Africa's Publishers Fight for Home Turf Disney's Wild Success with 'The Lion King' Irks Local Writers

Article excerpt

Malawian publisher Celeste Geddes has a major bestseller on her hands. It's a book called "Golden Buttons" by Stephen Kauta Msiska, an outspoken church leader banished back to his village by deceased dictator Hastings Banda. Since Banda died and democracy was initiated in 1994, the book Msiska kept secret for 20 years has become a roaring commercial success, at least in Malawian terms: All 500 copies have been sold.

"We knew we'd make money on the book because Africans are desperate for relevant reading material," said the confident Geddes of the University of Malawi's theology publishing group. She declined to say how much could be made on 500 copies of a book sold for $1 each.

A wide-open niche in a huge market awaits courageous publishing entrepreneurs interested in bringing African books by African writers to African audiences. "If there is to be an African renaissance, there must be an African literature," says Zimbabwean author Shimmer Chinodya. "But 18 years after independence, our school curricula and bookshops still are dominated by Dickens and D.H. Lawrence." Foreign publishers dominate Like Mr. Chinodya, other disheartened African writers at the annual Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare said publishers get severe vertigo when they look into the window of opportunity for publishing in Africa. It shows in African bookstores. From Kampala to Accra to Johannesburg, John Grisham and Maeve Binchy fill the shelves, along with an eclectic array of remaindered Western how-to books on everything from beating the Canadian tax system to growing roses in English climes. The Zimbabwe book fair's sales exhibition is dominated by foreign publishers selling, above all, foreign writers telling foreign stories. What really annoys African writers is that those multinationals also do well publishing books on African themes written by English, German, French, or American nationals and then sold back to Africans. "Think of the amount of money Disney has made from an African story, 'The Lion King,' " says South African author Elinor Sisulu. Her popular children's book "The Day Gogo Went to Vote" encapsulates the most positive story in South Africa's history, the 1994 multiracial elections. "Why is it Disney has worked it out that there's money in African stories?" says Ms. Sisulu. "Why aren't we Africans making money from our own stories? We cry about lack of resources, and yet we have the stories, and we are not exploiting them." Ilne Hofmeyr is trying to do just that in her PlayAfrica series of children's works aimed at "creating a family of African children." She gathered authors and singers from across Nelson Mandela's "rainbow nation" to record traditional songs accompanied by part- traditional, part-contemporary stories. …