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Books to bucks: Literary culture in Malawi

National Library Zomba
In Malawi, publishing is dominated by religious and educational texts, while there is little support for fiction and poetry. Photo by Sarah Feldbloom. 

By Sarah Feldbloom

For Malawian authors and their readers, maintaining a local literary culture is important. “It’s about the need to revere our own stories, to have our own legends,” says Malawian writer, Q Malewezi. “Pride is very important. Pride gives support and hope, and with hope we have possibilities.”

Even so, it’s a fight to maintain a literary culture in Malawi; high poverty and low literacy discourage the production of a national literature.

Malewezi is a well-known cultural figure in the country—a composer, hip-hop producer and spoken word performer who easily garners an audience. He’s now written a book of poetry, The Road Taken, which he’s self-publishing because he says there are no publishers in the country willing to print poetry.

In Malawi, 65.3 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and only 64.1 per cent are literate. But it’s not just the literacy rate that’s having an impact. As Pascal Kishindo, Director of the Centre for Language Studies at Chancellor College tells me, it’s simply too expensive to update library collections, publish local literature and support a literate or literary populous.

Ironically, one undermining factor is the book industry itself, which is geared toward producing pamphlets for NGOs and text books, as opposed to supporting local fiction and non-fiction authors.

Of course, it isn’t impossible to access literary books in Malawi, but it’s difficult. Second-hand books are available in the market and in some local shops, though the majority of books for sale tend to be business and technical manuals or religious publications. And where novels and poetry anthologies are sold new, the prices are prohibitive to most Malawians, usually ranging between 2,000 MWK and 5,000 MWK ($13 CAD to $33 CAD).

The country's National Library Service is certainly a popular source of literature. But only one branch exists in each major city, and most content is donated from Western publishers who have unsellable items or by organizations that redirect used books from schools in the West. Classics and pop fiction by authors like Evelyn Waugh and John Grisham, as well as dog eared science textbooks are popular finds.

Malewezi says the only reading most Malawian youth are doing these days is online—Facebook notes and emails, not literature. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 60s and 70s Malawi had a thriving literary community, urged by youth studying at Chancellor College.

“There was excitement in Africa,” says Kishindo. Most countries on the continent had just come out of colonialism, and so emerged the idea to create an African literature. Malawi's most canonical writers like Steve Chimombo and Jack Mupanje published works during this time.

Kishindo tells me that now spoken word performance dominates as opposed to texts, partly because the form draws on traditional oral storytelling and partly because it helps solve the problem of producing books.

“It’s a fascinating war,” he says. “It’s like we are now saying ‘books may not be the best way of expressing ourselves, let's go back to oral culture.’”

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