Last week, I was agog when I learnt that Kigali was hosting the first international book fair form banners displayed at the UTC roundabout.
As a keen follower of the global literary scene, images of foreign publishers trying to sell their products to an enthusiastic crowd of literary fans, spirited Rwandese writers displaying their debut books to potential publishers or walking with copies of their final book manuscripts hoping for their chance of literary stardom monetarily, sent me into a world of what can be. But deep inside, I knew that that would not be the case.
When I visited St. Paul’s centre, the venue of the book event, I was pleasantly surprised that various Kenyan and Ugandan publishers had made an effort to come down to Kigali.
The organizer of the event, Mrs. Lucy Kagendo Mbae, the proprietor of BOFLIX Library in Kigali and Lutage Enterprises in Nairobi, both bookshops, obviously had made a good pioneering effort.
“On one hand I wanted to see fellow Rwandans beginning to appreciate more the art of reading while on the other I thought this would give an opportunity to foreign publishers to test their products here.”
The low turnout at the fair emphasized a grave lack of reading culture in Rwanda that government, parents and individual communities need to take seriously.
A survey commissioned by the Media High Council revealed that 14.2 percent of Rwandans manage to read a newspaper at least once a week while among those only 22.9 percent purchase their own newspapers, while the rest borrow from friends, work or read over the internet.
So is the poor reading culture a creation of a lack of perceived importance of books in the pursuit of knowledge or is it a prime weakness associated with poverty and the inability of affording books let alone having an education?
One of the major warped assumptions is that children only need to read text books so that they can pass their exams.
Because of this, reading is reduced to an activity for the purpose of mastering what a teacher teaches or what is written in the text books so that examinations can be passed and nothing more.
One Rwanda bookseller asked me if I was a teacher or a student because “normally teachers and students are the ones who are interested in buying books let alone reading.”
Also, many African countries are not so interested in publishing books that are outside the realm of textbooks of school set books. As a result, good writing talent is left to go to the dogs because ordinary people cannot foresee themselves as successful writers.
Because of the interest in Rwanda’s history and how the world can learn from our experiences, there is huge interest in works of literature emanating from Rwanda.
Rwanda’s rich culture and wealth of history coupled with the tumultuous events of post independence times and the recent turn around is good fodder for a good piece of fiction.
In 2008, in response to my article in this newspaper titled, “where are our fiction writers?” in which I advanced the argument for Rwandans to take up creative writing at worst as a hobby I got inquiries from various parts of the world, one of which was from the Foreign Policy Magazine, a respected American periodical.
During the book fair, I was impressed when I found a novel by a Rwandan author starring at the Kenya Publisher Association stall alongside respected literary authors from Kenya like Muthoni Garland, author of 2006 Caine Prize short listed novella, ‘Tracking the Scent of My Mother,” and a personal favourite.
In response to a BBC report “Is Africa’s culture of reading in decline?” Arnaud Emmanuel Ntirenganya writes that “I do not think Africa’s culture of reading is declining.
The main reason for reading less here in Africa is poverty. How many Africans have libraries in their houses?
I will confess here that through BBC’s programmes, many young Africans are likely to fall in love with writing and reading.”
The Mrs. Mbae’s of this world will make it a point to drive into our society the culture of reading but the government and private stakeholders can actively promote a reading culture through lucrative short story or book awards which can be effected through award ceremonies with prizes at the book fair.
The Ministry of Sports and Culture can set up a ‘read a book a month’ campaign and work hand in hand with book libraries and bookshops as well as school libraries to instil this good habit into our children. I would like to applaud The Sunday Times team which came up with the idea of publishing short stories every Sunday.
Schools can also support this campaign by ensuring students read story books by putting up small quizzes at the end of the month to test the reading and comprehension skills. Before long the students will enjoy the reading and begin to read for fun.
In the process their language skills improve, their appreciation of the wider world will increase while their reasoning capacity will widen as a result of exposure to different story settings and plots.