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
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
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
"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. …