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Reading culture under the microscope

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If hopes had power to make old habits crack under the weight of change, Malawians, including the farmers who spend much of the day tending to their crops, could have been people wet with knowledge for business and pleasure.

It turns out the one who introduced reading in the hope that an oral society such as Malawi would make a smooth transition from an oral society to one that relishes reading had a profound sense of foresight so dream-like that it has not materialised into a national hobby.

This, naturally, leads us to the question: Is reading culture Malawian? How Malawian is it [reading culture]?

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Centre for Language Studies director, Professor Pascal Kishindo, opines that reading culture is not a Malawian concept.

He, however, observes that Malawians should embrace it if they want to soldier on with the rest of the global community.

“Of course, we are coming from the background of being an oral society— where stories were told and knowledge passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Making the transition has, therefore, not been easy,” Kishindo says.

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“However, the rest of the world has embraced reading and there is no way we can lag behind if we want to remain relevant. We have to promote the reading culture so that we may be able to relate well with the rest of the world.”

Kishindo says steps should be taken to promote the culture of reading in Malawi, observing that it is through reading that people are empowered and can be kept abreast of what is happening in the world around them.

Emmanuel Chitsamvu — who was the chief judge in the secondary school literary competition sponsored by Fattani Offset Printers, in collaboration with the Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) last year — observes that turning Malawians from an oral society to a reading one is a tall order.

Chitsamvu observes that Malawians read, but only when the activity [of reading] would help them progress in school or at work.

“To say the truth, Malawians are reading, but they are not reading for pleasure. You will find that people read to pass examinations and abandon the books when they are through with their studies. We cannot call this reading and, no wonder, they call it studying. We should strive to reach a position where people just decide to read to while the time away and refresh themselves,” Chitsamvu says.

He adds that it could be for this reason that most publishers prefer textbooks to general books.

Of late, Mawu pressed the alarm button by writing the International Authors Forum to intervene. The bone of contention, according to Mawu president Alfred Sambalikagwa Mvona, is local publishers’ reluctance to publish general books.

Mvona observes that the practice has left general publishers in the cold, and threatens to eat through the gains made in promoting a culture of reading among Malawians.

But Chitsamvu says, the politics of publishing aside, Malawians simply seem to be reluctant readers.

“To say the truth, other people simply like books and their liking for books has translated into a hobby. That is what we mean when we talk of a reading culture. When reading is a reading culture, it becomes a part of you— something you cannot do without. Is that the case in Malawi? No,” Chitsamvu says.

Renowned poet, Hoffman Aipira, concurs with Chitsamvu.

He, however, observes that it is wrong to say that Malawians have no reading culture.

“I remember that, in the past, the culture of reading was aroused in us. I am talking of the time we had stories that reflected our beliefs and identity; stories of Sikusinja ndi Gwenembe; I am referring to the time we had Timve and Tsala; Sibo. That time, it was common to find children discussing Sikusinja or Gwenembe’s exploits.

“Those stories had the effect of arousing curiosity in children. After all, the stories were fictitious but relevant to the situation here. They reflected on real life situations and readers could always get the moral of the story and strive to be good citizens,” Aipira says.

Aipira says contrary to the situation then, children no longer value books, except when there is a school assignment to work on. He describes the situation as worrisome.

The much published writer says Malawians can only talk of embracing a reading culture when they wallow in books and take empty talk into literary talk.

Aipira says, with technological advancements, readers may have no excuse for not reading. He says materials that were scarce during the days of hard books can easily be accessed online, thereby narrowing the boundary between literacy and ignorance.

“The good thing is that Malawi has a lot of reputable writers, both in fiction and non-fiction, and it cannot be hard for them to turn our oral stories into published stories. I think the starting point should be prioritizing our local experiences at the expense of those told by foreigners.

“As I have said time without number, it is not true that Malawians do not have a reading culture. Malawians used to have a reading culture, starting from primary school, but it died down along the way. We lost the spark [of the reading culture] when we phased out books that told our stories, and replaced them with books that did not relate to our story,” Aipira says.

Revival?

National Librarian, Gray Nyali, observes that not everything is lost.

He says the National Library Service is one of the institutions that have risen to the occasion and promotes the publication of children’s books. This, he says, is aimed at arousing the curiosity of children at a tender age.

It is like planting seeds in their mind, with the aim of making them [seeds] grow with them.

“By promoting reading among children, we are breeding a generation of readers. The children’s manuscripts that are submitted have helped us promote a reading culture and our hope is that reading will become part of the children,” Nyali says.

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