Thursday, November 30, 2023

Khama’s ‘I-don’t-read’ comment could have worsened aversion to reading

On becoming Vice President straight from the Botswana Defence Force where he had been commander for 10 years, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, set off a craze among other (meaning impressionable) cabinet ministers.

Tradition has been that ministers sit in the back of their official chauffeured cars but with a new swashbuckling Vice President taking the passenger seat, suddenly one too many ministers were doing the same thing. If they suddenly changed seats without Khama’s influence, that would have been too much of a coincidence.

Years later as president, Khama would make a startling statement during an interview, first with a local newspaper and later with a British one. He basically confirmed what most people had suspected all along.

“I’m an outdoor person, so you won’t find me sitting down reading a book,” he told the Guardian of London, repeating what he had earlier told the Botswana Guardian in a different form.
A president is the most supreme champion for education and should never talk it down in his public statements. There are young people who look up to Khama as a role model and even if he doesn’t read, the last thing he should ever allow himself to do is to publicly communicate the message that reading is not important. That is what “you won’t find me sitting down reading a book” means in essence.

Years later, one wonders what damage Khama’s statement may have done in a country where reading was already almost a taboo and where social media has seized public imagination.

To be clear, Batswana have always had a problem with deep reading, which explains why some university students have been caught cheating in examinations and why some people can graduate from university without having acquired any substantial amount of new knowledge. It also explains why some full-time undergraduate and part-time post-graduate students in Gaborone hire foreigners (notably Zimbabweans and East Africans) to do their assignments.

Producing deep-reading materials in Botswana is not unlike opening a shopping mall in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve because to the extent that market means a sizeable community of consumers, there is no market for books in Botswana. The only real market for publishers is that of school textbooks which students are forced to read in order to pass examinations. There actually are people who have graduated from university without ever having read a single book from start to finish.

It was against this background that Khama infamously stated that he is not a reader. Years later, aversion to deep reading continues to worsen and while this problem cannot be attributed to Khama, his words would certainly have had an effect. Weekend papers typically publish long feature articles on assumption that readers will find spare time to read them. As a weekend paper and in line with said standard, Sunday Standard publishes long articles and when it hopped on Facebook, there was negative feedback about the articles being “too long”, naturally as opposed to a normal Facebook post or tweet. The paper now publishes shorter articles and abbreviated ones are hyperlinked to the paper’s website for the full version.

Aversion to reading severely undercuts the job readiness of university graduates because if you passed up an opportunity to acquire knowledge at university, you will certainly not be ready for any kind of real job. If your contribution to your attainment of a degree was little more than wearing a gown and mortar board on graduation day while more than half your assignments were done by foreign assignment consultants in African Mall, you are certainly not job ready and won’t be able to replicate that process in the workplace.

There is a deeper, more troubling aspect of this widespread, non-reading culture. On a daily basis, thousands of all manner of proposals are submitted to both the public and private sector as well as NGOs. If someone has an aversion to reading that goes as far back as secondary school and in a country that the World Economic Forum says has the laziest national labour force, what guarantee is there that these proposals are actually read thoroughly? What screening methods does the Citizen Economic DevelopmentAgency, the National Development Bank and the Youth Development Fund use to ensure that only people with an extra-ordinary reading attention span are deployed to sections that appraise business proposals? If there is no such screening, it would be more than likely that some really good proposals have been literally overlooked because they were “too long.”

It would be unfair to tar all people who have to process proposals with the same brush but in some instances, it is very easy to tell that the officer responding to a proposal hasn’t even read a third of it. There are also complaint letters that written to government departments on a daily basis and some of them can be 20-page missives of genuine grievances that need urgent attention. Are all these letters read thoroughly, from start to finish?

Going back at least two decades, Botswana is experiencing an unusual problem with regard to the culture of reading. Where some students at what are supposed to be institutions of higher learning would really have wanted to read books, there is, all too often, not enough books or no books at all to read. When UB and affiliated colleges of education were all there was in the way of tertiary education, there were not well-stocked but somewhat fit-for-purpose libraries that students could rely on to scrape by. In fairness to the education ministry though, the University of Botswana now has a library that ranks among the best in Africa. The past couple of years have introduced the e-library university or university college. However, some students complain that e-libraries are not good enough not least because access to them is dependent on Internet access which is still a scarce commodity in Botswana.


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