I was walking through my home suburb (read:village) with my brother the other day. We went to the local library, sampled some books (slim pickings) and as we walked home, I asked about such-and-such a bookshop, and such-and-such a used bookshop. They were all closed down. Anyone wanting to purchase books needs to go to town (literally). A town which, incidentally, has only generic chain bookshops.
And I said to my brother, “This place needs more bookstores.”
And then, “Our country needs more bookstores.”
And then, “Africa needs more bookstores.”
I reckon I’ll get some flack for this. Because how dare I insult this continent that I supposedly love? And I do, I do love it. But Africa needs more books. And bookshops. Please know that I hate finding fault with a place I love so much. Know that I am not suggesting for one second that Africa is stupid or uneducated, that I am not suggesting for one moment that there are not many kids here who do get to read for fun.
For those who don’t know, when I traveled around the world earlier this year, I bought books in every country. It was an exercise I loved, because I spent a good amount of time researching bookshops and then going in search of them. In Singapore I spent the better half of a day to find Books Actually, which according to everyone, was THE bookshop to visit. It was pretty cool.
In Japan I could not find an English bookshop: all these awesome books were translated to JAPANESE! Which is awesome for the locals, but I was not going to spend money on a book I can’t read. Eventually I found the Manga Museum, where I bought an English-translated Manga.In Shanghai this trend repeated. All the books were translated to Mandarin (I had the same problem in Hunan a few years ago). I am certain English bookshops exist in China, I just could not find them. So I had to wait for Hong Kong to get a book, when I eventually found the local YMCA’s bookshop.
Vietnam seemed to love books so much that they pirated them! This is bad, I know. I had never seen a pirated book before, and would have accidentally bought it had I not paged through the book and noticed that the printing was shoddy. They wouldn’t let me take a picture of the books (can’t imagine why).
Then there was Myanmar (Burma), a country that had been locked up and isolated from the world, but their kids were running around spouting four, five, six languages. And on every corner somebody was selling books – second-hand, grimy books, but BOOKS! In BURMESE! When I looked hard enough I found some English bookshops. Way more expensive than their Burmese counterparts, but I could understand that.
India was incredible on the bookish front. Everywhere I pretty much stumbled over and into bookshops! There were so many books in multiple languages, and so affordable! In this country I actually bought two books. I couldn’t help it.
I wish I could describe the feeling shortly before docking in a new country. You know, apart from the “new-country-yay!” feeling, there was another, fluttering quietly, the thought, “What if I cannot find a bookshop in this country?” And every time my concerns were unfounded, such that by the time we hit Africa… I had forgotten to worry.
So Mauritius and South Africa are pretty much dominated by chain bookstores. There are a few independent stores I know of in Cape Town, but none that I could find in Mauritius. But hey, at least there were books, if you could afford them.
Then we reached Ghana. I loved this country before I even got there (having Ghanaian friends will do that to you), and I had a great time. I had the addresses of seven bookshops in Tema and Takoradi that I wanted to look for. Usually there are a few shops on the list that are impossible to find, but in this case… I found none. They were all closed, and the new property owners had no idea where I could go instead. Well, I did find one that offered textbooks and Bibles, neither of which I really wanted to buy. I ended up buying a small self-published book from Elmina Castle about the transatlantic slave trade on my last day there.
Same story in Morocco (Casablanca and Marrakesh): of the list of shops I had, none were where they were meant to be. There were some second-hand books being sold on street corners; these were mostly religious texts in Arabic, and their owners also could not point me in the direction of an English or even a French bookshop.
I am sure that people better-traveled than me, who spent more time in Ghana and Morocco, would be able to direct me to some excellent bookshops in these countries. Before my travels it never would have occurred to me that we need more. That even South Africa needs more.
South Africa brags with a literacy rate of 93%. Officially, that percentage of our citizens can read and write. But from experience, having so many patients who attended high school but cannot read “take at night with food” or some-such instruction, I know that the rate of citizens who can read COMFORTABLY is much lower. And this is confirmed by recent literacy studies.
I want to suggest that reading is still hugely inaccessible in much of Africa. I want to suggest that they are still seen as the rich man’s commodity, rather than a treasure to all. At South African libraries one has to provide a proof of address such as a utilities bill to gain membership, which oh-so-subtly excludes the kids growing up in “squatter camps”.
I want to suggest that the goal of literacy should not be for someone to sign their name, or consent to a medical procedure, or take directions to a place: the goal of literacy should be to enable people to read for FUN, if they so choose.
I know why making books more accessible to African children is not the number one priority. I mean, come on. Children are starving. People are dying of AIDS. There are people without access to sanitation. People who live in leaking tin houses. People without work. People who subsist on maize, maize and more maize.
It’s a pretty stark place, this continent, if you’re going to look at it like that. (But you shouldn’t. There is more to us.) And call me ignorant, call me privileged, but I think that books should be a spark – albeit a tiny one.
Why should kids on this continent not be able to be wowed by fiction? Why, when I joke with a paediatric patient about Harry Potter, does he look at me blankly? Why are kids in other countries reading and enjoying fiction straight from Africa, like Akata Witch, but few kids on our continent get to read it? Why should being born poor, or maybe not even poor but in a country with a low GDP, preclude you from traveling the world through the pages of a book?
Why should not having access to books be labelled #firstworldproblems?
Well, it should not be. Were I more articulate I would explain exactly how more bookshops would be cost-effective, were I more visionary I would explain exactly how to do it, were I more insightful I would explain why enabling reading is the right thing to do, no holds barred.
Were I but able to explain how books should be the origin of the solution, and not the outcome. Were I but able to explain why donating books is nice, but the ideal is for African books to be written and published and sold in African countries.
But I am just a bookworm. I traveled the world through books many years before traveling became a tangible possibility for me. I wept and laughed and grew along with characters when friends who understood me were scarce. And I see children every day who need that: who don’t even know it, but can be uplifted through fiction.
Africa needs more bookshops.