Publishers, Authors and Africa’s Cultural Development:

Do the African intelligentsia and the African States care?
- Walter Bgoya -

Keynote: 3rd East African Literature and Cultural Studies Conference, Dar es Salaam, August 2017

Publishers and authors, or writers if you prefer, are ever close to theatres of war. Invariably they play significant roles in starting and ending them. But very often, they continue fanning the embers of war long after the wars are ended. 

It is, therefore, befitting and gratifying, that publishing was considered by the planners of this conference to be important enough for them to invite me, I believe the most senior still active publisher in East Africa, to give the first key note address. 

On a personal note, and quite serendipitously, this very month, I am completing forty-five years in publishing. It is quite natural even as I shall try not to quote myself too often, that I should draw upon experiences of those years to share with you my thoughts about publishers and publishing, writers and writing, and their role in African cultural development; after which I shall reflect on the question, do the African intelligentsia and African state care? 

I shall begin with an anecdote which, does not directly relate to my topic, but which is interesting, as it was recounted to me during a visit to Dar Es Salaam in 1971 by the late Shirley G. Dubois the spouse of Dr. W. E. B. Dubois, the father of Pan Africanism, philosopher, economist, and sociologist, the first African-American to get a PhD from Harvard in 1895. Dr. Dubois and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah met at the Manchester conference on Pan-Africanism in 1945 and later, after Ghana became independent and, Dr. Dubois relocated to Accra at the invitation of President Nkrumah. While there he headed a project of writing what was expected to be the definitive African Encyclopaedia. Dr. Dubois died in 1964 and in 1967 the CIA orchestrated the coup d’état that toppled President Nkrumah. 

A group of soldiers went to Mrs Dubois’ house and demanded to be let in to search it as they had been commanded. As they were about to enter her late husband’s library, she stepped in front of them and challenged any one of them who was not afraid of the old man’s spirit, to dare touch his books and papers. The soldiers who had come with force and determination, looked at the impressive array of books and papers, thought about the matter, went out and discussed it in their language and decided it was too risky a business to go in there. They excused themselves and left Mrs Du Bois and her books alone. Spirits lodged in books can send fear up soldiers’ spines. Don’t forget that. 

For convenience’s sake and to stick to my topic, I have embedded “cultural development” within all the sub headings I address, rather than treating it separately. As one of my favourite Soviet authors Maxim Gorky said, during his time “two forces were [are] successfully influencing the education of a cultivated man – art and science [and] both were [are] united in a book.” [1] That has not changed. He should of course have said, ”cultivated man and woman” but in his time gender consciousness was absent. The word “cultivated” may also have overtones that do not sit well with comrades who might think is smacks of elitism but Gorky was certainly any thing but elitist. 

At our publishing house we are currently planning to publish a fully illustrated 900-page Swahili textbook on human anatomy, and while strictly speaking this is a medical book, it is also a great cultural milestone in the development of medical science and communication in Tanzania, and the rest of the Swahili speaking countries. Other scientific books, dictionaries, and lexicons, particularly in information and communication technologies are being developed in Swahili and published in our countries, and around the world at research centres which are interested in developing Swahili as a language of science. For that reason therefore, the comments that I shall be making about which forces promote or impede publishing and authorship should be understood to be in relation to culture and cultural development. 

The thinking in the writings of the two great African revolutionary thinkers on culture, Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon inform my own perspective on culture and cultural revolution; and why cultural development in our countries is in a crisis, which our intelligentsia and the state choose to ignore. Cabral did make the observation that “political leaders [read here the state] — even the most famous — may be culturally alienated people” [2] and in the same vein Fanon called on Africans and other formerly colonised people to reject European culture and politics saying that “Humanity is waiting for something from us other than such an imitation, which would be almost an obscene caricature “[3] 

Therefore, where a national bourgeoisie that buys and reads books and that sponsors art and literature is yet to develop, as the case is in our countries, the state and its leadership must take on fully the responsibility of being the principal creators and supporters of cultural industries.

The Father of our Nation, Mwalimu Nyerere, also maintained that TANU and Chama Cha Mapinduzi later, was and would remain a liberation movement. National liberation as Cabral and Fanon espoused national liberation is, first and foremost, liberation of people and their culture from domination and oppression. I am sure CCM remembers this to be one of its missions.

Publishers, publishing and printing infrastructure

I want to begin this conversation with observations about publishers in general and at a later point about African publishers specifically. Recent technological advances in the printing industry make it possible for anyone with a manuscript and some money and not a whole lot of it to become a publisher. From a PDF, there are print-on-demand facilities that can print one copy or more according to demand, at affordable cost; or a hundred or so copies on digital presses. These technologies obviate the high revenue outlays necessary to produce hundreds or thousands of copies. They reduce or eliminate entirely warehousing and inventory management costs, and finally in the losses from unsold books. 

This disintermediation, as it is called, of delivering content directly to the reader without the in-between distributor or bookseller is a great breakthrough for aspiring publishers. Existing booksellers in particular, are strategically placed by their knowledge of the book markets to transition to publishing.

It gives authors power to self-publish for reasons such as having had their work rejected by publishers or wishing as most do, to make the profits that they think publishers make. Self-publishing may be a short cut to getting a writer’s book out, but this is really more printing than publishing. The writer does not, in such cases, benefit from having his or her manuscript professionally edited, designed, properly marketed and distributed when published. Many African authors are falling victim to overseas companies offering such short cuts only to find they cannot even afford to buy their own books. In the future those books will be more expensive yet, when researchers mostly from outside Africa especially in western universities and research centres, will be ready to pay very high prices for original unedited books. Our writers will probably not even know then how to contact the companies they originally dealt with. 

This raises a new and interesting conundrum. If anyone who desires to be a publisher can be one, how many publishers can a given country or society support? More and more books are produced, and choosing what to buy and read has already become a difficult and even frustrating task. One major European publisher has written to the effect that, “most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities”, [4] which means that an author and publisher sell their books mostly to those who already know the quality of their work, and those others to whom they are recommended by word of mouth, book reviewers, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey in the U. S; or through book clubs. It is no surprise then that, “most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers,” according to the same publisher I have just referred to. [5] Book fairs and festivals in the North have fed into this phenomenon, as authors command audiences to hear discussion of their work.

The printing technology changes are the result of the ICT and digital revolutions that made Desktop Publishing possible followed by other leaps applied to solving the crisis of book overprinting. As more and more books are published and printed, and the number of readers and the number of books they buy remains the same, publishers cannot avoid huge losses. The only logical response is to print fewer books. It would be more effective if the number of publishers also went down but that will not happen because no publisher wants to quit or even reduce the number of book titles to publish as long as he or she can make even a little profit or just break even.

Given this situation it was only a matter of time before inventors saw the opportunity to develop a printing technology that could print a few copies at a time, at much lower cost than using conventional presses. Print on Demand technology as exemplified by the Espresso Book Machine is a major advance, according to Jason Epstein, the inventor of the paperback books, founder of the New York Times review of books and one of the most celebrated editors in 20th century US, “the Espresso Book Machine he writes, eliminates completely the Gutenberg supply chain by delivering a finished book from a selected digital file to the end user with no intervening steps, no inventory, no warehouse, no delivery cost, no spoilage and returns.” [6 ]

Mkuki na Nyota owns an Espresso Book Machine, one of only four in Africa (two at the Alexandrina Library in Alexandria, Egypt, one each at Wits University in Johannesburg which I hear has been bought by a private individual and Mkuki na Nyota, Dar es salaam). You should ask to be shown books printed on it at the Mkuki na Nyota stand outside. 

Colleagues and friends,

That is all very well in the North, you may be thinking, but what about publishers and publishing in Africa? If I were addressing a mostly non-African audience I would feel obliged to delve more extensively than I need do here, into the realities of a neglected industry in our countries despite its central role in education and culture. But all of you I believe know the situation. This neglect is at the base of the domination of publishing in Africa by British and French publishing multinationals. They have the weight of support from their home governments and the international neoliberal establishment. Their influence in the corridors of power in Africa, including corruption of government officials in order to win textbook publishing tenders is now no longer denied. Indeed, there are now clearly internationally recognised cases of such corruption. [7] They directly and indirectly manipulate local institutions and officials in order to shape curricula and education policy directions. In Tanzania, for instance, it has been shown by researchers that the inertia propping up the decision to resist using Swahili and to maintain the hegemony of English as the language of instruction, is not only due to the persuasion of local politicians and bureaucrats. The pro-English lobby has its powerful and well-resourced external supporters. These fear that a decision by Tanzania to liberate its education from its neo-colonial clutches would lead to a loss of the pedestal on which the preference for everything British in education and other intellectual pursuits is perched. Let me give you an example of the extraordinary length to which the defenders of English and denigration of Swahili will go. Our publishing house started a few years ago to publish bilingual Chemistry textbooks, Swahili on the verso side and English on the recto side. When we presented the books to the Ministry of Education for approval, they were rejected outright. “Why we asked”, “because English is the official language of instruction in secondary schools.” “Yes, we said but there is English there, the only thing is that we have added the Swahili equivalent because as you know most students are not able to follow instruction in English.” “ Never mind,” they added,“ those books shall not be allowed in our schools.” Need one make any further comment?

The state of African publishing

Abundant literature on African publishing currently exists, most of it, understandably litanies about underdevelopment of the industry and lack of support to indigenous publishers by African governments. But positive developments have also been noted in some countries where indigenous African companies perform well and give the multinationals a run for their money. Publishers Associations in those countries have been able to negotiate with their governments, and achieved some success in creating a level playing field for all publishers operating in those countries. In Kenya’s case, for example, the buying out of the former multinational companies Heinemann, Longmans, and Macmillan by Kenyan nationals to create, EAEP, Longhorn and Morani strengthened them considerably, so that the first two, have themselves become regional and transnational, setting up branches in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Malawi. 

Other notable achievements have been in establishing an African international book marketing and distribution company, African Books Collective, based in Oxford U. K, which from being donor funded at its start of trading in 1989 is now fully self-financed. Other positive developments such as the formation of African Publishing Network (APNET) and the East African Book Development Council both now unfortunately largely defunct, developed curriculum for training African book professionals and several African universities have established book publishing degree courses up to Masters and PhD levels. University publishing presses started well in the late sixties and early seventies but collapsed with the onslaught of the infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes of the World Bank and they don’t seem to have recovered. Now different University departments seem to be doing their own publishing as the official presses wait for a renaissance or formal burial. Pan-African research institutions such as CODESRIA, and others are rated highly internationally for the quality of their research programmes, and they are also successful publishers in their own right. A number of African Book Fairs have flourished in the recent past and some are still vibrant spreading awareness of the value of books especially among the young, but many others have ceased to exit because they were essentially open markets for textbooks, and once textbooks publishing went into crisis they had little else to show. 

Friends, I now want to turn to the Tanzania situation. I am not sure whether it is a special case or a failed case, but it is certainly a case of interest for our understanding of the dynamics of book culture in African countries.

The case warrants closer scrutiny and if I spend inordinately more time on it, it is because there are rumours that the decision to confine publishing of school books to state institutions or foreign one commissioned by the state may be in the offing in one of our neighbouring countries. As the Swahili saying goes, “ukiona mwenzio ananyolewa zako tia maji”. Difficult to translate but “if you see your neighbours house on fire stand by with water to put yours out in case it spreads, is as close as I can make. 

Conflicting approaches and interests about the development, control and delivery of educational books to schools in Tanzania have been a feature of the Tanzania publishing industry from the very beginning. It has gone through the experience of state publishing (1966 – 1985), private publishing (1991 – 2012) and in 2014 it reverted yet again to state publishing. A senior official of the Institute of Education (TIE) justified confinement of all aspects of textbook publishing to the Institute, using the following argument: one, publishers commission teachers individually or in teams to write the textbooks which they publish and sell to government, two, the Ministry of Education is the employer of all the teachers; therefore, three, government through TIE is infinitely better placed than publishers to identify the best teachers to write, and to publish textbooks for all levels, saving government all the money that goes to the publishers. Impeccable logic but not quite the way it works in the real world.

Had the books published by TIE achieved the same quality as those books produced by private publishers, there would have been no problem. But there has been uproar about the unacceptable quality of the books produced by TIE. Members of Parliament and the public who had been vociferous in calling for a return to the state publishing model are now mum and the government has not revealed the next steps to remedy the situation. A vast amount of money was squandered, millions of books were pulped and school children have gone without textbooks. The pre-emptive policy change, left publishers with published but unsold stocks and many manuscripts at different pre-printing stages. All this, and no redress to the publishers has been entertained. A number of senior officials have been scapegoated and sacked for the unacceptable quality of the TIE books when the failure is systemic. We hope that given this outcome there will be engagement by the government with the publishers, who after all are the only ones with publishing experience, so as to save the industry and meet the government’s justifiable demand of value for the money spent on purchasing textbooks. 

The situation has been portrayed by one researcher as indicative of “an intense power struggle which emerged between the capitalists and the state”[8] and also an example of “elites’ strategies of accumulation tied to education resources at both national and local level through various modes of appropriation of public for textbooks”;[9] and concluding that “elite fragmentation largely explains why primitive accumulation motives among elites prevailed over industrial policy aimed at developing an indigenous textbook sector.” [10 ] Given those findings by the researcher, the struggle was in reality more between legitimate private indigenous capitalist publishing companies, and state officials diverting state resources to create private wealth. There were no capitalists against progressive state actors. More telling is the fact that the government had introduced a policy in 1992, which had stated categorically that, “The Government would [will] have no direct involvement in the actual book production and distribution” and that, “The Government would [will] simply recommend suitable titles for use in schools.” 

I have gone into some detail about this problem knowing well that it may seem too anecdotal. But it is not, since it illuminates the reality of a key factor impacting negatively on Tanzanian publishers” and on education, although it is probably boring to many of you. My intention is to explicate the effect that such policy insecurity can have on any publishing industry that relies heavily on textbooks, which is pretty much the situation in all African countries. The disruption of the process of building up human resources capacity: publishing managers, editors, typesetters, book designers, illustrators, book distributors and bookshops, will have a far reaching negative impact on developing a book and literary culture. And this is the experience in most countries, including South Africa, which has the most developed publishing industry in Sub- Saharan Africa.

Given that situationCan African publishing like an addict deprived of a shot survive?

When the problem of publishers’ dependence on winning textbook tenders is disconnected, the urgent question to ask is: why do our societies appear unable to support publishing industries that are not dependent for survival on supplying schoolbooks? Is there no interest in locally published works of fiction, children’s books and trade books, including social science and humanities? Or is this simply a self-fulfilling projection that has been ingested and acted upon by publishers; so focussed on textbook publishing that they do not take the risk to see if they can survive and even thrive moderately without kow-towing to state officials in charge of education. Or even possibly that there is no sufficient research to validate the assumptions made about the prospects of independent publishing. 

There are two perspectives on this; one is that at the present, material and subjective conditions in all but a few African countries do not exist to make such publishing viable, and that any attempt to pursue it would only lead to bankruptcy and pain. The conditions include: first, a reasonable level of economic development that is constantly improving; secondly, a high level of literacy and, thirdly, a strong desire on the part of the populace to uplift their lives through reading, or even to enjoy the pleasure of reading for its own sake.

The second perspective challenges this view as being too deterministic and disempowering, banking on an uncertain future when all the conditions will be in place. But conditions for change do not have neat calendar date on which they appear. This only encourages and justifies publishers’ reluctance to venture forth. 

There is great merit in the premise that for a state to build a reading public, there must be a convergence of factors such as uninterrupted investment in long-term quality education, industries that support cultural productions: paper manufacturing, print technologies, universities for research and skills development, as well as financial institutions to finance and support a nascent knowledge economy. But that only begs the question, does a writer wait for when the readership will be ready to enjoy his or novel, and when will that be? And does the publisher advise the author to wait? It is entirely probable that both will be dead before. Some authors have written books and died before their books were published; and even when posthumously published, their books have lain there with only a few copies sold over a long time. 

This is the case of the author of the novel, “Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka, Ntulanalwo na Buliwhali” Aniceti Kitereza, who wrote his book in 1945 in Kikerebe, translated it into Kiswahili himself so as to improve its chances of finding a publisher. Rightly so, because eventually 41 years later, Tanzania Publishing House published it in 1986. We knew it that it would probably not sell well, but I was convinced then, as I still am, that this book will eventually become a much sought after book because it is the one book that mirrors the life of an African peasant and fishing community in Ukerewe before the coming of the white man. It is also very beautifully written in a Swahili that is shorn of all affectations and written as it was spoken, with generous use of Kikerebe language idioms, parables and proverbs. The same conviction led me a few years ago to publish a translation into English of the same book: Mr Myombekere and his Wife Bugonoka, their son Bugonoka and their daughter Buliwhali  The story of an ancient African community, so well done by Professor Gabriel Ruhumbika, a relative of the author. That too is not selling well, but the knowledge of the enjoyment and richness of cultural wealth that the prospective reader will have was enough for us to decide to publish it. I am also convinced that it will be a standard work in the future and will sell, never mind that I may not be around to enjoy the fruit of the efforts. I hope that Mkuki na Nyota will be around for many years. 

How about the genius of African entrepreneurial resilience applied to publishing?

Most African publishers start their businesses without the requisite capital and tend to finance their publishing, one book at a time, from resources generated elsewhere – part-time jobs, borrowing from friends and relatives – hustling, to put it crudely. Many are entrepreneurs at the lowest rung. The most important, if not the only factor for their survival, is this determination. But alas, determination is only one of many elements necessary for successful publishing and it is not enough. Forgive me if this sounds like one of the motivational literature books’ mantras, but again, forty-five years teaches you something. But determination and focus alone cannot guarantee success in publishing. Sometimes it unfortunately also turns out to be an element in their undoing.

At this juncture it is worth asking what is success for a publisher? Financial success is clearly the most accepted consideration but it is not the only one. Antoine Gallimard, the grandson of the famous French publisher Gaston Gallimard, who boasted that “La littérature française c’est moi” (French literature is me), taking a leaf from French King Louis XIV who said “l’état c’est moi” (the state is me), remarked in one interview that “if a publisher is too much of an entrepreneur then you are not a good publisher, but if you are too much of a publisher this can be dangerous”. [11]

So who is a good and successful publisher? The arrow will fall at one or several points on the spectrum of the publisher’s values and expectations, ranging from money to fame, to power and so on. Yet to achieve any of these would, in all likelihood, be easier in other industries and professions than in book publishing. This applies even more acutely to the writer: consider the time, the agony and the isolation necessary to write a book of lasting value, without any guarantee that the book will be accepted by a good publisher or the public, or sell in quantities big enough to make a living off royalties. Only writers in Africa and elsewhere in the world can explain why they continue to write. For a publisher, Epstein put it well, “the primary motive of successful publishers” “.... is the joy of publishing distinguished books.”[12 ] By distinguished books or books with a long life, one is not being elitist, they may be but are not necessarily the kind of that bourgeois literary commentators are wont to parade. Perhaps a more acceptable definition of these books is that they retain perpetual readers interest across generations, and therefore, continue to generate a steady income for the publisher and the authors. One could name a lot of books in this category written by East Africans from very early days as well as during contemporary times. However much ephemeral publishing and distribution such as that facilitated by digital technology grows, publishing books of this nature will continue to be the distinguishing feature of successful publishers and one may as well throw in the adjective “serious”. 

By now you may already guess where I stand in this. If I did not believe that one could survive even on the edge of the precipice, and continue to strive to publish distinguished books, I probably would have jumped ship many years ago. There are a few other publishers in Tanzania, E & D Vision Publishers, Dar es salaam University Press (a few years ago), Taasisi ya Taaluma za Kiswahili (formerly Institute of Swahili Research), and in other East African countries doing the same thing, and slowly a body of books published in our region is gaining recognition here at home and elsewhere. Our Kenyan brothers and sisters have been producing more literary works in English and have won several international prizes, and so have Ugandans. In Tanzania, on the other hand, literature in English started with writers such as Ruhumbika (Village in Uhuru) Peter Pallangyo (Dying in the Sun), Mbise (Blood on Our Land) but did not go further. Elieshi Lema’s (Parched Earth is the most recent offering and has done well and been translated into Swedish and French. The Burt Award sponsored by a Canadian philanthropist awards juvenile literature authors in Tanzania. 

Writing in Tanzania has been and continues to be written in Kiswahili, but then since Kiswahili does not carry the same prestige among the merchants of culture, little attention is paid to it. Two prizes, Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize and Cornell –Mabati Prize are the only prizes currently active. If this trend can be sustained it is possible to envisage more and better books being independently published and their publishers gaining more confidence and building the foundations of a book and literary culture.

Let me award you for being very nice with a little interesting vignette from the book, A History of Writing[13 ]

Circa the year 1000, to avoid parting with his collection of 117,000 books while travelling, the avid reader and Grand Vizier of Persia Abdul Kassem Ismael has them carried by a caravan of 400 camels trained in alphabetical order. [14]

About African writers and writing in the new century

It is recounted that the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, while visiting a school gave a talk to students, was asked by one of them, “how can I be a writer like you?”. Gorky replied by asking the student a question, “can you live without being a writer?” The student replied in the affirmative, “yes, I can.” “In that case”, Gorky told the student, “don’t, because if you really wanted to be a writer you would not ask that question. You would just write”. The same thing said differently, was by the first Angolan President, Agostinho Neto (we had the honour of publishing the first English translation of his poetry, Sacred Hope in 1974). “If writing is one of the conditions of your being alive, you create that condition.” 14]

Nadine Gordimer in her very interesting essay, “Turning the Page, African Writers and the twenty-first century,”[15] made penetrating observations and I want to take the liberty to quote her at length. The comments are particularly relevant given the prevailing idea among young writers that they have no responsibility, or reason to have any responsibility towards their particular countries or to Africa in general; indeed to anyone but to “literature” to themselves and their peers and the endless convoluted debates about identity. To them the idea of engagement is unacceptable. 

She wrote and I quote,

Our brothers and sisters have challenged us with the Polish poet’s Czeslaw Milosz’s cry: ‘what is poetry that does not serve nations or people?’ And we have taken up that challenge. Inevitably, the characteristic of African literature during the struggle against colonialism and, latterly, neo-colonialism and corruption in post-colonial societies, has been engagement – political engagement.”

“Now, unfortunately, many people see this concept of engagement as a limited category closed to the range of life reflected in literature; it is regarded as some sort of upmarket version of propaganda. Engagement is not understood for what it really has been, in the hands of honest and talented writers: the writer’s exploration of the particular meaning his or her being has taken on in this time and place. For real ‘engagement’, for the writer, isn’t something set apart from the range of creative imagination. It isn’t something dictated by brothers and sisters in the cause he or she shares with them. It comes from within the writer, his or her creative destiny as an agency of culture, living in history. ‘Engagement’ doesn’t preclude the beauty of language, the complexity of human emotions; on the contrary, such literature must be able to use all these in order to be truly engaged with life, where the overwhelming factor in that life is political struggle.”[16]

My own question is, “what shall African literature be in the twenty first century, is increasingly be characterised by struggles against the neoliberal order, and the quest for Pan – African unity” 

Do the intelligentsia and the state care?

As I wind up my address and come to conclusion I want to address the question, “Do the intelligentsia and the state care?” Care about publishers and publishing or about authors and writing? Do they care about development of a literary culture?

A friend of mine asked me what was the purpose of posing a question to which everybody knows the answer? To begin with, “the intelligentsia” as I understand the term, refers to a social class; collectively, individuals who possess high education, with influence in society, and who by virtue of the two attributes - education and position in society - shape the culture and the way politics is conducted in a country. This class is not that small, certainly not so small that it does not throw its weight around when it has to. The question is, what is the ideology of this social class? Is it progressive, or is it merely liberal and is happy to let things remain as they are as long as their lives are not disturbed? 

With the exception of groups of young intellectuals who are setting up platforms for exchange of books and encouraging one another to read, a most disturbing aspect of our intelligentsia is that with a few exceptions it does not read. It is not interested in reading. One has the impression that it actually prides itself in having better ways of spending its leisure time such as at nyama choma sessions, than suffering the assumed pain of reading. It has extraordinary capacity and genius to organise extravagant weddings, – and increasingly funerals too; most of them unabashedly ostentatious and vulgar. These extravaganzas are paid for mostly by contributions from relatives and friends and borrowed money that the newly married spend years to pay back, sometimes even after they have divorced. The really rich, of course do not have that problem. However, this indolent intelligentsia has what it takes to vie for, to organise, to steal votes and win elections and political power.

In the contemporary global neoliberal political, economic and social order, the power so acquired is used to accumulate individual wealth, vaunt it in conspicuous material possessions and when challenged it has not inhibitions to use it to subvert justice. For them, literature, other than about how the rich became rich, and then became richer, would be an unproductive activity

It is very often stated that there is either no middle class in Africa or that it is too small and too weak, by those who believe that Africa needs a class with an interest in maintaining the status quo. So, is the intelligentsia large enough to make a difference? If it cared, would it matter? How much influence does it have in the state structures and corridors of power?

Focussed research could give good even if crude insight into the size of this class constituted by graduates of all universities, high schools, students attending overseas universities, post secondary school institutions, recent post independence diaspora Africans; business and religious leaders, media practitioners and so on. While this would give useful information, even if crude and unsophisticated, it would not help us determine its nature or character of the class and its outlook on the questions we have been discussing. But it would be a start. Those numbers would give perspectives on how to engage with some individuals, or groups of individuals; perhaps even some rich ones who may have soul, so as to get them involved. 

Here is another little snippet, of an African state that cared about books from, A History of Reading. 

Circa 230, One thousand seven hundred and eighty seven years ago: By royal edict every ship that passes through Alexandria must surrender any books it might be carrying so that they can be copied and kept in the city’s library. When it burns to the ground, half-a-million titles — the greatest library in the world is lost. [17]

And another snippet a grim one this time, of states that did not want black people to learn how to read.

1740: South Carolina passes a law prohibiting the teaching of slaves to read, and several other states follow suit. A slave caught learning to read would be flogged; after a third offense, the first joint of the forefinger would be cut off. The law was in effect till 1865. [18]

It was in existence for one hundred and twenty five years.

And here is the long awaited conclusion.

Dear colleagues and friends,

When I began working on my address for this conference, I discovered a short essay, only five pages and a half by the late Nobel Prize Laureate Nadine Gordimer, a friend (you get to meet extraordinary people in publishing). I have already quoted her. It is so beautifully written and so pertinent, I thought for a moment that I should write a short introduction and ending and just read the essay. Permit me in conclusion to quote some lines from that essay entitled “Turning the Page.” 

“A literary culture cannot be created by writers without readers. There are not readers without adequate education. It’s as simple — and dire — as that. No matter how much we encourage writers to fulfil, according to their talents, the various kinds of levels of writing that will take literature out of the forbidden context of unattainable intellectualism, we shall never succeed until there is a wide readership competent beyond school primer and comic book level.” 

Further on the essay, she writes,” Another vital question: What will be the various African states official attitude to culture, and to literature as an expression of that culture? We writers don’t know, and have every reason to be uneasy. Certainly in the twentieth century of political struggle, state money has gone into guns, not books; literature has been relegated to the dispensable category.”

“Considering all these factors that stand between the writer’s act of transforming literature in response to a new era, it seems that we writers will have, however reluctantly, to take on contingent responsibilities that should not be ours. We will have to concern ourselves with the quality of education — will our schools turn out drones or thinkers?” [19]

I want to leave you with that call; let us as publishers, authors and progressive intelligentsia wherever we are, struggle in our capacities to ensure that our schools turn out thinkers, and let us call on the state to care and respond to the reality that without culture, we are all dull witted and a dull witted people cannot achieve any lasting thing of value.

Thank you for listening to me. Ahsante sana.


  • Maxim Gorky,
  • Dr. Gary Potter, Critical Thinking Exercise: Sartre and Fanon, F. 1961. Conclusion. The Wretched of the Earth., J. P. 1961 Preface. The Wretched of the Earth.
  • Jason Epstein, Speech given at the 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing.
  • The 10 Awful Things About Publishing, Piersant, President of Barrett-Koehler Publishers:
  • Ibid.
  • Jason Epstein, Speech given at the 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing.lishing
  • Bgoya and Jay, African Publishing from Independence to the Present Day, in Research in African Literatures, Volume 44, No. 2, p.22
  • Languille, S. The scramble for Textbooks in Tanzania, African Affairs, 115/158, p.73 – 96.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Jason Epstein, Speech given at the 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing.
  • Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading, Penguin Books, 1977, Centre spread
  • Quoted from Gordimer, Nadine, Turning the Page: African Writers in the Twenty First Century, Leopard II, Turning the Page, Harvill, 1993, p. 1-6
  • Ibid.
  • Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading, Penguin Books, 1977, Centre spread
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Gordimer, Nadine, Turning the Page: African Writers in the Twenty First Century, Leopard II, Turning the Page, Harvill, 1993, p. 1-6

Walter Bgoya is Managing Director and Founder of Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Tanzania.

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