Exiled Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove explains why he thinks Africa's reading habits are in decline.
A critic of the Mugabe government, he currently lives in Norway, and his published work includes poetry, novels, essays and reflections.
I signed books until I developed blisters on my fingers once at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair.
Chenjerai says books should not be subject to the same sales and duty taxes as other commodities
But that was not only my experience.
Other writers and poets such as Yvonne Vera, Chirikure Chirikure, Charles Mungoshi and Shimmer Chinodya (Ben Chirasha) were also busy signing dozens of books.
It was in the early 1990s and the public, thirsting for new books, had flooded the National Gallery Gardens to meet the writers and see the books.
Not so today.
A few years ago, I was busy signing autographs on newspapers and pieces of paper.
No-one could afford the books anymore.
African governments have not put in place well-planned book development policies.
Books are subject to the same sales and duty taxes as other commodities.
Materials for producing books, like inks, newsprint, printing plates, and the essential technology, are all taxed on the same rate as bolts and spare parts for cars.
During colonial days when I was a teacher, books used to have an especially low postal rate, almost free.
So students could order books from the National Free Library in the country's second city of Bulawayo.
But now books have the same postal rates as any other article in the mail.
As a result, only those who are within walking distance of the National Free Library can go to borrow a book.
The absurdity of taxes on books is in that governments in Africa are the biggest buyers of school textbooks.
Ministries of Education give money to schools or the responsible authorities as an annual book allocation.
The Ministry of Finance then taxes the books bought by the Ministry of Education in order to give schools grants for the following year.
Sadly, most education systems in Africa are also examination-oriented.
Students are never taught to read books as a pleasurable experience in itself without thinking of exams.
Universities and colleges are producing what I call the "new illiterates".
They have their degrees and diplomas, but hardly take time to sit and enjoy reading good books.
The African mind is the least of their priorities
In some countries, literacy campaigns have been put in place, but it does not help because soon the new literates have nothing more to read.
They decline back to illiteracy.
The campaign becomes a futile exercise.
Bridges not books
Effective book development policies mean affordable books will be available on a continuous basis in order to make reading a habit in the heart and soul of every reader in every country.
It is sad when I realise that African books are read more outside the continent than inside.
African governments only view development in terms of bridges, school buildings, clinics, hospitals and roads.
The African mind is the least of their priorities.
If you would like to comment on Chenjerai Hove's piece please use the form below to send your views.
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I am in total support of the opinion, held by Mr Chenjerai. In addition, I would like to add that, from historical antecedent there is a correlation between the level of awareness, in modern times precipitated by formal education and the level of physical development of a society. Good reading habits shapes and broaden the world view of the reader, it creates room for understanding amongst people, it promotes social cohesion.
If only the leaders and rulers in Africa could have it in mind that, engendering and promoting good reading habit will drastically reduce most of inter-tribal, inter-ethnic, and inter-religious conflicts besetting our society. It was rightly stated, that, an idle mind is devils workshop. The time spent in contemplating the letters and spirit articulated in a book, is a time not given to the devil.
Oliver Agwashim, Port Harcourt, Nigeria
All over the world, the young people do not read anymore. General reading beyond the school syllabus has always been a way of entertainment over the years. With the advent of the television and the movie theatres, who needs to read anymore? Worse still, reading has been associated with the idea that it would sharpen a student's mental capacity in order to pass their exams.
True to a great extend but the question that is being asked by most youngsters today is, "education for what purpose?" Many African governments put a lot of emphasis on educating people but fail to utilise educated people in the economies. Africans in diaspora and people of African descent living in developed countries always get third priority in employment no matter what level of their education.
Young people see this and opt to be street smart than become intellects. So why read if one does not see the benefit of it? Why read if the benefit of doing so is denied to you because of either your tribal origin or your racial orientation? Oh yes i agree very well with Chenjerai Hove. I have come across educated people with Degrees and PHDs who can not engage in a clever stimulating conversation on general issues.
Johnson Tagarisa, Toledo, Ohio USA/Zimbabwean
Chenjerai and all other Africans should know that our liberation (mind and body) lies in our own hands. Finger pointing at imaginary foreign enemy or a lack-lustre African government will not solve our problems. If all the African writers in the world were to go home and get a book published for children to read, what a great sea of books that would be. And if the books were to be circulated around, what great and reasoning minds we would soon have! Time to stop blaming others and do the little we can ourselves to effect a positive change!
Comfort Adesuwa Ero, Vancouver, Canada
Mr Hove is right on target in his concern for the "new illiteracy". It is not just in Africa... we are experiencing much the same phenomenon here in the United States, which would like to think itself the world's most educated nation. I am a young (32-years-old) college professor of English and often see students - poor and rich, female and male, black and white - who view books as a waste of time.
These students are 18- or 19-years-old, barely one generation behind me, yet they are truly of a different time and have a different set of expectations of life. And unless they're studying for an exam, there is for them no point in reading. The generation of people starting university now is simply not very well rounded; these young people are incomplete as human beings because they see no profit in expanding their imaginations in addition to learning valuable trades or training for law, medicine, or business careers.
The task now - and it is a daunting one - is to try to get younger people to see reading as a form of pleasure, not solely as a means to an end. We all have our work cut out for us!
Rachael Williams, LaGrange, Georgia, USA
I think Zimbabweans read a lot for pleasure. I am a high school student and my friends and I exchange books till the covers fall off. We paste them together and pass them on so that other girls can enjoy the books. One copy is read by almost fifty girls. We lose count, but the copy, ragged and torn always comes back to the girl who bought it. I think we don't read much Shona literature because it is boring! It is about the war, the struggles of village life, etc. It is boring. We like to read about romance, hope, other things you know.
Chiedza, Harare, Zimbabwe
It is true Africans don't read as much as they should. I am a Ghanaian student in the UK and was awestruck to find many English commuters read in the trains and buses on their way to and from work. The problem is that Africans are struggling for survival, and while there is no food on the table one can hardly have a peace of mind to read either for pleasure or education. Prices of books are prohibitive, because of imposition of duties on printed material. But here again African countries ability to raise enough revenue is limited.
James Nketia, Ghanaian in UK
Hove is truly a professional; he has painted the true colours of the causes of our underdevelopment. A hungry people who cannot explore the world of books may never know the solution to their problems; though it is clearly written in books. African leaders must make books more accessible to their populace by reducing taxes imposed on books. Over here in Ghana, the local publishers are crying foul over the award of a contract of books supply to government schools that has been awarded to a foreign publisher worth billions.
If this had gone to the locals, it would have been cheaper and generated more employment. Whereas imported books are duty free, locally produced books have heavy taxes imposed on them; how can the local publishers survive? A teacher complained the other time that books written by Ghanaians are generally three times more expensive to purchase - hence students prefer to buy books written by foreigners for their recommended texts.
African governments therefore have a major role to play if books can be affordable; by reducing taxes on locally printed books, and promoting local translations of readable texts. Books are the keys to the doors of prosperity especially, hungry folks. they are not luxuries, they are a dear necessity - ignorance is a symptom of voluntary illiteracy. Literacy must be a priority of any progressive government and its people.
J Patamia, Accra, Ghana
The crisis of illiteracy which is currently wreaking havoc on the African continent is deserving of as much attention from the international community as the Aids pandemic, or the internecine warfare about which one constantly hears. The existence of a literate majority is a prerequisite for the substantive development of society, and as long as such a majority is lacking on the "dark continent" Africa the will be no end to the despotism, and corruption that has so pervaded the lives of the people in that troubled land
Koba Alexander, Houston, Texas, USA
There is an issue at play here. Instead of trying to blame the guy in the East, West, North or South, perhaps we (Africans) need not look that far. The problem lies with us and/or government. We first of all need to show respect for ourselves and our country men. We need to stop destroying our people through silly ethnic conflicts and corrupt political policies¿ that's the issue at play here.
So until government all through out Africa can start to operate in the sole interest of the people and not against them, things are never going to benefit the people and issue about sale tax books is never going to be seen in terms of how it really affect of benefit the people.
Eidra, Monrovia, Liberia
The key reason here I think is a lack of motivation. As someone said "how can one think of books while the stomach grudges"? What is the motivation for a young man to gather knowledge on any subject of interest while he has no future to aspire to? I was in Nairobi last month and the faces of folks there tell it all. People are hungry, tired and frustrated by our lame governments. They have seen industries shut down due to lack of security and continuously poor infrastructure just to mention a few reasons.
Simply... no future. I can't over emphasize the importance of knowledge gained through reading, but there has to be hope for there to be any motivation to pick up a book. Doing anything for pleasure in Africa today like reading or even going to the movies is not a priority at all for many folks back home. It is not like it used to be. Especially in Kenya.
Morris Mutua, Orange, USA
Reading is a healthy habit whenever there is freedom to do so. Literature has never flourished under socio-economical and political oppression. Let's focus, for instance, on many African local media. We find that political oppression is the main difficulty this media face to exercise their role within the environment and societies they interact with. Many of these media cannot really go to the point whenever they are developing reports on any given socio-cultural, economical, and/or political issue links with the reality within the African societies.
Furthermore, not everyone enjoys reading other people (famous and wealthiest people in their nation) self-esteem and/or their alibis with an empty stomach. Overall, literature goes along with good governance. I do belief that Africa's highest illiteracy rate is linked with politics. In addition, to help solve this calamity it is necessary that African governments become more flexible on their policy.
In my opinion, they should cooperate with educators and with other local and foreign institutions to develop a basic educational system that includes African national heritage. By doing so, many Africans will feel motivated to go back in school, to excel academically, and to support other on literature, which will foster the development of other disciplines, required, ending this long and ever lasting struggle of the African people.
Furthermore, any of us can take a step to solve this problem by tutoring, and/or sponsoring the new African generations in any short of discipline to foster their development in literature. Finally, it is never too late to start whenever the will is good. And the sooner we start the better we will help to protect lots of our African heritage, which get slowly extinct due to the high illiteracy rate in all African nations.
Botala Boloso, Jorge, Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Books in Africa are so expensive when compare to the average standard of living of Africans. The accessibility to books in Africa is another serious problem, recently published books are not easily accessible to ordinary Africans.
Babatunde Sho-Cole, Freetown, Sierra Leone
Basket case illegitimate countries like Nigeria (and others in sub-Saharan Africa) with colonial era borders and uneducated oligarchs for politicians are a disgrace to us all. Complaining about a lack of "reading" when most cannot afford the schooling to even learn proper English is laughable.
Ikechukwu Awgu, Canada
Chenjerai Hove is not in exile from the Zimbabwean government, as there is no threat to his life. He is an economic migrant who left Zimbabwe, as he could no longer make a living from writing books and articles as the economy worsened. But back to the article he does make a true assessment. African governments are no longer doing enough to encourage literacy, by imposing tax on books.
John Nzondiwa, Harare, Zimbabwe
Chenjerai has good points but unfortunately there is no compromise for hunger and that takes precedent over all else. A good alternative might be making the internet available by the powers that be which will give people access to books and information in general.
Eze Ugbor, USA
The article is very clear and would like to accent that, when given the chance Africans are avid readers. Bookshops and libraries are often visited and book fairs opened to the public are generally well attended. In spite of the high prices of books, most parents are ready to make sacrifices for their children. Books are seen as objects of value.
A book is not read by just one but by many, passed around between friends and relatives. In Nairobi, Kenya for instance, books are sold on the pavement by street vendors at traffic lights in the same way as sunglasses, watches are sold in New York City.
Responsibility for creating a population of readers should not rest with private enterprise or international donor community alone however; a greater involvement is called for by the governments. Bigger budgets, improved libraries in schools, colleges and universities, in addition to public libraries, should be seen as an investment in future.
Josephat M Mua, Kenyan in USA
The comment made by Chenjerai is quiet interesting. While I agree with some of his views, I vehemently disagree with others. Due to the deterioration of economy in most African countries, a lot of things have been affected. Not a lot of people are able to afford books anymore and most libraries are stocked with old books from the 60s to early 90s.
A lot of people think more of their stomach now than buying books. Very few people can even afford newspapers and magazines these days. Making copies from colleagues who are able to buy books was a common practice during school days. Parents equally have a role to play too. We should not wait on the government to do everything for us. Even the so called infrastructures such as hospitals and roads, are not even there.
If at all, they are in deplorable condition or lacking the necessary tools needed. In my family, there is emphasis on education. If African governments can make books and printing materials duty free, this will go a long way in making books available for the general populace. Knowledge is power.
Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA
While growing up in eastern Nigeria in the 1970s, we had a library in our high school with books published in the 1950s and 1960s; this library has not been restocked all these years. University libraries are not fairing any better. Meanwhile successive governments have been getting vast amounts of money from Nigeria's oil wealth, and the conundrum of stashed money in overseas accounts continue unabated. I wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
Ikechukwu Agbor (author: Kisses from America), Texas, USA
Mr Chenjerai Hove, and many Eritrean writers, who are exiled are good examples why Africa's reading habits are in decline. Africans want to read about Africa in first place, not Harry Potter in Tigryna or Shona. Unless there is freedom of speech and opinion the Eritrean literature in particular and African literature in general will be dormant, thus affecting the reading habits negatively.
M Edris, Toronto, Canada
Sadly the struggle for survival in most African countries has taken away the opportunity for people to learn to read, much less take the time to enjoy a good book. In Zimbabwe most families can no longer afford to send their children to school, education is no longer free, unemployment figures are off the charts and inflation very high. There is no money to buy books as most are living without necessities!
Peta Lilford, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
Books are very important. African governments should be encouraged to make provisions for books to be available in all educational institutions and people should be encouraged to read also.
Adigun Olosun, Ostbevern, Germany (Nigerian)
How can one buy books when the stomach is grudging? How can one relax with an enchanting book when the sun is heavy and electricity is not available? Is it not a deviation of priorities if a father buys a book and there is no water or salt in the house?
These problems must be tackled alongside the promotion of a reading culture. Truly, our priorities are justifiably not on books but on are claimed by other life-saving issues.
Michael Umealo-Wells, York, UK
Reading is in decline in some African countries for various reasons:
1. Because of low wages, some people will use extra hours to do extra jobs. And some hours left will be reserved for rest
2. Some people, particularly men, prefer spending some hours in pubs, politicking and socialising;
3. Limited access to information: There is no material to read. Some interesting information is not accessed to for various reasons, notably censorship and dictatorship.
4. Anachronistic mindset: Society values not the man who has read many books, but the one who has acquired a lot of money, regardless of the means he used to gain it. I understand that some people could even sell a bit of their blood if there were a market thereof. (Whoever will initiate this business will have to pay a commission. Ideas and information are saleable, indeed).
5. Anachronistic belief: Some people wonder why they should read or even go to school, putting forward that nowhere is written in the Bible that Jesus attended a school.
Yet, God is more powerful than Bush. And, indeed, richer than Bill Gates, for, I understand that what is on earth belongs to him.
Gatuku Canisius, Butare, Rwanda