by Phidson Mojokeri
“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” – Confucius
They say knowledge is power and much knowledge can be obtained by reading.
The “Reading Pitso” program has recently brought attention to the reading culture in Botswana.
The general poor reading culture has become a concern to legislators.
In Lauri Kubuitsile‘s column in The Voice newspaper – It’s All Write she reported on a “Reading Pitso” event hosted in the village of Tonota.
“The Minister (Minister of Youth, Sports and Arts Mar. Shaw Kgathi) talked about how reading is no longer seen as cool. When he was growing up, boys who read books and could quote passages from books, especially in English, were the boys that got the girls. Reading was the coolest thing. Now kids need to be beaten to read. Names like “bookworm” are seen as derogatory. This has got to change. We need to glorify bookworms.”
According to the winner of the 2010 Bessie Head Literature Award, Legodile Seganabeng, the reading culture in Botswana is not good.
“People do not read even read newspapers. Those who buy them only skim through - browse small sections of their interests and stash away the whole heap of writings unread. When it comes to books, it’s a worst-case scenario. Very few people read books. It shows even when one visits a national library – there’s hardly anyone there,” said Legodile.
Also concerned was Khonani Ontebetse, the winner of the 2007 Bessie Head Literature Award. He spoke of how as he was growing up the reading culture was widespread in the country. “It was not rare to find someone with a book in his hand consuming literature.”
Khonani blames the decline in reading culture on the introduction of new technologies such as mobile phones. “People now tend to spend most of their time communicating and browsing the net.” The new development, he says, has prompted some writers to call the government to come on board and meet the writers halfway by supporting them in many ways.
The two men‘s sentiments were echoed when asking literate citizens about their reading habits. A Mr. Kgangyapelo said that he is lazy therefore he can’t read books. The last time he read a book was in 2005 in an English Literature class. He went on to say he reads newspapers to keep in touch with current affairs though. In Mr. Kgangyapelo’s words “People, especially Batswana, do not read because they are lazy.”
Bokamoso Mongalo, a university student confessed to lacking motivation to read, therefore he only reads academic books. He stated that he used to like reading newspapers but now electronic media has taken away his passion.
Susan Moses, a student in a teaching college in Tonota, only reads science books, especially the biology books. The last time she read a novel was close to a decade ago in Junior Secondary School.
Sixteen-year-old Mpho Leepile, who recently completed Junior School, confessed to not reading books at all because they are “boring.”
Daniel Batho, a Sunday soccer player in Tlokweng, said he never reads at all and he depends on TV for news. “Reading is a waste of time,” he said. “I don’t want to lose my mind.”
Not all hope is lost though.
Aaliyah Phoga, who recently completed Senior Secondary School, reads novels and books now and then but she does not read newspapers that much and the only local novel she has ever read is Lauri Kubuitsile‘s The Fatal Payout.
“People do not read because they see reading as a waste of time,” she said. Her suggested solution was that people should be taught the importance of reading.
Philda Hobona, a self-employed woman, said she reads novels almost every day and reads her Bible every morning when she wakes up. However, the last time she read a novel by a local writer was a long time ago.
In her opinion, people don’t read because of illiteracy and lack of reading materials. “If a collection of books and magazines can be made available then more people will be given access to reading material,” she said.
Gorata Ramotwai is a regular reader, but she also admitted she doesn’t read local novels, “We don’t believe in local writers.”
Gomolemo Molemo, an accountant working in Commerce Park, said he reads only motivational books like Rich Dad and Attitude is Everything. He just can’t bring himself to reading any local novel. “Maybe if they wrote superb books like the late Sidney Sheldon I would support them.”
University student Bakang Bajiti has a different view - he believes that most Batswana do read, “We are a well-informed nation, contrary to popular belief.”
Aspiring writer Bame Tlhokwana bemoans the poor reading culture. “People don’t read because it is not within their culture.” Her suggested solution is public awareness. However, she admits to not reading local novels because they are not available in local libraries. She is a regular reader though.
Promise Nkomo, poet and nursing student, echoed Bame’s sentiments that local novels are hard to access.
Gothataone Moeng, a journalist for Mmegi and winner of the Bessie Head award in 2009, is also of the opinion that people don't read local books because they don't really have access to them. The first major obstacle she said - is the fact that readers don't know about local books and don't have access to them. Another reason why people don't read local books is because a number of them are not great. They are not well written at all, and it is not fair to expect readers to read them just because they are local. In terms of what should be done to improve the reading of local novels specifically, writers first need to improve the writing of the books themselves. Writers, themselves, need to be reading more books, from writers other than local. They need to be reading books different to what they would write and they need to challenge themselves in terms of their writing. She thinks local writers should also embrace genre forms- such as romance, sci-fi, and fantasy because that is what people read. “I really think the role of the writer in improving reading culture is to give readers something worthy to read, as well as try to make their works accessible to readers,” she added. She concluded by saying a number of local writers are self-published and need to work on the marketing of their books.
According to Legodile Seganabeng, who attended Reading Pitso, “Reading Pitso was a call to stakeholders and professionals in the reading and writing fraternity to come up with ways by which the nation can be encouraged to read.”
“For the group to reach solutions, they had to first identify the problems that could be causing the lack of interest in reading. A lot of recommendations are said to have been made at Reading Pitso,” Seganabeng added.
Recommendations included encouraging children from a very young age to read by providing enticing books with colourful illustration and local content that the children can easily identify with. Encouraging writers to write more books in Setswana and other indigenous languages. This will not only promote local languages, but it will also attract readership from people who might not be very proficient in English. It was also suggested to give out awards like certificates and medals through reading clubs in schools and communities. The other recommendations were the use of performing arts like drama, poetry and even debate sessions to encourage reading in schools, and finally, the use of role models and celebrities to promote reading.
It is clear from the responses that the reading culture is poor in Botswana. When you find any avid readers, there is a constant theme -they don’t read local books. For those who don’t read, they have resigned themselves to a much less knowledgeable life. If lack of knowledge is lack of power - is Botswana becoming a powerless nation?
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Phidson Mojokeri He is the winner of the 2008 Bessie Head Literary award for his novel "Curse of a Dream". He is a freelance writer for The Kalahari Review.