ZIBF @ 31 – Promises and perils

Charles Mungoshi

Charles Mungoshi

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
The Zimbabwe International Book Fair spread its turf to Bulawayo last weekend for the regional edition of the festival. The book fair ran under the theme “Indigenous Languages, Literature, Art and Knowledge Systems of Africa” at the City Hall. Writers, publishers, librarians, and booksellers at the workshop engaged the theme with a varied range of responses – cliché, activism, wit, humour, graphic facility and sleep-inducing lectures – as can be expected of middle-aged academics.

Exhibitions, which ran concurrently with the workshop, were highly subscribed, marking a considerable improvement from previous fairs.
The Literary Evening, which was first introduced in Harare last year, also revealed signs of life in the embattled book sector.
Over the past few years, ZIBF has been trying to reclaim its billing as Africa’s premier literary festival.

Notable feats have been scored in this regard but significant headway will depend on the fair negotiating its way out of several challenges.
It is pertinent both to credit the accomplishments and fault the stagnancy of the book fair, chiefly its alienation from the digital loop, with a view of optimising its potential.

Equally key is confronting the language problem which was the object of deliberation at the just-ended fair. The sector must be seen to move along with the resolutions

Despite its ephemeral nature, being an annual festival, ZIBF provides a window into the state of Zimbabwean writing and remains the foremost literary institution.

Its slouch towards obscurity in recent years reflected the virtual dysfunction of the book value chain. With the industry in recovery mode, ZIBF has registered a decisive comeback with a national crusade targeting all major cities.

Dependence on offshore donors in the absence of homegrown support, however, spells jeopardy for the festival.
Last-minute evasiveness by the usual donors almost threw the regional fair into disarray. Local stakeholders are on call to support the book sector.

Presenters grappled with issues such as “Traditional Arts as Intellectual Property,” “Writing and Publishing in Indigenous Languages,” “The Importance of Indigenous Knowledge Literature” and “Folk Tales, Riddles and Proverbs as Indicators of Social Values”.
Godfrey Muyambo noted that the new Constitution gives every author of any language a sense of belonging, in light of the ratification of the 16 indigenous languages.

Zimbabwe’s Constitution recognises Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa as official languages.

“That is the starting point for the indigenous writer; that the way has been paved for writings to be acknowledged,” Muyambo said,
“This is an opportunity that has to be embraced by all writers, in particular those who write in indigenous languages as the thirst for material is definitely there. Even publishers are eagerly waiting for material in these languages and so are the various learning institutions,” Muyambo said.
During the main book fair last year, Primary and Secondary Education Minister Lazarus Dokora announced Government plans to incentivise authors writing for the ECD curriculum.

Silindile Moyo and Sibongile Jele pointed out the need to write in different languages from the ethnic cross-section, with special reference to our own African experiences.

They invoked the example of South Africa’s Indigenous Life Public Project which was entered into force by the government to publish books in different languages by writers from different ethnic backgrounds.

Other participants bemoaned publishers’ apathy to new writing and urged Government to come aboard with the requisite funding lest the imperative remain a pipe dream.

“The Literature Bureau has to be resuscitated to enable the production of new literature. Publishers in indigenous languages can receive incentives like subsidies and tax reduction,” said Noma Moyo, an editor with the College Press.

“Inclusion of categories for indigenous language works in book awards such as NAMA and the ZBPA Literary Awards would go a long way in encouraging authors to write in indigenous languages.

“In Nigeria the introduction of the Karaye Book Prize for literature written in Hausa language has played a significant role in encouraging authors to write in the language and has seen more Hausa works published,” she said.

Sifundo Nkomo and Anita Malumisa hinted on the prospect of 90 percent of the world’s languages being replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century, thereby reducing the number of languages from 7 000 to less than 700.

“It is vital for children to read in indigenous languages so that these languages would not be endangered or replaced by the English language. This means that writers should write in indigenous languages so that these children have materials to read in their own languages,” they urged.
Bulawayo-based AmaBooks crowned the discussions with the launch of a short fiction anthology translation called “Siqondephi Manje? Indatshana zaseZimbabwe” from stories culled the Short Wrings series.

The anthology, featuring stories by Raisedon Baya, NoViolet Bulawayo, Diana Charsley, Clement Chihota, Mzana Mthimululu and several others, was edited by Jane Morris and translated by Thabisani Ndlovu.

At its height, ZIBF used draw in such literary notables as Cyprian Ekwensi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Migere Mugo, Louis Bernado Honwana, Kole Omotoso and Chinua Achebe.

“The book fair and the workshops were richly subscribed from across the continent. The best books in Africa were on display,” ZIBF co-founder Phylis Johnson told the delegates during the indaba last year.

Johnson emphasised the importance of digital publishing – one area concerning which most Zimbabwean publishers have been grossly negligent.
“Moving with the times into technology and digital publishing is essential for the survival of the industry, or we will lose the content battle for young African hearts and minds who want to know who they are,” Johnson said.

“That is a challenge not only to the ZIBF but also to the writers and publishing industry. Sustaining and strengthening all of the links in the publishing chain right through printing and distribution, is important to us here in Zimbabwe, where this vital, competitive publishing industry is admired in other countries who do not have this luxury of working together to develop education and youth, literature for children and adults,” she said.

Inferably, the early success of the ZIBF was made possible by exploiting every tool at the organisers’ disposal. With the digital migration of readers from being citizens to being “netizens”, the need for an all-out digital outreach cannot be played down.

I asked a major publisher why his organisation does not have a website and he told me that publishing is pure capitalism. “If anything doesn’t bring in more profit, why bother about it?” he asked.

With such thinking prevalent in our foremost literary institutions, it comes as no surprise that few locally published writers have amounted to international acclaim.

Consistent support from the corporate sector and the Government is also critically needed. Last year, ZIBF organisers announced a fistful of resolutions including national book awards and piracy-busting measures which could be indefinitely stalled if support is not forthcoming.
ZIBF was incepted in 1983 with Johnson, her husband, the late David Martin, and the legendary Charles Mungoshi as the founding directors.

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