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How local cafés can spur Uganda’s reading culture

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The Coterie Book Cafe in Bugolobi, Kampala, announces itself as “A book cafe located on Bandali Rise in Bugolobi. Good books like good food.”  PHOTO/PHILIP MATOGO

In the 1993 movie Indecent Proposal, the architect played by Woody Harrelson stands in front of a class he is teaching to quote Louis Kahn. “Even a brick,” says Harrelson’s architect, “wants to be something. It aspires. Even a common, ordinary brick wants to be something more than it is…better than it is. That is what we must be.” 
In this regard, the bricks piled up to become Nalya Motel, sought to be something greater than themselves and thereby became the motel. The motel’s manager, Aggrey Nshekanabo, reveals how this bricked aspiration was decidedly literary.  

Feeling the Burns
Robert Burns (January 25, 1759 – July 21, 1796) was a Scottish poet and lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is celebrated worldwide. While in the United Kingdom (UK), Nshekanabo joined this celebration by visiting the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. It costs £10 (Shs48,000) to enter as part of a preservation fee, which goes towards culturally embalming the literary memory of Scotland’s favourite son.

While there, Nshekanabo paid £10 for a cup of coffee as he thought of Burns and his genius while in his birthplace in the beautiful village of Alloway, where the museum is located. As he pondered the works of the enduring hero of Scotland’s literary heritage, Nshekanabo hit upon an idea.
“I decided that I would start something like this in Uganda,” he said.

Initially, he wanted to create such an architectural tribute to Uganda’s own literary heroes in each region of the country.
“I wanted to build one in the north in memory of Okot p’Bitek, one in the west for Dickson Mubangizi, one in the east for Timothy Wangusa and one in [the] central region for a pantheon of Ugandan literary juggernauts,” he said.

Later, he scaled down this countrywide ambition to make Nalya Motel an amalgam of all these plans. Not one to allow his present circumstances to determine his prospects unless the former favours his every waking moment, Nshekanabo got to work. That is why, like the Burns Museum, Nalya Motel offers books, coffee and an environment conducive to literary unwinding. The coffee is not £10, but is Shs10,000 and the books are local to cater to a domestic literary palate.

Similar establishments
Accordingly, several establishments which serve coffee and comfort (with more than a soupçon of literary works) are flourishing all over Kampala. For instance, Sankara Pan-African Library and café, in Bugolobi, Kampala, is “an all-inclusive space; a calm and serene environment filled with great books by all your favourite black authors, offering you amazing coffee/ other beverages and food options to help you wind down and relax.”
Also in the suburb of Bugolobi, The Coterie Book Cafe announces itself as “A book cafe located on Bandali Rise in Bugolobi. Good books like good food.”

Boosting our reading culture
These haunts such as Nalya Motel are part of the bedrock essentials not only for boosting the reading culture in Uganda but also buoying the country’s coffee industry. The two, as we shall show, go hand in glove. 
Frederick SM Kawuma’s new book, Is There Poverty in Your Cup of Coffee? A Profile of the Global Coffee Value Chain, alludes to this synergy.

“It has to be acknowledged that coffee tourism in producing countries offers a range of opportunities for both the local economies and tourists interested in coffee culture. Coffee-producing countries can leverage their rich heritage to attract visitors and create sustainable income streams,” writes Kawuma.

In this vein, tourists can come to the country to enjoy indigenous authors while partaking in the Ugandan coffee served in cafés such as Sankara. This not only adds to the coffee value chain, it also enriches the literary culture as this wonderful beverage is popularised by the literary figures associated with its consumption.

Writers and their coffee
The French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac once said: “Were it not for coffee, one could not write, which is to say one could not live.” Balzac used to drink 50 cups of coffee a day. 
While American novelist and poet Gertrude Stein wrote: “Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.”

The French writer and incomparable wit François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plume M de Voltaire, frequented several cafes in Paris during his lifetime, including Café Procope and Café de la Regence. At Café Procope, located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, writers and intellectuals of the first magnitude used to sip coffee during the Enlightenment period.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer was frequently found at this café.
Reportedly, there is also a plaque commemorating Benjamin Franklin’s drafting of the first French-American Alliance at the café.

To be sure, writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald all used to gather in Parisian cafés to discuss more than just the weather.

Nurturing all things literary
It stands to reason, then, that if the Ugandan literati and such cafés closed ranks, as it were, they would give the country a fighting chance in enhancing our cultural diversity and, crucially, our economy.  We can learn from big cities, such as Paris, which developed a link between the intellectualism of the literary kind and coffee-serving establishments.
The two were made integral parts of a grand design to sell the cultural value of the respective countries in which they are found.  

This is part of the coffee culture that Kawuma has written about, a culture which engenders the class and sophistication associated with places that showcase high culture lubricated by mouth-watering indigenous beverages.