Join Friends of Pambazuka

Subscribe for Free!

Fahamu Bulletin Archive

About our Programmes

Donate to Pambazuka News!

Follow Us

delicious bookmarks facebook twitter

Pambazuka News

Latest titles from Pambazuka Press

African Sexualities

Earth Grab A Reader
Sylvia Tamale
A groundbreaking book, accessible but scholarly, by African activists. It uses research, life stories and artistic expression to examine dominant and deviant sexualities, and investigate the intersections between sex, power, masculinities and femininities
Buy now

Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya

From Citizen to Refugee Horace Campbell
In this elegantly written and incisive account, scholar Horace Campbell investigates the political and economic crises of the early twenty-first century through the prism of NATO's intervention in Libya.
Buy now

Queer African Reader

Demystifying Aid Edited by Sokari Ekine, Hakima Abbas
A diverse collection of writing from across the continent exploring African LGBTI liberation: identity, tactics for activism, international solidarity, homophobia and global politics, religion and culture, and intersections with social justice movements. A richness of voices, a multiplicity of discourses, a quiverful of arguments. African queers writing for each other, theorising ourselves, making our ...more
Buy now

China and Angola

African Awakening A Marriage of Convenience?
Edited by Marcus Power, Ana Alves
This book focuses on the increased co-operation between Angola and China and shows that although relations with China might have bolstered regime stability and boosted the international standing of the Angolan government, China is not regarded as a long term strategic partner.
Buy now

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

To Cook a ContinentWalter Rodney
Rodney shows how the imperial countries of Europe, and subsequently the US, bear major responsibility for impoverishing Africa. They have been joined in this exploitation by agents or unwitting accomplices both in the North and in Africa.
Buy now

Pambazuka News Broadcasts

Pambazuka broadcasts feature audio and video content with cutting edge commentary and debate from social justice movements across the continent.

See the list of episodes.


This site has been established by Fahamu to provide regular feedback to African civil society organisations on what is happening with the African Union.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.


Truth, myth and Malawi’s reading culture

Steve Sharra

2010-11-03, Issue 503

Bookmark and Share

Printer friendly version

There are 2 comments on this article.

cc N B
Instituting a reading and book writing culture is key to encouraging intellectual renewal, writes Steve Sharra.

You have probably heard a friend say it, or at least seen it forwarded in emails: ‘If you want to hide important information from an African, put it in a book.’ Another less insulting but blunt expression says when you see a white person riding in a bus or on a train, or waiting to catch a flight at an airport, they are always reading something. When you see a black person, they are mostly scratching their ankles and staring blankly, not reading anything. Both statements are made as proof that as Africans, we don’t have a reading culture.

Generalisations are always dangerous because they are mostly untrue, lumping entire groups into crude and inaccurate stereotypes. Most of the people I find myself in the company of, going back to my school days, have been voracious readers. I grew up in a healthy reading culture, surrounded by books, right here in Malawi. One English teacher in secondary school not only encouraged reading, he also gave me books to read that were not on the examination syllabus.

Conversely, I have also seen white people staring into space and yawning, waiting in line, while in the same space black Africans read books, newspapers, magazines, and other materials. All of this is to say neither of the above stereotypical statements is an accurate description of entire groups of people, whether white, black, yellow, turquoise or magenta.

Britain and the United States are also expressing similar worries about their reading culture. Consider these recent developments:

- The British newspaper The Telegraph recently carried a story that said a whopping two thirds of British people did not visit a library in 2009.

- In the United States, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan on 25 August expressed concern over the percentages of Americans who are misinformed about President Obama’s religion, his birth and citizenship; the bailout of banks; and the scientific evidence on climate change. The title of Egan’s column was telling: ‘Building a Nation of Know-Nothings.’

Not long ago retired secretary of state and army general Colin Powell countered the ‘Obama is a Muslim’ myth by pointing out that there would be nothing wrong if Obama were indeed a Muslim. Many American Muslims were decent, peace loving people who contributed to America’s economy, culture and democracy. But that belief, together with much other misinformation, persists and grows in a society that sees itself as a model of high literacy.

In his 7 August column in the New York Times, titled ‘Putting Our Brains on Hold’, Bob Hebert wrote about a report released by the College Board that showed how America’s educational standards were declining. Not long ago America led the world in the numbers of 25 - 34 year olds with first degrees. Today, America is at number 12. Hebert said America was a society that held ‘intellectual achievement in contempt’ and paid more attention to Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga and Snooki than to important matters of the day. The blame, he said, lay with parents, students, the educational system, government, and the news media. ‘What is the matter with us,’ he asked. ‘What have we been drinking?’ he pleaded, stopping just short of accusing Americans of having been imbibing at Bwandilo and missing important national debates in the media (Malawi’s president has recently accused his critics of spending too much time at a famous drinking joint called Bwandilo, in the capital city Lilongwe, and missing out on important matters). Hebert implied that America’s reading culture was being affected by these problems, saying, ‘We read less and less and write like barbarians.’

In the United States booksellers are closing stores, and libraries are shutting down. A sidewalk book vendor told a New York Times reporter recently, ‘It is apparent that we have a real serious issue, that the life of the mind has been in decline for some time now.’ As if that is not worrying enough, several newspapers have folded over the past few years.

But dismissing and getting rid of unfair stereotypes and generalisations should not lull us into a false sense of satisfaction that we have a thriving reading culture. A lot of Malawians hardly read anything and the number of those that do not know how to read at all is said to be at 37 per cent of the population.

The other day I crossed the wobbly bridge that vendors have constructed along Lilongwe River. At the end of the bridge I asked the young man collecting the K10 fee (approximately US$0.06) how many hours he spent at that bridge. Morning till sunset, he told me. I observed that he was not carrying any reading material. A little further away I stopped and asked a similar question to a woman selling airtime. Her answer was the same - morning till sunset. Did she have anything to read when there were no customers? She couldn’t afford newspapers, she said. Had she thought of visiting the library and borrowing a book? Nope, she had not thought of that.

The Malawian ‘Jua Kali’ sector - Jua Kali being what Kenyans call vendors who sell wares in the scorching sun - has lots of people who spend hours sitting and waiting for customers. In my next life I would like to come back as a driver. Or a security guard. I envy the hours these and others in similar types of jobs spend mostly sitting and just waiting. Drivers spend hours waiting on their bosses attending workshops and meetings. Many of them do not have anything to read in between. Next time you are waiting in line at the bank, count how many people are carrying and reading a book, magazine or a newspaper.

Then there is the price of books. The other day I walked into Nyabufu Bookshop in Sunbird Capital Hotel in Lilongwe and saw Professor Brown Chimphamba’s autobiography, ‘Born in Ntengela: The Story of My Early Life’. Price? K4,000 (approximately US$27). I know Malawians for whom that is their entire monthly earnings. The problem of the prohibitive cost of books is a chicken and egg one. Without a huge market for books, the cost is going to be high, and publishers will produce just a few copies. And the cycle repeats itself, with implications for literacy rates and a society’s reading culture.

It is common for us in Malawi to have a national conversation on events that grip the nation, such as worshippers committing suicide by jumping into a raging fire, or two men conducting an engagement ceremony and planning to marry each other. But when is the last time we had a national conversation based on an important book published by a Malawian scholar or novelist? How often do Malawian columnists cite books and other informed sources?

Apart from former president Dr Bakili Muluzi and the current president Professor Bingu wa Mutharika, most of our politicians and other leaders never write books about their time in office, or about their lives. Our journalists write volumes and volumes about current events and trends over long periods of time, but never think of developing these topics into book-length projects.

Recently Dr Pascal Mwale, lecturer in philosophy at Chancellor College and Dr Linje Manyozo, lecturer in media studies at the London School of Economics, wrote a lengthy and charged article in the online newspaper NyasaTimes Online about how most lecturers in the University of Malawi get promotions without having to publish a book.

We cannot expect an abundance of books from a society that does not read as many books. The self-perpetuating cycle has to break at some point if we are to learn from our best practices and embark on a process of intellectual renewal. The teacher training colleges are the best place to start, together with classroom teachers and their advisers. The National Library Service is setting up libraries and training librarians in Malawian schools. The Malawi Writers Union has recently been on a nationwide tour visiting schools and encouraging young Malawians to take writing seriously. The Malawi Institute of Education (MIE) this week launched the Read Malawi project, a project being piloted by MIE and the University of Texas at San Antonio aimed at providing supplementary and complementary books for children in primary schools.

These and other efforts by government and civil society ought to be integrated into the teacher education and professional development system, if we are to rebuild the much-lamented reading culture. The United Nations designated the decade from 2003 to 2012 as the Literacy Decade, but obviously the importance of the idea continues from generation to generation. Not only should we be encouraging reading, we should go a step further and encourage book writing as well, giving the world a much-needed progressive African perspective on local and global issues.


* Steve Sharra holds a Ph.D. in Teacher Education from Michigan State University. He blogs at Afrika Aphukira; The Zeleza Post ; and the Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy. He moderates Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, an online forum for Malawian teachers and educators. For more details email [email protected]
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

Thanks for a provocative article. I just want to draw your attention to the African Library Project
We are working in partnership with local organizations to start school and community libraries in Malawi, among other countries. I encourage your US readers to do a book drive and help start a library!

Deborah Lustig, African Library Project

This article is quite revealing. It paints the dilemma of many an African nation. In my view, this reading campaign should begin in the homes. Parents should start by nurturing this culture among the children, usin whatever few reading materials they have - old news papers(which they can collect from other places - in case they cannot afford to buy), the bible- atleast most homes in Christian dominated communities tend to have one etc. However, this can only be done if all parties get to appreciate the beauty of reading and developing a reading culture. Schools could also pick it up from where the parents stop. In Uganda, we are trying to build that culture, we may not be there yet but at least there is some progress. In most communities, especially in teh central region, it is quite common to find several people reading a newspaper written in their local dialect. Two things stand out from teh article that need to eb addressed; availability of materials and having them at affordable prices - but even then, people need to begin with the little that they already have, if the culture of reading is to be nurtured, they need to understand that reading empowers and emancipates citizens, and it brings people together. As a way of improving the image of reading, children need to know that reading can not only be fun, but that it is also a great way to spend your leisure time and that it is valuable and rewarding. Reading communicates life and hope and the belief in the potential to grow and change. Failure to read breeds ignorance and ignorance is the mother of all evils.

Susan Najjuma - UMI

↑ back to top

ISSN 1753-6839 Pambazuka News English Edition

ISSN 1753-6847 Pambazuka News en Français

ISSN 1757-6504 Pambazuka News em Português

© 2009 Fahamu -