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Dear Africa, where are your contemporary writers, books, libraries?

Today was a blog waiting to happen. Only, it’s not going to be about the Ghanaian and African Embassies in the West as I’d intended – don’t worry, it will have its time too – but rather about contemporary books, libraries and reading in major African cities like Accra, Lusaka, Jo-burg, Lagos, Dakar. It features some great insights from people on Facebook and Twitter on Africa’s reading culture and access to contemporary books.

Yesterday I participated in a very fruitful Virtual Americanah Book Club meeting with two of my friends – one in Accra, Ghana and the other in Maputo, Mozambique – and we had a swell time reflecting on Chimamanda Adichie’s latest, how it resonates with us, the different themes and so on. I posted some of my thoughts and a tweep asked where they could get the book. I have gotten this question so many times this year – especially after my “summer reads” blog - and so I automatically responded “Amazon” and sent a link. Then the question hit me: Where do Ghanaians, Africans go to get contemporary/recent/new books these days?

The Days of Sweet Valley High and Books for Less
As a youngster in Ghana I got my books from three main sources: my parents’ collection over the years – they are both teachers and so had many children’s books; borrowing from friends at school – those were the Sweet Valley High, Babysitter’s Club, Famous Five days; and finally, libraries and bookstores – my school Alsyd Academy had a pretty good stock of books, but now that I think about it, there weren’t that many books by African authors. I should know, I won a school prize for being a bookworm :P

Bookstores-wise, there were a number of options such as EPP books, the University of Ghana bookstore, and resale outlets like Books for Less. There was also a book outlet of some sorts near East Legon in Accra which shipped in books. I think it was either through a partnership with DfID or one of those agencies.  My parents always went over to restock their collection and hook myself and my siblings up and I’ll admit, they had a wide variety of interesting books – fiction, non-fiction, text books, all of that.

Now the thing with local bookstores and libraries in Ghana is that whenever I think about them, I think about text books and school supplies, which honestly, just translates to boring. Sadly,  I didn’t think about novels when I thought about local bookstores and libraries.Don’t get me wrong, I liked some of my textbooks, but after studying all year long, I wanted novels, stories, fantasy lands to escape to. So if a bookworm like me sees a library and thinks boring, it’s no wonder many Ghanaian and African youth consider reading to be boring or just another chore.

While all this economic growth and transformation is taking place in key African cities, is the same happening in our minds, our perceptions of our various realities and our learning? If we’re still dealing with boring, ol’, spider-web type bookstores, libraries and books, I’m sorry to announce the answer would be a resounding “No!”

Human Distribution Networks
So where do Africans get their novels from today in a day of technological advancement and higher interaction with the rest of the world? I’m willing to wager a bet that the majority get it through friends in-country, wait till they visit the US, Europe etc to purchase or restock, or have friends or family members purchase and bring the books down on their behalf.

Things haven’t really changed since I was 12 years old and in Class 6. I remember vividly how myself and some friends would “book” (queue, waitlist for) a copy of Babysitters club after some of our classmates (or their relatives) returned from London or the US with new books. The book would make its rounds within the class and also between classes and that’s really what fed our extracurricular reading. Thinking back, the limited exposure to primarily Western books is probably why my first co-author project with a good friend  was entitled “The Spiker Sisters” (?!), had names like Zack, Jaimie and Janice, talked about banana sundaes (which I’d never tasted or seen in person until 2008!), and effortlessly referred to ‘hanging out at the mall’ long before Accra got its first real mall. What we read/consume influences who we are!
 ”This is an issue on many levels. [It] takes me back to my experience with O-level History and questioning my professor why on God’s green earth we were studying solely European history and nothing on African history… His response “They said you don’t have history and you don’t have writers”…I was so upset by it…Also related to African writers…I have heard it is difficult to get “Ghanaian bookstores” to carry them – that hustle even stifles creativity. If I were a writer I’d give up because the “system” doesn’t even encourage me.”
- Senam Apaloo (Facebook)

No African Audience for African Writers?
It seems that the challenge of procuring current books still remains. Most of the novels I got through the resale outlets and even the textbooks were foreign books and pretty much outdated. Sure, they might have looked new, but turn the cover and you see they are at least five years old – not that I really cared then. But I do now. Others made you wonder if the notion of books on sale was just a marketing ploy given their high prices. Most of these books are priced way higher than in bookstores abroad. It’s no surprise then that people would rather bide their time to buy or ask friends and relatives to get them books and bring along when visiting:
If there’s been one visible change in the literary world, it’s the diversity of African voices cropping up, from well-known authors like Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie to newcomers like Taiyie Selasi and to younger voices who are being uncovered through initiatives like the Baobab African Prize. I think it’s safe to say that there are more novels, stories, and narrations from an African perspective than there were for 12-year old me and my mates in school. But are they getting the visibility, exposure and audience in their own countries?
I always thought it to be in bad taste that our own African literary giants would travel miles to universities in the US, Europe to read, speak, but would totally bypass  African countries. Now, I get it. Why bother when there’s no credible evidence of an audience, of distribution networks? The Silverbird Lifestyle Store at the Accra Mall used to hold so much promise. I was so excited the first time I went inside to see shelves and shelves of books, many by Ghanaian and African authors. Now the store is a mediocre version of what it used to be, having been downsized and carrying mainly magazines, music CDs, and greeting cards. Why? It probably has to do with business, profits and so on, but why should this be the case?!
A whole city like Accra, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Dakar where investors and tourists flock, and yet the local populace doesn’t even have a venue worthy of being called a state of the art library or bookstore? I cringe at the thought that all the amazing books like Adichie’s Americanah are not even reaching Africans themselves or are reaching just a small segment which has access to credit cards, has networks abroad or who can download e-books with kindles, laptops, and phones. And let’s not forget the language element either.

The Digital Era of Books &  Shopping
Look below. That’s what the tweep replied to me after I sent her the Amazon link for Americanah. And there you have it folks, the digital era. It’s really great that people can opt for e-books, Kindles, and so on, and as you can see, in a country like Ghana where access to current books proves to be quite a hassle, digital options help circumvent some of those issues. But as always, those options are dependent on having reliable and secure financial systems and debit/credit cards like Ecobank’s Classic card which apparently allows for online purchasing from Ghana (I just found this out yesterday!).
With many African countries blacklisted for internet fraud you can only imagine how many online stores would happily indulge purchase requests originating from the continent. That said, the advent of financial products by companies like Ghana’s Dream Oval and online shops like Nigeria’s Jumia could help address some access issues when it comes to procuring electronic and hard copies of books. But again, a distribution network is essential, and this is where we seem to be failing.We need to figure out how to import current books at a feasible cost, create viable distribution networks in-country and across the continent, encourage local libraries and book stores to stock up on current books, and reinvigorate the reading culture in our various African communities.

The Way Forward (?)
It’s obvious that we have grossly overlooked this situation and only God knows what kind of impact not having access to current books, much more textbooks is having on learning, sharing, gaining a global, current perspective in our various African countries. Things change so fast and if you’re not current, chale, you’re losing out. I’ve always toyed with the idea of moving to Ghana and setting up a cool, artsy coffee shop and bookstore where people could just relax, read, talk, interact, do book readings and so on, and was elated to hear about SyTris Bookservice in Osu which apparently follows the coffee shop model.

That said, we need many more to jump start a coffee shop/literary movement and maintain momentum in sharing ideas, connecting, reading. There’s a lot of business opportunity here! In addition to setting up and sharing personal libraries, we could also explore setting up National Libraries like Rwanda’s Public Library in Kigali which is state of the art and really impressive. Some folks also had other interesting ideas for enhancing access and encouraging a book culture across Africa:
 1. Revitalize African Bookstores, Libraries
2. Encourage African folklore, writers
3. African Books? Maybe there should be an app for that!
4. Jump start a reading culture – more African author meets, book readings and tours
5. Enhance the distribution of books in countries and across Africa

Bookstore Recommendations for Accra

For now, these are some of the recommendations I got for getting contemporary books in Accra:
1. The most recommended is SyTris Bookstore and Cafe in Osu, Accra. I took a quick look at their website and it seems they have Americanah in stock. I also love the fact that they have a coffee shop feel, definitely going to check it out when I’m next in Accra. Check out their Twitter and Facebook pages!

2. EPP Books Services – at Legon or Trade Fair: It turns out they have a website, Facebook and Twitter pages too! People in Ghana can order online via their website.  They also have branches in Benin, Nigeria and Sierra Leone and plan to expand further across Africa (as per their website).

3. University of Ghana Bookstore (Legon, Accra) <– A bit too textbooky. I don’t know how current they are novel-wise.

4. Vidya Bookstore in Osu. They have a Facebook page.

5. Sedco Publishing near North Ridge Lyceum School for the African Writers’ Series. Tel +233 302 221332

6. Book Launches hosted at the Goethe Institute by the Writer’s Project of Ghana.

7. Miscellaneous mentions: Challenge Bookshop at Kokomlemle, ATTC & Readwise inside Kanda, and street vendors near the Ghana Library Board.

Thanks to @RasHman467, @aemaen, @EkOWMaIsSe, @justSalt, @bashfuta, @mcourageous, @missbwalya @aemaen, @i_Archive, @kajsa, @WCAWorld, Nina Chachu, Makafui Zimrani and everyone who shared their insights! If you’d like to share your recommendations on bookstores, libraries and coffee shops in various African cities, please do so via the comment option or email me. Thanks!


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