Zimbabwe book fair a shadow of past days
By ANGUS SHAW
Associated Press Writer
HARARE, Zimbabwe –
The Zimbabwe International Book Fair once attracted agents, publishers and authors from around the world.
This year, amid the country’s deepening economic and political crisis, the fair was a shadow of its former self. The only foreign exhibitor at the event, which ended Saturday, was the embassy of Iran – offering Islamic tracts and political brochures.
“What is amazing is that this fair happens at all,” said Kudzi Kaparadza, a high-school teacher visiting from Bromley, 25 miles east of Harare.
Zimbabwe is facing acute shortages of gas, food and most basic commodities in its worst economic crisis since independence in 1980. Inflation is officially at 4,500 percent, the highest in the world. Scores of businesses have closed down and state health and education services are short of supplies, with up to 10 children sharing one textbook.
To stifle potential political unrest, longtime ruler President Robert Mugabe has clamped down on opposition movements and asserted increasing control over media and communications.
After the inaugural fair in 1984, Harare attracted hundreds of agents, publishers and literary figures from Europe, the United States, Asia, Australia and within Africa. But there is little incentive for foreign publishers to attend now – after all, few Zimbabweans can afford books.
This year’s fair featured just 84 exhibitors – mostly local publishers, booksellers, church groups and aid and human rights organizations.
“Whether we are still an international book fair is a vexing question,” said Greenfield Chilongo, executive director of the independent nonprofit association of organizers.
This time around, writers and academics came from Kenya and nations around the region for workshops, discussion groups and poetry and theater readings, he said. But bright souvenir T-shirts with the fair’s symbol were not produced, and the coffee bar no longer resembled a literary cafe.
“Like everybody, we have had our budget constraints. We have done our best to survive and our participants and supporters want to see it continue,” Chilongo said.
Maverick former politician, guerrilla leader and a ruling party founder Edgar Tekere arrived a few hours before the closing of the five-day event to sign copies of his autobiography, “A Life of Struggle.”
He said he had to “scrounge” for gasoline in his home city of Mutare on the eastern border with Mozambique to reach the fair.
Officials with a free-speech lobby group said some visitors, evidently supporters of sweeping media laws passed by the ruling party in 2003, were openly hostile over the group’s exhibit of literature and fliers on media repression, arrests of independent journalists and pro-Mugabe propaganda in the dominant state-controlled media.
In addition to controlling print and broadcast media, the government is now intent on monitoring the Internet. The official Herald newspaper reported Saturday that Mugabe had approved a new law giving authorities power to monitor and intercept communications on the Internet as well as fixed and mobile telephones.
There were no violent incidents at the fair. There have been scuffles over past controversial exhibits and the government one year banned a display of literature by gays and lesbians after Mugabe described same-sex partners as “lower than pigs and dogs.” Ruling-party militants trashed the display.
GALZ, the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, had a stand this year that displayed only a sign and a logo.
Just 500 people passed through the gates in the central Harare park on the first day the fair was open to the public, compared with thousands in previous years.
“I guess people are preoccupied out there searching for food and necessities,” said Kaparadza, the high school teacher. “All the same, I’m inspired by the hard work of the brave, committed people who put this fair together against everything that’s going on.”