There is an interesting part of Lilongwe called Old Town. It has one of the biggest markets in the city. African Street Literature went there, to get a different feel from the book shop vibe in the last post, seeking in its stead, the market street book seller.
A small river divides Old Town from the rest of the city. While City Center has a business like, manicured approach to it aesthetic; Old Town has small market stalls, tiny, dingy alleys that lead to a plethora of Chichewa accents from people who sell Chapati from Tanzania. And others who have set up shop from Burundi. You can find almost anything you are looking for, and so naturally in a small world of such choice we went looking for books.
We spoke to three market book sellers and some passers-by about their literary tastes. The interviews were done mostly in Chichewa. The other side of Lilongwe conducts itself in English: Parliament, The Bingu Conference Center, and Capitol Hill; this side of town thrives on Chichewa, slang and the sort. A trace of any foreign accent will get you double the price for everything you are trying to buy.
African Street Literature: Bho bho, Ase, one of my friends is writing a book about people who sell books in markets, could I ask you some questions?
Book Vendor 1: Yeah, ndi za bho!
ASL: What sort of books do you sell and where do you get them?
1: I get most of my books from people who have finished reading their books, and want to sell to me.
ASL: Oh, Alright. Anthu amakubela ma bhuku?
1: No. No one really steals my books. Most people buy what they want.
ASL: What books do most people buy, and which books make you the most amount of money?
1: Kwambili people like African literature. But it is really hard to come by here. When I get a copy of something written in Africa, it instantly sells. Inuyo ngati muli ndi ma bhuku omwe sumuwelenga akonkuno, mutha kuzati gulisa.
ASL: I don’t really have books right here that were written and published in Africa to sell. I will see if I can bring you one next time I come by. Do you have any questions for me, so you don’t feel interrogated lol?
1: Why a book about people who sell books? Explain.
ASL: Bho–https://africanstreetliterature.com/ . Are there other street vendors I can ask the same type of questions?
1: If you go up after Devil-Street, ask the people you meet for a place where they sell books.
ASL: Tell me about the sort of books you sell?
2: I don’t really sell these books. This is my brother’s stall. I am just here because he has gone away.
ASL: Cool. But you read books, right? What books do you like to read?
2: I like Christian and motivational books.
ASL: What language do you read in; can I take pics of the stall?
2: I read in English, mostly. You can take pictures. But for information, go ask that other guy, I think he will be of more help to you than me.
ASL: My friend is writing a book about people who sell books in markets. Like you. Do you mind if I ask you questions? Which do you prefer, English or Chichewa?
3: Does not matter. We can do both. Why a book about people who sell books? I find it interesting. People rarely ask about what we think about books, but I have been doing this for eighteen years, and I could tell you a few things.
ASL: what sort of books do you mostly sell?
3: It depends. Mostly I sell educational books. But these days it is hard to do that. This is because most people want the latest text books, and we find ourselves competing with Google. People go to the internet, or their cellphones to get information. And by the time I procure what they find at their finger-tips, they have gone to the next latest thing. I can’t compete with google (laughs).
ASL: what do you think about that, mobile reading?
3: I can see why people do it. But, honestly, I don’t understand it. This is because when someone has a book, they use it any time. They don’t need to charge it, and they pay once, and that is it. With the phone, you are constantly paying for it: and as you know not everyone here has a smart phone, and then when they do they need to pay for the internet. They cannot annotate it, or pass it to a friend. It is hard to understand why people choose to work in this way, especially in Malawi. Look, I have never left this country: I grew up in Malawi, and I have been doing this business for a while. So maybe in foreign countries, I can understand why they would prefer mobile reading devices, tools, and services. Here, not so much.
ASL: Why do you think people don’t like to read in Malawi?
3: Reading is a culture. I did not go to college, but I read a lot, and that is why I am able to converse in English and Chichewa. Of course, my Chichewa is better, right (Laughs). But I see some of these graduates. Did you go to Chancellor College or Polytechnic? How is it possible that someone can go through four years of college and never buy a book? They get from the library what they need to pass a course, and then they leave. If they have never spent not even MWK 1,000 on a book as a student, what makes you think they will do so, for fun, after they have their degree?
ASL: I see. I have never thought about that.
3: People like you, for example in Malawi can say all you want to encourage reading. But people say, people should read more—you say you work at a university, right? Good. But you know who actually has a say in what people are reading, and when they read? Politicians. They influence the curriculum. Publishers like Anglia provide the material; then it trickles down to people like myself. People usually quickly shift their focus to the political climate’s reading culture.
ASL: Okay explain. . .
3: Man. You remember the time when Bingu wa Mutharika was the President? I hope you are not going to get me in trouble, are you a politician?
ASL: Haha, I don’t think they would listen to me.
3: You never know. Anyway, I don’t pick sides. But Bingu, right, he had this thing about education. When he came into power, he told people that they would only get promoted based on their qualifications. So, people who had been in government for so many years, and who already had jobs suddenly had a thirst for education. Many went back to re-write their MSCE secondary school exams. Some, even older ones, went to write the exams for the first time. You see, by encountering, and buying books, it started a flow. People like myself made a lot of money. Then governments changed of course, and so did the agenda. Education was no longer a priority, and not even (re) education, as-it-were. Now people want to learn, but they want to find the cheapest, fastest, route. I don’t get it.
ASL: Like how: cheapest and fastest?
3: Pamphlets. There is a guy who comes in here, and sells to me pamphlets, I then sell them for him. He makes his money through synthesising pertinent information from a selection of books; and secondary school students buy it. It is cheap for them, and it digestible and easier than purchasing the book. I don’ t understand that, you know, a sort of express education. They just need the degree, that is what we demand now in Malawi. The illusion of the education is more important that the thing itself. This was different in Kamuzu Banda’s time.
ASL: That’s true. Do you have any questions for me, anything you are curious about or want to know?
3: Yes. Can I get a copy of this book when it comes out?
ASL: Sure. I can’t promise you when, but sure. Could you tell me when governments change after elections in May. I mean what people will be reading?
3: If the government changes you mean. Sure. I can’t promise when, but sure.