Time to decolonise the book and bring it closer to readers

What you need to know:

  • A rather wonderful idea of ‘the travelling book’ which many folks have been practicing anyway. It has succeeded immensely. So well that my friend and brother Thando took it a step further.

  • He was asked to co-curate that favourite literary festival of mine, Time of the Writer, which is ending today. And he decided to do it in a much more refreshing way than has happened in the past.

One of the more unfortunate traits that my home of South Africa  seems to favour is an uneducated populace. How else would one explain that it is one of the few countries in the world that tax knowledge in the form of books?

Some years ago writers, publishers and readers in South Africa started a petition which would later be sent to a minister of Finance.

The petition requested that VAT on books be cancelled as the prices were beyond the reach of the majority of the population.

With zero irony whatsoever, the Finance minister refused to cancel the tax purportedly because “reading is for the elite who can afford it.”

Whereas in most developed nations, a movie costs the same as the price of two newly published books in bookstores, in South Africa, a book costs the price of two movie tickets.

A few years ago, some South African writer friends and I decided that we had to change the state of affairs and make literature more accessible.

If the people could not get access to literature — because of bookstores stocking materials of no interest, lack of money to buy books or  ill-stocked or no libraries — we would bring literature to the people.

In a well-coordinated campaign which had the support of South Africa’s equivalent of Kenya Film and Classification Board known as Film & Publication Board (FPB), a group of writers would visit different provinces and donate books to schools,

universities and communities in a campaign called Read SA. The cost of the books, travel by road, accommodation and a small per diem for the writers were covered by FPB. In exchange, the writers were expected to do something for FPB.

They were expected to use some of the time at each of the spaces they accessed to push an important message that FPB was trying to push but could not always get out beyond the major city centres, that of their fight against child pornography, what it was

and that it was a prosecutable offence to share child pornography even via mobile phones.

Over the course of two years, we travelled to seven of nine of South Africa’s provinces, visited at least one university and 15 schools in each province and met many people. Unfortunately when our reading and supportive CEO friend left FPB, the funds got

more difficult to come by. But it is an idea that we have continued talking about. And that I am throwing out there to Bra Zeke Mutua as a possible better way to combat any future Project X’s.

Last year, one of the board members of Read SA decided that there could be other ways to decolonise the book, as it were, and bring literature to the people with or without government support.

Through a Facebook and Twitter call out, Thando Mgqolozana asked for donations of African and Diasporan literature that readers had on their libraries and would like to share. In less than  three weeks, he had thousands of books, some of them brand new

from writers and publishers mostly in South Africa and Nigeria.

With the help of students and community members in the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, they got 10 houses that would ‘host’ the books.  People in the neighbourhood could come and borrow books and pass them on to the next person who, if they

enjoy it, passes it on to the next book and so forth.

TRAVELLING BOOK

A rather wonderful idea of ‘the travelling book’ which many folks have been practicing anyway. It has succeeded immensely. So well that my friend and brother Thando took it a step further.

He was asked to co-curate that favourite literary festival of mine, Time of the Writer, which is ending today. And he decided to do it in a much more refreshing way than has happened in the past.

Instead of having it at some bourgeois central place, all events have taken place in high density areas in Durban. I was proud to be part of such an experience. Instead of writers navel-gazing and talking in sound bites, they get to listen to the community on

what may be going wrong and how access to books can be better achieved. It was a beautiful conversation to moderate.

But more importantly, it has given people access to literature in a way that the colonial spaces that are prominent in South Africa has failed to do in 22 years of democracy.

Long may it continue.

 

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya

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