I am reminded anew by a celebrated project in Ghana how misguided are amateur, free-lance do-gooders in the matter of “improving” Africans. The ever-insightful Russell Southwood, editor of the Afro-techno newsletter Balancing Act, has penned a new assessment of the effects on reading by African youth of giving away digital reading devices to them (or their schools). Southwood’s assessment is prompted by a new program in Ghana to give away Kindle readers to kids. The project sounds and has attracted great press for its clever founder; but both the do-gooder and the media ignore the evident high capital costs of expanding readers one computer at a time — and the damage to Africa’s own efforts to promote reading by children in its own way. The most important effort to promote reading of all ages in Africa is the spread of newspapers. In nearly African country — and Ghana is no exception — newspapers are growing circulations, increasing influence and improving quality. All of these papers are created chiefly by Africans for Africans. By importing supposedly superior digital devices, foreign do-gooders — and in this an American one — are actually doing more harm than good. Rather than supporting (perhaps through donations) the operations of African-led and African produced-newspapers (or to book publishers, of which Ghana is home to a strong locally-owned book press), the well-meaning foreigners instead undermine the economic foundations of reading in Africa by giving away digital readers, which has the direct effect of suppressing newspaper circulations (and book buying) and thus reducing revenues to papers. African writers, as a consequence, earn less money and a local effort to increase reading as an authentic African activity is diminished.
And yet the American do-gooder crows about how much better he feels after giving away the Kindles. And remember there’s also the ideological/hegemonic aspect: that instead of showing African school kids that their very own adults are creating appropriate reading material for them, we instead witness the neo-colonial spectacle of foreigners providing an alternative, based on the justification that they are filling a (phantom) void left by (uncaring) African adults. Once more, the technological sublime is presented by Americans as a substitute for authentic cultural and social development in Africa. The answer is for Ghanaians to refuse these Kindles and look to their own natural literary leaders to work with national newspapers — the Daily Graphic and the Chronicle come immediately to mind — in order to sustain an organically-grown reading culture. The task of raising reading higher in esteem is central to creating a robust civil society; if foreign do-gooders would first look and really see what’s working in Ghana, they might realize that helping what’s already happening is much superior to ignoring it — and creating from scratch an alien imported alternative.