Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 24, December 1998 


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:

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 apposite one.

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 the series.

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 projects.'

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 cultural tourism.

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.]

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