African writer wants books, not bridges

Exiled Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove explains why he thinks Africa's reading habits are in decline.
A critic of the Mugabe government, he currently lives in Norway, and his published work includes poetry, novels, essays and reflections.

Chenjerai says books should not be subject to the same sales and duty taxes as other commodities
I signed books until I developed blisters on my fingers once at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair.
But that was not only my experience.
Other writers and poets such as Yvonne Vera, Chirikure Chirikure, Charles Mungoshi and Shimmer Chinodya (Ben Chirasha) were also busy signing dozens of books.
It was in the early 1990s and the public, thirsting for new books, had flooded the National Gallery Gardens to meet the writers and see the books.
Not so today.
A few years ago, I was busy signing autographs on newspapers and pieces of paper.
No-one could afford the books anymore.
African governments have not put in place well-planned book development policies.
Books are subject to the same sales and duty taxes as other commodities.
Materials for producing books, like inks, newsprint, printing plates, and the essential technology, are all taxed on the same rate as bolts and spare parts for cars.
During colonial days when I was a teacher, books used to have an especially low postal rate, almost free.
So students could order books from the National Free Library in the country's second city of Bulawayo.
But now books have the same postal rates as any other article in the mail.
As a result, only those who are within walking distance of the National Free Library can go to borrow a book.
The absurdity of taxes on books is in that governments in Africa are the biggest buyers of school textbooks.
Ministries of Education give money to schools or the responsible authorities as an annual book allocation.
The Ministry of Finance then taxes the books bought by the Ministry of Education in order to give schools grants for the following year.
"New illiterates"
Sadly, most education systems in Africa are also examination-oriented.
Students are never taught to read books as a pleasurable experience in itself without thinking of exams.
Universities and colleges are producing what I call the "new illiterates".
They have their degrees and diplomas, but hardly take time to sit and enjoy reading good books.
In some countries, literacy campaigns have been put in place, but it does not help because soon the new literates have nothing more to read.
They decline back to illiteracy.
The campaign becomes a futile exercise.
Bridges not books
Effective book development policies mean affordable books will be available on a continuous basis in order to make reading a habit in the heart and soul of every reader in every country.
It is sad when I realise that African books are read more outside the continent than inside.
African governments only view development in terms of bridges, school buildings, clinics, hospitals and roads.
The African mind is the least of their priorities.