Reading in Africa: The lost art

“It all comes down to reading! If you read properly, you evaluate, you notice, you critique properly. It’s depressing, flying across Africa there’s all these Wazungu (white people) on the plane reading, but our people are reading self-help books or newspapers or not reading at all!” Pili Dumea laughs.

It’s counter-intuitive: ask most politicians what Africa needs, they’ll say water,  an end to wars, better food distribution and health provision, roads and a functioning tax system…

But ask Pilli, and you get a different answer. Mama Dumea is the Executive Director of the Children’s Book Project, one of the few NGOs in East Africa that promotes fiction writing and reading. A Tanzanian lady in a vibrant green kanga (local dress), she is chewing thoughtfully on her mango over breakfast. “Julius Nyerere, our ‘Mwalimu’ was a teacher. Intellectual and creative skills were valued twenty years ago.  After his Arusha Declaration in 1967, the international publishers — MacMillan, Longman, Heinemann — all left Tanzania. It was terrible for us. What we need now is creativity, thinking, reading!”

She believes people lack creativity and innovation in East Africa. “We are taught to answer, not ask questions in schools. To cram,  to copy, to rote learn. Our intellectual development and creativity is completely stifled. If a man sees his neighbour opening a shop, he doesn’t think, ah, how can I compete, no, he thinks how do I COPY!”

This is ironic since East Africa is a highly oral, wordy culture. Mamatiles, or jokes, are central to the lifestyle. Even the kanga Mama is wearing has a little provocative Swahili “poem” on it “Even if you hate me, God has chosen me!”  A Muslim, Mama Dumea is aware of the problems facing people in the community “sticking out” by writing. She wants  to get them young: “We have a saying, ‘bend a fish whilst it is still fresh’; in other words, work with young, lean fresh minds, not stale ones!”

The Children’s Book Project  is backed by a Canadian NGO. They work across East Africa and Liberia in a three pronged attack: supporting writers and encouraging them to write and think creatively for children. Teaching teachers how to read to children, and lastly developing the publishing and distribution sector. They actively support women writers by training and mentoring them. A female Muslim writer, Ameena Minna,  still unpubished, agrees: “In my community I am not encouraged to have a public voice, but I feel a calling to write children’s stories, to help my children appreciate and negotiate life. I ask my children directly for inspiration.”

Though there is approximately 60 per cent literacy to a basic level across East Africa, there’s not a reading culture here. Ameir H Ameir has tackled this problem by setting up reading clubs in Tanzania and Zanzibar. “For us the problem is still books: we desperately need books, they’re incredibly expensive. We have hundreds of young people and children who are desperate to read now, because we show them how wonderful it is, how liberating. The issue is sourcing the books — if you know someone who can send us books from Europe, we would love that!”

The scarcity of books has several causes. Publishers can’t make the profit margins; distribution suffers from poor infrastructure; poverty means there is no spare income for “luxuries” like books. Writers often print their own works or have to limit what they write about to appeal to their audiences. Making a living from writing in Africa is virtually unheard of. Space to be creative, the time and money to write, and the confidence to express what you really feel, evocatively and descriptively, are all hard to come by. And role models are now scarce: where once the curriculum bulged with writers like Chinua Achebe,  Nyongi Wa Th’iongo, Shaaban Robert and Professor Kazalabi, few school children know now of their intellectual heritage.

In a hot ground floor room  an old shabby gentlemen in a stained white kufia and kanzu and worn flip-flops mops his brow with an orange flannel. He is attending the Zanzibar Bookwriters Conference.  The questions range from “can I submit a handwritten manuscript” to “should I write in Swahili or English?”. Only four of the 32 of the participants (who are undoubtedly members of the elite)  have an email address.

Rumoured to be in his 70s, Mzee Haji Gora Haji is one of Zanzibar’s most prolific and popular writers. He takes 10 minutes to laboriously write his name for me. With no education at all, his numerous books have not earned him much money, but the themes of devils, ghosts, mgangas (witchdoctors) touch a chord with his audiences.  “I write about the everyday, the local, I see stories in the daily. The gossip, the jealousy, the humour of the people around me.” Like his colleague Nassor Soud (who finances his own work by producing government textbooks) Haji has touched the popular psyche: the fear of “pollution” of tradition, the importance of leading an ethical life, the ever-present danger of “shetani” (devils) who corrupt with their lustful, material ways.

So what then, is the secret of creativity? “It’s important to educate, to nurture, to encourage, to make mistakes, it’s nothing to do with money,” says Nassor. “Creativity, writing and reading changes behaviour, changes society, asks people to think about the fundamentals: joy, respect, cultural issues.” Haji Gora Haji adds: “You must strive to keep your mind free, to concentrate, and to make time.”