In Friday's Mmegi there was an interesting article by Barolong Seboni and Jane Swartland. They were writing about what they feel writers in Botswana need from the government. The situation for writers in Botswana is dire. There is no Arts Council. The only publishers we have in the country are educational publishers, so if you don't write for the school market you will not be published here. If you do get a trade book published, it is impossible to get bookstores to stock it or if they do it will be in the minuscule Botswana section in the corner, behind all of the international best sellers. If anyone goes there you'll be lucky they see your book, because it will be spine out, next to the shelf filled with (cover out) Alexander McCall Smith books. Very few people read books in Botswana, and of them fewer still can buy books. Being a creative writer in Botswana is an exercise in futility unless you can escape the borders.
I was told once that when the English Department at the University of Botswana suggested they start a creative writing programme there the vice chancellor asked - what for?
Though on the surface a case can be made that in a developing country like Botswana, creative writing is not important, but that would be a cursory case only. As Unity Dow mentioned at the Bessie Head Awards this year, the stories of Batswana are recorded by writers. And not just stories of the past, the stories of the lives being lived now. Every day that passes where writers are unable to be published, where people with stories in their heads can get no training, where creative writing is looked at as a hobby with little practical use, stories are being lost forever. Those stories are part of our culture, culture that is being lost.
In their article, Ms Swartland and Mr Seboni list what measures must be taken by the government to support creative writers in Botswana. They are:
1. Publishable manuscripts should be published by the government through a literature development council.
2. It should be a government policy that books regarded as Botswana literature should be bought and distributed to schools throughout the country.
3. The government, through the Ministry of Youth and Culture, should have money set aside exclusively for the training of writers.
4. Prestigious writing awards should be run by the government.
5. Writers organisations should be given funds to publish journals.
6. The Department of Culture should help to re-establish the Writers' Corner radio show.
These are wonderful wishes but taken in light of current events they seem very unlikely to happen. The only big payout writing award in the country was the Botswerere Awards for Creative Writing. It was sponsored by Orange and there was a single award for creative writing, meaning that poets, scriptwriters, novelists, and short story writers were all in the same category. They were being held biannually, this year they should have been held but they were cancelled.
Primary Education took the bold move to introduce English and Setswana readers for all standards. Books were chosen and then when it came time to buy, they decided standard 1-5 didn't need the books after all, an extravagance having little impact on the children's education- or so it seems.
These are just recent events that show government's unwillingness to support writers and introduce a culture of book reading and book loving. Seboni and Swartland make excellent proposals, but where to start? The government sees AIDS, poverty, and unemployment and they can't quite get their heads around the point of a poem or a story well written. As long as this condition persists, Batswana writers will be climbing a very steep hill indeed.