In the prevailing and well-accepted view, mobile phones are the most accessible and affordable platform that allows for infrastructure deficits like electricity shortages and minimal broadband access to be circumvented across Africa.
Smartphones like the Techno N3 are sold in Nigeria and other parts of Africa for approximately £50.00. That is still a lot of money, but it’s a price that will probably go down further as more smartphones are sold.
Already, the majority of internet users in many African countries access the web primarily via mobile phone. Affordable smartphones could be a game changer for the adoption of digital literature around the continent.
Recently, at Africa Writes, the Royal Africa Society’s annual African literature and book festival, I listened to a presentation by Elizabeth Hensick Wood, who is responsible for digital publishing and mobile technologies at Worldreader.org, a non-profit devoted to expanding access to literature in the developing world. Hoping to harness the power of digital devices like mobile phones and Kindles (which nevertheless remain too expensive for most African consumers), Worldreader offers all sorts of writing on “book apps” designed for an African market: textbooks, short stories, romance novels, mysteries and health information.
In the vein of a similar UNESCO project, Worldreader has distributed tablets to schools in some parts of Africa.
Most places in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have uninterrupted 24-hour power supply or anytime wi-fi access. But connectivity in schools, even with inconsistent access to electricity, has the potential to improve learning environments for students and provide teachers with some of the tools required to do their jobs more effectively.
Expensive as it may seem to provide tablets for an entire classroom, imagine how cheap it is compared to building a physical library stocked with thousands of books. African teachers are often short on books, but a single tablet with Worldreader’s app can provide hundreds of titles for students at all levels.
I find developments such as Worldreader's instructive in terms of the possibilities they present for the transmission and dissemination of African literature.
In a sense, here are African authors giving away their intellectual property in order to increase local appetite for books. The more sharp-witted young African readers you have, the broader the market for African literature becomes. To the extent you can improve connectivity, you can expand this market to rural audiences as well as in cities.
But to really be of value to these new audiences, the format for reading the material will have to change. To enable immersive learning and reading by Africa’s diverse user communities, digital reading platforms will require many layers of appropriate design: icons based on familiar metaphors, engaging animation, and other avenues for user interaction.
User input will be necessary to help developers’ work resonate with audiences within and outside of Africa.
Device design and business models must be informed by insights into how people interact with stories and money, for example, or how power is generated, rationed, and stored at the family level.
African consumers need rugged devices with flexible operating systems and extended battery life, and affordable apps that require minimal bandwidth. As these features become more widely available, the inclusion of ‘real average citizens’ in the worldwide market for literature will begin to look like a real prospect. With new programs like Worldreader, we might be looking at the emergence of new digital forms of community-mediated expression.
Perhaps an even more important shift will come in the content available to African readers, with more stories that reflect their own lives and experiences, as is already the case with Worldreader’s publishing partners.
At Africa Writes, I met with 29-year-old Diriye Osman author and illustrator of a collection of stories entitled Fairy Tales for Lost Children. The stories are brimming with an individualized sense of what beauty is, and with a view of sexual identity politics back-dropped by Somali heritage.
Shoga is about a Somali teenager who resides in Kenya with his conservative and dotingly protective grandmother. His granny rejects him when he embarks on an “illicit affair’’ with Boniface, the “house-boy.” Family ties are severed and they never speak to each other again. But out of sight does not mean out of mind. When his grandmother passes away, the young man’s loss is tragically symbolized by his decision, out of both love and duty, to cover the cost of his granny’s Islamic burial.
Each story in Fairy Tales for Lost Children is inspired by the author’s life experience. And while Osman’s chosen themes might be jarring to the conservative members of his parents’ generation, his is a point of view which is very much worth bringing before a broad audience of young people in Africa.
These stories examine the human condition and chronicle their protagonists’ journeys from disadvantage to independence and creative influence. They are exactly the kind of stories which Worldreader could use to make inspiring literature relevant to young Africans.
Winners of the Caine Prize for African Writing, now in its 14th year, are indicative of the future. From Taiye Selasi, Helon Habila, Noviolet Bulawayo, Pede Hollist, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to this year’s winning author, Tope Folarin, there is a surge of bright talent using fiction to influence and balance the thinking of conventional publishing headquarters based in Manhattan and London.
Still, The Whispering Trees, by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, was this year’s only Caine Prize finalist to make its first show in an African publication. To my knowledge, there have been no works published in an indigenous African language which have been selected as finalists at all.
As it stands, then, the best of African literature often seems addressed to an audience outside the continent. Almost without exception, book prizes and awards—which drive sales, translation rights, teaching appointments, and overall prestige—recognize works created in colonial languages, reinforcing incentives for African authors to write in French, English, and Portuguese, rather than their own indigenous languages. Even African authors disagree about the merits of pushing for more stories in African languages, for such stories would be largely invisible to the dominant players in the global publishing industry.
At another panel at Africa Writes, I found Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o facing off with the British Nigerian Bernardine Evaristo on that very point. Thiong’o cited the need for book prizes to honor works in African languages, while Evaristo skeptically pointed out the logistics required to support such a venture—in everything from funding for literary translation in multiple languages to the simple task of selecting suitable works to judge.
To me, their debate pointed to a gap in the distribution space for books in indigenous languages. With a growing number of Africans connected to devices that could conceivably support digital literature, it is a business model ripe for exploration.
For now, publishing partnerships like Worldreader’s only tinker at the edges of the vast numbers of people who remain un-served by existing publishers. But they provide a proof of concept and may serve as benchmarks and standards to spur on digital literature throughout Africa.
Cover Image: A spiral stack of copies of the 1994 Anchor Books edition of Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart | master_xpo