How to Raise Sheep, Part 2 of 3: A Country Without Books

Yesterday I went to the Librairie St-Paul, the only bookstore in Bujumbura, which makes it the only bookstore in Burundi, unless Ngozi, a university town in the north, has a bookstore I don’t know about. A lavender stucco monstrosity across from the American embassy. If the expansive exterior looked promising, the interior was a big disappointment.

The store was dark and dusty. Some of the shelves were entirely empty. The back shelves were lined with books on Catholicism, the lives of Mary, of Jesus, of the saints, of famous priests and missionaries, how to pray…with separate sections for each.  On the front shelves were university textbooks in law, communication, French and economics. Scattered among the textbooks were more prayerbooks and writings of Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul, and more priest and saint biographies. Children’s books from France, obviously aimed at the expat market (what would a Burundian child do with a French book on “where does your last name come from?”) are scattered randomly in this mix.  There is one small shelf of political science and history books on African themes, all about ten years old if not older. The dictionaries, in Kirundi, French and English, are behind glass, and you have to ask the saleswoman to look at them, just like in Russian shops. They cost as much as 30,000 francs ($25, nearly one-third of a teacher’s monthly pay and one-fifth of a government functionary’s salary).

“Do you have any novels?” I asked the saleswoman.

“Let me show you what we have,” she said. Propped up on a table, among a few priest biographies, were three Norwegian murder mysteries in French translation, once again over $15 each.

A society without novels?

In my own childhood, I was surrounded by piles of books, and by people who read. The characters in Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ralph S. Mouse and books full of myths and legends were as real to me as the neighbours. I read everything I could get my hands on, and my favourite place in my grandmother’s neighbourhood was the Baltimore County Public Library. As I got older, I read fewer novels and more travel books and books on current events. But all the same, I couldn’t imagine a society without books. And I wasn’t alone.  Our town was so swamped with books, new and old, that we gave them away free at the book exchange.

Here, on the contrary, books are gold. When Damien goes to Europe, when Jean-Charles goes to Canada, they bring back boxes of books. Both times that I’ve come here, people– my students, my neighbours, my colleagues, even hotel staff– have thrown themselves on my books like pigeons on a pile of seed. It doesn’t matter if the book in question is a travelogue about Afghanistan or Ethiopia, a novel, a treatise on child soldiers, a grammar book or a beat-up French-English dictionary. Books are gold. Why? Because books coming into the country are taxed at over 30 per cent, and the domestic publishing industry is only good for informational pamphlets and prayerbooks.

The internet connection doesn’t always lend itself to online reading either.

If you’re reading this, sitting in front of your computer in Baltimore or Ottawa or Berne or anywhere else, you probably like to get away once in a while. After you’re finished your trip to Bujumbura with me, you may go on a trip to South Sudan with a BBC reporter, or Lithuania with another travel blogger, or 19th century England with Jane Austen or another classic author, or into a fantasyland of vampires and pretty girls…you get the idea.

In a society without fiction, where the internet is still beyond the means of a large number of people, that does not happen. People don’t have the means to escape.

A society with only prayerbooks and textbooks is a society that encourages people to bow down, to memorize and to do as instructed (especially when you take into account the teaching methodology, imported from early 20th century Belgium; once when I was teaching here, I had six people skip my class in one day, and when I asked why, someone said that they had to memorize a chapter word-for-word for an exam the following day; Professor K, although a product of the same system, rails against the “parrots” that result)– not to analyze, not to move back and forth in time and space, not to aspire to something better. To lower their hands in front of God’s plan and to repeat what’s asked of them. A society of sheep.

Kapuscinski said it best: “How can someone aspire to something that does not exist in their imagination?”

A society without fiction is a society that doesn’t dream.

About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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8 Responses to How to Raise Sheep, Part 2 of 3: A Country Without Books

  1. Pingback: The Belgian Congo | Ruby Pratka – Year of No Fear

  2. msmarguerite says:

    Reblogged this on Ruby Pratka – Year of No Fear and commented:

    Putting this back up after a fellow blogger wrote that he was having difficulty finding a good biography of Melchior Ndadaye in print in Bujumbura. For those many readers to whom the name “Melchior Ndadaye” means nothing, Ndadaye was the first democratically elected president of Burundi (in the early 1990s, after colonialism, a short-lived monarchy and some military coups). He was assassinated and is now a national hero. Imagine being in a large Canadian city and not being able to hunt up a book about a revered former leader– a MacDonald or a Trudeau, a Jefferson or a Kennedy. It’s unthinkable. But this, sadly, is the country without books.

    (While you’re rooting around in those August 2012 posts, check out the other two posts from my “How to Raise Sheep” trilogy.)

  3. 1createblogs says:

    Very well written post.

  4. Millie says:

    Wow I am surprised such a tax exists, I know many of my friends had a long cycle of borrowing books to each-other but I had never realized books were that rare.
    Though I agree it is an alarming problem, however I would like to point out that Burundians as children or as adults are not deprived of fiction. It is an oral society with a great importance to singing traditions. We have many fairy tails, fictions, key fictional characters Samandari being the light motif of these tails. Additionally, songs on inanga (a traditional cord instrument…like a mini-citar I guess) are fair-tails, lolibies, mythology….. and many of these are thought in school and shared within the family.
    So yes we need to get more access to books, and definitely get more of these oral traditions in writing but no we are not so deprived of fiction.

  5. Ihorimbere says:

    Dear author,

    I’ve read this post many time. I do it be sure to understand well your message: born in Burundi, Kirundi is my mother tongue, I have learned French and English and my English is not one of the best.

    I understand the frustration someone can fill when confronted to a society without books. I totally agree that there is an enorm lack of books in Burundi.
    But I do not agree with the conclusion of your post. Especially the two last paragraphs. In my opinion, chose paragraphs are a little severe and clumsy. The given arguments are not sufficient to qualify an entire society as a society of sheep.

    Fiction exists in Burundi. Someone said it before in a comment. Burundi is an oral tradition and we are not deprived of fiction. My parents and grand parents used to tell me stories when I was a child. I will not forget those great moments I spent while listening to stories of my grand mother. Traditional music is full of fiction:Inanga,imvyino,ibicuba,imigani,ibitito,… Take few time and make a little research on that, you will see how that society is rich of fiction!

    There are many reasons that explain why there is lack of books(novels included). I invite you to take a look at the past and the present of Burundi you will understand those reasons.

    However, your post is well written and structured. I enjoy reading it.

    PS: As I’ve said it, English is not my piece of cake. Sorry for the structure of my setences.

    • Federation says:

      Thank you @Ihorimbere : you said it all. I was going to leave the same comment.

      I will nevertheless simply add that : the author could have tried to learn 1 or 2 things about our TRADITION. Yes books are a treasure (no doubt about that), yet reading activity as an INDIVIDUALIST act which is nothing compared to our COLLECTIVE way of transmission. Has the author wondered why SOLITUDE is one of the dangers killing western societies ?

      He should never ever have used his insult : SHEEP! Everthing has its plus/advantage but it not fair to overcome the down/minus side.


  6. Federation says:

    I meant: *Everthing has its plus/advantage but it IS not fair to OVERLOOK the down/minus side.

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