The original causes are historical. Uganda – and most of Africa – developed as societies based on oral rather than written cultures. In the colonial period, literacy was primarily an administrative tool. Widespread primary schooling is recent. Newspaper circulation and book production remain low.
Official literacy rates of fifty, sixty or seventy peercent do not imply functional literacy. Large sectors are only partially literate. Many people can understand a simple text, but have problems with complex documents. They lack the habit of reading.
“Currently there are only about 40 poorly facilitated public/rural libraries in Uganda. There is hardly any facilitation in terms of infrastructure development, stocking, staffing and proper library operating rules to talk about in these libraries.
One can hardly see visible reading activities going on in most of these libraries. … Hardly anybody borrows a book there. … Most of the books are over 30 years old. Hence, there are no recently published novels regular readers can borrow.”
James Tumusiime, chairman of National Book trust (NABOTU), p. 36
At the same time, I’d like to add, electronic and digital media are in high demand. The use of mobile phones – which allow texting as well as talking – is growing very fast. With regard to phones, the UN development goals for 2015 (which were established in 2000) were realized in 2005. The networks in Uganda have started to offer web access by phone. The infrastructure is also expanding very fast – and the intense competition is keeping prices low.
This sector has definitely reached take-off, in Rostow’s terms.
Libraries and reading
Building libraries will not change the non-reading culture by itself. Neither will good intentions. Libraries need to walk on two legs: supply and demand. The first covers builidings, books, furniture and staff. The second depends on the situation of the user.
Let me look at the second.
Libraries exist in order to help. Academic libraries help students and researchers complete their studies and their projects. School libraries help children develop the habit of reading. Public libraries help communities and individuals
- solve their problems
- realize their goals
- enjoy knowledge and culture
Needs and freedom
Libraries can be established by orders from above. But governments can not order people to use them. Libraries will develop if they can respond to real needs among the user – and get funded to do so.
By “real needs” I do not mean the needs that outsiders (like myself) can see or imagine, but the needs that their actual and possible users experience and express. This applies to all types of libraries.
If children want to read, public libraries can offer a safe and quiet place for reading. If local peasants want to produce more, libraries can help with information about agriculture, transport and markets. If people seek work, libraries can help with information about positions, training and the labor market.
Authority and curiosity
Schooling and much of higher education is scholastic in nature. It is based on the authority of textbooks and teachers rather than on student-oriented reading, exploration and discussion. Knowledge is supposed to flow from the teacher into the student, like water from a jerrycan. Students that seek other sources of knowledge may even challenge the teacher.
When schools are scholastic, students pass exams by reproducing the content of their textbooks. If the textbooks are big, they may study summaries rather than the books themselves. Students are not required to read beyond the textbook – and do not gain anything by doing so.
Schools and school libraries – teachers and librarians – can only develop together. A culture of wide reading is also a culture of curiosity, discussion and disagreement.
- Parry, Kate (ed.). Language and literacy in Uganda. Towards a sustainable reading culture. Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2000. – 117 pp.
- Conference papers.
- Miirima, Henry Ford. How to acquire an insatiable thirst for a reading culture. Kampala: Henry Ford Miirima, 2010. – 154 pp.
- Popular book in pamphlet style.