The Reader in Ghana

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Most school-age children do not have access to books or libraries.
  3. Most parents, even the wealthy, do not read to their children.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

(For more posts and reviews for Ghanaian Literature Week)

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31 comments

  1. Wow! I’m amazed. I’m a second year student in Ghana institute of Journalism. Last semester during our creative writing class, i realized that most of my friends were not imaginative simply bcos they weren’t reading. I was one of the best student in my class just because i read about 3 books a week. I started giving some of my most expensive books to my friends so as to help them read but sadly enough it was no cure for their reading problems. People only read when we about to write our exams….the library is always full to the brim during the exams period. After a long thought during the vacation i set up a foundation made up of active readers. I have boxes of books and occasionaly i burn the ones i don’t read anymore. But with my foundation on the ran way i keep my books and collect more from family and friends and then donate it to the deprived schools. Reading is my priority and i intend to change the society even if it is by a fraction. I just hope and pray i get willing people who are ready to help. Please if you want to help the foundation is called ‘Help a child read’ and you can call me on 0271624557. Thumbs up Kinna, i love your article….you’ve set my mind straight on certain issues.

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  2. As a child, my best friends were my books. Even today, there will be times when I know I have gone far too long without reading from the slight malaise that centers somewhere in my mid-section; only to be relieved by a few days of intense reading! T’other day I tried to start an international book club with my cousin in Ghana and after listing some books we could start with – firstly Ekow Eshun’s ‘Black Gold of the Sun’ – he dropped the bomb on me! There were no public libraries! Imagine my utter disbelief!! How in the world is that possible? My first act in any new city, after apt hunting etc, is to get a library card! Once I have that, my spirit settles. I am blown away and saddened? D.C alone has 26 libraries!

    Well, I don’t plan on just sitting around. Is there a way for us in the diaspora to donate books to start up or enhance existing free libraries in GH?

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    • Dear Akua,

      The Osu Library Fund has built libraries in Ghana but these are different than those you know in the States. We are a small ngo and we do our best to encourage young children to read in Ghana, especially in the Greater Accra Region where we have seven branches. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to offer a lending library or to purchase many adult books. However, before you rush out to collect thousands of books from abroad, you should be aware that, from our experience, the highest interest books are those reflecting African culture. Many of these are available for purchase in Accra. Keep up your enthusiasm as we need more avid readers like you!

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  3. I must admit that I am a victim. I don’t remember the last time I read a book. It has always been proposals, business plans, project overviews etc. What can I do to change this? I want to join a Book Club in Accra but I don’t even know where they are located. Help!!!

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    • Herbert, first thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. Second,I hear your frustration. I’ll take this conversation into email and see what both of us can come up with. All the best.

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  4. For more than twenty years the Osu Children’s Library Fund has done its best to share the joy of reading with Ghanaian children. We start by encouraging the smallest child to look at picture books – ideally those reflecting local culture – and to turn the books’ pages carefully. Both activities are beginning steps to ensure that a child perceives him or herself as a reader and that the books will remain intact (not a given!). Little by little books become friends to these young children. They will continue to read the same books while discovering new ones too. The desire to read follows a natural course, not hampered by reading competions that set goals outside the intrinsic desire that a good book brings. Even as the reader grows there are no book reports or essays to follow as both activities might kill any desire to want to ever read again.

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    • Kathy, thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. Your work with the Osu Children’s Library is a lifesaver. Thank you for all your efforts in growing new readers in Ghana.

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  5. Really interesting article Kinna. It seems that there are a number of good authors coming out of Ghana these days, but sad about the education and access. Those are always the main issues aren’t they and not so easy to fix either. How do we improve education easily?

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    • My opinion re: Ghana is that the government and the society at large have simply abandoned the educational sector. Ghana actually spends a relatively high % of its GDP on education but because of very poor planning and oversight, the return on this investment is dismal. Most people who can afford the exorbitant fees send their children to private schools for primary and junior secondary schooling. The sound instructional practices that promoted learning and literacy when I was in school are no longer to be found in the schools. It is terrible but we have to hold our government accountable and do our best as a society of promote literacy. An uphill battle for sure but what else can we do?

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    • Thank you, Stu. All the benefits of reading are lost on my fellow citizens. It will take an aggressive reading and literacy policy to change the status quo but we have to and are going to try.

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  6. I can only say “thank you” for saying what I may have thought. I think the emphasis on exams and rote learning don’t help. It seems that many feel that reading is linked up to school or a specific course. And once those are done, well, reading – apart from the religious and self help – is seen as irrelevant, and perhaps even too much work, especially compared to watching TV and/or movies

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    • I know that you will understand and appreciate what I said :). Thank you. What I don’t get is that the movies are not that good either. Most of the scripts are just plain awful. Ghanaians are bored, really really bored.

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  7. Great post Kinna! Maybe not on the same scale, but some of your points also apply to Portugal. The literacy rate is at around 95%, but a recent study concluded that what people read more are the subtitles of movies on TV and the information in the packages of medicine…

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  8. Dare I say that reading for pleasure seems to be a fading past-time worldwide? I mean, the number of people I run into in America (which has an excellent public library system) who say they haven’t read a book at all for fun in the last year is just mind-boggling.

    I’m curious, does Books for Africa help the access problem at all? It’s one of those programs that I, not being from an African nation, am skeptical about.

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    • Programs like Books for Africa do get the books into Africa. But reading is not promoted so relatively few people take advantage of such resources.

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  9. books don’t have to be expensive – yes new books are, but places like The Ghana Book Trust sell novels for Ghc1.50.

    I think it’s a matter of priorities rather than cost. People choose to spend their disposable income on other things like clothing.

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  10. Great Kinna. You left out the stupid pamphlets with such titles as ‘Akwele the maidservant’, ‘who killed Nancy’, ‘My mother will be me’ etc. I agree we need an uprising, perhaps of the such magnitude as the Arab Spring’s. The last time a president wrote a book (by himself, not those people write about them) was way back in the 60s. And that was the last time reading was given any thought. For most Ghanaians who read, it is more likely to be such self-help books as ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’, ‘101 Power Rules’, ’21 Steps to Financial Freedom’.

    When I read on my way home, in taxis, people tend to look at you and you can’t even tell the driver to reduce the volume of his radio.

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    • Thanks, Nana. LOL, the pamphlets. Yeah, we miss Nkrumah, Danquah and the learned rest don’t we? I often wonder at what passes for leadership in this country. We have a long way to go.

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  11. Loving this passionate call to arms for what to a lot of us is such a massive part of our lives. But what’s strange is that here in the UK we’ve access to libraries, shops etc and yet I’m considered a bit strange, because I read a lot, get questions like have you no Television. Reading may not really exist in Ghana, but It’s seriously on the decline here & not just with kids.

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    • I know. I’ve been reading with alarm at the closure of libraries. I just don’t understand how libraries are such easy targets when times are hard. Reading is not a luxury. Well, we bookish types are considered strange everywhere I guess. But we understand each other though, don’t we? 🙂

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  12. This makes me sad. Is there anything your international readers can do to help? I always want to support literacy efforts, but it’s hard to really know which ones are doing real good. Are there organizations or projects that you suggest supporting, either financially or otherwise?

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