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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Wear the old coat and buy the new book

With increased enrolment in schools and universities, coupled with a fast growing and literate population, Ugandan writers seem to be striking gold, though not yet, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

The overall display at the different stands under the big tent at the National Theatre parking yard during the 16th edition of the National Book Week Festival was colourful with books on nearly everything for all reading ages and in as many languages.

After years of enduring a bogus dirge on the inexistence of reading material in Uganda (and by Ugandans), it was breathtaking to see all these beautiful titles smiling and seemingly beckoning the book lover: “Come and take me home and be with me all night long!”

But alas, the tent looked like the most unloved woman! Not many were seen buying books even at subsidised prices. So where was the crowd that thronged Makerere University’s Main Hall when Africa’s storyteller Ngugi wa Thiong’o was here in 2006?How about they that scrambled for the expensive books of V.S. Naipaul when he visited early this year? And the God-fearing that were seen at Hotel Africana paying for the books of American evangelist Andrew Wommack when he was here a few months back? Where was Mary Karooro Okurut so she could sign my copy of 'Child of a Delegate'?

A few metres away in the City Children’s Reading Tent, children were yawning wildly, the lucky ones licking ice cream from tiny cones and only one or two seemed engrossed in their books. It was a sharp contrast from the concentration at the same event in 2006 when Natasha Museveni Karugire read her children’s book 'Nzima and Njunju; A Story of Two Friends' to children at Garden City.

A children’s affairAt the National Theatre was a tell-it-all sign that even though books were now readily available and cheap, they were still not being read as much.

“We all know that people don’t read unless there is an examination, and that’s disastrous,” decried Loy Tumusiime, the chairperson of the Reading Association of Uganda (Rau). “If you visit another country at this time of the book fair, you have nowhere to pass because the human traffic is too much but here, very few people attend.”

She traced this lukewarm interest in books and reading to the illiterate backgrounds in which many are born where no book or newspaper can be found. Not forgetting school-goers that associate reading and learning with reading text books. It’s why Rau has covered close to 40 districts erecting reading tents to sensitise people about the importance of reading and exposing them to the available reading material. The association has also held literary workshops for teachers to instil in pupils and students the hunger for books.

But this cannot salvage the situation unless books indisputably relevant to contemporary Uganda are written. Abass Hassan Ibrahim Amin said: “I’m a hustler but my story as a rapper has not been told. I’ve moved in bookshops trying to get a book that talks about hip-hop but it’s not there. I last saw that book in Nairobi; so I’m like what’s up with Uganda’s book fair; don’t we have someone who can write a book about our hustle? Why can’t they write a story about police brutality and the hard life we are facing on the streets? We are not seeing that and that’s what we want to read. Let them write our own stories and we will read the books but if they are not writing our own stories, then there’s a problem.”

Some of Hassan’s points were faintly echoed by a P.7 pupil of Kitante Primary School while presenting a paper on the importance of reading during the official opening of the City Children’s Reading Tent. Adrian Ahereza berated writers and newspapers for chasing the quick buck by concentrating on silly subjects instead of quality substance that boosts the wisdom of individuals and helps transform society.

“Provide us with adequate, interesting and relevant reading materials,” he challenged. “Please inspire us; just see in the reading tents, there are only children; what about the adults?”

His Highness Moses Stephen Owor, the Tieng Adhola of Padhola who presided over the occasion, continued from where young Ahereza had stopped. It was an honourable task to fight illiteracy and its inherent ills, he said, by publishing and marketing great works that tempt people into a good reading culture. Because long gone are days of fireside stories and in their place should be books with strong African themes and valuable information to help all to contribute “to the common good of society.”

A day before, while launching eight new book titles on science and Agriculture Minister Hillary Onek urged all to utilise the knowledge in books by integrating them in their social-economic routines since it has been established that the higher the number of books read by each person in a country, the higher the per capita income.

At that point, you would agree with the theme of the event, “Publishing for lifelong Learning”, intended to popularise the pleasure and gains of reading beyond the curriculum, was befitting. As children of Railway Primary School recited a poem: One who reads is truly like gold.

Although Isaac Ssettuba, a Makerere University Literature lecturer, stirred many with his poem, 'Why Should I Write' when “None has time nor will to read…when handwritings mean nothing…” one can rightly argue that the country’s book industry has come a long way and the time is ripe to write more than never before.

Consider this: In 1962 Prof. Taban lo Liong declared Uganda a “literary desert” but withdrew the unpleasant proclamation 40 years later when he was hosted by the Uganda women writers’ association (Femrite) at their second edition of the annual week of literary activities when he found out that many Ugandan authors were writing avidly. Monica Arac de Nyeko, Moses Isegawa and Doreen Baingana have since won international literary awards and made Okot p’Bitek who was perceived to be the only accomplished writer to emerge out of Uganda seem insignificant.

Literary associations like National Book Trust of Uganda, Uganda Literature Fraternity, Uganda Children Writers and Illustrators Association, The National Library of Uganda, Femrite, Uganda Publishers Association, East African Book Development Association and African Publishers Network and others have indestructibly worked to preserve the country’s literary heritage by producing quality books, promoting them and the reading culture.

They have also organised literary awards like the one by the National Book Trust of Uganda (Nabotu) during the book week to honour the contribution of local authors and encourage them to write more and better and to inspire others to take up the noble and edifying challenge of writing.

During the 2008 Femrite’s week of literary activities, the government was urged to reduce sales and duty taxes on materials for producing books like ink and printing plates to pave way for affordable books and more production.

Femrite also proposed to the big players in the education system to recognise Ugandan literature as an expression of our identity and to have it on the teaching syllabus and set examinations on it. Except for Okot p Bitek’s 'Song of Lawino' and John Ruganda’s 'The Burdens' which were on the O-Level Literature syllabus of 1990/91, there were hardly any other set books by Ugandan authors.

This unfortunate trend however began to change in 1996. Today Julius Ocwinyo’s 'Fate of the Banished' (novel), Austin Bukenya’s 'The Bride' (play) and John Ruganda’s 'The Floods' (play) are on the A-Level literature syllabus 2009-2013 while Prof. Timothy Wangusa’s 'Upon This Mountain' (novel) and John Ruganda’s 'The Black Mamba' (play) are on for O-Level (2006-2010).

Even then, people like William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters and Chinua Achebe still dominate our literature syllabuses – which begs the question why, when we have our own accomplished authors.

With increased enrolment in schools, thanks to the universal primary and secondary education, and the tremendous population growth and with about 30 universities, it’s timely for Ugandan writers to redouble their efforts.

Without doubt, schools are reliable market places for Ugandan works and authors should take the chance to produce relevant and quality work.It’s reassuring that this year’s National Book Week had 31 public and community libraries exhibit their works in different areas countrywide.

That the Ugandan blogging community enthusiastically embraced the African Reading Challenge 2008, promising to read six African (Ugandan if you like) books and reviewing them on their blogs, shows reading is picking momentum.

We have no more reason to bemoan our poor reading culture. As author Austin Phelps once advised, “Wear the old coat and buy the new book!”

--Daily Monitor, Monday September 22, 2008