The hall in Mmadinare is full, the air quivering with excitement. There are old people and young, all there to hear about the new book just out from one of Botswana’s favourite writers, Kamogelo Modimowame. Everyone knows her. She’s in magazines and on television, she’s interviewed on radio, she’s won a presidential award like most of the country’s prominent writers.
Her latest book is about a modern family living in Serowe and the trauma of trying to negotiate the fast, often morally compromised, modern life while attempting to hold tightly to traditional values. The discussion will be a lively one. Her books are always provocative. People in the audience hold copies of her newest novel, dog-eared and marked, read, studied and loved. They are all itching to get started.
Professor Modise from the University of Botswana English Department comes on the stage. Everyone knows him too. Academics and intellectuals are highly prized in the country. Everyone looks to them for guidance. High-level discussions are common on BTV and on the radio stations, discussions in which politicians often seek guidance from the academics and other intellectuals in the country in the search to make Botswana the most highly evolved country in the world.
Mma Keabetswe sits with her daughter, Mmoni, they have a cloth bag next to them with Kamogelo’s other four novels inside. They intend to get them signed by the author after the talk. They, like all Batswana, value signed books more than nearly anything. The houses in even the most remote villages are full of books. The mandatory living wage along with the subsidising of books by the government make monthly book buying an important part of each family’s month-end budget.
“I hope to be able to ask her about that scene in If Ever There Was, that scene with the boy talking to his father about relationships. Do you remember it, Mama?” Mmoni asks her mother.
“Of course I do. That was her first book, I’ve read it many times,” her mother says. “We discussed at length in our book club.”
“Our teacher says they might make it into a film for BTV,” Mmoni says excitedly.
“That would be wonderful.”
The discussion about Kamogelo’s new book carries on well over the appointed time. The audience has lots of questions and the queue for signing books is long. Kamogelo tells the audience she is on a country-wide tour visiting ten villages to talk about her books. In each, the halls have been full of readers anxious to discuss all of her novels. She says it’s wonderful how Batswana embrace their writers, she and all of the other writers in the country really appreciate it.
On the way home, Mmoni tells her mother one day she’d like to be a writer. Her mother is so pleased. Unlike in the past where it was impossible to earn a living being a writer, things have changed in Botswana. Writers are well respected. Publishers are many and compete to get the best writers, offering lucrative contracts with good advances and excellent royalty rates. Print runs of 10,000 books are easily sold out since Batswana now value reading and books above all else.
The most popular books have their film rights snatched up by local production companies. Films and television series based on local books are played on BTV and at the cinema all of the time. Local actors, screenwriters, producers, and directors are also making a good living. Films made in Botswana are often sold overseas as well. Last year one of the films adapted from a local novel won an Academy Award. The film industry in the country is thriving.
As they near home, their minds still swirling with the excitement from the talk and with meeting Kamogelo, Mmoni’s mother turns to her. “You know you’ve made me so happy tonight. I’ve always wished one of my children would become a writer. I know my son, Warona, is an engineer, and Annah is training to become a doctor—but a writer? That was my hope as a mother and now it will be fulfilled. Thank you, Mmoni.”
Mmoni lays in bed thinking about everything that has happened that day. To calm her mind she chooses a book from the towering stack by her bed, all books from well-known Batswana writers. She’s happy to live in such a literary-minded country; it is what she has always dreamed of.
(This appeared in my column It's All Write in the 29 April edition of Mmegi)