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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

How to reverse decline in reading culture among Tanzanians

6th September 2011

This week Gerald Kitabu interviewed Levina Mukandara Oloo, an education consultant on readership culture among the youth. Excerpts:

QUESTION: What is the state of readership among the youth at present?

ANSWER: The culture of reading books is crucial for independent knowledge acquisition and lifelong learning. It builds in a person the essential attributes for self-advancement and national development. These are the same attributes the Education and Training Policy, MKUKUTA and Vision 2025 aim to achieve: to transform individuals and enhance capacity to cause positive change – self-confidence, inquisitive mind, broadmindedness, creativity and positive self-esteem. Unfortunately, the culture of reading has declined among Tanzanians -- youths and students in particular.

In recent years in schools, colleges and universities many students would only read a particular book when preparing for examinations. After that books are abandoned for good. I understand that everyone says Tanzanians do not read. As in generalisations, there is fact and there is fiction in that statement. Consider the following statements.

“People do not have access to books,” “People don’t read because there aren’t enough interesting books,” “There are books but they are too expensive,” “People want books that contain information that can help them improve their lives, and those books are not available,” “Interesting books are written in English not in Kiswahili.”

These statements may not explain fully why Tanzanians do not read, but they certainly raise questions that must make us think and realise the complexity of the problem of readership and building the habit of reading.

Given interesting books from childhood, in the home and throughout the education years, every child has the same chance to acquire the reading habit, irrespective of the society he or she comes from. The idea that Tanzanians do not read is, therefore, false. What is true is that most Tanzanians did not in the past, and do not still, have access to interesting books early in their lives for them to acquire the reading habit. Those are fundamentals why Tanzanians do not have the reading habit.

Q: Experience shows that it is very easy to see youths reading newspapers -- especially sports and entertainment pages than academic materials such as books -- why?

A: Since the privatisation of the media in the 1990s, the number of newspapers and tabloids has multiplied, and serials have become abundant and the most popular form of fiction at the moment in terms of quantity of readers.

It can be said that newspaper serials are the most popular form of Kiswahili literature in Tanzania at the moment. This is all the more important for the assessment of reading culture in Tanzania, as book sales via the established channels of distribution using book stores are weak, or even on decline.

This decrease seems to be counterbalanced by an increase in fiction published in newspapers. Students are reading for exams not to acquire knowledge; they also read fiction published in newspapers because they are affordable and available.

However, since reading culture is a major requirement for national development, it has a crucial role to play in creating independent learners, underpinning literacy skills and educational attainment, and helping people understand themselves and others better. Books are repositories of cultural heritage of people, the granary of world knowledge and the centre of convergence of ideas from all orders.

Q: What do you think should be done to revive the reading culture among Tanzanians in general?

A: To lobby the government and do a lot of advocacy so as to raise awareness on the importance of reading through:

First, the National Book Week Festivals that have been organised annually for the last 17 years with the objective of remedying this situation by exposing to the Tanzanian society, and especially to children, all kinds of books produced in our country;

Second, library development in schools and community to make books accessible to all people in the country; active involvement by librarians in the reading development of children, young people and adults;

Third, conducting children and community reading tents all over the county: This has a very big impact -- BAMVITA and the Children’s Book Project has been conducting this in various districts such as Hombolo, Mvomero, Bagamoyo and Mkuranga.

If I compare with Kenya, where I have been studying for my Masters degree, I cannot say that they are better than Tanzanians or Tanzanians are better: they are all the same reading for exams.

All factors affecting reading culture in Tanzanians are the same in Kenya. I can say it is bit better in Tanzania because a common mwananchi can afford to buy a newspaper to read fiction stories daily but in Kenya most people in slums like Kibera and Mkuru cannot afford that.

Q: What should be done?

A: Youths must cultivate reading culture for their personal and career development since reading books is knowledge and power. But also companies and financial institutions must support library development by donating books in the country so as to promote the reading culture as they do to support sports in the country.

On its part, the government and private sector should strengthen library services and embark on mobile library project to spread this service to remote areas. The government should also support the book industry and encourage local publishers to publish many books at affordable prices for the interest of Tanzanians.

I also encourage schools and parents to help children build a reading habit. Teachers and parents should set the example.

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