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Sustaining a reading culture is essential

Here is a question that was paused to me by one of my closest friends recently; why are you so much bothered about reading?  Although I will try to answer this question and explained why a reading culture should be nurtured and be part of every balanced person’s lifestyle, I still felt my explanations were not exhaustive. The reason for this is that many people even some in this audience are having similar questions while thousands of others do not see the value of reading. As such allow me to use this occasion of the lock-down to share my thoughts with the wider audience through this summarized talk.

1. A reading culture can be defined as how a group of people (parents, teachers, and society at large) perceives the importance of knowing the content of a particular book and as such works towards inculcating the values it presents. Accordingly, a reading culture can best be explained as a learned practice of seeking knowledge and information through the written word. In this regard, therefore, we do not need an advanced dictionary, but rather a group of words put together to make us understand that functional literacy empowers a people with the knowledge and skills required for tackling the causes and effects of poverty such as unemployment, environmental degradation, disease, and hunger. Let us put this point straight that the absence of a widespread culture of reading in Africa acts as an effective barrier to our unity, development, and international competitiveness.

2. The majority of my fellow Africans perceive reading as a waste of time. There is this popular saying, “if you want to hide something from a black man, or an African, write it.” It sounds like Africans listen more than they read. In Africa, a sign that says “no parking” may not be respected unless it is accompanied by a person next to it, reading the sign for us.

2.1 We are just too used to the oral tradition that written tradition is almost strange. The demotion of reading culture in recent decades is indeed a matter of great sadness. It is visible in some ways that the imbalance in the economy, the uncertainties in the politics, the daily toil that the average African goes through to make ends meet and lots of other things peculiar to developing nations like ours all conspired to make the average person on the street lose the taste for such things as books or reading.

2.2 Weak self-esteem and disorderly record-keeping contribute mainly to the declining reading culture within us. This means it did not start today and will surely take some time and a highly concentrated effort to remedy.

3. In Africa, we have created an artificial situation in which several people rarely read, either because they lack the skill or simply because they do not care enough to take time to concentrate on what they want.

3.1 This notwithstanding will continue to pose serious problems today, tomorrow and in the future. Let us be convinced from today henceforth that reading is essential if we have to fully participate in things that matter in modern society. Reading adds quality to life, provides access to culture and cultural heritage, empowers and emancipates citizens, and brings people and their values together.

3.2 Reading is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. Becoming a skilled and adaptable reader enhances the chances of success at school, in society, and beyond. A written word and its owner are the two things that up to now have survived death and have beaten counting to perfection. Because of reading, we can recount what Plato, Socrates, and Jesus said without fear of error.

4. This is in fact what I consider to be the most dangerous trap ahead of us; that youngsters in Africa are at the danger of going straight from an oral to digital culture, skipping over the writing and reading culture in the process. Most young people would rather read the sports pages or get hooked up to social online media than reading books. Whereas the economic, social, and political health of our continent today depends on literate citizens who can read widely and apply it practically for development, In Africa, we still just trust our hands and ears. There is a common saying that the eyes of an Africa are in his/her hands; believe me or not, this theory is intrinsically wrong and even to some extent dangerous.

5. To emphasize the need for developing the culture of reading in Africa today, we shall borrow from; Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the English Philosopher who once asserted that ‘reading makes a full person, speaking makes a ready person, and writing makes the person exact.’ This assertion has never been proved otherwise. Great readers have always made great writers as history, autobiographies, and biographies of great men and women have taught us.

5.1 But who should be responsible for developing the culture of reading? To the best of my understanding, if we are to develop and maintain a reading culture in our society; there must be strong collaboration and partnership amongst preachers, teachers, parents, the rich, governments, and members of the civil society.

5.2 The institutions of learning and worship centres need to emphasize the need for developing the culture of reading as early as possible. For example, there should be a reading hour/library hour on the school time table.

6.2 This should include visiting publishing houses, book shops, and libraries so that people can access and choose what they want to read. For meeting places that do not have libraries and places of worship that do not have reading centres, it is high time this was implemented. In any waiting room and space, materials to read should be provided.

5.3 To emphasize the importance and value of reading, the publishers and booksellers should create a book week festival on their annual calendar. There are still many Africans who do not know how a book is produced; it would be an added value to avail tours to everyone most especially the children to learn how a book comes about.

5.4 This will help many to love and respect the book and wish to have it next to themselves always. Also, the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders need to encourage local associations, for example of teachers, writers, and librarians to exhibit their book productions. Such displays play a leading role in enhancing the culture of reading and education for excellence.  This will not only improve our quality of life but will create a generation of Africans who are free and creative thinkers.

6. At an early age, children should be motivated to read by reading to them nice stories before bedtime. Priests, religious men, and women, teachers, soldiers, police, political leaders, and parents should demonstrate a passion for reading and act as model readers for the young.

6.1 Those with the direct responsibility of teaching at any level should know how the youth perceive their ability as readers and support them in developing a positive self-image by having them work with texts that are at their current reading level and by providing them with enough time to complete their reading tasks as well as making learning meaningful, taking into account the age, interests, and needs of children.

6.2 This is in fact what even our Lord Jesus Christ went through. We read in the Gospel these words “Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor…  All spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, Isn’t this the son of Joseph?Luke 4:16-22. This shows how far the power of reading can get us. In as far as the culture of reading is concerned; we all need to be interested parties who integrate reading into other activities to show that it is essential in our everyday activities and that it adds value and brings personal satisfaction because it makes us achievers.

7. Let it be made clear, that there is also a need for the Catholic Commission of Social Communication to intervene by providing occasions that encourage and promote organized reading. Let us not grow cold feet in case we are called upon to provide visible valuable awards to groups and individuals who write and read well and extensively. We need to create a brand of Africans who are vibrant writers, readers, librarians, and booksellers among others. The private sector and the corporate world should have a direct role in enhancing the culture of reading in communities in which they operate. They should come up with participatory programs like interschool debates, building school and community libraries, donating books to schools among other activities through their corporate social responsibilities.

8. Various problems threaten to develop and maintain the culture of reading especially in society today. Some of the challenges which stand out include; the environment in which we live, attitude, mindset, and general fallacies towards reading. For example, how often do we; the clergy, the religious, parents, or teachers take time to read for our audience? If you don’t read for your audience, then the audience will not read within itself because no one can give what he/she does not have! and the cycle will go on and on. A wise saying puts it this way ‘Tell me and I will forget, Show me, and I may not remember, involve me and I will understand’ In this era and time we need to be convinced that readers beget readers, a reading Church, gets reading followers and a reading parent gets a reading child. My rhetorical question is, as Church and civil leaders, parents, and teachers how often do we model those around us when it comes to building a culture of reading?

8.1 Many people barely read even newspapers, preferring instead to receive their information through the television, radios, and rumours. The trouble of being born in the television age is that it discourages the concentration of the mind and encourages serial, kaleidoscopic exposure. Its variety becomes contagious, addictive, and narcotic but not a stimulus. When you are before a television screen you consume not what you choose and when, but when they choose and what they choose to reveal to you. So our generation today is distracted by the fall offs from technological innovations which have aggravated our non-existent reading habits and practices.

8.2 As I have already mentioned, today we need a fundamental mental transformation for our survival and this will only be possible by writing and reading. Those who admire us need to see us their models but not a generation that is allergic to the book and any reading paper apart from the banknote because of its money.

8.3 Here are names of ambassadors of reading and writing, Chinua Achebe, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Blessed John Paul II, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Abraham Lincoln, Okot B’tek, William Shakespeare and the Daughters of St Paul Africa Publication. I hope that one day your name will add on this list of honor. Here are the benefits of reading. Reading makes you a better person among others because:

    • It develops your mind
    • It develops your brain
    • It teaches consistently
    • It sharpens the eye
    • It improves in IQ
    • It improves vocabulary and word power
    • It brightens and helps in the formation o character
    • It makes you google the universe. Reading what matters provides a job and reading the Word of God is a way to holiness and a gift for those preparing to see God in heaven. No wonder the first converts that gave us the respected Ugandans among them the Holy Martyrs of Uganda were called “ABASHOMI” those who read.

9. I will always remember the advice of my father and teacher during my early days in primary school who instructed me to develop a habit of reading and went further to say that I should pick up any paper I find around myself and take note of its contents. That sounded very ridiculous but very helpful.

9.1 Now I do believe more than before that you can not be more than what you read. Try it and it will prove to you that you only know what you read and the level you are now is because of what you know. These great electronic inventions today cannot make a better impact than getting a nice book and downloading its content to yourself by reading it.

9.2 My advice to you today is that resolve that from today onwards, you will devout minimum one hour a day to read something and you will get engrossed and excited than you have never been before because by doing so, you are systematically developing wholistically your personality; that is physical, mental and spiritual at the cheapest cost possible.

9.3 Resort to reading books and be proud of it. Through reading, you can become fit, healthy, wealthy, wise, good looking, admirable, bright, gentle, joyful, successful, holy, and smart. Just try and you will see the results at your fingertips.

10. I invite you to be smart by having and reading books, magazines, and newspapers at our homes, offices, schools, hospitals, leisure centres, and while on a long journey. I encourage reading even for pleasure because the surefire way to develop a reading culture is by making reading a habit, after all, we learn reading by reading!

10.1 Well-meaning Africans, parents and the media educationists had at more than a few occasions decried the scrawny reading culture in Africa, the desertion of books in public libraries, the deficiency of books in public libraries as well as the downfall of school libraries and government’s indisposition to tackle the crises with a sense of urgency.

10.2 It was in opposition to the backdrop of this problem that Pope Paul VI once decried saying that humanity today is suffering from mental malnutrition, not because of lack of bread but because it does no longer read the books nor has it the desire to improve on this dangerous weakness. Each one of us needs to flag off his/her crusade against the poor reading culture in Africa by launching the ‘Bring Back the Book’ initiative’.

10.3 This initiative is not only to bring the waning reading culture to the front burner of public discourse but is also an open challenge to corporate bodies and individuals as well as writers, authors, publishers, and all the stakeholders to put in their resources to making reading culture a part of our National Character for Nation Building.

Books, magazines, and newspapers will add a great good at developing a contemplative and reflective mind and personality that Africa urgently needs today to generate new ideas and provoke a reflex and to do something that is researched rather than depending on “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views and to create a bookmark. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation down to the footnote and helps us to be informed and formed people of God.

Fr. Paulino Mondo

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