Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) took off to a rousing start on Monday under the theme "Reigniting Interest in Reading for Sustainable Development". The country's flagship literary festival is running in Harare with a vastly captivating range of programmes including the Indaba, Exhibitions, the Writers Workshop and the Literary Evening.This edition will witness the inception of new programmes including the Librarians' Workshop, the Indigenous Language Corner and the Poetry Slam.
Children, previously covered by the Children's Reading Tent, Digital Zone and Meet the Author sessions, have their turf extended this year with a new programme called Junior Achievers Competition.
Issues under deliberation at the Indaba over the first two days of the book fair are skills for producing content, trending technology, business dynamics, sustainable development, access and intellectual property rights.
In keeping with ZIBF, this year's book fair was opened by poetry performances. Tinashe "Mutumwapavi" Muchuri tapped into the ZIBF theme with a poem called "Ndirangarirei" (Remember Me).
The moving poem encourages publishers not to leave the visually impaired out of their calculations. Muchuri urges libraries to include a "blind section" and publishers to run their titles in braille.
"Ndiri muverengi, ndinoda kunzwa ndimene/ Muri kunyora nerurimi rwandisingakwanisi kuverenga (I, the reader, want to experience literature on my own/ But you are presenting it in a foreign language.)"
Speaking of language, noted actor and performance poet, Felex Mafumhe-Mutasa, brought another dimension with his poem, "Afrikan Names".
The poem eulogises the cultural wealth and ethos carried in African names.
"Who tells me to call my son/Christopher Columbus, Ian Douglas Smith and Cecil John Rhodes?/But forbids me to call that same son/Lobengula kaMzikalizi, Chaminuka Mapondera or Mafumhe Mutasa?" Mutasa challenges.
Previously, the fair has been opened by Government officials and academics.
This year, Zimbabwe Chamber of Commerce chairperson Mike Juru brought a corporate flair to the book fair and spoke on how the book industry can be monetised and how literature can be deployed as a vehicle for sustainable development.
Juru urged organisers to realign ZIBF in light of the economic and developmental challenges of the day.
"There is need to promote knowledge management and education as a driver of economic growth and development in line with global challenges and the Zim-Asset blueprint," Juru said.
He added that the book industry must facilitate action-oriented dialogue to promote innovative thinking as well as interfacing researchers and policymakers.
"Publishers must provide an opportunity for Zimbabwean researchers to publish their research findings for knowledge-based economic development," Juru urged.
He also stressed the need for the book industry to explore emerging tools in the information and communication technology (ICT) dispensation in light of the economic downturn which has adversely impacted on publishing costs and writers' welfare.
He also encouraged ZIBF to reconfigure in line with the new primary and secondary curriculum framework. The new curriculum is likely to be a game-changer as Primary and Secondary Education Minister Lazarus Dokora has indicated that current textbooks from ECD to Advanced Level are set to be replaced with curriculum-compliant content.
The move may extend a lifeline for the embattled book industry, with publishers commissioning new books and schools buying up content in stacks.
"We must work together so that we have appropriate content available in libraries. This will empower our people to lead better lives and reduce poverty," Juru said.
"Our challenge has been that we read to pass instead of reading to know. Unfortunately our system promotes that. People read for exams and regurgitate facts," Juru lamented.
Keynote speaker, Brian Wafawarova, who heads Pearson South Africa's learning services, concurred with Juru on making reading culture more as social as it is formal.
"I think the reason why mega reading campaigns do not produce desired results is that they are too formal and are driven by institutions that are too closely tied to formal education," the Zimbabwe-born publisher said.
"The reading revolution that we were part of in the 1980s was more of a social movement than an institutional programme. Once we had acquired a bit of literacy and reading ability, we were immersed in a content-rich environment.
"There was a seamless transition between the fork tales that we were told mainly by our mothers and grandmothers, the acquisition of literacy in school and the graduation to the folk tales that were published in a series of booklets," he said.
Wafawarova lauded the now folded Literature Bureau for producing a captivating dramatisation and reading of a range of stories in Shona.
"Many of my contemporaries will remember how we gathered around transistor radios as families and communities to listen to the works of greats like TK Tsodzo, Mordekai Hamutyineyi and great titles like 'Akanyangira Yaona', 'Mapatya', 'Kumuzinda Hakuna Woko', 'Ziva Kwawakabva', 'Wakandigona Wena' and many other great works that grappled with the most critical issues of our time," he said.
He warmly invoked fiction series like the Pacesetters and Hardy which were all the rage back in the 1980s and 1980s for expanding young readers' social horizons.
"Many cultures and communities that we interacted with later in our lives, were introduced to us through reading. A lot of the social challenges that we face were presented earlier to us through reading. The element of surprise on the post-colonial reality was to a great extend removed," Wafawarova said.
Wafawarova, however, bemoaned detrimental policy for upsetting the cultural ecosystem: "We need strong coordinated institutions along the whole chain from authors as creators to readers as users. We need a fair regime of copyright laws, sound economic policies on books and reading materials.
"Each sub-sector needs to play its role in advancing its own interests in a well-coordinated and balanced ecosystem. We need to learn from the 80s and early 90s and even do better with available and appropriate technology," he said.
The ZIBF runs up to Saturday with a massive programme lined up including exhibitions where a number of new Zimbabwean titles are expected to be unveiled.
At its height in 2000, ZIBF drew 317 exhibitors from 31 countries and recorded an overall attendance of 23 729. Now in its 33rd year, ZIBF has faltered in figures. Organisers will have to stay an ambitious course and draw more exhibitors from across the world.