Ethiopia: Of Books, Writers and Reading in Addis in the Cold and Rainy Season


As a matter of tradition, books and matters of the mind seem to be assuming particular importance during the rainy season in Ethiopia in general and in the capital Addis Ababa in particular. This does not however mean that the dry seasons are unpalatable for reading or writing. The fact of the matter is that the rainy seasons force many people to stay at home as schools are closed and many workers take holiday breaks. The weather might not be conducive to going out for the usual walks or for loitering in the streets. The sunshine of the dry season may be a good time for outdoor activities although the heat might often be unbearable.

Things start to cool down as soon as the rains start to fall. You feel cold and life looks a bit solitary. There are little recreational opportunities as the pandemic has discouraged people from going to theaters and movie houses. Mass recreational facilities such as stadiums and sports facilities in general, with the exception of bars, hotels and beer joints, are unavailable these days. So books fill the vacuum and people often go to book shops to look for something to read during these two months of relative idleness or free time.

The reading culture is Ethiopia is not of course one of the highest in the world although there is no research done in this area. The reading culture of Ethiopians seems, to some extent, to be tied to changes in weather conditions. I don't think Ethiopians have a strong culture or habit of going to the libraries to read. Go to any public library in the capital Addis Ababa, and you find out the readers are mostly young and school-age people, most of whom might be reading academic subjects as part of the preparations for the coming new academic year.

It is of course a good idea to prepare for the coming school year instead of spending time staring at social media pages hunting for the most alarming news of the day, at video games or in video showing rooms buried deep in the slums of the capital where all kinds of bad habits are formed. Khat joints are the best hang outs of many youngsters in Addis. Khat joints may be considered good recreational alternatives but most youngsters forget that they are also the breeding grounds for the transmission of COVID-19 as information provided by the Ministry of Health often suggest. Unfortunately, you cannot observe the COVID-19 protocols in those places where many youngsters are packed in a small room and it is difficult to follow the rule of social distancing or mask wearing. You cannot simply eat khat wearing masks as it is impossible to wear masks when you eat at a restaurant or in beer joints.

There were many attempts in the past to shut down those places. Unfortunately the "campaigns" were short lived while the addiction to khat is irresistible. In the rainy seasons in particular those places are attractive not only for the khat and smoking and all but also for the warmth people enjoy as the rooms are small and a big coal oven burns in the middle of them, serving as catalyst for the mood elevation that is fast coming with the help of the heat.

There were many public outcries and pressure from many parents for the closure of the khat and video joints in the neighborhoods of Addis Ababa. The local authorities too were sometimes keen to see these places closed down. However, if you shut one joint, another one is bound to spring up somewhere in the vicinity and the neighborhood vigilantes who oversee those places are sometimes rumored to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. So, this is a widespread practice that is making it difficult for many young people to develop a reading culture. No wonder then that the number of kaht eaters exceeds by far that of book readers and there is no program for rehabilitating those youngsters who are held in the clutches of addiction.

In countries where the reading culture is very well developed and the publishing industry is so huge that its annual turn out is often estimated to be over tens of billions of dollars, the reading public is offered with long lists of book titles to choose from according to the seasons. They have for instance they have different reading lists for summer, winter and for lockdown and as well as for holidays. Apart from the best-selling authors, there are also major and minor writers catering for the never quenching thirst of the reading public. Books are available online, offline, through selling and distribution chains such as Amazon. The needs of the reading public are taken care of as much as it's eating and drinking needs.

Here in Africa and in Ethiopia as well, all these things are not available because economic conditions are much more difficult here. The book publishing and writing industry is the West has expanded beyond its borders. Culture has become a transnational business and books are printed in Europe and America and sold in Africa, Asia and everywhere in the world either in soft copies or hard copies. Technology has also come to the rescue of many African countries where books are more expensive than food and the publishing industries are still making baby steps to meet domestic demands.

Transnational Western publishers are selling books about Africa or Asia written by Diaspora authors living in the big metropolises of America and Europe. Many international bestsellers are written by Diaspora authors from Africa, or India. Books by Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children) and Arundati Roy (The God Small Things) are read both in London and Delhi with almost equal zeal. Poems by Ben Okri are sought after both in Abuja and Manchester.

Writing has crossed borders a long time ago and sometimes books written and published by Africans in Africa enjoy high demand in Europe or America but this is a rare phenomenon. Notable exceptions are books written by writers of European descent who write about Africa and are published in Europe. Books by respected historians like the late Richard Pankhurst and family members enjoyed recognition in Europe rather than here in Ethiopia where they lived for generations and wrote a great deal about the country and its people.

Human civilizations are based on books and writers. Rome and Greece lead the pack in this area. Without their philosophers, poets and historians, ancient civilization could not have flourished and shaped human civilization for centuries. Writing and reading, besides the production of the goods that are needed for human survival, are the foundations of human civilization everywhere. When we say that Ethiopia had a glorious civilization many centuries ago, we mostly emphasize the writings, poems, paintings, sculptures and other artistic creations.

The Greeks were lucky in this because they produced some of the most outstanding thinkers unparalleled in human history. These writers and philosophers were not simply writers for its own sake but they were also critics of their societies, their cultures and their governments. They were rebels of the minds. They did not accept what was written readily. They asked, criticized, and debated in public. Even ordinary people took part in the open spaces that were reserved for dialogues and debates. Ideas that were accepted by the public after long debates and criticisms are accepted as conventional wisdom because they were filtered through criticism and tested by life itself. That is why the books written in ancient times are still unparalleled for their depth of thinking, their impacts and their time-tested truth. Who on earth could produce Plato's "Dialogues" or Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics" these days? We may generalize by saying that history produces good books and good writers but the everlasting ones might be produced by the gods of Greeks and Romans that might have inspired the great minds.

In those times, books were not imposed on the reading public as it is the case in these highly commercialized times when what matters most is how a book is faring in the marketplace rather than what the real worth of a book is. The commercialization of books in the so-called civilized West and imitated by the developing world, has led to the colonization of the mind as publishers choose for the public what it should read or not read because they are the ones who decide which book to publish and which book to reject.

Coming back to seasonal readings in Ethiopia, many self-published authors try to publish their works in the hope that conditions in the rainy seasons are suitable for reading and the book market usually gains momentum. What they write about ranges from poems to history, philosophy, political discourse, satire, as well as children's books. There are of course many book buyers and readers in Addis although their number leaves much to be desired. In a capital city that boasts of being home to an estimated 5 million people, it may not be considered a "big bang" if an author sells ten or twenty thousand copies of their first print.

Addis Ababa needs more books, more writers and more publishers as it needs more parks and more recreational facilities. It needs more movie halls as well as theatres where playwrights could show their works. It needs more libraries as it needs more trees and more flowers in its gardens and parks. There are ten weredas or administrative areas or zones in the capital but how many of them have a library for their young residents?

Each wereda should at least have one big library in addition to soccer fields and basketball pitches. They need to have a theatre hall each as well as a movie house so that culture flourishes everywhere and seizes to be something only the elite and those who have money can enjoy. Some people may say this is not a priority. They should however be reminded that the Greeks and the Romans wrote all those books that shaped world civilization at a time when they were living in dire economic conditions.

The philosophers did not write those treatises while eating at the best restaurant in town. Some of them were living in the streets or like Diogenes roamed the towns with burning lamps in their hands in search of a creature they might call man. In our materialist times, these philosophers could have been taken for mad men and worthy of confinement in asylums for the sick. Can this give food for thought in these cold days? Probably yes.

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