Book browsing on African time

Browsing in a bookshop requires time, and a generous welcome.

One of the ways Africans resisted the European imperial project was to continue with old ways of doing things. Some people simply carried on as if nothing had happened, as if their existence, temporality and being hadn’t been changed by the arrival of white people. For them, speech and conversation continued in the circuitous mode, rich with proverb and idiom.

When I was growing up, I remember that conversations with my paternal grandmother weren’t always easy, even though we both spoke Shona. Her language was richer. She used words that had fallen out of use in our generation, which made it difficult for me to follow her. When I encountered an interview with a man born before 1900 who engaged in this kind of speaking, I immediately thought of my grandmother. The interview went like this: 

What is your name? 
Do you want to know my personal names or that of my father?
Do you want to know my Christian name?
All your names.
The two of them?
At birth I was named Mugwagwa…

And so on it went. When the interviewee went to the native commissioner’s office for some business, I imagine, this style of speaking was bound to enrage the white clerk – which is why those offices always used interpreters. It’s not that white people couldn’t learn Shona, Ndebele or the many other local languages, it’s that they found employing an interpreter a more effective way of disrupting this mode of speaking. 

For the African, time wasn’t a number slavishly adhered to. Temporality was malleable, which may explain the phrase “African time”. Zimbabwean journalist and scholar Nathan Shamuyarira writes about this phenomenon in his important book Crisis in Rhodesia (1966). In one of the chapters, he writes about why Europeans considered Africans unreliable and dishonest: “With the Africans’ natural friendliness and their extended family system, it is difficult – very difficult – to leave guests alone who have just arrived. If an aunt comes from home, she rightly expects me to sit with her around a bonfire all evening, telling her in detail how I am getting on.” This conversation might touch on whose cows strayed into whose field, whose children fought, or how the crops were doing. 

Whenever I am in my village, I set aside entire days to see a particular aunt or uncle. I can’t just arrive and then leave after an hour. It would be considered impertinent – and rightly so. These are people I haven’t seen for months. Spending a day with them is nothing in the face of that stretch of time.  

Chased from a bookshop

This digression brings me to an incident a few months ago. After doing some work at a coffee shop in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, I made my way to African Flavour, a bookshop that sells mostly black people’s literature on De Korte Street. I was meeting a friend later for drinks, so I thought I would spend an hour or so browsing and maybe buy a couple of books to catch up on South Africa’s literary scene, which, in a previous life, I was actively involved in as a book reviewer for the Mail & Guardian. 

Since the beginning of the year, I have been preoccupied with British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing’s work. It’s easy enough to come across her other titles, but not her debut, The Grass Is Singing (1950), in its original bright-coloured cover. On finding it in the bookshop, I took it from its shelf and sat on the couch to browse through it. Before long – it could not have been more than five minutes – a young woman came up to me and said, apologetically, “We allow browsing for only five minutes.” I mumbled my apologies and left. In all my decades of browsing, I have never – not once – been chased from a bookshop.

The reason African Flavour became trendy lies in the energies created by activism such as #RhodesMustFall, the student movement that, among other issues, queried the centrality of the European canon in African pedagogy. It was also made possible through the efforts of people such as Thando Mgqolozana, whose initiative, the Abantu Book Festival, creates spaces, dare, lekgotla where Africans can deliberate on their state of being. The festival itself wouldn’t have been possible if not for a generation of writers and thinkers who include K. Sello Duiker, Siphiwo Mahala, C.A. Davids, Nthikeng Mohlele, Imraan Coovadia, Zukiswa Wanner, Pumla Gqola and others. And how can we forget what the self-effacing, nerdy editors of new literary journals such as Phakama Mbonambi, publisher of the now dormant (not dead!) Wordsetc, and Sandile Ngidi, the editor of Baobab, did for the South African and African book.

All of these Africans made it possible for a bookshop to exist in central Johannesburg that sells only African literature, a phenomenon unthinkable just a decade before. African Flavour is a profoundly transgressive venue: a bookshop selling books by mostly black authors in a part of town in which black people were, a generation before, not welcome. Can you imagine what a nightmare that would have been for the promoters of Verwoerd and his friends in the National Party? 

But African Flavour’s five-minute-browsing policy is unwelcoming. The bookshop should reconsider what it means to dismiss browsers quickly from places they come to visit only every few months.

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