Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 26-27, November 2000 


Zimbabwe International Book Fair 2000

Dede Amanor-Wilks
Reprinted with permission, from NewsAfrica vol. 1 no 7, August 28 2000. For contact details see below.*

Despite the political uncertainty following the June general elections in Zimbabwe, this year's Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) attracted a large number of exhibitors and several big names in the field of African publishing, including renowned scholars Ali Mazrui, Kole Omotoso, Terence Ranger and Eldred Jones, publisher Kassahun Checole and poets Atukwei Okai and Lade Wosornu. Also there were celebrated Zimbabwean writers, Yvonne Vera, Chenjerai Hove and Shimmer Chinodya and various personalities from non-African countries including Malaysia, Japan, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the US.

After a slow set-up, the first trading day was hit by a national stayaway called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and backed by the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change to protest continuing government support for the violent occupation of white-owned farms by war veterans and the alleged intimidation of opposition supporters in urban areas. Adding to the uncertainty came a hefty devaluation of the local dollar on the eve of the stayaway. But business picked up after the stayaway was reduced from three days to one and many traders expressed satisfaction at the volume of trade conducted and contacts made. A total of 317 exhibitors turned out, slightly up on last year.

The two big events of ZIBF, the weekend Indaba and the five-day Writers Workshop were well attended, safeguarding ZIBF's reputation as the premier book event in Africa. The two events are designed to provide a forum for South-South and South-North communication about publishing and access to information. The country of focus this year was Ghana.

A highlight of this year's ZIBF was the presentation of the first Caine Prize for African Writing [see report on 'Awards to African Books'] to Sudanese writer, Leila Aboulela for her short story The Museum, which was published in a 1999 anthology of contemporary African women's writing called Opening Spaces. The anthology was edited by award-winning Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera and published jointly by Heinemann's African Writers Series and Baobab Books of Zimbabwe.

Opening Spaces was one of the top-selling at the book fair, along with titles by the other Zimbabwean writers shortlisted for the prize. Among non-fiction writers, visiting scholar and honorary ZIBF trustee Terence Ranger's history of Matebeleland, Voices from the Rocks appeared to be a top seller. A new title that sparked interest was The Pan-Africanists, published by the Harare-based Southern African Research and Documentation Centre. This profile of 17 black leaders from Africa and the diaspora, with a foreword by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, was launched during the official opening of the Ghana Pavilion, showcasing publications from that country.

Another highlight of ZIBF 2000 was the launch of the Africa 100 Best Books project. The idea for the project was mooted two years ago by Kenyan scholar, Ali Mazrui, to commemorate African writers of the past 100 years. Nominations are being sought for three categories of creative writing - scholarship and children's writing in any language - and a final list of the best 100 will be announced in 2002. The aim of the project is to expose African writing and publishing to a wider audience. Ideas being explored include reproducing books no longer in print as collectors' series with translation. The project, said ZIBF trustee, Alois Mlambo 'will help to celebrate our own creative genius and market African writing'.

Unlike previous book fairs organised around specific issues - last year the theme was gender- this year's 10th anniversary event had the general theme 'Celebrating African Books' while the Indaba, the annual curtain-raiser bringing together renowned writers, publishers, librarians and distributors, was dubbed the 'Millennium Marketplace'.

Speaking to the theme of the book fair, Ekwow Spio-Garbrah, Ghana's Minister of Education, and a published poet, said: 'Celebrating African books involves lauding and applauding our writers, supporting publishers, assisting our book distributors and retailers and taking all measures to promote literacy and the reading culture among our people'.

Spio-Garbrah noted the high illiteracy rates, particularly among women, the lack of clear-cut policies on language use, the high cost of paper and ink for African countries. He recommended that countries invest in mass literacy programmes, explore the possibility of book development councils networking and producing literature in shared languages, and pool natural resources for the production of inputs to minimise the cost of book production in Africa. The minister led a delegation of 25 Ghanaian publishers, writers and distributors.

This year's Indaba attracted 400 participants. The two-day conference focused on marketing African books. In a keynote address on market trends in the African book industry, Richard Crabbe, the chair of the African Publishers Network, noted that the trend towards the provision of basic education for all children had increased the number of potential readers and economic liberalisation had created opportunities for publishers, but economic reforms had sapped the purchasing power of parents and potential readers. As a result, he said, publishers were under pressure to produce books more affordably, but in the face of low print runs and the rising cost of imported paper and printing equipment, the onus was on governments to reduce tariffs on such inputs to encourage the local production of books.

On an optimistic note, he said that the recent declaration on the establishment of an African Union by OAU heads of states and governments was a step toward creating a potential market of more than 300 million readers - more than in the European Union or US. 'African publishers need to think beyond their borders and seek to develop the alliances and mergers that we now see in the airline industry in Europe and North America,' Crabbe said.

The challenge to traditional book publishing posed by the new information and communication technologies was keenly debated by book fair participants. On a positive note Thelma Tate, a US librarian, noted in a writers' workshop session that these technologies brought rapid communication worldwide, better interactive teaching and instruction methods, ease of searching and finding information, improved reserves such as the ability to scan documents and upload to the Internet, improved storage and preservation of materials, continuous access to information, improved business services through e-commerce, distance learning and the expansion of jobs.

Mads Liland, of Norway, noted that the US-based company Amazon now claims 17 million customers in 160 countries following its successful 1995 launch of book sales via the internet. With minimal investments in warehousing, internet booksellers can offer books at highly competitive prices. Electronic buying also offers the customer a fast, simple and reliable means of selecting a book from a seemingly infinite list of titles and having it delivered to the door.

With the digitisation of the book becoming inevitable, Ghana's education minister asked, 'Where does Africa stand with such low per-capita income and such low per-capita knowledge?' Spio-Garbrah acknowledged the problems posed by poor telecommunications in Africa, the high cost of computers, limited access to electricity and the fact that few people use credit cards (the most common form of payment on the internet), but he recommended that the new technology be explored to Africa's advantage. He noted that while it was unrealistic to expect a primary producer such as Ghana to achieve rapid economic growth, it was possible to develop its human potential to the extent that 'gross national knowledge' should become as important as gross national product.

Picking up on this theme during his traditional summing up of the two-day Indaba, Terence Ranger asked participants to consider what kind of knowledge Africa needs in the new millennium. 'What kind of knowledge can Africa particularly produce?' Ranger asked, noting that while most Africans would for long remain 'digiprived', (the expression coined by Ali Mazrui to describe those deprived of information in the digital age) even the 'digiprivileged' could end up merely consuming the vast amounts of information made available through the electronic revolution rather than producing their own. Backing up this point, Keiko Kusenesi, the president of Japan's African Literature Association, noted that even in a hi-tech country such as Japan, the overwhelmingly English content of information on the internet meant that Japanese users did not access it widely.

Ranger praised the new forms of knowledge embodied in Yvonne Vera's portrayals of 'human dignity and human agency', while Kole Omotoso suggested that knowledge must be 'available, repeatable, enduring and improvable'. But linking the theme of African knowledge to the problem of censorship, Chenjerai Hove said that some governments were not keen for everybody to read and write 'in case we know too much', hence the lack of commitment to literacy campaigns. 'Censorship is like closing the tap on knowledge and illiteracy is a form of censorship,' Hove said.

Other keenly debated themes were the marginalisation of African literature in northern markets and the language dilemma of African writers. Zimbabwean writer Pathisa Nyathi noted there was a widespread awareness of the importance of indigenous languages as an 'embodiment of a people's culture', and the obligation of the writer to raise their status, but they had a low status compared to foreign languages associated with technological progress and scientific advances. 'Nobel prize laureates in Africa have written in these languages. Writers in indigenous languages have not enjoyed similar recognition,' Nyathi noted. 'The death of a language is the death of a people. Indigenous knowledge can no longer be accessed. The people are like a rudderless ship in the dark and stormy seas. They lack confidence to face challenges. They can't enter the global village as equal partners. Rather, they are dragged in as unwilling hewers of wood and drawers of water.'

Other activities of the ZIBF week included a 'North Meets South' exchange between African and Swedish writers, live literature readings, workshops on copyrighting and marketing African scholarship, a World Bank workshop on marketing, and the Amabhuku exhibition in the National Art Gallery adjacent to the book fair grounds. The exhibition is a collection of illustrations from African children's books, first shown in at the 1998 Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy.

The idea of a country focus was introduced in 1998 with Kenya as the first country of focus, followed by South Africa in 1999. This year Ghana was chosen to represent the West African region. 'This is good exposure for books from Ghana and it gives us the opportunity not only to come and sell our books but also to learn how to sell,' said Akoss Ofori-Mensah, the honorary secretary of the Ghana Book Publishers Association. Next year's focus will be on francophone Africa.

This article originally appeared in NewsAfrica Vol 1 No7, 28 August 2000. NewsAfrica is a new weekly news magazine for Africa and Africans in the diaspora, published from London, 334a Goswell Road, London EC1V 7LQ, England. +44 20 7713 8135 (tel), +44 20 7713 8136 (fax),, with operations in Lagos, Johannesburg and Washington DC.

 [end]  [BPN, no 26–27, 2000, p 4.]


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