Zimbabwe International Book Fair, 27 years as iconic African book fair

 SANF 10 No 29
The Zimbabwe International Book Fair opens this week for its 27th year, a national asset conceived and born soon after independence, and developed into an iconic African book fair.

The ZIBF began as a vision, and is sustained by the publishers, authors and readers, who are expected to turn out in large numbers for the annual event.

Born in 1983, the ZIBF is almost as old as the country itself, and has gained iconic status on the continent as the model African book fair, a hat previously worn by Ife in Nigeria and an inspiration for the international book fair held annually in Cape Town.

Despite the economic challenges of recent years that saw the ZIBF maintain a lower profile, the book fair is emerging from its strong roots as a lively crossroads of writers and readers, publishers, children, adults, and anyone interested in books and reading.

The fair is open to the public 29-31 July in its usual place in Harare Gardens next to the National Art Gallery, following the Indaba that takes place 26-28 July with the theme of “Cross Cultural Dialogue”.

The ZIBF Association has attracted many local exhibitors and visitors from, among others, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi and Norway as well as the African Publishers Network (APNET) that represents publishers across the continent.

As usual, many side events accompany the ZIBF, including a writer’s workshop and the annual Merit Awards for authors and publishers, as well as a live literature podium and a children’s reading tent, both very popular with the public.

APNET will run a workshop on rights exchange and discussion, and issues of copyright and intellectual property will be among the topics for discussion at Indaba.

The Indaba charges an entry fee to cover costs, but entry to the book fairs itself is free to the public, and the cost of exhibition space is very reasonable.

The survival of the ZIBF is a credit to the strength of Zimbabwe’s publishing industry including authors, printers, publishers and booksellers, as well as the veneration of an idea that was ahead of its time.

The first ZIBF was held in 1983, initiated through the vision of David Martin, a founding director of Zimbabwe Publishing House, and Hans Zell of the African Book Publishing Record, with the support of Nathan Shamuyarira, then Minister of Information and Broadcasting, and UNESCO’s Book Week Africa which was imported for display as the centerpiece.

Together with others such as Toby Moyana of the Ministry of Education’s curriculum development unit and Zimbabwe’s trailblazing author Charles Mungoshi (he would object to being called “the grand old man of Zimbabwean literature”), they brought the concept of international book fairs to southern Africa, and ZIBF twice hosted the prestigious Noma Award for publishing in Africa.

David Martin was the first Director of the ZIBF and organized five book fairs throughout the 1980s, handing over through the 1990s to Anne Knuth, then Hugh Lewin, and eventually Trish Mbanga, who continued to build both the book fair and its reputation as a commercial marketing event for the industry and public.

Writers and publishers on the African continent gave the event their enthusiastic support and participation, and the first ZIBF was held inside the national art gallery, with the support of the then acting director, Doreen Sibanda, who has returned as the current NGZ Director.

The Book Fair wandered around in the first years like a nomad, from its original home at the National Gallery to Kingstons to the international conference centre and back again to its original home, and then outside into the gardens. The ZIBF was the first event to use the gardens around the gallery in this way, now also the popular venue for the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA).

The early days saw participation by all Zimbabwean authors and most well-known authors on the African continent who wrote in English, as well as some who wrote in French or Portuguese. They all wanted to come to southern Africa, to visit the new nation of Zimbabwe, to meet colleagues and discuss writing and books.

Like many good ideas, it began with a dream. That dream was to bring books and literature from the African continent to the newly re-emerging nation of Zimbabwe.

The country that re-emerged in 1980 from the colonial era had no access to books that offered African history or literature from the continent, although the Literature Bureau had kept local literature in print in African languages through many, widely read publications.

Mungoshi led the way as the first author to allow his UK-published novels to be licensed for local publication at home in Zimbabwe.

When Robert Mugabe, then Prime Minister, asked a question of the organizers about what they were doing about West African literature in French, this resulted in an invitation to France in which Mungoshi met writers whose work he had read in translation but whom he could not communicate with in person, a profound experience.

The ZPH directors then travelled to UNESCO’s Second World Congress on Books where, in opening the Book Week Africa, the Director-General Amadou M’Bow appealed that the extensive display of books from the African continent “should spread beyond the bounds of London” and be seen in Africa.

Six months later, in August 1983, Book Week Africa was the centerpiece of the first Zimbabwe International Book Fair.

People of all ages and from many countries on the continent have an association with the ZIBF that recalls and demands different things of it.

The first ZIBF initiated a Writers Workshop that brought leading authors from the continent to discuss and mix with local authors, and this was a fixture through the 1980s, emerging later into the immensely popular Indaba that has preceded the ZIBF since the 1990s.

The visiting authors over the years included, among many others, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Kole Omotoso and Flora Nwapa from Nigeria, Kenyan authors Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Mirii, Jack Mapanje from Malawi, Misheck Asare from Ghana, Lewis Bernardo Honwana from Mozambique, as well as Lewis Nkosi, Njabula Ndebele, Nadine Gordimer and several other South African authors, some from exile.

The Indaba this year is running with the theme of Promoting Cross Cultural Dialogue, with a keynote address by Zimbabwe’s internationally recognized expert on culture and cross-cultural exchange, Angeline Kamba, who has represented Africa in the global arena of cultural events and activities, including the UN Secretary-General’s culture commission, the Culture Observatory and other initiatives.

Among other speakers are several leading authors including Musaemura Zimunya, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Shimmer Chinodya, as well as the theatre and arts guru, Stephen Chifunyise.

The main sponsors of the ZIBF 2010 are the Culture Fund and Kopinor, with various sponsors for the side events, including the Zimbabwe German Society, British Council, UNICEF, Save the Children Fund and the Czech Republic.

Many African countries in east and west Africa that have lively publishing industries, such as Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria, hold national book fairs, and there is a regional book fair in Egypt, but no other book fair has captured the imagination of the continent and the African label as ZIBF has done.

Cape Town, closely associated with the Frankfurt Book Fair, is a different kind of event. Thus, through the hard work and dedication of the industry and with public support, this year marks the beginning of the return of the ZIBF to its status as an African international book fair.

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