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Speaking of reading culture, have Africans, Zimbabweans in particular, neglected themselves in favour of the highly technological, global literature? Have we become victims instead of victors of globalisation?

The just-ended three-day Litfest Harare investigated various issues troubling the African writing industry but the leit motif of reading culture was conspicuous throughout. A dwindling reading culture is an issue which today’s African writers and publishers are struggling to come to terms with.

The new literature festival ran from November 27 to 29 with a series of events happening at three different venues, that is, the Book Cafeacute, the University of Zimbabwe and the Harare City Library.

While Harare City Library hosted whole day literary activities on November 29 which spilled into the evening with the official handover of Doris Lessing collection, writing and reading was the main concern for writers at the Book Cafeacute evening discussion and the afternoon session at the UZ.

One may even ask, with 3 000 books now added to the Harare City Library shelves from the late writer Doris Lessing’s literary estate and given that writers and publishers’ are weeping over lack of a culture of reading for pleasure, are we not making the famous progress of one-step-forward-and-two-steps-backwards?

Who will read the books?

The tone of the festival was seemingly set by Kenyan academic Tom Odhiambo in a conversation with UK-based writer Stanley Nyamfukudza at the Book Cafeacute. Odhiambo constantly paraphrased to the point of emphasis in Nyamfukudza’s 1980 novel title “The Non-Believer’s Journey” in his inquiry into the prevailing poor reading culture.

“Have we become a generation of non-believers of our own literature?” he asked.

Odhiambo made an important observation that Africans used to be proud of their literature in the 60s and 70s.

However, nowadays, he noted, it seems African literature is being appreciated more on the other shores and not on its own soil.

Nyamfukudza, a Zimbabwean writer whose generation produced literary greats in the 70’s and 80s, concurred with Odhiambo but had g reasons why the situation is as it is now.

Using Zimbabwe as an example, he said one of the reasons is that affording literature has become a luxury. The story of survival has intensified. Bookshops in the African cities openly reflect that sad story of a declining reading culture.

Is reading culture not an African culture?

“I don’t know how much literature is being published in Zimbabwe right now but I would not be surprised that there’s not much of it being read because people are too busy with issues of survival,” said Nyamfukudza.

Well, there has been lot going on in terms of publishing. “Bookshelf”, this column, has reviewed about seven books published this year and there are many more published this year which are yet to be reviewed.

It frightens then to ask, “Who will read the books?”

While there are all kinds of reasons why people especially in some countries on the African continent are not reading or buying books, practical solution seem not to inhere in seminars and conferences at which the issue is discussed.

The fatalist cries have been louder than the whispers of a few resolute literary voices.

The question Odhiambo insisted on asking Nyamfukudza and the audience at large was “What do we do?” Ray Mawerera, veteran journalist who was present, was later compelled to echo the same worrying question: “Have we lost our children to other cultures? What is the solution?”

“Every time I travel around the continent, I see young Africans glued to their phones, Facebooking or Whatsapping or tweeting. This costs money. But when I get to Europe, I feel embarrassed to get my phone out (presumably a smartphone) because my host who has paid for my trip and everything has an old Nokia phone.

“I feel like a cheat. And they have a book they are reading in between meetings.

“Why can’t our young people read the literature being published? What do we do? People have to read,” said a concerned Odhiambo.

Is technology the nemesis? Virginia Phiri, author of three books with the fourth one being work in progress, does not think so.

She singled out South Africa as one of the few African countries that have so far used technology to get young people to read. What the young South Africans are reading on their mobile phones might not be much but they are reading, she said.

Acknowledging that the what-do-we-do question is where Africa is now stuck, Nyamfukudza observed that reading culture starts in childhood.

“It’s something that starts in childhood and the system has to encourage the widening of education beyond the core material that students have to read in order to pass examinations. You cannot expect a reading culture to mushroom where it has not been encouraged or nurtured in childhood,” Nyamfukudza said.

There has not been sufficient investment in the availability of reading material for children, he added.

While this is indisputably true, the onus rests on policy-makers who are parents themselves. Students are also players in this pestiferous absence of what Nyamfukudza called the “pleasure principle” in reading matters. Thus on November 28 the LitFest Harare devoted an afternoon session to another discussion at the University of Zimbabwe’s Faculty of Arts. The discussion was attended mainly by students from the faculty’s Department of African Languages. “Writing and Reading: Are they Mutually Exclusive?” was the topic which a six-member panel (Ignatius Mabasa, Robert Muponde, Stanley Nyamfukudza, Sekai Nzenza, Tom Odhiambo and Zukiswa Wanner) scrutinised.

The UZ discussion had a subtle bias towards writers as readers of books andor of “contexts outside the book” and how this impacted on their creative processes. Issues of rejection slips and translation also came up from the students.

However, the subject of reading culture kept looming up but this time discussed from an aisory point of view. Writer Zukiswa Wanner told students that reading makes a writer become aware of diverse plots and characters that have been written about before.

As for Mabasa, “reading and writing are like husband and wife”. He said he started the habit of reading when he arrived in the city as a young boy. Living without his grandparents who used to tell him fireside stories, he started reading to fill in the void. Reading, he said, strengthened his writing passion. Mabasa’s story had something in common with Sekai Nzenza’s. Nzenza said she also grew up in a rural context where her first experience with writing was when she would learn to write letters of the alphabet on tree leaves with other small girls. There were no books but stories when she was growing up.

LitFest Harare final day presented an exciting package to which not many writers responded. From morning to late afternoon, writers who attended discussed and debated different issues under the topics “Literature in a Nation in Transition” and “Literature in Zimbabwe: Where Are We Now?”

This last day in the evening also saw the Harare City Library seized by a certain great inspiration as the late great writer and Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing made her last peaceful rest in Zimbabwe in form of books from her collection.

The official handover of Lessing’s book collection to Harare City Library was witnessed by diplomats, musicians, Lessing’s friends and relatives, writers and important players in the book industry.

It was indeed a special moment. Dr Angeline Kamba, a respectable cultural educationist, cut the ribbon to mark the beginning of HCL’s journey with Lessing in spirit. Readers will enjoy her varied collection, which include her own books and some autographed copies she personally received from other renowned authors across the world.

Litfest Harare is headed by its director, the poet and writer Chirikure Chirikure and a steering committee chaired by D. Edgar Mberi, a writer, critic and lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

Source : The Herald