Last month, I accompanied a relative to her appointment with a cardiologist. I saw a woman reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow as I entered the office; she was obviously another patient. I started cranking my neck, fidgeting in my seat, trying all my best to get this woman’s attention. I wanted to casually strike up a conversation about Pamuk, books and reading. Then suddenly, she looked up, our eyes met and I recognized her. She was my mother’s colleague and friend.
I estimate that there are only two degrees of separation between me and any reader in Ghana.
Ask a Ghanaian about the last book they read and the answer will most likely be the Bible or the Koran. They actually mean the 1st and 2nd verses they glanced at while in church the previous Sunday.
Most people in Ghana are not:
- reading while traveling/commuting via public transport
- reading while waiting for any type of service
- listening to an audiobook while driving
- reading at home
- reading during their lunch break
- contemplating which books to give as gifts during the Christmas season (if they can afford to give gifts)
The truth is the majority of Ghanaians do not read books.
Ghana’s literacy rate hovers around 65%. Among the literate 35% are the functional illiterates, whose reading skills are simply inadequate and who find reading beyond a basic level painful and/or impossible. Most fully literate working and middle-class folk do not read books.
I’m hard-pressed to use the words Ghana, reading and culture positively in one sentence.
There is a painful joke that one can hide anything from a Ghanaian by putting it in a book. The irony is that the person who says this joke has probably not read a single book (fiction or non-fiction) in the past 5 years!
So why don’t most Ghanaians read? The reasons are well-known:
- A significant segment of the population cannot read. This is due to lack of access to quality education institutions, especially in the rural areas, and the poor level of literacy instruction in some parts of the country.
- Most school-age children do not have access to books or libraries.
- Most parents, even the wealthy, do not read to their children.
- The promotion of reading as primarily an educational activity. Reading happens mostly in school-settings. It is not considered a leisurely or a post-schooling activity. Certainly books are not considered entertainment. Reading stops when one is finished with school.
- The availability and cost of books. Publishers across Africa survive and thrive by publishing textbooks. The textbook market is very lucrative and most publishers will not even consider publishing and marketing books for the general public. Books for the general public have limited print-runs and limited shelf space. These books are also expensive and are therefore beyond the buying power of most Ghanaians. There are a few libraries and even fewer bookstores.
- Promoting reading is simply not a priority for the government or the society. Have any of our recent Presidents used the words – reading, books, I, love, last time, Ghanaian, fiction, nonfiction – in any combination in any sentence? I don’t think so. This is what you will not see in Ghana; a sitting president coming out of a bookstore with an advance copy of an expected bestseller. The concept of bestseller as applied to books is not known in Ghana.
- It is not surprising then that we do not have enough writers. Ghana, and by extension Africa, has too few writers. There are very few structures that support and promote writing as a profession.
In short, we pay lip service to literacy in this country. That is when the issue of literacy comes up.
The reader is a lonely and an endangered species in Ghana.
Those of us who love books have our work cut out for us. We have to work hard at promoting reading and at developing an audience that consumes the written word. Our very survival depends on it. Otherwise, the Bible and the Koran will be the only books that are “read” and the predominant entertainment will be Mexican soap operas.
Someone remarked that I was calling for a revolution in reading. No, what we need is an uprising.