Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF)’s first post-lockdown edition ran in Harare on 30 September and 1 October. The book fair did not live up to its international billing as it was poorly attended and short on sponsorship. Popular segments like the Indaba, a talk session which flew in big names back in the heyday, the Writers’ Workshop, and the Literary Evening, a spoken word event, did not make this year’s budget.
ZIBF Association executive chairperson, Memory Chirere, said the book fair is a preparation for a bigger return next year. “This is a ‘special’ episode because it is not a full-throttle book fair that you are used to,” he said. “This episode is coming after a two-year break imposed on us by Covid 19 and the subsequent economic challenges.”
Book fair sessions this year included Book Exhibitions, Children’s Reading Tent and Live Literature. Special interest groups were the stronger arm of the festival, with Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Fatima Zahra Women’s Organization, Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions, Human Life International, and others utilising the exhibition space to reach out.
Librarians, represented in the gallery section by Harare City Library, National University of Zimbabwe (NUST) Library and University of Zimbabwe (UZ) library, were the only ZIBFA affiliates who went through with their annual workshop this year.
“This two-day exhibition came as a result of a request from our members and key exhibitors who, like us, felt that while we cannot afford a full book fair, we still need to showcase a few items and ideas from the book industry as part of our plans to make a build up to a full book fair in 2023,” said chairperson Chirere.
“We still need each other”
The Zimbabwean government and traditional European partners were prominently absent at this year’s book fair. Member bodies Zimbabwe University Libraries Consortium, the Booksellers Association of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association as well as exhibitor fees supported the festival.
“At ZIBFA, this mini exhibition is not just an exhibition. It is an opportunity to send a message that we still have a critical mass who are prepared to stage a comeback. It is an opportunity to dialogue formally and informally amongst ourselves and with our traditional partners so that we all put our shoulders to the wheel.”
The sorrows of the book, however, go beyond getting partners back on board. The Zimbabwe book sector is well past its best days. Reputed pillars of the book fair, including College Press, ZPH Publishers, Consultus Publishing Services and Mambo Press, were remarkably absent this year. Some of the old-time giants were caught unprepared as it had not always been that there will be a book fair this year. Others are rumoured dead, others putting on a face, or limping along.
The fiction or leisure side of publishing has taken a knock, while more business-like publishers are fighting off piracy to push school texts
Regular independent publishers, Weaver Press, amaBooks and others were also missing in action, meaningfully contrasted by attendees Cambridge University Press, Secondary Book Publishers and Gramsol Books, who are all academic publishers. The fiction or leisure side of publishing has taken a knock, while more business-like publishers are fighting off piracy to push school texts.
Former president Robert Mugabe was an early friend of ZIBF, helping publishers Phyllis Johnson and David Martin and editor Charles Mungoshi to get things going in 1983. In recent years, education ministers routinely open the book fair, recycling nostalgic promises, as well as giving the book fair the old-time ambience of a government event.
The absence of government at the book fair may allow organisers to take ZIBF into the 21st century. Reliance on the captive audience of schoolchildren has allowed the book fair to show off numbers as if everything is okay. There has been lack of imagination where getting the public interested in books is concerned.
In his old age, scholar-president Mugabe was no friend of the book sector. His government and its GNU interlude ignored piracy, especially in its schools, gave one foreign-owned company business for the production of school texts and introduced 40 percent duty on imported books.
Mnangagwa’s government has speeded Zimbabwe’s descent to Philistine lows, jailing writers, disrupting book launches and going toe to toe with worker unions and civil society
Mnangagwa’s government has speeded Zimbabwe’s descent to Philistine lows, jailing writers, disrupting book launches and going toe to toe with worker unions and civil society through unions dubiously named after President ED – Vendors for ED, Men BelieveED, Teachers for ED, Taxis for ED – what have you. These fellows, and their teacher-soldiers from Zanu PF’s Herbert Chitepo School of Ideology may well take up the gazebos that struggling publishers are forfeiting at the next ZIBF.
“Not on this turf”
ZIBF is living with physical threats on its space in recent times. A book fair gazebo went up in flames last year. This year, the space in front of book fair grounds has become an open-air squatter camp of sorts. The homeless down-and-outs encamped in front of ZIBF sound sufficiently rational but are not above the use of drugs and violence to defend their turf.
There was a stone-throwing episode just outside the book fair grounds which the tramps have refused to vacate saying its council’s space and not ZIBF’s, and they are prepared to defend it from council. Low numbers at the book fair this year allowed organisers to live one gallery section unoccupied, creating a buffer zone between the ZIBF public and the violent squatters.
Perhaps the Harare down-and-outs are the appropriate image of Zimbabwean literature, not just for its classic commitment to the bohemian motif, but also because Zimbabwean writers are just as dirt-poor these days.
Rahma Mabveni of Fatima Zahra Women’s Organization said the book fair was good place to raise awareness about her religion as well as its approach to women and reproductive health. “This has helped us to demystify the confusion between Chewa people and Islam for example (these are often interchangeable in terms of an old Zimbabwean stereotype). “Knowledge is in books and we have to come out here to promote them.”
However, she says her expectations from the book fair can only be met if the ZIBF improves its advertising. “We had less than one month’s notice, which suggests that the organisers did not have enough time to advertise.”
Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions (Comaliso) representative Rejoice Ngwenya told This Is Africa that ZIBF has not made the most of its populous public. “The book industry is the largest industry in any country. 60 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 18. Out of those, 80 percent are in school; there are very few that are not in school. You come to the civil service, 30 percent is composed of teachers,” he said.
The book fair has not made good on these numbers because it is failing to offer rejuvenation Ngwenya said. “Partners don’t come only because you are big but because you have a value proposition,” Ngwenya said. He added that actors in the book industry need to develop a guild mentality in order to be rightly placed for opportunities.
“We need to revisit the structure of the ZIBFA itself and put it in line with the new demands of the day,” said Chirere, stressing the need to fundraise, engage government and touch base with traditional funding partners.
“We need new partners. We need new members. We need new ways. We need to find ways and resources of sprucing up our offices and the entire infrastructure in our grounds. We need revamp the secretariat and pay them their dues.
“We need a more candid dialogue amongst ourselves. All these, if done properly, will culminate into a bigger and better ZIBFA book fair in 2023. We think that we still haven’t achieved the purpose for which we were founded,” said Chirere.
It is not yet clear whether ZIBF will travel around the country for provincial book fairs this year.