Why do Africans find reading difficult?

Saturday September 03 2016

Last week, the annual Writivism literary festival was held at the Uganda Museum at Kamwokya in Kampala.
Writivism is an initiative that is the brainchild of Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire and has been running since 2012.

Several leading Kampala media companies and others in Africa supported the 2016 festival with free advertising or publicity.
The media was not just being generous. It has an interest in trying to increase the number of readers of its print and online newspapers and social media pages.

Through the six-day event, the attendance by the public was disappointingly low (some might say alarmingly low). One of the visiting writers, the British author Michela Wrong (It’s Our Turn to Eat, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz) on the final night of the festival noted the very low attendance.

More than 90 per cent of those who attended the festival’s various events, workshops and sessions were writers from Uganda, other African countries and invited writers and academics from the United Kingdom.

Essentially, it was a case of holding a Christmas service at church and most of those who attend it are the presiding Reverend, deacons, the choir, ushers and the organist.

The fact that the Writivism festival was given adequate publicity both in traditional media channels like radio, TV and print newspapers and on various online platforms but the public’s attendance was so low came as a reminder of the nightmare that continues to stalk the Ugandan and African book, newspaper and intellectual industries. Every other consumer market such as beer, mobile phones, Internet connectivity and banking has seen a several-fold growth over the last 20 years.

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Uganda is the fifth-largest beer market in Africa after South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana and it ranks among the top 10 in Africa in the number of Internet users.

About a third of Uganda’s population now owns a mobile phone and the number of bank savings and cheque accounts has increased almost 10 times since 1995.

And yet Uganda continues to see near-stagnant newspaper circulation and most African countries report very low numbers in book reading, writing and publication.

Given that the number of cars, phones, TV sets, pay TV subscribers and DVD players has increased significantly over the last 20 years means the reason newspapers and books struggle to sell in Uganda cannot be about the poverty or low purchasing power among the population.

In Africa, the general view is that like geometry sets, slide rules and lab test tubes, books are things one reads or uses while at school and only at school and which one leaves behind at school as soon as one has completed one’s final exams.

There seems to be a problem with the intellectual level of the African and Black (which is why even in Black America, Black Europe and the Black Caribbean books sales and authorship are almost as dismal as they are in Africa.)

As the US public television broadcaster PBS reported in March 2014, “Only 14% of African American eighth graders score at or above the proficient [reading] level. These results reveal that millions of young people cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about the written documents they read.”

Eighth Grade in the United States is the equivalent to Senior One or Form One, the first year of secondary school, in countries like Uganda.

That report by PBS is significant in its statement that millions of Black Americans “cannot understand or evaluate text”.

At first when I joined social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, I thought the problem might be with me and an unrealistically high standard I expect of people in what I assume are simple matters.

As many who have read the responses on the comments section of Facebook know, it can be a very frustrating experience.

Most Ugandan Internet users are utterly unable to write a single sentence coherently. Most cannot understand a fairly simple statement or observation and in their responses tend to totally miss the point.

Many when one corrects them or responds to their comments that went totally off-point accept the correction, indicating that they genuinely had not understood the report, observation or post they were responding to.

Social media might have freed millions of people all over the world to take part in public discourse, but these social networks like Facebook and Instagram have also laid bare the dishearteningly simple, even underdeveloped minds that most of us have.

If somebody with an A-Level education or university degree can find it difficult to follow and make sense of a simple post of about 50 words on a social platform as informal as Facebook, imagine how much more difficult it must be for such a person to read a page in a 300-page novel, biography or article in a high-brow news magazine like The Economist.

Just as so many people have difficulty with mathematics, an equal number might find following the argument in a newspaper column or storyline in a book as difficult as trying to make sense of geometry or arithmetic.

In 1957, the leading English language daily newspaper, the Uganda Argus, had a circulation of 8,200 copies. At that time the population was about eight million people.

Today with the population a little over four times larger, the daily newspapers have a circulation averaging 28,000 copies on a good day, that’s roughly equal to the 8,200 of 1957.

The number of actual, active visitors to the Facebook pages (which are free to read and so the question of cover price does not arise) of Kampala’s leading daily newspapers is about 31,000 to 33,000.

In other words, be it the late 1950s when Uganda’s economy was fairly stable and growing well to the 1960s and much later the 1990s with literacy rates higher and now with the Internet, the consistent picture we see is that only about 10 to 15 per cent of Uganda’s population reads newspapers.

That is about the same as the figure given by the PBS TV channel when it reported that only 14 per cent of Black Americans can grasp what they read.

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