Thursday, October 14, 2010

Books for Africa

Today sees the start of Bouchercon and Stanley and I are settling in San Francisco which certainly beats sleepless in Seattle! Yrsa and Carla are also here. But more about BCon in later blogs. This one is about last weekend.

A recent article in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility discussed the effect on children of growing up in homes with many books versus growing up in homes without them. The conclusion was that the impact was of the order of three years extra schooling. My immediate reaction was skepticism. Statistics is a dangerous subject, and cause and effect are risky bedfellows. Would the possession of books not follow from social status and professional job status? Was there not simply a correlation here which had more to do with parental approach, and perhaps genetics, than books? The authors of the article think not. In fact they estimate that the impact of books in the home is twice as significant an effect as the professional status of the parents. Other research has suggested that even starting a small collection of books can make a significant impact on the recipient’s approach to, and interest in, learning. If this is so, then what of the children of the large numbers of families in Africa where money goes no further than the necessities and books are regarded very much as luxuries? Indeed, schools and libraries in many parts of Africa have inadequate supplies of books, never mind what happens at home.

So it’s wonderful to discover that there is a dedicated and efficient organization based in Minnesota which is concerned about the issue and does something really worthwhile about it. The organization is called Books for Africa (BFA), and it has a simple mission: “We collect, sort, ship, and distribute books to children in Africa. Our goal: to end the book famine in Africa.”

Billy Karanja Kahora

BFA is based in St Paul, and Stanley and I recently met several of the people involved. The occasion was the Conference on African Literature that BFA held last weekend at the University of Minnesota. The speakers were Uwen Akpan (Nigeria), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia/South Africa), Alexandra Fuller (Zambia/US), and Billy Kahora (Kenya). Once the organizers discovered that there was another couple of African writers hanging around, they invited us to join in for the functions and book signing on Saturday. It was a truly interesting day, and the panel discussion was the highlight. The authors all come from different perspectives, have different interests and styles. But their work is deeply rooted in Africa.

Nuruddin Farah
Nuruddin's first novel - Sweet and Sour Milk - concerns the story of a young Somali woman forced into an arranged marriage; the theme is tyranny at the national scale and the patriarchal scale.  It led to what is now called the dictatorship trilogy. Alexandra explored a different sort of tyranny in Rhodesia in her non-fiction books Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight & Scribbling the Cat.  Billy Kahora told the story of the whistle-blower of a huge state fraud in Kenya in his creative nonfiction work The True Story of David Munyakei.

Alexandra Fuller
Uwen Akpan is an ordained Jesuit priest from Nigeria, and has a wonderful sense of humor and an infectious giggle. His first book – “Say You’re One of Them” – is a collection of short stories and novellas, perspectives on Africa narrated by its children. It won the Africa-region section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book. We met him in New Zealand in 2009 where the overall Commonwealth Writers Prizes were awarded. (We were there on a book tour and had a publisher in common.) Uwen didn’t win the Commonwealth Prize, but Oprah subsequently chose the book for her book club. With losses like that, who needs wins?

Uwen Akpan
At the lunch before the panel discussion, Uwen talked about growing up in Nigeria, how his love of story-telling and telling of stories had developed, and of his schooling. He told of writing through the night at the seminary when there was electricity, and, if it had failed, leaving all the light switches on so that he would wake when it returned. He told of the oral tradition in his village and the pleasures of sitting together and listening to the village elders tell their tales.

And he told of reading. His parents’ home was full of good books.

Michael – Thursday.

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