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The Fading Reading Culture in Tanzania

Herbat Ali, 26, is a university graduate who do not enjoy reading books. He says that he started reading books while he was in Form Four since he did not possess any book when he was young.

Speaking at his house in Kawe, Dar es Salaam, Herbat narrates to the Success how bad he feels by not taking reading seriously.

But Mr Ali thinks reading is a good thing as “it broadens someone’s knowledge about something or an issue.”

“Let’s take reading a newspaper for example, you will have to go to the library, here you will need bus fare or buying a newspaper or subscribing to an internet bundle for the online versions. All these will need money,” he says while while going through Mwananchi newspaper which he says he borrowed from a friend. he adds that with the existing life difficulties, “it is very rare to find someone who is keen to read.”

Mr Ali explains that although there are other alternatives to reading like using eBooks, audio books and the likes “but it is not applicable for a person like me who has access to neither laptop nor smartphone,” he says with a smile.

The importance of building readership culture and its consequences towards personal and social development is well documented. Different stakeholders on the issues have been making numerous calls to Tanzanians to embrace reading culture for their own and national betterment.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the founding father of this nation, once said, “Books are very important way to knowledge and to self-improvement; from them we can learn new ideas; new techniques of working and new methods. We can learn about the development of men in all its different aspects; we can broaden our understanding of other peoples and even of ourselves. All the experiences of mankind, all his discoveries and his inventions can be learned about through reading.”

Mwalimu’s ideas about the importance of books are also supported by John Khan, a renowned US philosopher who once said, “Sometimes, it is better to have books, than food.”

The current situation calls for a redress since readership is decreasing among Tanzanians posing a threat towards an envisioned educated and well knowledgeable community.

According to latest literacy study in Sub Saharan Africa, the old habit that used to involve turning the page over with a flick of the finger, not the click of the mouse, is slowly dying a natural death.

According to the study, in South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Zambia, steady decline in the popularity of the newspaper seems to have levelled off after several years of sliding.

However, books are not getting any traction in the aforementioned countries.

Several reasons have been constantly outlined to have accelerated the phenomenon whenever the discussion about readership and literacy arises.

(AFP/Getty Images/Daniel Hayduk)

For Tanzania, at least three major reasons have been associated with the trend among members of the public. This is according to a random survey by Success through interviews with key stakeholders including pupils, parents, teachers, academicians and readership and literacy advocates.

The reasons include absolute poverty, poor readership foundation from family and early childhood education and the negative attitudes among many Tanzanians towards reading.

“Although poverty plays a great role towards the declining readership culture in our societies, it must not be forgotten that readership is a behavior developed from an early stage and it needs to be started from early childhood particularly from the family level,” says Ms. Magdalena George who is Executive Director at Read International, a Non-Governmental Organization which advocates readership and literacy among children.

She says that the reasons why most Tanzanians do not nurture the culture of reading is that their backgrounds did not bring them up with the habit as “reading is a habit that needs to be nurtured from early childhood stage,” and by recognizing that, her organisation has since 2005 created 87 libraries and donated nearly 1.5 million books to secondary schools in Tanzania reaching more than 750,000 pupils.

She says they decided to go for children so that they can have that foundation built in the country.

“When you invest in these children, you build the next readership generation which currently does not exist because previously these mechanisms were also not there,” she adds commending other stakeholders who do the same like Room to Read and USAID’s Tusome Pamoja project.

Poor foundation

The issue of poor reading foundation is also supported by Mr Ezekiel Sharmakala, 26, a resident based in Mbezi, Dar es Salaam who reads at least two books a week. He says he loves reading because his father built that foundation in the family.

Mr Sharmakala says that while he was in Standard three, his father used to bring him several books of short stories in English and Kiswahili.

He could not understand the impact it could have on him at that time, “but now I understand that my father or my family in general, played a great role in my readership culture,” he says.

To Mr Sharmakala, poverty and readership are two different things referring to university students who receive funds for stationary from the government but “the whole three years can pass without buying even a single book,” says Mr Sharmakala adding that that is because reading is not their priority.

Systematic study

This idea seems to be supported by Mr Elias Mutani, 40, the author of the book Human Poachers, and a winner of Burt Awards for African Literature (BAAL) from the Children Book Institute who asserts that, “If poverty causes people not to read, then we could have seen the rich reading.”

Mr Mutani says that the declining nature of the readership culture is not in Tanzania alone but worldwide and it differs based on circumstances in a particular region or nation.

Speaking about Tanzania, he is of opinion that the “experiences that people have from their childhood life, is the chief reason why Tanzanians do not read,” he says while cautioning that people read what they like and it is not necessary for all people to read the same thing.

 However, there has never been a formal and systematic study specific to Tanzania conducted about how many Tanzanians do read and what they read.

According to Ms Demere Kitunga, the Executive Director of E & D Readership and Development Agency, also known as Soma, an NGO which contributes to the creation, promotion and sustainance of a reading culture in the country, “many of the opinion have been of us stakeholders and other activists advocating for high readership in the country.”

Ms Kitunga says although it is always championed that the reading culture should be started at the early stage of growth of children, “I see fewer efforts in making this into a formal system so that it can increase readership in our societies since anything which successfully flourish in the society, is a result of policy strategy.”

She is of the opinion that once the country has these strategically formulated policies, children will be willing to read and nurture the culture to their adulthood.

There is also the issue of mindset. According to Read International, how someone perceives things t is how s/he will practice them. Referring to people who are urban dwellers where big and resourceful libraries are with access to internet through their computers, iPads, tablets and smartphones, Ms George says “some Tanzanians’ mindsets are just negative towards reading.”

But she cautions that if this trend will continue, it will have severe negative consequences to the country’s Vision 2025 since, “without having proper and right information at hand, you will never make any impact, and you will get nowhere apart from these books,” she says.

In order to make Tanzania a country in which people can recognize the values of reading and take it as a way to enrich themselves with knowledge about different social, political and economic issues, a call is made to all stakeholders to come together to address the matter as, Ms George says, “the role to make a Tanzania with readership culture is not only the government’s but it is of all of us who are obliged to sensitize the importance of reading to different social groups, specifically, to parents and students and to the common citizens.”

As for Mr Sharmakala, he says that “it is a psychologically built up tendency, though false, among many of us that books only matter when we are studying at schools and varsities,” this, however, “needs to change,” according to Soma director, Ms Kitunga.

Courtesy of AllAfrica

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