By Mwalimu George Ngwane
If Education is the road out of poverty, then books are the wheels needed for the journey
Richard Crabbe, (Ghanaian Publisher)
April 23rd each year is celebrated as the World Book Day. The day marks the World’s commitment to promote reading, publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright. It is a day for stakeholders of the book sector to attempt a clinical diagnosis of the state and future of the book industry. This diagnosis is of particular import to Cameroon where book famine has presently characterized our cultural landscape.
For the purpose of the forthcoming World Book Day, I shall limit my diagnosis to three main areas viz; professional initiative, public partnership and government responsibility. It is hoped that this will stimulate discussion necessary to provide a therapy to the dearth of a book culture in Cameroon.
The pot of a book sector rests on the five firestones of reading, writing, publishing, marketing and purchasing. The function of authorship is to conceptualise the idea in written form, publishing reshapes it into a more readable form, targeted at a particular readership. Next the printer manufactures bound books for distribution and marketing. In concrete terms, a book sector comprises readers, writers, book sellers, publishers, printers, literary agents, Librarians, illustrators, archivists etc. Each book sector needs to be active in order to make the book chain completely functional.
This does not seem to be the case in Cameroon, where book professionals have traditionally resigned to complacency and pessimism rather than take professional initiatives. Books are primarily the reserve of the civil society and non-state actors have more stakes in building a sustainable book culture than government and the International community. The first professional initiative needed in the book industry is the setting up of Associations. I am still to discover the existence of a viable readers’ Club, writers’ association, publishers’ Association, librarians’ club, book council etc in Cameroon. Those that exist have been timid in carrying out literary activities needed to keep afloat the book industry. A few associations like Buea writers club, Douala writers club, National Book Development Council, African Book Development, South West Association of librarians, South West Booksellers Association, Cameroon Publishers Association , CREPLA and the Anglophone Cameroon Writers Association have made some strides in addressing the various issues inherent in the book sector but have hardly made a national impact.
Our civil service mentality (what profit is there?) and the weak base of our civil society (allergy to collective interest) have contributed to the professional inertia found in our book industry. The result is that few books are published (in the conventional publishing sense), few book workshops are organised, literary awards are absent, our libraries have emptied their customers into off licenses (pubs) and Tiercé (gambling), students graduate without buying a single book, no University has a Press,a national book week or book fair is anathema, and the world book day is a non-event. Without professional interest and solidarity, without the libido and passion for books, without a coordinated and hamonised approach to overhauling the rustic wheel of the book machinery first by the book professionals them selves, the book industry in Cameroon is in danger of succumbing to the pangs of liquidation.
Without prejudice to, and exclusion of other segments of the book chain, the most important segment that needs reenergizing in Cameroon today is the jerky Cameroon Publishers Association created in 1997. Philip G Altbach observes that public sector publishing has failed and the way out is private sector publishing. With a vibrant autonomous indigenous publishing industry, the other segments will fall in place. This of course presupposes that the publishers must individually conform to what the veteran Kenyan publisher, Henry Chakava, calls "the model publisher".
The book industry like every sphere of our national life needs both national patronage and international partnership (institutional support). Books represent the mirror of every society; they showcase the immortal lore and mores of a people, they act as a publicity stunt for a nation since they go beyond the atavistic modes of cultural folklore. To quote the Malawian writer, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza "Books constitute crucial repositories of social memories and imaginations, containing the accumulated cultural capital of society, of its accomplishments, agonies and aspirations.
Books therefore are not and cannot be a luxury, a dispensable dessert on the menu of development, nationhood, or human progress." Yet the Cameroon book industry is still to find patronage with the business elite or company cultural ideologies. The Cameroon business elite have made books the least pocket-friendly commodity, opting instead for wares of sensational sponsorship. It is no secret that Cameroon’s music industry stands tall basically because there are individuals producing musicians; the Nigerian film industry (Nollywood) has made a free rise success due to the intervention of a nationalistic business class stamping their trade mark on the country’s cultural identity.
Now, compare the pitiful unpatronising book neglect in Cameroon to the spontaneous and sensational sponsorship syndrome that various companies have adopted when it comes to the national team (Indomitable lions) and other related mega-mediatised socio-cultural outfits. Write a project proposal in the book domain and submit it to any of the big companies and the reply (if you do have any) begins with the screaming introduction ‘we are sorry………’ Probably because sponsoring book efforts does not provide an opportunity for the sponsor to enjoy media celebrity, potential sponsors including local embassies and the international community have forgotten that the book industry is an ideas industry and that the progress of every nation depends on its immense intellectual/human foundation.
It is indeed revolting to know that international donor response to book projects in Cameroon has more often than not been met with a slight snub. Yet it is this positive international donor response that has in the main accounted for the relative book boom in West, Central and Southern Africa. As one who has been invited to book functions outside the country, I can ascertain that even though there has been a substantial increase in book production in Cameroon (due to self-publishing and vanity publishing ), it is not matched by quality production.
I was a victim of shame in 1999 during the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) where my stand of Cameroon collective exhibit paled into insignificance between the two stands of a Nigerian and an Indian book exhibitor. These two exhibitors told me that part of their quality success came about from International and local business support. Those keen enough to watch our public and private media would notice a plethora of commercial adverts hitting our T.V. screens, seducing consumers to gamble their lives into winning brand new gadgets, one of which costs about fifty millions FRS CFA (an amount that can produce 25 different titles of 1000 copies at 2000frs U.P). These enterprises can enter into a book series publication with our local publishers. For example (Company A) book series on Gender writing, (Company B) Children’s literature series, (Company C) publication on new Cameroonian writers etc. Of course this would also mean that such enterprises benefit from tax deductible policies from the government.
Government concern for the book industry anywhere is crucial to the book development of any country. There are good reasons for the Cameroonian government to support football through the Cameroon football federation (FECAFOOT), government should support our music through the Cameroon Music Corporation and it should continue stretching its hand in funding political parties during elections. But for knowledge sake, the book industry in Cameroon also hungers for government’s attention. While opening the Nairobi International Book Fair in 2003, the Kenyan Minister for Education, Science and Technology, Professor George Saitoti had this to say "Let us strive to make publication and dissemination of information part of our culture so that we may use the medium to address our own agenda as developing nations"
No one can deny that the Cameroonian book industry has produced some of Africa’s best and brightest with international clout. Some of them include Bate Besong who won the ANA award in 1992, Calixthe Beyala who won the "Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise" in 1996, Ferdinand Oyono and Mongo Beti whose two books were celebrated among Africa’s best 100 books of the 20th century during the Zimbabwe Book Fair in 2002. These icons of ideas are still to hear their names in the accolades of executive national discourse. They are still to be convinced that the gate way to national stardom or martyrdom is not only through the Indomitable lions or Françoise Mbango. After all it was Alpha Oumar Konare, Chairman of the African Union who during the Dakar (Senegal) conference on intellectuals in 2004 urged African leaders to "open their doors to African intellectuals and give them the attention they deserved so they (intellectuals) could help in the transformation of our countries into lands of freedom and transparency".
Whether they are ignored or persecuted, book professionals cannot be avoided. As I see it and like I did mention in a memorandum written to the Prime Minister in 1999, the way forward for government’s responsibility in building a sustainable book industry in Cameroon is through the convening of a national Book Forum by the Ministries of Culture, Education and Commerce. This forum should address two issues; the creation of a Book Development Council (whose goals are far loftier than what is now called "Copyright Association of literature and Drama") and the drafting of a book policy for Cameroon.
The idea of Book Development Councils world wide was conceived by UNESCO after the Second World War under the slogan "Peace through Education". The goal was for these councils to coordinate and stimulate the activities of government and private sector agencies in the development of a Book industry of each country to the end that more and better books of all kinds may be available at the lowest possible costs to readers of all ages through out the country". Unfortunately UNESCO’s initial financial support to the early created Book Councils waned away and most Book Councils in Africa ran out of steam. Indeed during a consultation on the way forward for Book Councils organized by ADEA/UNESCO in Harare – Zimbabwe in 1999, all of us saw two sustainable trends to government responsibility in Book Development Councils in Africa.
The first trend is in Ghana, where the Ghana Book Development Council (GBDC) created in 1978 is an operating agency under the Ministry of Education and Culture. GBDC therefore enjoys total government financial and institutional support like our G.C.E. Board in Cameroon. GBDC is the umbrella book organization that coordinates all book sectors and book activities in the country. No doubt Ghana is home to a vibrant book industry and a popular international Book Fair that is arguably second in Africa to ZIBF.
The second trend is in Zimbabwe where the Zimbabwe Book Development Council (ZBDC) created in 1992 is an independent body of book related organisations but whose Board includes the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture, and the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education. The ZBDC has a secretariat headed by a Director who acts as a link of all related members. While government provides some financial support, ZBDC is autonomous to source for funding nationally and internationally. It is therefore clear that Book Councils that took off solely as NGOs without government support died on arrival. The other issue that a national Book forum should address is the drafting of a national book policy. A national book policy ensures that "books (not just textbooks) become an effective instrument of educational development, social growth, cultural preservation and meaningful communication at national and international levels"
What all of these indicate is that our government (Ministries of culture, Education, Commerce) now has a large menu to invite book clients (private and public) to a national Book Forum. While this is being considered, government needs to (possibly through its Culture committee in the Assembly) enact an Art policy that makes private corporations which patronise book initiatives enjoy tax- deductible support. Functional Municipal libraries should be part of local government policy and books written or published by Cameroonians should have a certain quota bought by a national library scheme and distributed to the municipal libraries nationwide. For these libraries to be functional their authorities should organise book events like children book week, mobile reading campaigns, book bazaars etc. Cameroonian Publishers in particular and other book professionals should through the Book Development Council benefit from interest – free loans from banks and literary subventions, copyright dues, and periodic grants from government institutions. Indeed an enabling book environment in most African countries has not only produced knowledge for national growth but has broken the barriers of our continental macho society to produce women voices that hold their own in the comity of world scholarship. I am thinking of Veronique Tadjo of Cote d’voire, Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, Yvonne Vera of Zimbabwe, Mariama Ba of Senegal, Assia Djeba of Algeria, Nawal El Saadawi of Eygpt, Buchi Emecheta of Nigeria, Bessie Head of South Africa, all of whose books were selected among Africa’s best books of the twentieth century. I am also thinking of the Nobel laureate of literature Nadine Godiner of South Africa; the 2003 Caine Prize winner, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor of Kenya; and the 2003 Noma Award laureate Elinor Sisulu of South Africa. Such female literary grains exist in Cameroon waiting for a favourable book condition to sprout into a bumper harvest.
C.K. Paul once said "books constitute the tree of knowledge which has grown into, and twined its branches with those of the tree of life, and of their common fruit men eat and become as gods knowing good and evil"
Often times one hears the lame excuse that Africa’s oral tradition deprives it from the culture of the written world. We said the same thing about a film culture until Nollywood took all of us by storm. Another flimsy excuse is that with the annihilation of our purchasing power due to external greed and internal graft, books are a luxurious commodity in the market of survival. True as it may be for a teeming lot concerned with bread and butter issues, it is not the case with a prebendal elite obsessed with the ostentations exhibition of obscene opulence. It is a matter of individual priority, community interest and national vision. Education is an arm of development and as efforts towards achieving basic education for all in Africa in general and in Cameroon in particular intensify, an enabling environment to read and write will continue to be emphasied as a right for everyone and as the vehicle for actualising this aspiration.
Finally, books are like any other industry, with a market that is constantly growing and which could generate jobs. And in these melancholic moments of a structural adjusted and Sino invaded economy, a revamped indigenous book industry in Cameroon could as well be another national lifeline.
*Mwalimu George Ngwane is a Cameroonian writer,Chairman of the (NGO) National Book Development Council- Cameroon,and member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the African Book Publishing Record- Columbia, U.S.A.