Talking books: James Tumusiime in conversation with Katherine Salahi
James Tumusiime is Vice-Chairperson of APNET
and Managing Director, Fountain Publishers Ltd, PO Box 488, Kampala,
Uganda. Fax +256 41 251160, e-mail: email@example.com
James Tumusiime traces his love of books back
to the days when his older brothers and sisters `used to bring small
books back from school. I liked them. I used to get blamed for tearing
books because each time someone brought home a book I had to go through
it. Sometimes I'd write in it too.' His parents were farmers, `neo-literate'
converts to Christianity. The only books at home were the Bible and
occasional religious tracts. `My parents were cattle keepers. My siblings
were the ones to introduce me to books.'
Tumusiime trained as an agricultural economist
and went to work for Idi Amin's government in the 1970s. At the same
time he started writing for the local newspaper as a political satirist.
`And you survived to tell the tale?' I asked. `Narrowly', he laughed.
He also drew cartoons; at one stage he was arrested for a particularly
Amin was overthrown and there followed a brief
period of press freedom. Tumusiime moved newspapers and became publicity
officer for one of the political movements of the time, the Uganda Patriotic
Movement. Meanwhile the threat of civil war grew day by day. Tumusiime
engineered time off from the Ministry of Livestock, where he still worked
as an agricultural economist, to take a degree course in Nairobi. But
the ministry soon `discovered they were dealing with a rebel'. They
cut off his scholarship, leaving him stranded without money in Nairobi.
His newspaper experience stood him in good stead.
He joined the Nation newspaper as a humour writer, moved to the Nairobi
Times as economics correspondent, then joined mainstream journalism
full-time and became the paper's business editor. The paper was bought
by the Kenya Times, where he worked till 1985, moving to the Standard
for a short time before joining a magazine publishers.
Alongside his writing he continued as a political
cartoonist. Indeed, so successful was he that the newspaper's sales
went up when he started his cartoons in Kenya. `Sometimes the whole
letters page was devoted to my cartoon of the day!' The Standard published
books of his cartoons, which sold well in Kenya and beyond to Tanzania
and as far as Swaziland, earning him more in royalties than all his
writing put together. `Even today in Uganda cartoonists are some of
the most well-paid people on the newspaper.'
Then in 1986 the government in Uganda changed.
Immediately he went back: `there were lots of us in Kenya just waiting
to return. I became deputy editor-in-chief of the newspaper that we
started in Uganda', a position he remained in for 11 years.
He wasn't satisfied with the way things were going
in Uganda. `There were no books, nothing, no record covering the years
of the war and Amin's time.' As an editor he really needed reference
material, so with his wife and sister-in-law he started a small publishing
house, Fountain Publishers, mainly to publish directories giving basic
information about the country. They started in 1989 with a Who's Who
in Uganda, with a print-run of 3000 copies which sold out straightaway.
`We got excited!' They followed with a directory chronicling the failures
and achievements of the National Reconciliation Movement's first five
years of government. That quickly sold out, as did the Uganda Districts
Information Handbook, which became a best-seller. By this time he was
co-publishing with the British publisher James Currey, and selling abroad
through the African Books Collective.
In 1991 Fountain Publishers launched their children's
book series, stemming from Tumusiime's interest in culture and the need
he felt to record tales from the past that were in danger of dying out.
To get texts he set up a Ugandan folktale writing competition in the
newspaper. DANIDA helped them publish with a grant of $3000 towards
But the multinationals dominated the scene. When
the World Bank funded textbook provision for Uganda, every single title
was imported. `We lost $35m in World Bank funding of books, they left
no trace on the economy.' So in 1992, in the run-up to a USAID textbook
project, he and a few other local publishers first formed a publishers'
association with $20,000 support from CODE, and then Tumusiime talked
to the local USAID official, who `listened to me', he said with some
surprise. USAID informed the Ugandan government that their old selection
method for books was no longer acceptable. This time, users must select
the books. USAID called for a tripartite meeting with the Uganda publishers'
association and the government, where it was agreed in principle that
publishers would submit books, which would be evaluated to see if they
met basic criteria, and then schools would select the titles they wanted.
`That was the beginning or our participation in the book purchasing
Tumusiime worked with the more established Kenyan
educational publisher Henry Chakava in order to meet the deadline. Their
submission was included on the suppliers' list, and in the event Fountain
Publishers sold a lot of copies. They were the only indigenous publisher
to have books included on the final list. `The other indigenous publishers
were mostly part-timers, who depend on other jobs to make a living.'
Things moved relatively smoothly, `although the government people never
appear to be fully convinced, perhaps because they felt denied their
authority: this way, publishers are dealing with schools directly.'
The government is still doing the purchasing and
distributing. `We'd prefer that to happen through a bookshop network,
which would stimulate growth, and would help for non-textbooks.' They
also appreciate support in the form of guaranteed purchase of a number
of finished copies, rather than up-front grants: `That way the publisher
keeps the copyright and feels independent, while the distribution of
copies stimulates readership.' The Netherlands Embassy made a guaranteed
purchase for a series of story books on the environment, for example,
which were then distributed to district education authorities.
Fountain publish a number of titles in local languages,
and have been surprised at times by their success in some of the larger
languages, such as a reader in Kinyankole which they had to reprint
three times in one year. They publish a small fiction list which has
sold well beyond Ugandan borders, and poetry.
Tumusiime is no longer involved with newspapers.
Coming from that faster, more immediately dynamic world, does he miss
the buzz of the newsroom? He says not. His main desire was always to
communicate, he never trained as a journalist. `Anyway, it was time
for me to slow down.' He likes having his own company, and products
that will endure. `A newspaper becomes boring after a while.' He is
an artist, closely involved in artwork and book design.
He's also a good businessman. After what he calls
his `initial relative success' he needed to expand his activities, which
required developing editorial, accounting and marketing departments.
Fountain's initial funding had come from his other activities. Now he
added a bookshop to help finance the publishing, something he says most
Ugandan publishers do. Five years later he bought the university bookshop,
which had been closed down sometime before because of problems. Now
the publishing house has four editors, three typesetters, modern equipment,
and publishes around 40 titles a year.
How does Tumusiime's involvement with APNET (he
is currently Vice-Chair) sit with his publishing activities? `It's inspiring
to find there are many other people all over the continent who share
your problems and your aspirations, and therefore you feel you are working
with a community that understands. It revives your interest and determination.'
He applied what he learned from APNET at home: `Now people talk about
books and publishing, previously there was no one to talk to. Uganda
has benefited from my membership. We've made useful contacts with donors.
It takes a lot of time, but it's well spent.'
And if money were no object, what would he do?
`I'd publish more and more books, of course', especially linked to art
and crafts. He has a special interest in culture, and would like to
start a heritage trust, conserving Uganda's historical sites, developing
He confesses he's not much of a reader of fiction
himself - there's no time. `I'm so interested in virtually everything!'
He likes to read children's books, not just for work, also for pleasure:
`they're often full of wisdom'; and `there's so much to read about publishing'.
He thinks he'll carry on publishing into a ripe old age, `because you
can't run out of ideas. You try something out, sometimes it works, sometimes
it doesn't, if it does you're spurred on to try again.'
The hardest problem in Ugandan publishing is getting
skilled and interested personnel. `You're competing with other possible
employers, and it's difficult to pay the salaries needed to get the
best staff.' He has another concern:
'Publishing is a long-term industry, and
we don't have a publishing tradition, so it's hard to know who to bequeath
it to. I'd like to hand it over to my children, but you can't know.
My father wanted me to take up farming!' [BPN, No. 24, 1998.]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 24, 1998>>