Coming of Age - Foreword by Walter Bgoya

Buy Now
Coming of Age - Foreword by Walter Bgoya

Coming of Age - Foreword

I am delighted to write the Foreword to this book celebrating Henry Chakava at 70. The occasion affords me an opportunity to recall and reflect on aspects of Africa publishing over the many years we have known each other, and to indulge in memories of shared magic moments in various places in Africa, Europe, the US and India.

Through these recollections a picture may emerge to give witness to the importance of this celebration for those interested in the development of African book publishing. The recollections are about Henry the man, a friend, and Henry the publisher, a colleague and ‘brother in arms’. I ask readers of this Foreword to bear with its personal tone for two reasons: first because the Papers in this collection are by distinguished scholars and practitioners in the publishing industry and have covered widely and in depth, Henry’s success as a publisher in Kenya; and secondly, because our friendship has been a source of strength and provided great and joyful times.

Henry and I came into publishing at just about the same time in 1972 (interestingly the year UNESCO designated as International Book Year). We came from different backgrounds and to very different companies. He joined Heinemann, a British multinational, famous for the African Writers Series in addition to its success in educational publishing in the UK and Kenya. He came from academia having been a lecturer for a brief period at the University of Nairobi from which he had graduated a year before.

I joined Tanzania Publishing House (TPH) after seven years as Foreign Service Officer with stints in Addis Ababa and Beijing (then Peking). TPH was until then a joint venture company between Macmillan Education and the National Development Corporation; a relationship that was proving untenable and that for practical purposes was more theory than the reality.

TPH was the first publishing company to be set up in Tanzania that was not part of a religious denomination. The Tanzania branches of East African Literature Bureau, East African Publishing House, Oxford University Press (OUP) and Longmans, operated in Tanzania as sales offices. The OUP office in Dar had an influential friend in State House who argued that OUP was a not-for-profit organisation and secured for them the most prominent and profitable author, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and his ‘Freedom’ series as well as the lucrative dictionary Kamusi ya Kiswahili Sanifu of the Institute of Swahili Research.

Tanzania and Kenya were politically very different countries. While in Kenya there had been expressions of intent to build a society based on ‘African socialism’, as set out in the national document Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya; its blueprint was a sophisticated liberal apologia for a capitalist system that was to be developed by the post-colonial Kenya state. In Tanzania, on the other hand, after the Arusha Declaration in 1967 (on Socialism and Self Reliance), nationalisation of businesses and buildings, establishment of Ujamaa villages and support of armed struggle being waged by Southern Africa liberation movements, were the guiding national policies: one could not find more different environments in which publishing companies would operate.

Henry is fond of telling a story about how I ‘kicked’ him out of my office the first time he visited, as he puts it, because he was a ‘representative of a filthy multinational company.’ We did not meet properly until 1981 when we found ourselves stranded at Dakar airport at past 2.00 a.m. going to attend the UNESCO Regional Meeting of Experts on National Book Strategies in Africa. For the first time we spent a lot of time together in and outside the conference and discovered how convergent our views were on the state of publishing in Africa, and in our imagination of what it could be in the hands of committed indigenous African publishers. Henry was elected Vice-Chairman of the conference, a position that we would take advantage of to influence the outcome of its proceedings.

In most international conferences organisers tend to prepare before, or privately during the conference, a draft report to submit to the participants for discussion and adoption at the end. In addition to being a more efficient way to produce such a document, it is also a strategy to micromanage the process so as to ensure that the conclusions serve the conference organisers’ interests, by crafting documents supposedly reflecting consensus of ideas and positions expressed during the conference.

That was the case at the conference. Henry and I found the draft to be so different from discussions that had taken place, and new perspectives that had emerged, that we demanded a redrafting of it. Despite determined defence of the original document by the organisers of the conference, we were adamant that the draft document should reflect the views of the participants and not the preconceived positions of the conference organisers. The debate was heated and although this was the first time Henry and I ever worked together, it was a source of great satisfaction that we could put the experiences we were bringing from our two backgrounds, academia and diplomacy to play a key role in redrafting the document. Revisiting the document, ( 000475/047510 EB.pdf) thirty-four years later, it’s remarkable how its grounding ideas and ethos have motivated studies on the gamut of issues concerned with African publishing, provided frameworks for policy analyses and recommendations to African governments, donors and other funding agencies.

A series of conferences and meetings followed in which Henry was an active member of a collegiate of like-minded publishers, progressive partners among northern institutions and donors notably: 1984 (First Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation on Developing Autonomous Publishing Capacity in Africa, Arusha I, followed by Arusha II in 1996, and Arusha III in 2002), 1985 (African Books Collective founding meeting), 1991 (Bellagio Conference on Publishing and Development) leading to the foundation of the African Publishers Network at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1992. The Bellagio conference was a landmark and important milestone in the evolution of African publishing studies and the progenitor of offshoot projects such as the Bellagio Publishing Network Newsletter and Bellagio Studies in Publishing. Equally worth mentioning were the financial and organisational support provided by Canadian Organisation for Development through Education (CODE) that led to the birth of the Children’s Book Project (CBP) in Tanzania.

The success and influence of Bellagio stemmed from the high level and intellectual honesty of the representatives from the participating parties: senior officials of the donor and funding organisations on the one hand, and on the other, African active publishers and scholars who espoused and defended the right and imperative of Africa ‘telling its own story’ through books emanating from its indigenous publishers. It is to the credit of the Rockefeller Foundation, SIDA, NORAD, DANIDA, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNESCO, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, the World Bank, ADEA, INASP and the CTA that the Bellagio conference and subsequent meetings in different places were freed from the fetters of ‘officialdom’ and ‘donor mentality’; while on the African side, open, uninhibited, frank and critical arguments characterised written and spoken interventions. The concept of ‘donors and recipients’ was changed and replaced by the healthier ‘donors and doers’.

Despite these encouraging international relations, relations between the Heinemann Company in Nairobi, and London became difficult. Finally, the only resolution was for Henry to initiate negotiations to buy out the shares of Heinemann UK, as he explains in detail in his book, Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective. It was a privilege that Henry took me into confidence about the move; and every now and then, we discussed the best strategies for carrying the negotiations forward. When the day of announcing the conclusion of the negotiations and launch of EAEP arrived, Henry invited me and gave me the honour of speaking at the gala dinner celebrating the success of the first transformation of a multinational into an indigenous owned company.

Ironically, at that time relations between Kenya and Tanzania were frozen, borders were closed and no flights operated between the two countries. It was difficult to get to Nairobi from Dar es Salaam as the borders between the two countries were closed and there were no flights to or from Kenya. I had to fly to Kilimanjaro airport, take a shuttle bus to Arusha, find a Tanzania bus to take me to the Kenyan border, cross it on foot and then look for a Kenyan bus to take me to Nairobi. Luck was on my side and I was able to make it to the venue of the function no more than thirty minutes before it began.

The change from being a branch of a multinational company to an independent indigenous company was more than a corporate change. The London mother company, like all imperial, metropolitan based companies aimed to squeeze as much profit as possible from its Kenya branch. Often in similar situations in other companies, the head office sets near impossible profit targets for branch managers, who in turn must go all out to ensure they are met even if they have to work their employees to death.

The branch managers, as would be expected, have an interest in meeting the targets because their bonuses are pegged on the profits they make. So, even when branch managers are natives – and they usually would be for their knowledge of local conditions and government officials – they are no less ruthless and may even be more so than their principals in the European capitals. This is the comprador commercial culture, which in many ways humiliates the natives until conditions are ripe for their liberation.

By breaking away from London and becoming an independent indigenous company, Henry was ushering into the Kenya publishing industry a nationalist movement that would encourage other branches of UK publishers to follow suit, the most prominent being Longman which became Longhorn and Macmillan which became Moran. There were two important outcomes of the changes: greater commercial success than they had ever achieved, with profit remaining in Kenya, thereby breaking the myth of superiority of expatriate management; and a flowering of local content publishing across the board. Local language publishing, children’s books and fiction were the most obvious products of the new publishing scene. From being ‘a representative of a filthy multinational’ Henry became a pioneer in the indigenisation of foreign publishing companies providing a how-to model.

Henry’s other contributions to African publishing

It is difficult to think of any major initiative in African publishing in the last thirty-five years, in which Henry has not been a participant in one way or another. He was on the very first NOMA Award Managing Committee (the Jury) for three years 1980-1982. He was a founding member of the African Books Collective and remains a member of its Council of Management. His role in APNET as head of training and the development of the training curriculum is recognised by all as being one of the most notable accomplishments of APNET. His involvement in the Kenya Publishers Association and National Book Development Council of Kenya, at various times as Chairman and in other capacities, may not have always endeared him to all publishers and other book related institutions. By the nature of Kenya society and politics, it probably could not be any different. He was one of the founding members and Chairman of the East African Book Development Association (EABDA) established in 2000 to bring together Book Development Councils in the region to promote reading. EABDA was responsible for the growth of Book Weeks (country book fairs) and the popular children reading tents amongst their activities. The Nairobi International Book Fair, which is by far the most importantin the region, might not have been so successful without Henry’s active participation in its early days.

Intellectual contribution to publishing

If Henry had only been a successful textbook publisher and kept his knowledge of publishing to himself, he would be imitating the multinationals whose principal aim is to make money and who prefer to operate in relative silent dark environment in which their skills are truly ‘awesome’ in the original pre-social media meaning. Henry has been an educator, writing extensively about publishing and giving useful tips about how to succeed in the business to those who are prepared to learn from him. He prepared a paper for the first Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation Seminar at Arusha in 1984 entitled, “An Autonomous African Publishing House: A Model” in which he presented everything that the prospective middle size publishing house had to think about, complete with estimates of necessary funding, editorial, marketing and distribution strategies; he has been crusading for African publishers to pay great attention to marketing and distribution, giving us the colourful phrase, ‘the Achilles’ heel of African publishing’ and pointing out most graphically how most African publishers ’….‘light a lamp and hide it behind the bushel’; he popularised the idea of the publishing house being in between the cathedral and the stock exchange (Kati ya Kanisa na Sokoni); he has written extensively about copyright and the inherent injustice of the existing discriminatory order that does not take any interest in African realities of knowledge creation and dissemination. He has done so, untrammelled by the slavish behaviour of accommodating oneself to the hoo-ha of those that built their industries on pirating others’ books for ages, but are now vociferous advocates of rigid application of copyright convention. He has summed up for all of us the objective of the publishing, reminding us that, “It is not so much the strength of your bottom line but the contribution that you make to the academic and cultural welfare of your society that will be remembered”.

Courage, commitment and vision

At some point in our meetings and while socialising, I noticed that Henry was constantly trying to straighten one of his two little fingers, which was bent at about ninety degrees from the second joint. I controlled my curiosity for quite some time until I could no longer resist asking him what had happened to the little finger. His narration of what happened to him and how he narrowly escaped assassination was as chilling as any violent scene in an action film. Henry is also a master story-teller with a skill in understatement and sangfroid. I was stuck and humbled by the calm and self-composure as he explained the ordeal.

If the importance and threat of African publishing were ever in doubt, here was a living example. Agents of the state (they must have been) of a political party to which he had taken a life membership, felt sufficiently threatened by the books Henry published to want to eliminate him. Not least amongst these books were the critical works of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, subsequently banned. This has to be the only reasonable assumption about the reason behind the crime as no investigation was ever carried out to find its perpetrators and to bring them to justice. Had he been cowed down by the threats before the attack and after, and stopped publishing Ngũgĩ altogether, there might have been questions about his motivation for publishing his works: whether the motivation was the profits that the books would bring or the accolades he would garner for publishing such a successful and pioneering author.

It had to be great courage, lofty principle and an indomitable spirit that kept him doing what he believed to be right. At Tanzania Publishing House in the seventies, we published a number of books that were critical of the state. I was often asked how we got the courage to publish these books and how we escaped censorship that was presumed to exist in a one party controlled society that claimed to be socialist.

There was no censorship in Tanzania although it was always suggested that as most of those books were in English, and the majority of the Tanzanians then, as now, do not read books in English, there was no reason for the state to intervene to stop us publishing the books we liked to publish and also since the small elite left was no threat to the state.

When we were working on Issa Shivji’s book, The Silent Class Struggle in Tanzania (1972), the chairman of the Board wanted to stop its publication. As the then General Manager who I was understudying before taking over emphatically stated that we would publish it and I strongly supported that position, the chairman went to inform Mwalimu Nyerere (behind our backs) and to seek his advice. In a note to the chairman, Mwalimu replied that his job was of President and the job of TPH’s General Manager was to publish books; each should do his job. After that, it did not take courage to continue to publish progressive and critical books.

But that was because Mwalimu Nyerere knew that we, generally, shared the same ideology; indeed that we were further left of him. How many of us would stick our necks out to publish an author’s novel, essay or poetry, in defence of his / her freedom of expression and our concomitant right to publish it? We know from experience how publishers (the majority) refuse to comment on any government policy regarding books and publishing, on the excuse that any comment that is not in full support of the policy might lead to government excluding them from book tenders. These publishers do not have even the most basic trade union solidarity in defence of their interests. They excel only in working behind their colleagues’ backs, shamelessly cutting deals and hoping they will benefit from their silence on public interest issues, when by standing firmly together they might do better for the industry and for themselves as a whole.

When we, Wazee of publishing in Africa, call for commitment to secure a respectable place for African publishers in the international community of purveyors of knowledge, we are driven by a nationalist and Pan-Africanist dream. We expect the current and future generations to advance the industry forward towards that dream, out of respect for and advancement of our culture and identity as Africans albeit of different nationalities.

Regrettably, the preponderance of African enterprises do not survive after the generation of their founders. This is bad for all enterprises but more so for publishing, because successful publishing is rooted in traditions of excellence gained through painstaking labour for generations. Henry has retired from active involvement in the business, but remains influential as Chairman of the Board. We are reassured by the succession plan under way that it will ensure EAEP’s growth from strength to strength, and following in his footsteps, it will keep it at the ‘peak of publishing’ where it has been for all the years Henry has been in charge.

Walter Bgoya, Dar es Salaam, 2016