There is something about books and reading that has captured headlines over the last few days. Last month, from the University town of Butare came the rather sad tale of a university book store that had been turned into a grocery store.
The story that was published in this paper generated angry reaction from the public judging from comments made on the paper’s online forum.
There is a history in this part of the country that could have added to the ire from the public.
Butare (currently Huye) was Rwanda’s capital during the colonial times. As such, leading educational and research institutions were established here. This enabled residents to easily access education opportunities.
Residents boast of being the most educated in the country. The popular folklore in this part of the country is that residents attain an equivalent of four years of lower primary education at birth. This perhaps explains the ire that greeted the book store closure.
Professor Manasseh Mbonye, the Rector of the National University of Rwanda could not stand the heat. In an article published in this newspaper, he allayed the fears from the public. The move to do a way with ‘the loss making’ book store was only temporary, he noted. There was a sigh of relief.
Still on books and reading, over the last few days, the National Library Service has been carrying out a book and reading campaign across the country. The campaign was characterised by reading campaigns in schools and inauguration of the Community libraries in selected districts.
Two seemingly unrelated events you may say but they have served a very important purpose. For once there seems to be renewed efforts to tackle the poor reading culture in this country by availing reading material and opening up of reading centres. A poor reading culture and poor customer care are two ‘cancers’ that Rwandans seem to have resigned to.
There was a point in time when people blamed the poor reading culture on the lack of a public library. Thanks to efforts by the Rotary Club of Kigali -Virunga and generous donations from government and other philanthropists, an ultra-modern facility was constructed and is now up and running.
During a recent visit, I expected to find people crammed in corridors, reading but I was wrong. Officials say that the facility is still operating below capacity.
So the problem in this country is not the absence of libraries or books to read. People, young or old don’t just love to read let alone write. The ‘cancer’ begins at family level. Children are not encouraged to read right from their tender age.
My love for books started when I was very young. As a small boy, my father introduced me to books when he paid for my membership at a nearby public library. I remember asking library authorities to allow me access the adult section because I had read ‘everything’ in the children’s section.
The library became my second home. Fifteen years later, I returned to this library and officials there could only remember me as the young man who loved reading.
This is a childhood story that could be shared by many but it has been a totally different story here in Rwanda. At university, I encountered first hand the ‘monster’ that is poor reading culture.
In my literature class I encountered colleagues who would ask me to read a whole novel and then make them a summary. The excuse was that they couldn’t stand reading a novel for three days or more.
As the State Minister of education rightly put it during a reading campaign held recently, the disconnection between parents, children, teachers and local authorities has to be addressed if the Country is to turn around the pathetic reading culture.
Parents need to be made aware of their role in encouraging their children to read. Parents need to set aside reading time in their homes. They have to provide proper reading materials to their children.
Teachers as facilitators of the learning process are central in this drive. More innovative methods of encouraging reading should be devised. One such a way is encouraging debate in schools. Students will be compelled to read widely if they are to put up convincing arguments.
Efforts to promote reading should be sustained by the relevant Ministry. It doesn’t have to be a one week’s activity. Despite the availability of a lot of reading content; electronic or print, there is need to support local budding writers, writers who will tell the local story.
Poor reading culture is deeply rooted; it will take a multifaceted approach to root it out.