It is a tradition that began in 1983, when the new star African country, Zimbabwe, was embracing the fruits of high literacy. Amidst the euphoria of independence, the widespread introduction of educational programs meant to reach the remotest corner of the country, the ZIBF was formed to serve as Africa’s example of the appreciation of writers, books and the publishing world. Harare in late July/early August was a beehive of activities, a Babel of sorts as writers and publishers from all over the world converged to enjoy a week or so in an environment of conferences and excursions. This went on for over twenty years, each year registering another successful story for the book industry in Zimbabwe. Then from about 2004 things began to change. The political environment in the country became restrictive as publishers from sanction-swinging countries became uncertain on whether or not to travel to Zimbabwe for the fair. The numbers of exhibitors began to decrease, and finally, the 2008 ZIBF has been cancelled. The main reason given, as The Herald reports, is the withrawal of funding by sponsors who sited the current economic environment in the country as not conducive for the fair.
This position is understandable, in a world determined to punish the Zimbabwe government, a world that does not want to seem to contribute money that might end in the wrong hands. It is also understandable that most exhibitors would choose not to participate in the book fair, considering that, in a country in economic ruin, spending a week setting up stands in order to celebrate books might be a mocking luxury, not to mention, again, that these exhibitors would pay fees that end up funding what the world does not want funded. There is also the issue of safety, at least from the perspective of the foreign exhibitors going into the country. Most NGOs and humanitarian organizations have said that Zimbabwe has limited or even stopped their activities to prevent the championing of interests that do not agree with the government’s. It would make sense that the continued spread of literacy that the promotion of books engenders might also be seen as an unwanted intrusion serving these conflicting interests. And, oh, with some foreign media not allowed in the country, who would cover the activities of the fair to make the experience worthwhile? It would seem inconceivable to have, say, a British publisher state that it is sending representatives, with thier Pounds, to exhbit literacy in Zimbabwe. Basically, the questions anybody would ask those trying to put together another ZIBF would be, why even bother? Whatever the real reason for the cancellation, it is clear that the book industry in Zimbabwe has suffered a heavy blow, just as many other sectors in the country have. So 2008 is going down in history as the year the Zimbabwe Interational Book Fair was cancelled; it will go down in history, of course, as the year a lot of other things happpened or did not happen in Zimbabwe.
What does this mean for Africa?
Given that the ZIBF used to be the Franfurt of Africa, its cancellation certainly affects the continent’s book image in many ways. Since Zimbabwe is in a transitional state, one not favorable even for the display of books as determined by the sponsors and some of the exhibitors, we can hope that next year the event will be held. But it is time other African countries raise support for efforts to hold book and writing events of a ZIBF magnitude. There is much hope. South Africa has a book festival that’s very promising. Kenya’s Kwani Litfest, which currently focuses on writing workshops, has the potential to operate at the level of ZIBF. Let’s have something in Mombassa, in Tanzania, something in Lilongwe. Something. Anything. The African Book events should be raised to levels that match the magnitude of writing talent that the continent’s writers have, and if this means that the writers themselves have to be involved in publishing and promotion, as in the case Farafina in Nigeria, so be it. This is the time for the African writer, equally a time for the development of a matching, sustenable, self-sufficient African publishing industry. Do I hear the whisper: You wish?
Comment: As long as our art depends primarily on handouts from foreign organizations, it will come to times likes these, when politics of countries dictate when a book fair (that tends to benefit school children and readers of all ages) is held and when it is cancelled. This is not a good picture for both the sponsors and the recipients of these handouts.