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Instituting a reading and book writing culture is key to encouraging intellectual renewal, writes Steve Sharra.

You have probably heard a friend say it, or at least seen it forwarded in emails: ‘If you want to hide important information from an African, put it in a book.’ Another less insulting but blunt expression says when you see a white person riding in a bus or on a train, or waiting to catch a flight at an airport, they are always reading something. When you see a black person, they are mostly scratching their ankles and staring blankly, not reading anything. Both statements are made as proof that as Africans, we don’t have a reading culture.

Generalisations are always dangerous because they are mostly untrue, lumping entire groups into crude and inaccurate stereotypes. Most of the people I find myself in the company of, going back to my school days, have been voracious readers. I grew up in a healthy reading culture, surrounded by books, right here in Malawi. One English teacher in secondary school not only encouraged reading, he also gave me books to read that were not on the examination syllabus.

Conversely, I have also seen white people staring into space and yawning, waiting in line, while in the same space black Africans read books, newspapers, magazines, and other materials. All of this is to say neither of the above stereotypical statements is an accurate description of entire groups of people, whether white, black, yellow, turquoise or magenta.

Britain and the United States are also expressing similar worries about their reading culture. Consider these recent developments:

- The British newspaper The Telegraph recently carried a story that said a whopping two thirds of British people did not visit a library in 2009.

- In the United States, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan on 25 August expressed concern over the percentages of Americans who are misinformed about President Obama’s religion, his birth and citizenship; the bailout of banks; and the scientific evidence on climate change. The title of Egan’s column was telling: ‘Building a Nation of Know-Nothings.’

Not long ago retired secretary of state and army general Colin Powell countered the ‘Obama is a Muslim’ myth by pointing out that there would be nothing wrong if Obama were indeed a Muslim. Many American Muslims were decent, peace loving people who contributed to America’s economy, culture and democracy. But that belief, together with much other misinformation, persists and grows in a society that sees itself as a model of high literacy.

In his 7 August column in the New York Times, titled ‘Putting Our Brains on Hold’, Bob Hebert wrote about a report released by the College Board that showed how America’s educational standards were declining. Not long ago America led the world in the numbers of 25 - 34 year olds with first degrees. Today, America is at number 12. Hebert said America was a society that held ‘intellectual achievement in contempt’ and paid more attention to Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga and Snooki than to important matters of the day. The blame, he said, lay with parents, students, the educational system, government, and the news media. ‘What is the matter with us,’ he asked. ‘What have we been drinking?’ he pleaded, stopping just short of accusing Americans of having been imbibing at Bwandilo and missing important national debates in the media (Malawi’s president has recently accused his critics of spending too much time at a famous drinking joint called Bwandilo, in the capital city Lilongwe, and missing out on important matters). Hebert implied that America’s reading culture was being affected by these problems, saying, ‘We read less and less and write like barbarians.’

In the United States booksellers are closing stores, and libraries are shutting down. A sidewalk book vendor told a New York Times reporter recently, ‘It is apparent that we have a real serious issue, that the life of the mind has been in decline for some time now.’ As if that is not worrying enough, several newspapers have folded over the past few years.

But dismissing and getting rid of unfair stereotypes and generalisations should not lull us into a false sense of satisfaction that we have a thriving reading culture. A lot of Malawians hardly read anything and the number of those that do not know how to read at all is said to be at 37 per cent of the population.

The other day I crossed the wobbly bridge that vendors have constructed along Lilongwe River. At the end of the bridge I asked the young man collecting the K10 fee (approximately US$0.06) how many hours he spent at that bridge. Morning till sunset, he told me. I observed that he was not carrying any reading material. A little further away I stopped and asked a similar question to a woman selling airtime. Her answer was the same - morning till sunset. Did she have anything to read when there were no customers? She couldn’t afford newspapers, she said. Had she thought of visiting the library and borrowing a book? Nope, she had not thought of that.

The Malawian ‘Jua Kali’ sector - Jua Kali being what Kenyans call vendors who sell wares in the scorching sun - has lots of people who spend hours sitting and waiting for customers. In my next life I would like to come back as a driver. Or a security guard. I envy the hours these and others in similar types of jobs spend mostly sitting and just waiting. Drivers spend hours waiting on their bosses attending workshops and meetings. Many of them do not have anything to read in between. Next time you are waiting in line at the bank, count how many people are carrying and reading a book, magazine or a newspaper.

Then there is the price of books. The other day I walked into Nyabufu Bookshop in Sunbird Capital Hotel in Lilongwe and saw Professor Brown Chimphamba’s autobiography, ‘Born in Ntengela: The Story of My Early Life’. Price? K4,000 (approximately US$27). I know Malawians for whom that is their entire monthly earnings. The problem of the prohibitive cost of books is a chicken and egg one. Without a huge market for books, the cost is going to be high, and publishers will produce just a few copies. And the cycle repeats itself, with implications for literacy rates and a society’s reading culture.

It is common for us in Malawi to have a national conversation on events that grip the nation, such as worshippers committing suicide by jumping into a raging fire, or two men conducting an engagement ceremony and planning to marry each other. But when is the last time we had a national conversation based on an important book published by a Malawian scholar or novelist? How often do Malawian columnists cite books and other informed sources?

Apart from former president Dr Bakili Muluzi and the current president Professor Bingu wa Mutharika, most of our politicians and other leaders never write books about their time in office, or about their lives. Our journalists write volumes and volumes about current events and trends over long periods of time, but never think of developing these topics into book-length projects.

Recently Dr Pascal Mwale, lecturer in philosophy at Chancellor College and Dr Linje Manyozo, lecturer in media studies at the London School of Economics, wrote a lengthy and charged article in the online newspaper NyasaTimes Online about how most lecturers in the University of Malawi get promotions without having to publish a book.

We cannot expect an abundance of books from a society that does not read as many books. The self-perpetuating cycle has to break at some point if we are to learn from our best practices and embark on a process of intellectual renewal. The teacher training colleges are the best place to start, together with classroom teachers and their advisers. The National Library Service is setting up libraries and training librarians in Malawian schools. The Malawi Writers Union has recently been on a nationwide tour visiting schools and encouraging young Malawians to take writing seriously. The Malawi Institute of Education (MIE) this week launched the Read Malawi project, a project being piloted by MIE and the University of Texas at San Antonio aimed at providing supplementary and complementary books for children in primary schools.

These and other efforts by government and civil society ought to be integrated into the teacher education and professional development system, if we are to rebuild the much-lamented reading culture. The United Nations designated the decade from 2003 to 2012 as the Literacy Decade, but obviously the importance of the idea continues from generation to generation. Not only should we be encouraging reading, we should go a step further and encourage book writing as well, giving the world a much-needed progressive African perspective on local and global issues.


* Steve Sharra holds a Ph.D. in Teacher Education from Michigan State University. He blogs at Afrika Aphukira; . He moderates [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.