Once upon a time Malawians, from the primary to the tertiary education institutions, used to read fiction beyond the school curriculum. Once upon a time.
Today, if you asked a secondary school pupil what novel or poetry they have read apart from those prescribed on the syllabus, you would mostly likely get a negative answer.
There was a time primary school pupil would shift from reading Mtunda 3 or 4 to find pleasure in James Ng’ombe’s Dala ndi Chiwala and such books for the fun of it. Others would go to the nearest National Library Service branch to get simplified titles on the Ladybird publications such as versions of John Stevenson’s Treasure Island or follow the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. That is not to mention the comic works Tintin and Asterix.
In lower secondary school or higher primary school, the fun reader would jump onto the Junior African Writers Series, where they would encounter writers like Kwasi Koranteng. Then, they would shift to Pacesetters the higher they went. James Hardley Chase titles, for the thriller lovers became the most sought after works while for the more sentimental, Mills and Boon titles kept them busy.
Later on, Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon, Mario Puzo, John Grisham would be the next target.
Not anymore. Today, even libraries are filled with more desks than bookshelves. Clear indication that those frequenting public libraries are just doing so to study for one examination or the other; not read for pleasure.
Communications lecturer at Chancellor College Zondiwe Mbano is nostalgic about those days when reading for pleasure was at the heart of one and all. As a pupil at Masongola Secondary School, he recalls reading the literary works of African authors as Camara Laye, Cyprian Ekwensi, James Ngugi (now Ngugi wa Thiong’o), Chinua Achebe, the classical Homer and William Shakespeare’s titles.
“Teachers encouraged us to read widely and the libraries were well-stocked. We were encouraged to read beyond prescribed texts. Today, the situation is sad as pupils are just reading to pass exams. You will find that they are not even reading the prescribed texts, since some are producing summary notes which they feel are enough to help them pass exams,” says Mbano, who has published a poetry collection, Beware Millipede.
Mbano is one of the editors of the Unsung Song anthology, which is currently on the MSCE syllabus. He also edited another compilation, Mangazi was Here, with Malawi PEN president Alfred Msadala.
He observes: “One of the problems is that books are too expensive now. Many people can’t afford books, especially with the hard times.”
But lawyer Noel Misanjo begs to differ. Reading for pleasure is easy, with some outlets selling second-hand books at low prices. He cited Dapp and Beehive in Blantyre.
“As a lawyer, I can’t just be reading legal books so I go into literature and poetry as well. It breaks the monotony. Besides, reading beyond my profession helps me develop a better view of the world,” said Misanjo, who heads a group for writers, The Writers’ Block.
Misanjo, who recalls frequenting his Mwanza Secondary School library to read titles, especially by Malawian authors like Dede Kamkondo, said the coming of satellite television can be one of the reasons for the vanishing reading for pleasure culture.
“In those days, there was no digital television to keep people busy. There was no time for watching the Premier Soccer League, Bundesliga or Serie A, where some people have to watch football games deep into the night, leaving little time for books,” says Misanjo.
Author Shemu Joyah agrees that television has eaten up reading time. Joyah looks back at the days of his youth when he used to read books from the Limbe National Library.
“I read almost all the Agatha Christie titles in primary school, then shifted to James Hardley Chase and other detective stories at St Patrick’s Secondary School. Here, I read over 200 books as we were competing as pupils and jotting down the titles of any book read. I was not confining myself to novels.
“Today, television may be one of the factors that have kept people from the book. A book needs you to think, which is unlike TV where things happen at a superficial rate and you have to keep up. I can recall chunks from texts I read in the 1970s because books give you time to think about what you are reading,” says the Madam Diseh creator.
According to Joyah, who is also a filmmaker, the coming of the Internet is another challenge. He believes people spend so much time on social media, which he said has its adverse effects. For instance, he says, the writing is superficial, as people write in short and often bend grammar rules.
Creative writer Muthi Nhlema in a Facebook group for Malawian writers, puts it clear that blame should not be on the readers. They need to be understood, he says.
“Some of my friends used to love reading. They often talk about the days when they would disappear into a James Hardley Chase, Ludlum, Forsyth or a ghastly Mills and Boon for hours on end. They recall the suspence, the romance, the cliché endings and then they stopped. Somewhere between secondary school and the real world they stopped reading and cannot tell why,” says Nhlema.
He says it is not very true that Malawians are not reading. He says although there is anecdotal talk of Malawians not reading, there is no empirical evidence to that claim.
“I don’t know why Malawians don’t read at all, or in some cases anymore. But maybe, we should stop putting the blame on readers for not reading—maybe we need to listen and understand more about what they want to read. Since these mini-encounters, my belief in that writer’s anecdote has shifted: I believe some people are reading —but I have noticed they are probably not reading Malawian content,” he observes.
With the new media, today, you can find PDF copies of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which you can read on your computer and on an Ipad or tablet. But, as Joyah would have it, the romance between a book and reader goes with e-books.
“I have read books in PDF format. It is not enjoyable reading books on the monitor as much as it is when you relax and have the book on your lap and turn the pages to the last full stop,” says Joyah.