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Zvobgo versus Marechera: Who won?

Paper by Phyllis Johnson presented at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair Indaba 2013. The original title of her speech was: The Origins of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF), established 1983.

Dambudzo Marechera
Dambudzo Marechera

May I just begin by saying Makorokoto, Amhlophe, Congratulations to (Primary and Secondary Education) Minister Dokora on his appointment. The ZIBF is a suitable start to your service . . . We look forward to advances in education under your leadership and, of course, education needs people such as the participants here, that is writers, publishers, illustrators, editors, printers, booksellers, students and youth . . . and readers.

I should emphasise that this is a well-developed and talented industry in Zimbabwe, but it is a business and the supply chain needs to be hard working and efficient, and also needs to be able to eat. It is a dynamic industry that has been, and can be again, a significant contributor to the Zimbabwe’s economic recovery.

May I also say to Musa Zimunya, the chairman of the Executive Board of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair Association, that you and your colleagues are doing a remarkable job here under your leadership, with vision and substance, with a holistic perspective that is inclusive, not exclusive, and you should be warmly congratulated and strongly supported.

I hope that the private sector and the donors and the minister will take note . . .

I have been asked to talk about ZIBF at 30 since I was involved in the initiation and development of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1983, with my late husband, David Martin, who was the founding director.

In reviewing my archives, I found a document that said I was the treasurer, so I suppose I was tasked with raising the funds. We certainly didn’t have much to spend when we started. There were other key people involved and I will come to that in a moment but first I want to reflect on your theme for this year – “[email protected]: Enabling Creativity, Writing, Publishing and Reading for Africa’s Growth”.

I think the theme for this year, when the book fair is 30, says it all, and the theme for this year actually removes the need for a keynote address, because it tells us why the book fair was founded . . . to enable creativity, writing, publishing and reading for Africa’s growth. So, happy 30th birthday, the vision is still very much alive and growing.

We can unpack that briefly . . . The book fair was conceived through a series of encounters, comments and suggestions leading to a vision that spread and gained momentum. But first you need to understand the context.

This country, Zimbabwe, was just three years old when the first book fair took place, in a country that was the sweetheart of Africa, from its own population right across the continent, and up and down, everyone wanted to come to Zimbabwe, to see and feel this new place, so attracting visitors was not difficult at all.

The book fair and the workshops were richly subscribed from across the continent. The best books in Africa were on display.

The vision grew out of a simple question by then Prime Minister R. G. Mugabe, now President, who wanted to know what publishers were doing to bridge the communication gap on a continent where writers of literature wrote mostly in the colonial languages, with a few exceptions, and could not read each other’s work.

The point was that to increase understanding, co-operation and development in Africa, the barriers of language need to be bridged.

The French cultural officer in 1982 was a man called Alain Sancerni, who was an ardent facilitator of cultural exchange, primarily African cultural exchange, his wife was and is Ethiopian, and his roots were and are in Africa.

He took the three Zimbabwe Publishing House directors off to meet French-speaking African authors and publishers. He also funded a number of translations to English, and in addition to French, we managed to raise funds to include two books written in Portuguese, from Angola and Mozambique.

More on that later. The three directors were David and myself, and Zimbabwe’s literary icon, Charles Mungoshi. So we were well supported in discussing literature. Charles had the frustrating experience of meeting French-speaking writers such as Mongo Beti, whom he could not communicate with.

The classic comment in this regard came later from Jean-Marie Adiaffi, a writer from Cote d’Ivoire who had just won a prestigious French literary award. He attended the first book fair, and Bridget Katiyo translated his book. When Charles and I handed him a copy of his book The Identity Card, published in Zimbabwe in English, he beamed. He said, “Now I have written a book I cannot read!”

The trio from Zimbabwe went on to London courtesy of Unesco to attend the second World Congress on Books. This was accompanied by a display of books by African writers and publishers at the Africa Centre in London, intended to be circulated in Europe, and titled Bookweek Africa.

In opening the Bookweek display, the Unesco director-general, Amadou M’Bow from Senegal, expressed the hope that the exhibit would “spread beyond the bounds of London” and be seen in Africa. Another seed had been planted…

This is where we met Hans Zell of the African Book Publishing Record, who showed a similar dedication by publishing an annual record of books published in Africa. He also administered the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, and he invited us to host that award in Zimbabwe. But, he said, it needs to be associated with an event.

Charles was excited, we were all excited, and together we agreed with Hans Zell that we should bring the Bookweek Africa display to Zimbabwe and host the presentation of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.

As a result of all this, the Noma Award was presented in Zimbabwe during the Bookweek Africa display from 23-27 August 1983. The award was won by Justice Austin Amissah for his book on Criminal Justice in Ghana, published by Sedco in Accra.

The ceremony was attended by Hans Zell and by the founder of the award, Shoichi Noma from Japan. The award was presented by a published Zimbabwean author who also happened to be the Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Dr Bernard Chidzero.

Dr Chidzero urged African authors to take on their responsibility to work with the publishing industry in Africa, to publish locally, and thus save foreign currency on the import of books as well as earning through export.

Hans Zell knew about book fairs, as he had initiated the successful Ife book fair in Nigeria, and he helped David and Charles and the staff of Zimbabwe Publishing House to set up Bookweek Africa. The commitment and dedication of the ZPH staff cannot be over-emphasised, including Taine Mundondo, Mavis Chirekeni, Liz Matavire, Lazarus Gandanzara, Nicholas Murove and others.

Although there were few financial resources, there was enthusiastic support from the publishing industry, authors and the Government of Zimbabwe. The Minister of Information, Posts and Telecommunications, Dr Nathan Shamuyarira, who was another published Zimbabwean author, was fully supportive and chaired the organising committee, perhaps the equivalent to your ZIBFA General Council.

The other members, in addition to the founders, included Dr Stan Made who was chairman of the Zimbabwe Library Association; Father Albert Plangger, the head of Mambo Press in Gweru;

Christopher Till, director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, ably represented when absent by his deputy, Doreen Sibanda, who is now the director in her own right; and Ashabai Chinyemba and Aaron Mudapakati from the ministry.

As the date approached and it became apparent that Dr Shamuyarira would not be in the country at the time of the event, he gave one instruction to his deputy minister, Dr Naomi Nhiwatiwa. His instruction to her was . . . if David asks for anything while I’m away . . . say Yes.

Although Bookweek Africa came with its own display stands, there was no infrastructure for local exhibitors. So the ministry’s Production Services department was an essential resource in building and setting up the stands.

Dr Chidzero’s ministry assisted with the task of getting the books into the country through customs. And there it was, the first Zimbabwe International Book Fair was opened by the first Minister of Education and Culture, Dr Dzingai Mutumbuka, who urged the exhausted organisers that this should become an annual event.

He was very committed to strengthening the focus on books and learning and reading, and he spent considerable time at the fair looking at books, as did the then Prime Minister R. G. Mugabe.

This event now had a display of African books and a prestigious award presentation, it needed writers from across the continent, and Alain Sancerni again found some resources and mobilised others.

Among his other achievements was the responsibility for bringing home the then not- so-well-known Dambudzo Marechera, but more on that later.

To be continued next week…………