By Jane Plastow (University of Leeds)
Courage and Consequence: Women Publishing in Africa eds Mary Jay and Susan Kelly. Africa Books Collective, 2002. xii+109pp. ISBN 0952126974 £11.95/$19.95.
This short book makes for quite optimistic and, certainly at times, inspiring reading. The African Books collective (ABC), which has played a major role in promoting the dissemination of books from Africa around the world, asked a wide range of women involved in the book trade if they would be interested in contributing to a volume on the subject of women and publishing. The eleven responses they received are here printed in a book that makes no claims to be comprehensive, but which does delightfully demonstrate something of the range of publishing initiatives in which women are involved in Africa.
The contributions come from Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, south Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, and deal with initiatives which range from community publishing in Zimbabwe, to initiating African language publishing in Pulaar in Senegal, to running a major university publishing organisation in Nigeria.
What is most optimistic is that most of the women do not seem to have found that their gender has been a significant obstacle to their work as publishers. This has to be qualified of course. In Namibia, Jane Katjavivi could only raise a bank loan to finance her New Namibia Books with her husband’s counter-signature, as being a married woman she was legally a minor. In South Africa black women still face significant problems in entering the world of publishing, and across the continent while there are plenty of women editors and a number of women managers, certain areas such as technology, warehousing and finance are still seen as more suited to men.
The other engaging aspect of the book is the sheer enthusiasm, the passion and commitment the women concerned have brought to their careers in publishing. Kathy Bond Stewart’s article about community publishing in Zimbabwe, which led her to establish Africa Community Publishing and Development with two other women, sees publishing as a major tool of empowerment, and she chronicles how community publishing led into a development process which allowed participants to start to gain control over their own lives and to become community leaders. Many other contributors talk of the burning need to promote literacy as a means of empowerment, and like the Kenyan, Serah Mwangi, see books as a means of human self-realisation. Goretti Kyomuhendo from Uganda writes about the lack of relevant books in her childhood, and many of these women see the need to promote high quality, relevant writing, as paramount.
Unsurprisingly, the major hindrance nearly all experience is financial. The book buying public across Africa remains relatively small. Publishing is seen as a risky business by financial institutions, and only major contracts for school textbooks guarantee an income. Often to keep their businesses afloat women have had to personally tout their wares around their countries, and for lack of space many seem to have shared living space at one time or another with a print run of books.
This volume represents one in a series of initiatives by ABC to promote and assist African publishing. The talent is obviously out there in the form of writers and editors. The three things these women seem to call for most clearly are sustained literacy and library programmes, easy access to training provision in all aspects of the publishing business and imaginative financial support schemes. What they all share is a burning belief in the liberating power of literacy and literature.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (March 2003), pp. 68-69]