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While waiting in a long line for the taxi, I began reading a thick book when I noticed people staring at me. This is likely because we are not used to seeing people read anymore. In cafes you will see people staring at their phones or endlessly stirring your tea instead of reading. You may see people reading newspapers in the morning but only sporadically. How can we get more people interested in reading when, as I argued in my column last week schools are failing to promote reading and we do not see many local leaders and celebrities doing the same? There have been some literary successes, Teddy Afro recently used a book as inspiration for one of his popular songs and a recent banned historical book caused a buzz but there hasn’t been consistent evidence of reading culture in Ethiopia. Most contemporary Ethiopian writers are not able to make a living from their publications due to falling readership. We must figure out how to solve this problem for the next generation.
In a long line waiting for a taxi I was reading a thick book. Many people both in the line and walking by the road till the cows get home were gazing at me. It is not very common to read at such places in Ethiopia as far as my knowledge is concerned. One might ask why but they wouldn’t get a satisfactory answer to such a rhetorical question.
The actual answer lies in the hearts of every one of us. It is because we are not accustomed to reading at any place which is suitable to do so.
In café’s you will see more people repeatedly stirring their tea than reading. What would it take for them to spend half the time they take stirring their tea to read?
In the morning I see people reading magazines and newspapers but only sporadically. Can we say that is a reading culture? The answer for me is a litigious yes and no. Yes because they are at least reading something as time expenditure. However, you can predict that some of them are cornered to some specific newspaper or columns or when there is an issue that concerns them. Reading newspapers and magazines occasionally does not make one an ardent reader. We cannot dare say letter readers are readers. Memo readers are not readers. The ability to read doesn’t lead to a culture of reading although it is better than being illiterate.
Where shall we start nurturing reading culture? The journey of reading should start at home and then at school. In the last society piece I wrote for Capital I stated that most schools are failing to develop a culture of reading. How many of our teachers read books other than text books? How many of our students read? How many of our writers read other literary works? Do our journalists read? Do our celebrities ? How about our leaders and politicians? Parents? Sisters? Brothers? The list goes on.
Most of us here in Ethiopia, I observe, do not have a regular reading habit except reading social media articles and columns of some periodicals.
When the late Abraham Reta Alemu, a journalist and writer best known for his huge book collection, passed away an Amharic weekly said “a living library has burnt”. Prolific writer Baalu Girma. was an avid reader and this inspired many of his protagonists.
One of Baalu’s books Oromay was widely read when it was published but it was banned immediately. Surprisingly however, people continued to read at the expense of risking their lives. Another recent book was temporarily banned which only helped increase its readership and revenueDr.Fikre Tolossa`s book about the origin of the Oromo and AmharaThe young writer, Yismaeka Worku`s as well had a lot of readers when he published his novel Dertogada which was also translated into English. All three of these examples show that people will read when given a reason but motivating them to continue reading is challenging. Other books have not seen the same success.
From another angle it has been over sixty years since the prolific writer Haddis Alemayehu published Fikr Eske Mekabir. It has many readers from its first publishing to now. But a song by the vocalist Tewodros Kassahun this year swept the shelves of book stores because he included the characters in the song. Where have these readers been? Are they reading for the sake of reading or reading for the sake of the song?
The falling number of readers has led may contemporary writers to publish only a few copies of their books.
Reading newspapers and magazines alone can`t be a pillar for a visible reading culture. Reading books that are the flavor of the day is not a reading culture. Reading a “banned” book is not an indication of the existence of reading culture.
We need to do whatever it takes to develop a reading culture in Ethiopia for the sake of the next generation.