By tradition, books and things of the spirit seem to take on special importance during the rainy season in Ethiopia in general and in the capital Addis Ababa in particular. This does not mean, however, that the dry seasons are unpleasant for reading or writing. The point is that the rainy seasons force many people to stay at home as schools are closed and many workers take vacations. The weather may not be suitable for going out for the usual walks or strolling the streets. The sun in the dry season can be a good time for outdoor activities although the heat can often be unbearable.
Things start to get colder as soon as the rains start to fall. You are cold and life seems a little lonely. There are few recreational opportunities as the pandemic has discouraged people from going to theaters and cinemas. Mass leisure facilities such as stadiums and sports facilities in general, with the exception of bars, hotels and beer bars, are not available these days. Books therefore fill the void and people often go to bookstores to find something to read during those two months of relative idleness or free time.
The reading culture in Ethiopia is of course not one of the highest in the world although there is no research done in this area. Ethiopians’ reading culture seems to some extent to be linked to changing weather conditions. I don’t think Ethiopians have a strong culture or the habit of going to read in libraries. Go to any public library in the capital Addis Ababa and you will find that the readers are mostly young people and school-aged people, most of whom could read academic subjects as part of the preparations for the news. coming school year.
It is of course a good idea to prepare for the upcoming school year instead of spending time looking at the pages of social networks for the most alarming news of the day, at video games or at videos showing rooms buried deep in the slums of the capital where all kinds of bad habits are formed. Khat joints are the best hangouts for many young people in Addis. Khat joints can be considered good recreational alternatives, but most young people forget that they are also the breeding ground for the transmission of COVID-19, as information provided by the Ministry of Health often suggests. Unfortunately, you cannot observe COVID-19 protocols in places where many young people are crammed into a small room and it is difficult to follow the rule of social distancing or wearing a mask. You cannot just eat khat with masks on because it is impossible to wear masks when eating in a restaurant or beer bars.
There have been many attempts in the past to shut down these places. Unfortunately the “campaigns” were short lived while the addiction to khat is overwhelming. During the rainy seasons especially, these places are attractive not only for khat and smoking, but also for the warmth that people enjoy as the rooms are small and a large charcoal oven burns in the middle of them, serving as a catalyst for mood elevation this happens quickly with the help of heat.
There has been a lot of outcry and pressure from many parents to close the khat and video joints in the neighborhoods of Addis Ababa. The local authorities also sometimes wanted to see these places closed. However, if you close one joint another is sure to pop up somewhere nearby and the neighborhood security guards who watch these places are sometimes meant to be part of the problem rather than the solution. It is therefore a widespread practice that makes it difficult for many young people to develop a reading culture. It is therefore not surprising that the number of kaht eaters far exceeds that of book readers and that there is no program to rehabilitate these young people who are caught in the clutches of addiction.
In countries where the reading culture is highly developed and the publishing industry is so huge that its annual turnover is often estimated at more than tens of billions of dollars, the reading public is offered long lists of book titles to choose from depending on the season. They have for example different playlists for summer, winter and for lockdown as well as for vacation. Besides the bestselling authors, there are also major and minor writers who satisfy the ever-quenching thirst of the reading public. The books are available online, offline, through sales and distribution channels such as Amazon. The needs of the reading public are taken into account as much as the needs of food and drink.
Here in Africa and Ethiopia too, all of these things are not available because the economic conditions are much more difficult here. The book publishing and writing industry in the West has spread beyond its borders. Culture has become a transnational enterprise and books are printed in Europe and America and sold in Africa, Asia and all over the world either electronically or in hard copy. Technology has also come to the rescue of many African countries where books are more expensive than food and the publishing industries are still taking small steps to meet domestic demand.
Transnational Western publishers sell books on Africa or Asia written by diaspora authors living in large metropolises in America and Europe. Many international bestsellers are written by authors from the African or Indian diaspora. The books of Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and Arundati Roy (The God Small Things) are read in London and Delhi with almost equal zeal. Ben Okri’s poems are sought after in both Abuja and Manchester.
Writing has crossed borders for a long time and sometimes books written and published by Africans in Africa are in great demand in Europe or America but it is a rare phenomenon. The notable exceptions are books written by writers of European origin who write about Africa and are published in Europe. The books of respected historians like the late Richard Pankhurst and members of his family have been recognized in Europe rather than here in Ethiopia where they have lived for generations and have written extensively about the country and its people.
Human civilizations are based on books and writers. Rome and Greece are leading the pack in this area. Without their philosophers, poets and historians, ancient civilization could not have prospered and shaped human civilization for centuries. Writing and reading, in addition to the production of goods necessary for human survival, are everywhere the foundations of human civilization. When we say that Ethiopia enjoyed a glorious civilization centuries ago, we mainly emphasize the writings, poems, paintings, sculptures and other artistic creations.
The Greeks were lucky because they produced some of the most remarkable thinkers unprecedented in the history of mankind. These writers and philosophers were not just writers to themselves, but they were also critics of their societies, cultures and governments. They were rebels of the spirit. They did not accept what was written easily. They demanded, criticized and debated in public. Even ordinary people took part in the open spaces reserved for dialogues and debates. Ideas that have been accepted by the public after long debate and criticism are accepted as conventional wisdom because they have been filtered by criticism and tested by life itself. This is why books written in ancient times are still unmatched for their depth of thought, impact, and proven truth. Who the hell could produce Plato’s “Dialogues” or Aristotle’s “Ethics in Nichomache” today? We can generalize by saying that history produces good books and good writers, but the Eternals could be produced by the gods of the Greeks and Romans who could have inspired great minds.
Back in those days, books weren’t taxed on readers like they are in these days of great commercialization where what matters most is how a book is doing in the marketplace rather than its actual value. . The commercialization of books in the so-called civilized West, imitated by the developing world, has led to the colonization of the mind as publishers choose for the public what to read and what not to read because it is they. who decide which book to publish and which book to reject.
Going back to seasonal readings in Ethiopia, many self-published authors try to publish their works in the hope that the conditions of the rainy season will be right for reading and that the book market will generally gain momentum. What they write ranges from poems to history, philosophy, political discourse, satire, as well as children’s books. There are of course many buyers and readers of books in Addis although their numbers leave a lot to be desired. In a capital that boasts of being home to around 5 million people, it may not be considered a âbig bangâ if an author sells ten or twenty thousand copies of their first print run.
Addis Ababa needs more books, more writers and more publishers because it needs more parks and recreational facilities. It needs more cinemas as well as theaters where playwrights can show their works. He needs more libraries just as he needs more trees and flowers in his gardens and parks. There are ten weredas or districts or administrative areas in the capital, but how many of them have a library for their young inhabitants?
Each wereda should have at least one large library in addition to the football and basketball fields. They each need to have a theater as well as a cinema so that culture can flourish everywhere and that only the elites and those with the money can enjoy it. Some people may say it’s not a priority. They should be reminded, however, that the Greeks and Romans wrote all those books that shaped world civilization at a time when they lived in dire economic conditions.
Philosophers did not write these treatises while eating in the best restaurant in town. Some of them lived on the streets or like Diogenes roamed the cities with lighted lamps in their hands looking for a creature they might call man. In our materialistic age, these philosophers could have been taken for fools and worthy of being locked up in asylums for the sick. Can this give food for thought in these cold days? Probably yes.