Today was a blog waiting to happen. Only, it’s not going to be about the Ghanaian and African Embassies in the West as I’d intended – don’t worry, it will have its time too – but rather about contemporary books, libraries and reading in major African cities like Accra, Lusaka, Jo-burg, Lagos, Dakar. It features some great insights from people on Facebook and Twitter on Africa’s reading culture and access to contemporary books.

Brunch Over Books Accra Book Club Ghana
Credit: Brunch Over Books

Yesterday I participated in a very fruitful Virtual Americanah Book Club meeting with two of my friends – one in Accra, Ghana and the other in Maputo, Mozambique – and we had a swell time reflecting on Chimamanda Adichie’s latest, how it resonates with us, the different themes and so on. I posted some of my thoughts and a tweep asked where they could get the book. I have gotten this question so many times this year – especially after my “summer reads” blog – and so I automatically responded “Amazon” and sent a link. Then the question hit me: Where do Ghanaians, Africans go to get contemporary/recent/new books these days?

The Days of Sweet Valley High and Books for Less

As a youngster in Ghana I got my books from three main sources: my parents’ collection over the years – they are both teachers and so had many children’s books; borrowing from friends at school – those were the Sweet Valley High, Babysitter’s Club, Famous Five days; and finally, libraries and bookstores – my school Alsyd Academy had a pretty good stock of books, but now that I think about it, there weren’t that many books by African authors. I should know, I won a school prize for being a bookworm :P

Bookstores-wise, there were a number of options such as EPP books, the University of Ghana bookstore, and resale outlets like Books for Less. There was also a book outlet of some sorts near East Legon in Accra which shipped in books. I think it was either through a partnership with DfID or one of those agencies.  My parents always went over to restock their collection and hook myself and my siblings up and I’ll admit, they had a wide variety of interesting books – fiction, non-fiction, text books, all of that.

Now the thing with local bookstores and libraries in Ghana is that whenever I think about them, I think about text books and school supplies, which honestly, just translates to boring. Sadly,  I didn’t think about novels when I thought about local bookstores and libraries.Don’t get me wrong, I liked some of my textbooks, but after studying all year long, I wanted novels, stories, fantasy lands to escape to. So if a bookworm like me sees a library and thinks boring, it’s no wonder many Ghanaian and African youth consider reading to be boring or just another chore.

While all this economic growth and transformation is taking place in key African cities, is the same happening in our minds, our perceptions of our various realities and our learning? If we’re still dealing with boring, ol’, spider-web type bookstores, libraries and books, I’m sorry to announce the answer would be a resounding “No!”

Human Networks for Distributing African Books

So where do Africans get their novels from today in a day of technological advancement and higher interaction with the rest of the world? I’m willing to wager a bet that the majority get it through friends in-country, wait till they visit the US, Europe etc to purchase or restock, or have friends or family members purchase and bring the books down on their behalf.

Things haven’t really changed since I was 12 years old and in Class 6. I remember vividly how myself and some friends would “book” (queue, waitlist for) a copy of Babysitters club after some of our classmates (or their relatives) returned from London or the US with new books. The book would make its rounds within the class and also between classes and that’s really what fed our extracurricular reading. Thinking back, the limited exposure to primarily Western books is probably why my first co-author project with a good friend  was entitled “The Spiker Sisters” (?!), had names like Zack, Jaimie and Janice, talked about banana sundaes (which I’d never tasted or seen in person until 2008!), and effortlessly referred to ‘hanging out at the mall’ long before Accra got its first real mall. What we read/consume influences who we are!

 “This is an issue on many levels. [It] takes me back to my experience with O-level History and questioning my professor why on God’s green earth we were studying solely European history and nothing on African history… His response “They said you don’t have history and you don’t have writers”…I was so upset by it…Also related to African writers…I have heard it is difficult to get “Ghanaian bookstores” to carry them – that hustle even stifles creativity. If I were a writer I’d give up because the “system” doesn’t even encourage me.”

– Senam Apaloo (Facebook)

No African Audience for African Books & Writers?

It seems that the challenge of procuring current books still remains. Most of the novels I got through the resale outlets and even the textbooks were foreign books and pretty much outdated. Sure, they might have looked new, but turn the cover and you see they are at least five years old – not that I really cared then. But I do now. Others made you wonder if the notion of books on sale was just a marketing ploy given their high prices. Most of these books are priced way higher than in bookstores abroad. It’s no surprise then that people would rather bide their time to buy or ask friends and relatives to get them books and bring along when visiting:

If there’s been one visible change in the literary world, it’s the diversity of African voices cropping up, from well-known authors like Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie to newcomers like Taiyie Selasi and to younger voices who are being uncovered through initiatives like the Baobab African Prize. I think it’s safe to say that there are more novels, stories, and narrations from an African perspective than there were for 12-year old me and my mates in school. But are they getting the visibility, exposure and audience in their own countries?

I always thought it to be in bad taste that our own African literary giants would travel miles to universities in the US, Europe to read, speak, but would totally bypass  African countries. Now, I get it. Why bother when there’s no credible evidence of an audience, of distribution networks? The Silverbird Lifestyle Store at the Accra Mall used to hold so much promise. I was so excited the first time I went inside to see shelves and shelves of books, many by Ghanaian and African authors. Now the store is a mediocre version of what it used to be, having been downsized and carrying mainly magazines, music CDs, and greeting cards. Why? It probably has to do with business, profits and so on, but why should this be the case?!

A whole city like Accra, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Dakar where investors and tourists flock, and yet the local populace doesn’t even have a venue worthy of being called a state of the art library or bookstore? I cringe at the thought that all the amazing books like Adichie’s Americanah are not even reaching Africans themselves or are reaching just a small segment which has access to credit cards, has networks abroad or who can download e-books with kindles, laptops, and phones. And let’s not forget the language element either.