Hans Zell has been author, editor, and publisher on African topics for over four decades, and has written extensively on many aspects of publishing and book development in Africa.

Publishing in African Languages

"The problem is that, unfortunately, those that write in African languages remain invisible, their works are hardly ever reviewed or translated. Publishing venues are limited and getting published is one of the most infuriating challenges of writing in African languages. There are hardly any publishing houses devoted to African languages. So writers in African languages are writing against great odds: no publishing houses, no state support, and with national and international forces aligned against them. Prizes are often given to promote African literature but on the condition that the writers don’t write in African languages."
- Nanda Dyssou, An Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Los Angeles Review of Books, 23 April 2017 

This literature review is an attempt to bring together some of the literature on an important and challenging, and one could well say neglected aspect of the African book sector, that of publishing in African languages, an area that greatly impacts literary production in many ways.

The current (2017) edition of Ethnologue. Languages of the Worldwidely regarded to be the most authoritative resource on world languages, inventorizes a total of 7,099 “living languages” and, for the continent of Africa, its database contains records of a total of 2,143 living languages, which it further classifies as Institutional: 198, Developing: 538, Vigorous: 1,018, In Trouble: 255, Dying: 134”.On the basis of these figures, African languages make up no less than about 30% of all the world’s languages, in a continent currently (March 2018) estimated by Ethnologue to have a population of 1,195,667,795. Yet the number of publications in these African languages is still miniscule, even if just measured against the 1,018 languages which Ethnologue classifies as “vigorous” in 2018.

A wide-ranging recent survey of children's reading materials in African languages in eleven countries, undertaken by RTI International and published by USAID, focused on materials in African languages relevant for early primary level (roughly kindergarten through Primary Grade 3), and which included textbooks and supplementary reading materials. However, it reported a paucity of titles in many languages.

There are no reliable statisticsthat could tell us how many books have been published in African languages, nor in how many languages. To the best of my knowledge, and other than the above USAID study, nobody has undertaken any significant research in this area and, in terms of publishing output, there are no nationally published figures or statistics, except, to some extent, for South Africa. As for general book production data for sub-Saharan Africa, the frequently cited figures from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS), published in the now discontinued UNESCO Statistical Yearbooks, have been chronically unreliable and inconclusive for a number of reasons, as this writer has demonstrated in an earlier paper. Meantime national bibliographies for many African countries either don’t exist, or where they exist they are currently dormant, or seriously lag behind in publication, sometimes by several years, or even decades. More than 20 countries in Africa still have no national bibliography. Only a few currently offer digital databases for bibliographic control and recording national publishing output and, like the print versions, most of them tend to lag behind in their publication schedules.

Thus there is an acute dearth of statistical data about book production of African language publications, or indeed African book publishing output generally. Book publishing data and book production statistics are important elements in measuring the growth and vitality of indigenous publishing in Africa, but the bottom line is that reliable figures of book publishing output for the continent of Africa, or sub-Saharan Africa more specifically, simply, and lamentably, do not exist.

The language debate

Arguably one of the most heated debates in current critical discourses on African literatures has been concerned with the language issue. Many have written and spoken at length about how African languages could and should contribute to the development of African countries; and that the future of African literature belongs to the literature in the African languages is a view that has been voiced by many writers, most notably the distinguished Kenyan writer and social activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. However, it has to be added that his lifelong commitment to writing and publishing in African languages is not always entirely shared by some of his fellow African writers and literary critics, and has been the subject of some spirited debates. While others have suggested that Ngũgĩ’s persistent emphasis on language might become more meaningful, and better served, by establishing literary institutions and publishing platforms in order to provide more visibility for writing in African languages.

Ministry of Education officials in African governments tend to argue that multilingualism is difficult to achieve, and that the costs are too high. One problem is that many African countries still do not have a coherent national book policy, nor do many of them have official or defined language policies. Where language policies are in place, they are usually policies that promote English (or French), to the detriment of African languages. In most African countries there is a multiplicity of local languages, and some African governments apparently find it more expedient, and more cost effective, to cling to the colonial language as the official language, despite an increasing body of evidence that has clearly demonstrated that if a child learns to read in its mother tongue in its early years, it later makes it easier for it to transcend to and learn a second language.

With only a few exceptions – for major languages such as Kiswahili, Hausa, Yoruba, isiZulu, or isiXhosa – most African languages still have low status and restricted roles for a number of reasons, chiefly among them the colonial legacy, negative perceptions of multilingualism, their language development status, national integration, modernization and economic development, among others. As a result many writers, both aspiring as well as established writers (with a few notable exceptions such as Ngũgĩ), may well lack the motivationto write and publish in indigenous African languages. Another reason why writing in African languages may not be attractive is due to the absence of any meaningful recognition of most authors who chose to write in indigenous languages. Many writers would appear to be disinclined to write in African languages, and much of this reluctance could well be down to a perceived lack of opportunities for publication, or appreciation.

It is probably also true to say that many development theoreticians consider the huge language multiplicity a barrier to economic and social growth. However, “sociolinguists and educationists know better: the African continent’s multilingualism is a powerful resource”, says Ekkehard Wolff, Emeritus Professor of African Linguistics at the University of Leipzig. He argues, persuasively, that “the continent needs a new strategy for mother-tongue based bilingual education, from primary through to tertiary level. In this, it can draw from what many other emerging markets and societies, as well as developed countries, do very successfully.” Multilingualism opens doors and is a worthy investment in the quest to give African languages their rightful place in African societies, he says: “Re-empowering African languages is a way to contribute sustainably to societal transformation and economic progress by fully exploiting the cognitive and creative potential of all young Africans.”

Publishing in African languages – The current picture

In a few countries, notably in South Africa (and also in a number of francophone African countries), commercial publishers are now increasingly committed to publishing in African languages, albeit primarily prompted by the fact that official government policies require the books used in classrooms to be available in the learners’ mother tongues, and thus clearly offering an economic incentive for publishing in indigenous languages.

However, publishers in many other parts of Africa remain conspicuous by their disinclination to publish in African languages, most of them citing the lack of readership in indigenous languages, and limited purchasing power, as reasons for this reluctance; while others have questioned whether there is in fact a viable market for books in African languages, especially the minority languages. The lack of orthographies for African languages is frequently given as another reason that makes publishers hesitant to venture into the field of publishing in African languages, in view of the extra costs that language development (and special typography for tonal differences in non-standardised scripts) would require. Yet another common explanation, supported by some surveys, is that many parents still prefer their children to be instructed in English, as they see this as a language that gives access to privileges; and most parents would like their children to be fluent in English rather than in an indigenous language.

Many publishers tend to argue – and, one could say, with a good measure of justification – that publishing in African languages can only be financially viable if there is a in fact a market for those books, either in the form of government guarantees or incentives, or other tangible support. Combined with the low incomes of most of the regions where these African languages are spoken, it means that the market for books simply cannot be expected to develop without such support.

Conversely, others have maintained that there isn’t a shortage of books in African languages, in South Africa for example. Instead it is a problem of distribution and availability. In a recent eloquent address Zakes Mda – the award-winning South African novelist, playwright, and poet – describing the state of the book and the culture of reading in South Africa today – said that reading in all languages must be respected:

it saddens me that today literature in indigenous African languages is so marginalized that we can only conceive of a culture of reading in English. This is not because books in indigenous languages do not exist. Every year new books are published in most of the languages of South Africa, in addition to the classics in languages such as isiXhosa, Sesotho and isiZulu that have had a literary tradition dating from the 1800s. The problem lies with book distribution rather than the book publishing sector. You may go to any of our major bookstores chains today, say Exclusive Books or CNA, and ask for the latest Sesotho novel by Nhlanhla Maake, a Setswana novel by Sabata-Mpho Mokae or an isiXhosa novel by Ncedile Saule, and the likelihood is that you will not find it in stock. It is a Catch 22 situation because the bookstores will tell you they don’t stock such novels because no one buys them, but the readers will tell you they don’t buy them because they are not in stock. This is a cumulative result of the marginalization of indigenous languages in South Africa today in all spheres of life.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and many others, have also written about this marginalization of African languages in official domains, in education and the media, and in which they are frequently associated with being unlearned, and so it is perhaps not surprising that publishing in African languages does not thrive, and publishers are reluctant to invest.

Three or more decades of shameful government neglect of public library services in Africa is likely to be another reason why African language publishing is not flourishing. In most African countries public library services or national library boards have traditionally been the biggest purchasers of African language titles in the past, usually buying in bulk quantities. However, many library services now operate with pitiful book buying budgets, or new acquisitions have ceased altogether. Instead, government officials and policy makers in Africa would appear to view book donations from abroad as the most effective and most economical method of providing books to their libraries, at no cost to them. For public libraries they do not seem to see a need to provide them with book acquisitions budgets, because their national library services are happy to receive substantial, ongoing donations from book aid organizations in the countries of the North, which frequently include huge quantities of culturally inappropriate titles, and only very occasionally include donations of books in African languages.

Some recent initiatives supporting African language publishing 

Notwithstanding most African government’s lack of positive support for their library services, or publishing in indigenous languages, there have been a number of encouraging developments demonstrating renewed interest in supporting African language publishing, although it seems that (in English-speaking Africa) many of these new initiatives are largely confined to one country at this time, South Africa. For example, that country’s Indigenous Languages Publishing Programmeis a government sectorial priority implemented by the South African Book Development Council. It aims to stimulate growth and development in the book sector, increase indigenous languages publishing, support the ongoing production of South African authored books in local languages, and assist small and independent publishers to produce quality indigenous language books. It funds up to 50% of the cost of publishing the books, while the publishers incur the remaining costs. This programme therefore shares the risks that publishers ordinarily carry on their own when publishing to new markets.

A further project is a reprint programme of South African classics in indigenous languages. The project, coordinated by the Centre of the Book at the National Library of South Africa, has reproduced a total of 68 titles, in nine indigenous languages, many of which were no longer available in the public domain. The books were distributed to public and school libraries, arts and information centres, in all nine provinces, were exhibited at literary events as part of a national campaign to promote a culture of reading, and an attractive catalogue was produced.

Yet another imaginative scheme for indigenous language fiction in South Africa is WritePublishRead, the brain child of publisher Via Afrika, working in association with the African Languages Association of South Africa. It aims to give hitherto unpublished local writers of indigenous language fiction the chance to be published digitally in their home language by way of a self-publish starter kit, thus enabling anyone to read these texts if they have access to a mobile phone or any other digital device.

An earlier initiative, by the Publishers’ Association of South Africa,and produced with the support of the South African Department of Arts and Culture and the collaboration of National Library of South Africa, resulted in the publication of a substantial 630pp. volume (and accompanying CD) entitled Writings in Nine Tongues. A Catalogue of Literature and Readers in Nine African Languages for South Africa. This comprehensive and very attractively produced catalogue showcases over 4,000 titles in nine African languages—isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa/Sepedi, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. For each language titles are grouped under these genres: Novels, Traditional literature, Short stories, Drama, Poetry, Essays and Prose, Multi-genres, and Non-fiction. Each entry (many accompanied by cover images in colour) gives author, title and description in the original language, publisher, ISBN, age level, together with an English translation of the title description. A directory of publishers, with full contact details including email addresses, websites and publisher logos, completes the volume. Published in 2007, this was a marvellous resource, but unfortunately neither the online nor print version would appear to be available any longer.

The above projects are the kind of initiatives that might well be replicated, in some form or another, in other African countries.

Read the complete review here.

Keep Informed With The Latest Updates

Newsletter Signup Newsletter Signup