causes. The fire seems to have started in one area on its own. The university will work closely with authorities and experts to establish the cause and the gravity of the incident,” he said.
The emergency crew was banished by irate students who hurled objects at them, with fire-fighter Patrick Kishombe reportedly sustaining a hip injury in the process.
This left Ridley and well-wishers desperate for help as the flames reduced the library to rubble.
Ridley, who asked the students to peacefully leave the site to create room for rescuers, said the fire-fighters had done “their very best” in difficult times.
However, a fireman said they would have saved almost half of the library had they been allowed access.
“We arrived on time and there was a huge probability to confine the fire to one section,” he said.
Efforts to save the books were marred by cases of looting that went on until the police intervened.
University librarian Felix Majawa spoke of an “immense loss” as gutted treasure includes the Malawiana section which comprised a unique collection about Malawi and Mzuzu City.
“This is a huge tragedy not only to the students of Mzuzu University, but also researchers and learners from all over the world who usually rely on the gutted library when they come to Mzuzu,” said the librarian.
During a visit to the scene of the tragedy, some of the books salvaged from the inferno were seen lying in the rain.
Smoke was still billowing despite a downpour which began shortly after the fire-fighters had surrendered the fight.
With Ridley already looking towards reconstruction efforts, Majawa decried that making a library is an ongoing process and both rebuilding and restocking will not be easy.
The university faces a two-pronged task comprising an interim solution to guarantee the learners access to books when they report for next semester as well as long-term reconstruction of the 350-seater building, said Ridley. n