PRE-COLONIAL societies in Africa south of the Sahara had oral cultures. The folk memory and wisdom were transmitted by the elders to the younger generations by means of stories, recitations and songs, often done convivially around an evening fire outside village dwellings.
The remarkable spread of Islam across the Sahara in the seventh and eighth centuries, and along the coast of East Africa from the tenth century, brought classical written Arabic to the elites of several societies; but this affected only a minority of the continent's language communities.
When, in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, white missionaries from several European countries evangelised on the coasts and subsequently ventured into the unknown interior of West, Southern and East Africa they tried to learn an array of local, predominantly tribal, languages. The German-inspired academic study of philology was coming into fashion and influenced language observation methods in Africa.
These languages then had no writing, so missionaries transcribed words and sentences using the Roman alphabet. This alphabet failed to register pronunciations in all their subtlety and there were funny misunderstandings. The eminent Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, pokes fun at this in a middle chapter of the widely read Things Fall Apart, where members of a village congregation snigger at a word that means 'buttocks' when unhappily mispronounced in a sermon by the white missionary.
Many of the first African language grammar books, dictionaries, hymnals and Bibles, carpentry, bricklaying, farming and health manuals were written in longhand, typed and carbon-copied and subsequently printed by foreign missionaries. One example was the scholarly Bishop Steere, who supervised the completion of the Anglican Cathedral in Zanzibar towards the end of the nineteenth century. He laboriously compiled and published the first Kiswahili-English dictionary. He also published Swahili Exercises, a practical grammar generally used by white missionaries, traders and colonial administrators in those territories of East Africa where the language was widely spoken. I remember in Tanzania dipping into the fourteenth reprint of Steere's work, published during the 1960s, when, in the late 1980s I taught occasional English lessons to students in a seminary near an office where I was doing rural development work for an aid agency. Kiswahili has no separate words for relative pronouns such as who, whom, which and the like. Instead concording letters are inserted in the midst of other words in a Kiswahili sentence to express relative dependency. In the seminary classroom I taught relative clauses by transcribing examples of Kiswahili sentences on the blackboard with their English equivalents.
Textbooks and readers of all kinds have been important educational tools in primary and secondary schools, and at third level institutions throughout modern Africa. Until the 1960s missionary and government schools and vocational training centres used textbooks and readers mainly published in metropolitan countries such as Britain and France. Some books contained material and attitudes reflecting the cultural and political assumptions of the ruling countries.
Post-Independence Textbook Writing
From the 1960s, as newly independent African countries wrestled with the task of expanding school networks at primary and secondary level, the need for Africanisation of curricula became urgent for nation building. Ministries of Education commissioned the writing and publication of new history, geography, science and English textbooks in particular. These were designed to put Africa, targeted regions of Africa and the daily concerns of Africans at the centre of the known universe. The Inspectorates at Ministries often duplicated teachers' notes to assist in the teaching of civics, history, nutrition, nature studies and the like. British commercial publishers such as Nelsons, Longmans and Macmillan Educational brought their long-standing professional publishing experience to bear in the preparation of excellent groundbreaking textbooks serving most subjects in the schools curricula. They liaised with education officials and commissioned foreign teachers with Africa experience, and Africans with similar skills and local knowledge, to write textbooks that would satisfy national and regional requirements.
As a young foreign teacher based at a rural boarding secondary school in Zambia in 1970, I was once asked to travel in the school Bedford vanette along bumpy, dusty roads to the Copperbelt city of Ndola, about 250 miles away. I had authority to spend [pounds sterling]250 surplus from the annual budget on books I thought suitable for classroom and school library purposes. That sum of money would have had a purchasing value of up to [pounds sterling]1,000 in today's terms, so I went to a local bookshop on a buying spree. I selected monographs on a wide range of topics--nature, geography, African history, technical drawing and woodwork, the sciences and assorted reference works. It was a delight also to select multiple copies of novels in the Heinemann Modern African Writers series: authors such as Chinua Achebe, Peter Abrahams, Mongo Beti, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Ferdinand Oyono among several others, some of them now better known in Europe and North America. I also chose titles published by East Africa Publishing House (EAPH) in Nairobi, and novels by local writers published by the National Educational Development Company of Zambia, NEDCOZ.
There was a copper boom on world markets then, so Zambia had ample foreign exchange to import educational, medical and construction materials. In the schools, we teachers had Ministry funds to purchase new books every year. Nevertheless we took regular economy measures. Sets of books would be used by different teachers to teach the same subject in different classes. The normal practice was to append the official school stamp on each book and number copies with a felt pen. At the start of each academic year subject teachers would bring rolls of sticky tape and scissors into classrooms so that pupils could reinforce the covers and bindings. Essential textbooks were issued to pupils and ticked off on their safe return at year's end. This system of book loans was thought to be equitable in view of the widespread poverty in the country. Our pupils entering Form One aged 13 lived mainly in villages in traditional straw and anthill brick huts lit at night by candles or paraffin tilley lamps. Their parents fished along the Luapula river and cultivated seasonal crops on subsistence smallholdings, so purchasing expensive textbooks was out of the question.
We teachers of English quickly introduced Form One pupils to reading programmes using graded readers. They would have learned substandard English in their village primary schools. The Longmans Simplified Readers series was particularly helpful--everything from Charles Dickens and other classic authors to commissioned stories set in modern Africa. One title I enjoyed doing was called Mbugwe the Frog, about an amphibious creature who worked as Assistant Fly Catcher for an imaginary town council. Naturally it had colourful illustrations and in my country would have been bought for younger children as an educational present. Simple material like this during the first term helped timid village pupils to improve English vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation skills. Older pupils liked to tease the first years about the simplicity of the books.
During school holidays I travelled to the cities and happily purchased books and magazines, titles like Drum (published in Nairobi), the government-published Z Magazine from Zambia, or nature, literary and current affairs monthlies such as New African. I passed these on to the older pupils, along with any interesting novels I had enjoyed, and occasional issues of a Zambian youth magazine called Orbit.
For more than three years at that school I was gratified to see African pupils acquiring confidence in speaking and reading English. Some cultivated a keen curiosity in the sciences and went on to follow degree courses. Those with pocket money obtained all kinds of novels, serious and light. Time and Newsweek magazines circulated, and resourceful pupils wrote away to the Chinese embassy in Lusaka for free copies of the photographically attractive propaganda periodical, China Reconstructs. On rare occasions a housemaster might have to confiscate copies of dubious girlie magazines emanating from Europe or South Africa.
It was an optimistic time as pupils from humble backgrounds won places to study at the national university, while others started careers in the civil service, the police and the army. I had the feeling that a new Africa was slowly coming into being, despite depressing civil wars in Nigeria, occasional military coups, and ugly racial problems in Southern Africa.
Oil Crisis and Spiralling Economic Nosedive
Then the oil crisis hit the world in the mid-1970s. In its wake Zambia and the rest of Africa stagnated and regressed. Debt and debilitation became the norm. Education and health services were early targets of financial cutbacks. The African Book Famine emerged as one depressing aspect of widespread educational malaise.
Supplies of schoolbooks began to deplete. African governments imposed foreign currency restrictions and importers of essential technology and foodstuffs had priority in the issuance of import licences. Teachers and pupils intensified efforts to make book stocks last. Most schools began to retain sets of public examination papers in all subjects and keeping sets on file for future classroom use, thereby reinforcing the old adage that teachers do not teach enlightenment and reasoning skills, they teach exams.
During the late 1970s it was depressing to visit city bookshops during school holidays. In one prominent bookshop on Cairo Road in Lusaka only a few shelves had books on display, many of them locally published titles for primary and secondary schools. Many display shelves were covered by stationery materials, crepe paper, haberdashery, hair conditioner and washing detergent, boot polish and plastic toys. Near the pay desk were displayed daily newspapers and government-published tourist guides, business directories and the like. Book sales as such became an incidental, minor percentage of daily turnover in this and other bookshops.
I returned to Europe in 1977 and did not work in Africa again until ten years later. In 1987 I was posted by an aid agency to a rural part of Tanzania about five hours drive south of Arusha, and worked in rural development administration, attached to a diocesan development office that had been established by foreign missionaries.
I visited a nearby boarding secondary school where seasonal maize, groundnuts and vegetables were cultivated, and chickens and pigs reared as part of the school's efforts at food self-sufficiency. All primary and secondary schools in Tanzania, especially in rural parts, maintained production units in line with government policy. Other countries in East and Central Africa had similar policies to different degrees. The Tanzanian school principal asked if I would teach one English lesson per week to a junior class, and I did as requested for several months.
It was a revelation. About forty African teenage boys and girls sat at old fashioned desks in a white-washed room with a tall tin-sheeted roof supported by functional rafters cut from locally grown trees. As there was no electric fan, in hot weather the door and windows were left open. The cement floor was cracked and rutted with small potholes. Behind the teacher's table a large rectangular shape had been painted in black on the cracked wall. This served as a blackboard. There was no lock-up cupboard, and walls were not decorated with posters, maps, nutrition or other educational materials. To compound the depression, I discovered that the pupils had between them two privately owned dog-eared English dictionaries and two grammar books. None appeared to have a novel or any other reading book. The school English Department had no stockroom with sets of materials for this and the other non-examination classes.
I offer the above description to illuminate what is widespread in the secondary sector of schooling throughout contemporary Africa. A similar dearth of reading matter prevails in other school subjects. What sort of schooling is this for young citizens in fifteen or more 'normal' countries throughout Africa? What value is there to a learning procedure which consists of teachers spending large amounts of lesson time writing on a blackboard chunky passages from their own textbooks for students laboriously to transcribe into copy books?
In my office I was able to cut stencils on a heavy-duty office typewriter and run off sheets of grammar, comprehension and writing exercises on the office Gestetner duplicator. The pupils made grateful use of these during the weekly lesson.
On business trips to the distant capital city of Dar-es-Salaam, to discuss potential EU funding for rural development projects around our diocese, I got other graphic impressions of the book famine. Near the New Africa Hotel I came across second-hand book and magazine vendors displaying their wares on the pavements. There were foreign and African novels, assorted academic texts and various school titles, some from Africa and some imported from Europe. Nearly all were second hand, tatty and sometimes bleached by exposure to the sun; some were ten or more years old.
Regardless of their antiquity or state of dilapidation, there was a constant demand for such books. I browsed and noted the Tanzanian shilling prices being demanded for learned academic tomes on Law, History, Commerce and Science, all of them published in Britain. I then checked the original sterling prices printed ten years previously on the back covers: they corresponded to the current price marked in shillings. The law of demand and scarce supply ensured that old, possibly outdated academic books in doubtful physical condition did not merit substantial price discounts.
My sponsoring aid agency provided a grant of [pounds sterling]2000 to purchase books for the diocesan school teachers. In a university textbook shop in Nairobi, Kenya, I selected multiple copies of agriculture, technology and home economics titles. When the aid agency in Dublin sent the sterling draft, the Nairobi bookshop despatched the consignment to my rural office. My brother in London purchased books from the Intermediate Technology Development Group and forwarded them to me. The books were then distributed among subject teachers in four boarding schools in a diocese the area of about three English counties. The concerned teachers appreciated the unexpected bonanza.
Another unexpected windfall was the receipt of about one hundred Home Economics books donated by Sixth Form students in a girls' school in provincial Ireland after sitting their exams. The aid agency airfreighted the books, which I then handed over to concerned teachers in two schools where home economics featured on the curriculum. In one of these schools the subject had only recently been introduced, while in the other the experienced African teacher had achieved the second highest success rate in Tanzania with her GCE exam class.
In 1991 I returned to teaching in Zambia and taught English in a school run by the Irish Christian Brothers. This was one of the few remaining secondary schools in Zambia that still had a school library. In many schools throughout the country, as stocks depleted and Ministry funds dried up, school libraries were simply turned into extra classrooms. This school had three Brothers on the staff and two other foreigners in addition to the Zambian teachers.
One of the Brothers taught Science. During his spare time he wrote text-books on chemistry and physics for Zambia's GCE 'O' level syllabus, consulting Zambian teachers and eliciting help in the preparation of locally relevant diagrams, illustrations and statistical data. He successfully applied for small grants from governments and aid agencies in Ireland, Scandinavia and Canada to under-write the local printing costs. These foreign grants also kept down the retail price of the science titles--important to many students whose parents have low incomes. These textbooks were sold cheaply throughout Zambia for use in church and state schools.
The school library was replenished every couple of years when boxes of second-hand books collected by students in Ireland arrived. State-run schools in Africa do not have such advantageous links with overseas well-wishers.
Practical Responses to the Book Famine
In recent years a number of organisations in Europe and North America have concerned themselves with the book famine in Africa. CODE, the Canadian Organisation for Development through Education, distributes donated books to schools in Africa and has subsidised local educational publications. The Sabre Foundation in the USA has a book donation programme in Africa. In January 2002, at a gathering of Sabre, its African partners and distribution organisations in Accra, Ghana, a Declaration was drafted containing an analysis of the book shortage throughout Africa and guideline principles for addressing the situation. The dumping of irrelevant and outdated books was condemned, and a desire was expressed to encourage African book developers and publishing programmes. In Britain some organisations, including Book Aid Africa, have been addressing the problem in a practical manner.
Small groups of people in Europe have collected books for onward despatch to schools and libraries in Africa. Such initiatives, often on a small sale, can have constructive educational impact, but care needs to be taken with the selection of books. I suggest the following as some basic pitfalls to avoid:
1. Cultural and regional bias in books.
2. Out of date information and concepts.
3. Irrelevance to the curriculum requirements of developing countries.
4. Books that assume values and attitudes at variance with the best interests of poor countries.
Some donor governments have aid programmes encompassing the supply of computers to schools in Africa, but computers will never supplant books.
Finally, I should like to mention two powerful British institutions: the BBC World Service and the British Council. The educational impact of these worthy institutions has been incalculable in Africa and other continents over many decades. The BBC Africa Service magazine circulates at an affordable local currency cover price. Its lively selection of photographs, many taken by readers, and its factual coverage of social, political, educational and artistic matters around the continent has been a boon to the urban general reading public looking for a reliable window on their struggling continent. I hope that the BBC will continue to make appropriate, affordable publications available, and that its radio service will continue to encourage African creative writers and freelance journalists.
The British Council depends on government financing to promote international awareness of third-level opportunities in the United Kingdom. It also promotes interest in British culture generally through its libraries and information centres. I have personally used the libraries in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman, and the hard-pressed library in Blantyre in Malawi.
The Malawian library, during the mid-1990s, had a comprehensive range of literary titles, and smaller supplies of titles on business and the sciences. Notwithstanding the financial constraints, the staff, both local and foreign, tried to maintain an efficient and friendly service to a book-starved public in a country that has scarce foreign exchange for the import of books. I think that the British Government should strongly support public libraries of this kind, and I think that rich countries generally should promote book availability in Africa.
The British Ministry for Overseas Development in the 1980s and 1990s greatly helped the book situation in Zambian primary schools. Suitable English readers were written and illustrated by personnel familiar with the primary curriculum in Zambia and printed in Britain, then distributed to primary schools with assistance from the British Council. I believe enlightened educational practicality of this kind is the way to proceed and hope that other imaginative forms of educational aid will be considered and implemented. Africa has a thirst for education but experiences a ravishing hunger for books.
Garreth Byrne now teaches English as a foreign language to immigrants in North-West Ireland and attempts occasional freelance writing.…