As everyone knows, to make money as a writer in this country, you need to write for educational publishers, but now, thanks to budget cuts or maybe stupid policies or perhaps just because someone in an office just doesn’t care, even educational publishing is a waste of time. Government’s positioning here is dangerous both in the short term and in the long and once again illustrates how government policies in one Ministry ( i.e. Youth, Sports and Culture) can be annihilated by faulty decisions in another.
Let’s start with some figures. My book, Mmele and the Magic Bones, a book that was short listed for the UK based African Writers Prize, is a prescribed book for standard 5, the only longer work of fiction prescribed for that standard. Last year the government said that because of the credit crunch no books would be bought for standard 1-5 but that the books would instead be bought this year. Not the best decision, but fair enough.
I don’t know the exact number of standard fives in the country but if we assume that the number of standard sevens that write PSLE is about the number of standard fives in any given year, we can estimate conservatively that there are about 35,000 standard fives. As of 1994, the latest figure I could find, there are 669 government primary schools. I would guess there are probably more than that now but let’s just work with those numbers.
This year primary schools, through the Ministry of Local Government, bought 1,352 copies of Mmele and the Magic Bones, according to the royalty statement from my publisher. I have attempted in the past to get such figures confirmed (by then from the Ministry of Education who until this year purchased books for primary schools) but was told such information is not available to the public. Why, I do not know, and the woman I spoke to at the Ministry thought my question very silly. So we will work from the premise that my royalty report is correct.
So, 1352 copies means in each of the 669 primary schools there are two copies of the book. And if the students are spread evenly throughout the schools, which they are not, 26 students will share a single copy of the book. Take a moment to visualize how that might work out and how that impacts on your child’s education.
The impact for me, the writer? My royalties for this book are P9015.40. That is my annual income for that book, and I am one of the lucky few who managed to get one of my books prescribed. Is that a salary on which you could survive? That is P751 per month, I believe less than minimum wage.
But beyond the crushing disaster of my own circumstances, what does this mean for the teacher in the classroom? She needs books because the syllabus and exams will require her students would have read the book. How do 35,000 students read 1,352 books? She has a couple of options. If she’s lucky enough to have a copy of the book in her school and have a photocopier, she could photocopy the book. She’d be stamping all over the copyright of my creative work but what option does she have? She’s trying to do her job. The government is forcing her to be a thief.
Alternatively, she could read the book to the standard fives, the ones who will be writing a PSLE exam in English in two years time where they will be required to have read the book for themselves.
And what about the students? These are the real victims in this picture. They will not learn the love of books and the love of reading because they do not have books in their classrooms or even in their homes in most cases. One can only imagine how this impacts on their futures. I guess when we have a president who proudly proclaims he has no time to read books, we should not expect he and his government to put books high on their agenda. In any case, most of the top decision makers in Gaborone and elsewhere have money to send their children to well resourced private schools, what do they really care if in our “rich” country 26 students must read a single book. To them, perhaps, this does not seem to be immoral in a country classified as middle income, for me it is the definition of the word.
So while the government talks a good line about how artists in this country are valuable and need to be supported, we all know actions speak a lot louder than words. Even when we, as artists, try to make a living in the arts in this country, they slash our legs out from under us and then complain when we’re unable to stand.