Award-winning Zimbabwean author and storyteller Ignatius Tirivangani Mabasa has been one of the strong advocates for the promotion of local languages. He is the author of such thrilling novels “Mapenzi”, “Ndafa Here” and “Imbwa Yemunhu”. He has published children’s books and also recently established a publishing company. In this interview, Ignatius Mabasa (IM) discusses with Beaven Tapureta (BT) the various aspects relating to Zimbabwe’s reading culture and other issues.
BT: What is your understanding of reading culture and how does it differ from book buying culture generally?
IM: A reading culture is a habit that is developed deliberately either through the school system or at home. It is best developed when people are still young and are taught to love the mystery of words and meaning, when they are taught to read and pay attention to words and their meaning, to the plot of a story. It has a very close relationship with a listening culture – where children are taught to listen to stories, riddles, proverbs, poetry and songs – when you are into a listening culture, naturally your ear is trained to appreciate all the beauty that comes with that culture. Similarly, in a reading culture – there must be an amazing hunger and appetite for reading, for books, for illustrations and stories. If there is a reading culture, children tend to be good at being structured, at comprehension and developing an inquisitive and imaginative mind.
BT: What has been the trend in reading habits of Zimbabweans from the 80s to date?
IM: In the 80s, technology had not decimated our society and our imaginations like it has done now. I can tell you when I was growing up in Chitungwiza, the whole street consisting of about 50 houses did not have a house with a TV. The only house that had a TV was on the next street, and once in a while, we would ask for permission to go and watch one or two shows. During that time, the spoken word still had a very special place in our community. Music and liberation war stories were shared on the radio and face to face. During that time, the education system had a remarkable strategy of promoting a reading culture. The Literature Bureau, which was an arm of the Ministry of Education published story books in Shona and Ndebele for all ages which were then sold at very affordable prices. They also had a great marketing and distribution plan – whereby they informed school’s authorities when they would be visiting the school to sell books. In turn, the school would tell all the children to bring money to buy some books. That was a great strategy in terms of bringing books to the children and teachers. Also, the parents who had given their children money to buy books would get to know how many books their child would have purchased. Because technology was not as ubiquitous as it is now, the children would read and exchange books. The other great thing is that the stories they were reading were relevant to their contexts. But, as the new technologies developed at an alarming rate, TVs, walkmans, video players, DVDs, mobile phones, PCs, tablets and now smartphones, our reading habits have become very poor. I think reading culture is also influenced by policy and strategy.
BT: As an author, how has reading culture affected you personally?
IM: I consider myself very fortunate because I benefited a lot from a storytelling culture, which developed a great listening culture in me. I can tell you that because of the solid foundation of a storytelling culture, I became an avid and fluent reader when I was only 8 years old. I read any Shona book I could find or borrow. Because we had no TV, I remember vividly how we used to have a family reading time. My cousins never wanted anyone else to read except me. We could start reading “Pfumo Reropa” (by Patrick Chakaipa) around 8pm, and everybody would be so quiet and attentive – not wanting to miss a single part of the story. One day my aunt had to come and command us to switch off the light and go to bed because I am sure we had been reading right past midnight. I developed a very special relationship with language, idiom, words, plot and characterisation before I even knew it that one day I would become a writer.
BT: What are some of the solutions that you think are available now?
IM: The Literature Bureau strategy worked extremely well and I believe it is something we can go back to and revive, either under the banner of the Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture or Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education. This means we must have these ministries taking ownership of developing literature books instead of leaving that in the hands of publishing houses that are pursuing a commercial agenda as a matter of policy. We also need to mainstream the teaching of literature in local languages from ECD (Early Childhood Development). We need more literature for development, rather than commercial literature. As writers, we also must be innovative and explore producing e-books and audio books which can be made available via mobile phones and other modern technologies.
BT: You have established Bhabhu Books, a company specialising in publishing works written in Shona language. Why Shona?
IM: Bhabhu Books is a Zimbabwean book publishing and Shona language promoting organisation that was established in 2011. The word bhabhu comes from Shona baby talk. It is a verb that babies use when they want to be carried or strapped to their mother’s back. When babies are carried on their mother’s back, they feel warm, happy and assured. Bhabhu Books is there to help nurture our children and make them understand the world through books and stories mainly in their first and mother language. Bhabhu Books is founded on the belief that language is important in shaping values and developing society. Where there is value in doing so, Bhabhu Books will make foreign books and stories available to local children through translations.
BT: From a publisher’s perspective, do you think reading habits for general books have improved in Zimbabwe?
IM: No, reading habits for general books have not yet improved due to several reasons. As a country, we have left the book sector in the hands of commercial publishers who are after profit-making. This means their business is based on money coming through, but this limits the availability of a variety of books for the country to read for enjoyment. The economic hardships and lack of policies have also contributed to reading habits not developing.
BT: What is your take on 2014 ZIBF theme “Indigenous Languages, Literatures, Art and Knowledge Systems of Africa”.
IM: The 2014 ZIBF theme is spot on because it talks to our new constitution and also the Arts, Culture and Heritage Policy document that is being developed by the Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture. I have no doubt that traditional knowledge will play an important role in the future. According to one cultural expert Albert Chimedza, it takes 30 years for people to be confident enough to see value in what they have.
BT: How do you think the newly initiated Arts, Culture and Heritage draft policy will impact on the book industry?
IM: The draft policy is the best thing to have happened in the arts and culture sector – and is a very good and solid start by the new Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture. We have been doing things in a very disjointed manner to the extent that we were almost becoming schizophrenic. The policy anchors and gives the book industry and the rest of the arts sector a clear direction and a sense of hope – especially for the development of literature in local languages. The policy will also enable us to reclaim the ground that we have allowed to be lost. It is the way to go.
BT: Has technology been a handy or impediment in the development of a vibrant literary sector?
IM: So far technology has been a great impediment because instead of the book, smartphones are promoting music, videos and texting. We need to find a clever way of also claiming a stake in the space offered by technology. Tsuro naGudo must also be available on Whatsapp as audio books. Besides that, I strongly believe that our curriculum should respond to social change so that Tsuro naGudo and the other aspects of learning remain relevant.
BT: After all has been said, do you think the future is positive or negative regarding reading and book buying culture?
IM: Given the seriousness of the Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture’s approach as exhibited in the new policy document, if we all put our shoulders to the wheel, I am sure we will start seeing the change we desire. This means everybody should play their part – and the Ministry should live to its word of creating an enabling environment for the creation, promotion and celebration of our arts and culture.
BT: Thank you Ignatius.