On our reading culture or not in TZ…

soma homeDo you recall being young and yearning to hear a ‘hadithi’ (folklore). Where your uncle, Grandma or Mother let’s your imagination soar with talking animals and singing vases before bedtime. In various other countries this yearning develops into a love for reading fiction works in youths, adults and elders alike, whether it’s mystery novels, romance, thrillers or memoirs.

In Tanzania the publishing world is yet to boast of an extensive return coming from the demand of fiction works by its citizens. Is it true then that Tanzanians don’t read? In finding out more we talked with a few key individuals in the literary world in Tanzania to learn more of the core challenge that feeds this problem.

“Maybe we need to ask ourselves what do Tanzanians read, rather than do they read…I think people read, they read newspapers, they read magazines there’s a lot of free literature from NGO’s about some advocacy or other and they read that.

You only need to put some magazines in a public place and half an hour later they won’t be there. So people want to read something so the question ought to be how much do they have to spend on buying literature for pleasure?

At the moment we read for utility, we read a public service announcement because we have to find out that information, we read newspapers for news and job vacancies and of course we read textbooks to pass exams. It’s evident the main interactions with books for many people in the country is required (assigned) reading. We don’t buy books for pleasure…” Mkuki Bgoya Production/Design Manager at Mkuki na Nyota Publishers Ltd.

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Inside the bookshop SOMA Book Cafe in Dar es Salaam

“I don’t know why we don’t read again it’s a class thing, middle class Tanzanians read…Honestly I haven’t done research but seriously if one would want to know why we don’t read it goes back to (and am guessing here) our relationship with colonization in Tanganyika.

Comparing Tanzania and Kenya for instance, Tanganyika was a protectorate while Kenya was a real colony of the British. So the British were closer to the Kenyans in culturally colonizing them hence departing the various infrastructures that inform a culture of reading, unlike in Tanzania. This is not to say as an African, Tanzanians don’t have a literary background going back before colonization.

Just recently I went to a Library in Berlin and found a lot of Swahili poetry written by people of the coast of Tanzania upon the arrival of the Germans. The library is called ‘Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin’…” Dr Lilian Osaki-Lecturer at UDSM in BA-Literature
So is it true we don’t have good infrastructures that support the culture for reading. Language education and mastery of the same by the people is one key infrastructure to aid reading. In a country where the education system is bilingual where not one language is taken as the medium for teaching throughout the curriculum but two. I thought to get more views on whether this affects the demand of books and the receipt of quality manuscripts from writers.

“Am not sure it’s the bilingual system that’s the issue rather than the assumption that writing in English is somehow better. If you’re a writer you’re free to write in whatever language you want unlike a student in an English class. So when you write as an artist it’s wise to write in the language you’re comfortable with, the one you’re thinking in.

However I think the various prestigious connotations with the English Language since colonialism have made many Tanzanian writers believe they have to write in English to be respected. The result is manuscripts that fail to really grip and connect with the audience.

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Inside the ‘TPH book store’ in city centre Dar es Salaam

But yes I think our bilingual system is not working it will be better if only one language was the medium and English taught as a subject. First it would be cheaper and second you only have to look at the medium advertisers for the masses like telecoms use who communicate regularly to a majority of Tanzanians. To figure which language the people identify with…Revenue for publishers in Tanzania comes mostly from the ‘assigned reading’ bulk of which is in the form of textbooks. We know this well as we’re also part of a bookshop (TPH) right in the middle of the city center of Dar es Salaam selling all of our works (mostly fiction) for decades now.” Mkuki Bogya

“The language debate has been going on in this country for the last thirty or more years, people don’t want to admit the truth. Fellow educators say the failing isn’t just in English but also in Kiswahili as a taught language.

My stand has been we should be bilingual in that we should know Kiswahili properly respect and understand it and also know English properly. In my opinion the medium throughout should be English but this would be very expensive.

I definitely see the crumbs of the failing of our language education in my lectures. For many of the smartest students are hardly the ones who are conversant in English and they come from rural Tanzania having gone through public schooling. Here you’ll read a paper by a student who gets into the depths of wanting to talk about something so eloquently. That had he known the language you know she would be giving you an excellent essay.” Dr Lilian Osaki

Looking at this snapshot of the challenges we got to speak with two ladies who run a publishing company named E&D publishing Ltd, namely Elieshi Lema who runs the publishing wing and Demere Kitunga who runs the E&D Readership & Development Agency wing with its popular outlet ‘Soma Book Café’. Which also has a book shop selling a bulk of Tanzanian authored books.

In 2000-2001 E&D was involved in a project titled ‘Tusome Vitabu’ (Let’s read books) sponsored by the Netherlands Embassy and working with the Government through its project (MMEM-Mradi wa Taifa wa kuboresha Elimu ya Msingi).

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Inside SOMA book cafe

We knew that targeting children is a step in the right direction because this would make ripple effects and the results truly showed that we were failing our children in providing them with the right books. I will never forget this girl in Kagera who could read up to 100 short story books (in Kiswahili) a month; the minute she was given access to them…” Elieshi Lema Director of E&D publishers Ltd

The project indicated that important learning facilities in primary schools around the country that encourage reading were almost non existent. Many teachers didn’t have minimal librarianship knowledge so as to start and continue school libraries; this to include other education officers in the District and Regional levels.

Also that the knowledge on the benefits of reading is low such that many of these educators don’t see the relationship between fostering reading for pleasure and the better performance of students who read in class.

The project was successful in implementing several school libraries across the country as well as in
pushing for advocacy which mandated for supplementary reading (literary works mostly fiction) in the teaching of languages.

“On the challenge of reading for pleasure with our people, I will say no research no right to speak. There needs be a comprehensive research that looks at one-the importance of reading, two-the hindrances of building that culture if it’s not there and three-the stimulants to its development on the basis of what we see on the ground correlating the lack of it or presence of it however indicative with other sectors of development.

As E&D Readership & Development Agency (In existence for five years) we would love to flag this research but of course this will require resources that we currently don’t have. We however have been working in our capacity to popularize the literary word. We had a literary magazine titled ‘Soma’ which we had to put on hold due to funding.

Currently we are working on the second year of the country wide Short Story competition for Secondary Schools. We are also working on the installation of a street library for street children starting with a slum area in Mikocheni once a week.
We have as well hosted several platforms that inform and derive from the literary word including UWAKE-poetry group; Vunja Mbavu-a monthly standup comedy stint with music. The annual ‘Intellectual discourse on literary education’ and now we’re working with MANENO an initiative to see how poetry and image making can be used in raising awareness on social debate ahead of the country election in 2015.” Demere Kitunga

Inside TPH bookstore

In conclusion there are key factors if one is to understand the literary map in Tanzania with regard to the distribution and use of fiction works. One is the language dilemma which our experts have shed light on, by highlighting its egg and chicken effects to both the readers and writers. Here both publishers added that most of their sales in fiction are in Kiswahili works.

Two is the marketing and distribution of these works. It’s only after 1991 that the Government of Tanzania gave way for the private sector to distribute textbooks to the various schools in the country slowly giving way to mushroom tuck shop book shops across the country.

Still inside these bookshops there’s little fiction works apart from the required supplementary reading for schools because owners fear loses from lack of demand. In return there has been little investment on the book covers and paper quality of the fiction works by various publishers in the past. Ensuring competition for the local authors with the international market is high adding this to a lack of literary critique which is supposed to be spear headed by the media then you get our current situation of a nation seeming disinterested in written literature.

There is a ray of light however as Dr Osaki pointed out there’s a growing middle class that reads and its demanding books from the 8 US Dollar range. This gathering from the flourish of fiction book shops like ‘A Novel Idea’ with various of its branches having sprung in Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Iringa and Zanzibar all in less than thirteen years plus the creeping up of book shelves in super markets as well malls in the cities today.
At the moment several branches have closed from A Novel Idea due to lack of demand. However several NGO’s like CDEA, local authors like Sandra Mushi as well literary clubs like Waka Poetry Consortium TZ & Moto are mushrooming to spear head the cause for reading so there’s light at the end of the tunnel still if we come together as a nation.

In photos are two leading publishers of fiction works in Tanzania namely SOMA of E&D publishers & Tanzania Publishing House of Mkuki na Nyota publishers.


I wrote this article back in late 2014, today there’s bigger threats to our reading culture. As our schools have now introduced the ‘one’ textbook per subject and independent publishers no longer supply textbooks. Let me know your thoughts on our ‘reading culture…’