Ngugi, leading authors and publishers take stock of hits and misses in key city forum

Nairobi is hosting a three-day International Publishers Association (IPA) conference, the second time an African country is playing host to the world event.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry Chakava, Kimani Njogu, Peter Kimani, Peter Tabichi and Hugo Setzer, President of IPA from Mexico, are among some of the authors, publishers and educationists who spoke during the event that started on Thursday and ends today.

The event came to Nairobi courtesy of Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) whose chairman Lawrence Njagi said the eyes of the global book community were focused on Africa as leading figures in African publishing and beyond converged in Kenya’s capital to tackle issues that face the continent and wider publishing world.

“We were honoured to have been able to attract such an inspirational line-up for this seminar. We undoubtedly had three thought provoking days of discussion on Africa as a leader in international publishing,” Njagi said. 

This year’s seminar attracted more than 600 attendees from more than 50 countries to discuss sectoral innovation and revitalisation.

“The seminar featured keynote speeches by renowned authors, decision makers and industry thought leaders in addition to panel sessions and workshops on themes addressing the most pressing challenges facing the African publishing industry,” Njagi said.

He said strong national reading cultures contribute significantly to promoting literacy skills, enhancing learning opportunities and addressing poverty.

“However, despite the presence of many literacy programmes in Africa, little attention is paid to instilling a culture of reading among the youth. The result is a generation that is reading less and watching more than ever before. We need governments, donor agencies, publishers, librarians, teachers and families in fostering a culture of reading,” Njagi said.

Hosted under the theme Africa Rising: Realising Africa’s Potential as a Global Publishing Leader in the 21st Century, Ngugi a writer, activist and professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California Irvine, led a discussion on the impact of mother tongue on teaching and learning in early childhood education.

His short story The Upright Revolution beautifully blends myth and folklore with an acute insight into the human psyche and politics to explain how and why humans began to walk upright. Originally written in Gikuyu, it has now been translated into 74 languages — making it the most translated story in African literature. Njagi joined other speakers to discuss achieving quality education in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 which requires providing students and teachers with sufficient teaching and learning materials. Kenya has rolled out the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) from pre-school up to Grade Three and aspires to achieve the 1:1 student book ratio by next year.

The session discussed the scarcity of learning materials in African schools, the issues it causes for the region, and potential solutions for reaching the goal of a textbook for every child.

It drew from the varied successes of African countries, including free textbook programmes and market-based interventions to make textbooks cheaper.

Tabichi, the math and physics teacher at Keriko Secondary School and winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2019 was a panelist on the Publishing Ecosystem Talk to discuss the challenges faced by African educational systems and schools and how the publishing industry can help.

Chakava, the chairman of East African EducationalPublishers has published many school textbooks and has received numerous awards including the 2006 Prince Claus Award for initiatives that have had a positive impact on society. Since the UN declared 2019 the year of indigenous languages, African languages were discussed by linguist and translator Kimani Njogu who has campaigned for the protection and promotion of Swahili and community languages, as well as the Kenyan Sign Language. He believes that protecting these languages is important for “national confidence”, and maintains that “we become better, richer and inclusive through linguistic diversity.”

Kimani, an author and journalist, was a panelist on how the publishing ecosystem can be evolved to develop Africa’s next generation of publishers. The session drew on the experience of younger publishers, writers and artists to understand the current state of Africa’s publishing ecosystem. Odhiambo, a literature lecturer at the University of Nairobi, discussed the perils of self-censorship and explored ways in which publishers, writers and other creative industry stakeholders can take a stand.

The publishers were concerned that there is a growing trend of institutionalised censorship imposed by themselves to avoid run-ins with government censors and interest groups that threaten free speech.