We must develop the reading culture to remain relevant

Once upon a time, it was fashionable for parents to teach their children how to read. The biggest hurdle to establishing a culture of reading in Africa is neither access nor infrastructure.

Once upon a time, it was fashionable for parents to teach their children how to read. The biggest hurdle to establishing a culture of reading in Africa is neither access nor infrastructure.

Although East Africa was referred to by Professor Taban Lo Liyong in the 1960s as a literary desert, life can prove surprisingly resilient and resourceful. The question that has lingered in the minds of many observers is who commissioned Prof. Taban as the prefect of the region’s literariness?

Our universities have not tasked themselves with the need to demystify the perception that ours is nothing but a literary desert. Nevertheless Taban’s words are a constant reminder that we must keep the flame of writing on irrespective of the times, the number of writers, publishers and so on.

Some observers say that Taban’s statement has actually metamorphosed into a cliché which we are glad to relish as a platform that should remind us of our humble beginnings as a region in the bigger spectrum of the literary world.

It is true to say that literacy is the cornerstone of development politically, socially and economically.  It is becoming readily accepted that Africans do not read books.

As much as we lack a book-reading culture, we also lack a culture of talking about the reasons why a populace that reads books is important. Whereas literacy refers to the ability to decode written text, reading is the actual practice of doing so.

I would also restrict reading to the leisure-time engagement for job performance or for school and it excludes the reading online.

Interestingly, readers are not people who can read, or who do read for work but those who choose to read in their spare time. People who read in their spare time constitute a social formation that we can generally refer to as the “reading class”.

Historically, the reading class has been an elite group associated with religious hierarchies or regime hierarchies. In terms of comparison, Africa lags behind the rest of the world in literacy.

Last week the Rwanda Publishers and Booksellers Union (RPBU) held a conference which attracted writers, publishers and bookstores within the East African region and beyond. It was clear from the paltry attendance that we are not a reading community.

That aside, there were useful lessons learnt from the various participants from the East African region and beyond. Someone shared an experience of an author who spent nearly a decade on a novel his friends thought he would never finish.

There was an agent who recognized its power and there was an editor who won it in a high-stakes auction. This is the story of a troubled, confused and unpredictable world of publishing.

Lack of a reading culture aside, the economic challenges facing many countries in Africa have led to high costs in publishing and inevitably the cost of purchasing books has also been high.

The diminishing publishing opportunities for writers of literary works have driven some writers into self-publishing as an alternative. A change in government policies could however go a long way towards stimulating the growth of the industry and exposing hitherto unknown talent.

The continued absence of professional literary agents in many parts of Africa has exacerbated the disconnect between writers and publishers. We must also appreciate the amount of work that authors must do on their own before their work can catch the eye of the publishing editor.

Until the infrastructure is improved, other ways of making books available have to be explored.

Increasingly, private and non-governmental organisations are showing that, when relevant and exciting literature is made accessible, differences can be made.

But the problems are too deep-rooted to be treated with just good books and sound bites. A radically different approach is needed. The question is: At what point does addressingAfrica’s reading culture become not just a postscript to the goals of better education, economic growth and social healing, but a crucial means to these exact ends?

“The challenge is to create a culture of reading books by educating ­parents about the importance of reading books to their children.”

No doubt reading is an essential tool for life-long learning. It is important for everyone to develop the rudiments of reading and the culture of reading always so as to survive in our increasingly challenging world. Indeed reading empowers and emancipates citizens and brings people together.

Unfortunately, however, with technological development, reading habits are changing. Technology is slowly but surely taking a steady control over individual lives and our reading habits are in serious jeopardy.

Students spend more hours on electronic media (read social media) and reading books has been dubbed an archaic idea for most school children and adults.

In 2008 when Barrack Obama was campaigning for the United States presidency, in his speech he pinpointed that children cannot achieve good grades unless they raise their expectations and turn off television sets. It is not too late to start a campaign to dissuade children from getting glued to their television sets!

The writer is a consultant and visiting lecturer at the RDF Senior Command and Staff College, Nyakinama.


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