Monday, September 14, 2009

What Botswana Writers Need

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only publishers we have in the country are educational publishers, so if you don't write for the school market you will not be published here.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.


Unknown said...

This is shocking, Lauri! I'm lost for words...

Lauri said...

That's Botswana, Jude. At least traditioanl crafts and singers are getting a bit of recognition lately but writers- forget it.

Miss Footloose said...

It's a sad situation, but it is not surprising that in a country with a developing economy and serious other issues, supporting writing and literature does not scream for instant action. It will take a certain level of public interest and private/personal initiative that will initially start programs going.

What I find shocking is that in a rich country like the US many school systems cut music and art classes from their curriculum because "there is no money."

Lauri, do you have any kind of local writers' group?

About the teaching of writers, the Internet offers many opportunities for free writer's instruction for writers who really want to learn. (I assume here that Batswana writers writer in English.)

Miss Footloose

Lauri said...

Yes, Miss Footloose, we do have a Writers Association and I hate to admit it but I am the deputy chair and the man who co-wrote the article is chair. We try to do things but all of us work elsehwere. The problem for me is that I live outside the capital city. But still it is no excuse we need to do more for ourselves. And too you are right a lot of training can be found online.

I must really re-think my own role in improving things in Botswana. Currently I'm trying to get a national newspaper to pick up a column on books, writing and publishing. We also have a blog I set up but it is not that active.

bonita said...

Lauri, like Footloose observes, it's difficult to justify government money for writers when people need medical attention. Here, as schools cut music, art, and literature, I've found way to worm writing into an elementary school. I donated some of my books to two nearby grammar schools. (These neighborhood schools have more than 50% students living below the poverty line.) I made certain the receiving teacher knew that I wrote them and lived nearby. I mentioned that if the classroom teacher wanted, I'd be glad to come one day and talk to students (gr 4-5) about writing as career. So far I've talked to 4 classes at two different schools. Not much, but it's a start. Besides, I was blown away at the intelligent questions the kids asked. Very rewarding.

Lauri said...

It's not necessarily that we have people without healthcare since we have a socialised system of healthcare but we do have pressing issues as I've said.

That's a great idea though, Bonita. I might go and talk with the English teacher at the nearby junior secondary school and see if they have a writing club. I have spoken at schools before and I loved it.

Polar Bear said...

I am thrilled to finally comment on your wonderful blogs. We are planning to go to Africa next year as a three generation family helping feed the children organization. Your blogs have taught me so much in a unique style that I feel I know you through your writing. I will try to keep in touch. Koana..Polar Bear

Elizabeth Bradley said...

It's always a struggle for artists, where will the money come from? Complicated issues, and I don't propose to be well-versed. As Miss Footloose points out, even in countries where the money might be found, it is spent in other arenas.

Helen Ginger said...

Would it do any good to take these things out of the government's hands and put it into the private sector?

Straight From Hel

Gutsy Living said...

I can understand your frustration and strangely enough, I just picked up my first book by Alexander McCall Smith at my library in California, today.
My son, 15, told me he couldn't get his biology book for class as the library is closed at his school until the "rotating" librarian is scheduled back to his high school. It seems there are cutbacks everywhere. So sad.

Lauri said...

Polar Bear- Thanks for your kind comments about my blog. Where will you be visiting in Africa?

Elizabeth- Though I think the recommendations in the article were wonderful they are pretty pie-in-the-sky. The musicians in Botswana have seemed to pull theirselves together, we writers must do the same.

Helen- Private sector has its own downside. Writers already fare pretty badly now with the privatge sector.

GutsyWriter- I like Alexander McCall Smith and I think his books have done a lot for Botswana but I must tel you many Batswana despise those books. They find them quite condescending, as if we are simpletons. I think that's a bit unfair. Mr. Bean and Adrian Mole don't make me think the British are all dunderheads. I think Batswana are being a bit sensitive.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea it was so hard. And here I am complaining about the Australian Arts Council cutting their funding recently. At least there is an Arts Council. This makes me admire your tenacity even more, Lauri. I really take my hat off to you. Most people would have given up by now!

Lauri said...

Selma don't be so quick with praise. I gave up long ago trying to live off my creative writing so currently I make most of my money from educational writing and freelancing.

Bengt O. Karlsson said...

Thank you for this interesting and thoughtful posting. I have written about your post on my own blog (unfortunately only in Swedish language.

Four years ago I wrote about McCall Smith and characterized his writing as "a neo-colonial and patriarchal abuse of a people and an environment that definitely had deserved something better." You might not agree but I see from your comments that many "Batswana despise those books." I am glad that I am not alone ;-)

I will try to get hold of one of your detective stories and read it with great interest.

Lauri said...

Bengt- thanks for stopping by. Yes, many people feel like you. I have a writer friend,an honourary Motswana, though she's actually South African, who hates these books and there is an excellent journalist here, Bashi Letshididi who also has written at length about his opinions on the books. I was once on holiday in Namibia and pick up a newspaper there and found Bashi bashing Alexander McCall Smith (!). Like all books, people have opinions.

Zukiswa Wanner said...

Hi Lauri, perhaps it might work best if writers in Botswana take it out of government's hands and try to creatively do their own marketing. ReadSA, a writer-created initiative in SA, has been met with much enthusiasm from universities (who have kindly hooked us up with schools they work with to get to know South African writing and writers)...of course it's the early days yet but I think the time may be here and now to get proactive as writers where we feel no-one else is caring.

bathmate said...

nice posting...a writer-created initiative in SA, has been met with much enthusiasm from universities (who have kindly hooked us up with schools they work with to get to know South African writing and writers)...of course it's the early days yet but I think the time may be here and now to get proactive as writers where we feel no-one else is caring.


Anonymous said...

Lauri, will soon join you in the struggle as a local writer. Now, in the unlikely event of a local paper giving you a column, please consider announcing any new books of local writers. Also try to include some form of historiography of local writers' work so to expose local potential writers.
As for writers who write disparagingly of life in Botswana, only do so for the sake of make quick cash, and in fact have no readership in the country.
It is only our own writers begin to rise up and write accounts of their Botswana life experience that these other writers will cease to write--by the book reviews can challenge them earlier!
So long Lauri

Lauri said...

Hi Anon- though papers have been very slow to get back to me I might have a lead (cross fingers). I'll know in a few weeks. Of course if I get the column I intend to talk about local writers, interview them, talk about the Southern African writing scene what's happening on the continent and of course reviewing local books.

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keatlaretse said...

am finishing ma teriary,i did creative worried that since Botswana government does nt care abt writers wht am i going to very passionate about writing.

keatlaretse said...

Lauri, what will it take for the government to recognise there are talented writers out there who need attention and recognition. Atleast they should allow us to write scripts fere is or BTV since there is nothing there done by local writers.

Lauri said...

Keatlaretse- we need to accept the situation and work around it in the meanwhile. If you are passionate about creative writing you won't need to the government to help you. With the internet you can live in Botswana and write for publications all over the world.

As for BTV, they do use local scriptwriters. I've written two television series that have appeared on BTV but the pay is not very good and worse still when BTV hires scriptwriters directly.

I am slightly hopeful with the developement of the Department of Arts and Culture. They are trying.