Samuel Matsangaise

"A book is a luxury"

The Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) got a new executive director in 2003 with the appointment of Samuel Matsangaise. The Book Fair had started modestly in 1983 and grown into being the most significant book fair south of the Sahara, although meeting a low in 2002 with Zimbabwe's crisis. Matsangaise has spent most of his professional life with books, first as an editor with Zimbabwe Publishing House and then as the Director of Publications at the University of Zimbabwe. From 1997 to 2001 he lived in Holland , and was deputy head of the publications programme of the Technical Centre for Agricultural & Rural Co-operation (CTA) at Wageningen.

You have been in the book world for quite some time. What do you think is fun about books?
What interests me is that there are so many books, with so many issues. It is a joy to just pick one, where you want to, and peruse through, stop at a page, get what you want, read what you want, move to another page. It is this feeling of almost a permanent imprint on somebody's memory, of somebody's creative work that is now permanently impressed on a piece of paper, and many more can come, several hundred of years later and do the same thing as I am doing right now, peruse the pages and look at them and say: Good Lord, these were weird ideas, what were they thinking of during those times? It is a permanent record of history. They are quite fascinating documents, books have an ability to be like a repository of history. With books we can pass on all the information to the next generation. Absolutely an amazing thing, and its simplicity in terms of how it looks as a commodity, so simple, so easy to read. If it is a small book, you can read it anywhere – you lie in bed, and you read it, you can read in all sorts of places, bath, swimming pool, you name it. Its ability to be everywhere, wherever you are. And it sometimes carries important messages that I find exciting.

Your career has been as a science editor, how do you relate to fiction, and to Zimbabwean fiction?
I think that what you are trained for does not necessarily determine your interests. Life is an interrelationship of everything with everything. Actually I see myself move away from the science.

So how do you react to names like Dambudzo Marechera, Shimmer Chindodya, Charles Mungoshi, Yvonne Vera?
As a young man growing up in Zimbabwe for me Dambudzo Marechera used to be one that one preferred most, the reason being that he was constantly at odds with society, he was always fighting. One sees his problems with the authorities almost as if they were yours, because of what he went through. One can imagine this is what is happening in Zimbabwe now. And more importantly, I find his openness, his ability to describe things as they were, as he saw, without any reservations or restrictions, uncensored –this is what I would definitely encourage and like.

The other authors – I have read them, I like their literature, it teaches us lots of things. But if I had a choice on what books to put on my shelf, I would put Marechera first. And then Tsitsi Dangarembga second. In her 'Nervous Conditions', the way she writes and the way she describes society, this is the way I like. I can see that some of the questions she raises are questions I also raise every day about society. Why do we need to do this? Why are things the way they are?

The other authors, they do the same but sometimes they do not do it in a direct manner. They have different styles. Sometimes they say the same things, but it takes a bit of winding road to get there.

More recently, though, I find Chenjerai's writing to be quite interesting as well, in terms of saying how he feels about what is happening in the country. In his columns, before he left the country, he was asking progressively more important questions about the way we live, and that kind of thing. Because, obviously, authors live in a society – and I find that those whose writings reflect conditions under which we are living, and the way they see them, and the way it affects us – these are the kind of things that interest me most because I can relate them to my interest in politics.

I would like to ask a question about the reading culture. When I put a question to Stanley Nyamfukudza, based on my assumption about a lack of reading culture in Zimbabwe, he corrected me and said that from his own experience, people know him as an author and he said that there actually in the curriculum of the Zimbabwean schools Zimbabwean writers and Zimbabwean literature are actually mentioned in the syllabus.
It is true that there is an emphasis in what is called set books (that people study for examinations) there is an emphasis on study of African literature, especially in English. These books include lots of our own Zimbabwean writers as well. Stanley Nyamfukudza's book would be there; Charles Mungoshi's has been there for ages.

In terms of reading culture it is fairly well developed. How did this come about? Partly as a result of government policy after independence, saying that education was free for all. There was a time when enrolment was almost 95-100 per cent. From the early 1980s to 1989 in particular we produced lots of educated people. The potential for reading culture was there.

But around 1989 there was the introduction of the economic structural adjustment programme. It meant that people had to pay for their own education. When that happened the enrolment in schools went down, so now as we speak we have a very low enrolment compared to what we used to have.

Potentially we have are very educated population. The question now is not really whether we have a reading culture but rather whether people have enough disposable income to buy a book. That is what people do not have now. The current inflationary rate, as we speak now, is almost 400 per cent, which is astonishing; to the mind it is actually bizarre. The salaries of people are not rising concomitantly when inflation is going up. Salaries are actually going down. This means people have very little disposable income.

Even with proscribed textbooks or curriculum learning, people will not buy a book, they have to buy food first and foremost. So with reading habits, potentially we have a very enlightened population that could be reading and buying books, but at the moment one of the things that is seriously preventing that from happening is income.

We also have a Zimbabwe Book Development Council, which is working feverishly on developing reading habits. It has the "Book week" and things like that, promoting book awareness and children's literature. But what is now hampering that in a big way is inability of the people, once their appetite is awakened, to go and buy a book. It is a luxury that they cannot afford. They have to buy food first and foremost, and send children to school.

Is language also a problem? Could there not be an obstacle also in reading English language books for people?
It is rather difficult to say. If you look the population of Zimbabwe, the majority of them, possibly 70 per cent live in the rural areas. Quite often the literacy rates are lower here than in the urban areas. So one could say that English becomes a problem here.

But now I must listen to a question through the wind here, that even urban areas, in terms of the levels of poverty that we now experience in the urban areas, is just slightly higher than in the rural areas. So we are possibly witnessing the shrinking of the percentage of the population who are able to enjoy a novel in English.

Possibly at the same time, theoretically speaking, a minimum of people are able to read Shona and Ndebele. Yet the thinking possibly of the publishers is that publishing in local languages is a bit risky, because those who can read those languages are without any disposable income to buy the books. In a way it leaves out a big chunk who could possibly be reading, because we had more Shona and more Ndebele who probably could read.

Let us move to the Book Fair. Two questions: South Africa has now been free since 1994, but they have not been able to get their act together and organise their own book fair, or their own competitor to the international book fair in Harare . But eventually they probably will. Do you think there is a future for the Zimbabwe International Book Fair?
Yes, I can most certainly say there is a future for ZIBF. Competition is very healthy, it must be welcomed, because it produces the best in the people and organisation as well. The more book fairs we have in Africa , the better. The more platforms we can have to trade and talk to each other, so that is a positive sign. It is a threat, but only in as far as we do not develop our book fair in such a way that it becomes unique, in the sense that it attracts a particular clientele, and offers a particular service that is not offered by anybody else. If you are copying you will go under. I feel that a South African book fair would actually sharpen our mind and focus ourselves on what it is that we should be doing, and how would we do it.

Mind you, Nigeria as well, there is now a book fair there which three or four years old, I am sure they are picking up. We are thinking of how to keep in the head of everybody else.

The politics of the country, though, because I have no control over that. I could come up with good ideas, but I cannot influence. If politically and economically things will not become better, it will be hard to implement and develop our ideas for the book fair successfully.

[Interview on 26 September 2003 at the Göteborg Book Fair, Gothenburg]

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