The Capital City of Malawi, Lilongwe, has few book stores. One can take a morning off and go through all of them. There is “Grey-Matter”. This is your standard style book store. Where you will most likely get the best quality in print while in Malawi. They mostly stock the mainstream stuff, and have some African literature that is Chimamanda Adichie-esq. The other two are “Maneno” and “Time’s Bookshop”. I speak of them collectively, because this is most likely where you can get some Malawian fiction. They have a few titles, and some in the local vernacular.
But, this blog post is about a small little second hand book store in Lilongwe’s Area 3 called Baobab Bookshop & Cafe. There, we spoke to the book keeper, Rhoda; and the owner of the shop, Rachael.
African Street Literature: How long have you been working here?
Rhoda: I have been working here for about twelve years now, and I quite enjoy the work.
ASL: So, what is your day-to-day like?
Rhoda: I come into the book store; and mostly, I read and sell books to customers that come in.
ASL: Oh, what do you mostly read?
Rhoda: The classics. . . I love the classics.
ASL: Do you have a lot of Malawian fiction here?
Rhoda: No, there is only three books that were published in Malawi that we have in the store.
ASL: Okay. Do you get a lot of Malawian customers?
Rhoda: Not really, it seems that Malawians do not like to read, or maybe, like to read other things that are not in this store (laughs). We have one book with a forward by the Prophet Bushiri.
ASL: Okay, so how do you get money to maintain such a decent shop?
Rhoda: I mean we get some guests, some internationals come in. But that is why we moved from where we used to be. The rent was half-a-million kwacha, but here, we don’t pay rent because Rachael owns the space.
Rhoda: Yeah, that is her (pointing), she owns the store. You should talk to her.
ASL: Hi Rachael. . . (Insert preliminaries, and greetings here) Where do you get the books from?
Rachael: Most of the books come from the United Kingdom.
ASL: Oh right, is that where you are from, or are you now Malawian?
Rachael: No. I am British, I have lived in Malawi for a decent amount of time though, about twenty-two years. I feel at home here. Interestingly, when I saw the new Netflix original: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, it was interesting to recognise bits of the language, Chichewa, and the places, “I was like, oh, there is Kasungu” (Warmly smiles). Did you read the book?. . .I haven’t finished it.
ASL: Haha, I see. Yeah. I studied there, at Kamuzu Academy in Kasungu for my “O” and “A” Levels. No, I have not read the book. Wasn’t in the library, that is my excuse. That library though, in my day, had some books stolen. . .
Rachael: Yes. . . Did you steal books. . . haha?
ASL: Haha. . . do you have that problem here, of books being stolen? And what are the ones that people usually steal, if you do?
Rachael: Any library, or bookstore, will encounter stolen books. We rarely get that problem here. In fact, Kamuzu Academy comes in here to buy books because of theft, as I have mentioned. I find that interesting, not only that books are being stolen from one of the best private libraries in Malawi, but the sort of books that are being stolen. Like, Dickens! I admit that I haven’t read much beyond my cultural scope, but it is funny that Malawian children, not only at Kamuzu Academy are considered well-read if they have read the classics, and such, and Dickens. Have you read Dickens. . . ?R
ASL: Not as much as I should. . .
Rachael: . . .Okay. But surely, that is not the only standard by which to judge well-read Malawian children. I mean, I wish they read more Malawian fiction. I wish I read more of it too.
ASL: Rhoda mentioned that you don’t have a lot of Malawian fiction in the store?
Rachael: No. We don’t. Like I said, I get my books shipped from the UK. A huge container that lasts me about three years brings a mixed-genre collection. So, I don’t even know which books I am going to get (shrugs). They are second-hand books, you see, that I also try to sell at cheap prices. How did you hear of us?
ASL: I have been coming to this book store since my undergrad years. I was usually looking for the exact opposite to what I am here for now. Then it was non-African literature I was looking for, because I was getting my fill of that from BA English; now it is African fiction, specifically Malawian, I am hoping to find. Interestingly, I found my favourite book—If I had to choose one—in here.
Rachael: What is that?
ASL: In the Shadow of the Wind. Do a lot of children come here, Malawian children? I mean we usually say Malawian adults don’t read, do Malawian children read?
Rachael: Yes, Dickens and the like. I mean few Malawian adults read; but mostly prolific readers: A-star students, academics, but not casual readers. You are probably in a better place to speak of this: but, I come from a culture of print. In which the book material is important in circulating information. Being in Malawi, I recognise that maybe there is more to storytelling, because they, Malawians, seem to also be an oral culture. Have you been to Mua Mission? I mean that shows you a whole pantheon of Malawian mythology with the Gule Wamkulu that I think should be narrated, and I think the children here should be privy to these stories.
ASL: I agree. I have not been to Mua Mission, but I have heard of it. And I know of some mythological aspects of Malawian folklore, but not enough to speak confidently about. . .
Rachael: . . .We need a book on that. Something interesting that shows of the Malawian spirit world with good writing, because I need good writing to keep me awake (Sips coffee) . . . Tell me about this project, why “Street Literature”? . . .