I have in the past been critical of our waning reading culture as a country. If there is one fact that needs no contestation, it is this: Zimbabwean people read to pass exams. It is just a matter of routine and socialisation. Our whole education system is a manufacturing process of careerism. We all have to study to become accountants, doctors, lawyers or engineers, if that is still the case. Or we read enough to be marketable to other countries.
Unfortunately, we inherited these mechanical reading habits from our colonial past. Then and now, we are conditioned to be robotic and perform our functions without questioning them. Historically, we were not encouraged to read, to develop our mental and spiritual selves. We were blindfolded from the liberating potential of reading. We were taught to condemn reading for the sake of reading and deprecate it as self-indulging luxury. Or, if were encouraged to read, it was often the Literature Bureau morally sanctioned didactic tales.
Some elements of our society still hold on to that archaic view. And since the economy of Zimbabwe of recent years has been scrapping at the bottom of bottoms, the nourishment of the belly has obviously taken precedence over the nourishment of the mind. But this is a perennial Zimbabwean problem. We don’t buy books. We don’t give away books as presents. We don’t borrow books from the library. We don’t have bookshelves in our houses.
To be fair: we read. In Zimbabwe, a book is a communal object, shared by everyone. When I was growing up, I read books; mostly Pacesetters or John Grisham even Chinua Achebe novels that were passed on from one person to another, until the whole township had read the book. Sometimes, the book arrived to you with missing opening pages or no final chapter. You had to make up the beginning or the end of the story. And it still made sense.
However, there is a crisis of books in Zimbabwe. Bookshops are hard to find; and when you do find them, their stock is disappointing. It is self-published self-help books or what many call “motivational literature.” There are no books; and if there are any there, they are just text books and manuals funded by non-governmental organisations. It is as if books do not matter at all. Yet books enhance the imagination of a society. Books are the best recreation.
Pavement bookshops used to be a feature of Zimbabwean towns and cities. I remember when booksellers used to be found at the underside of the Parkade at Rezende Street or Mbare. The guys stocked every title. If one didn’t have it, he would know one who had it. Sadly, the pavement bookshops are not there anymore. The infamous Operation Murambatsvina campaign swept them into oblivion.
The highlights of my childhood, were the moments, I huddled with my young siblings on the big brown sofa, while our mother read to us. This was a daily evening ritual that we always looked forward to. We took turns to read out too. Our imaginations were peopled with fascinating characters. We took flight in books to other worlds. Our mother was the pilot. Sometimes, we asked her why a character was sad or crying. She would instantly become a storyteller.
She equipped us with the gift of reading and comprehension. Sometimes she encouraged us to speculate answers to our own curiosities. She encouraged us to read and to imagine. Unfortunately, most parents don’t read to their children any more. Children encounter books at school and those experiences with books are often bad ones. Mechanical. Forced.
Those reading sessions equip-ped me with the gift of reading, of comprehension, of imagining. In fact, books have always been a significant part of my life. As a kid, my family moved houses a lot. My childhood was a series of movement from one location to another. We were always constantly sitting at the back of removal trucks, waving goodbye. One moment you were making acquaintance with a street and its inhabitants, the next you were starting all over again.
Books became my constant companions. My mother had boxes of them, all kinds — chicklit, Mills & Boon, African, English, Indian, even Russian in translation. There was always something to read in the house. Books were always staring and daring you to open them. I read them out of curiosity. I read them for awareness. Reading is taking part in many journeys.