It's okay if Africans don't read - just have the books around, they will do you lots of good

Being surrounded by books tends to raise your standards about the world; it’s like clean air or sunlight, with inherent value, in and of itself.

OVER the past two weeks, I’ve spent many hours doing assignments and studying for exams, as semester/school term comes to an end for many students in Africa, like me.

On those late nights when everyone has gone to bed and you just have your books for company, there’s a frantic feeling that sometimes overwhelms, as you realise you have so much to do in so little time.

In that ‘academic crisis’ moment, one wishes that there was just a way for all that information to enter your brain by osmosis – if you could just fall asleep on your books and wake up knowing all you need to know.

Obviously, those are just the desperate wishes of a student who has suffers from poor time management – or are they?

It’s been said that Africans don’t read, if you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book, and, controversially, that societies that don’t read tend to be “philistine, anti-intellectual and mired in superstition”.

Some observers have seen a link between underdevelopment and a lack of curiosity.

We have much to gain if we could read more– but a wise man I like to chat with recently told me - invoking Italian philosopher and writer Umberto Eco - that there is value in just having books around, whether or not you read them much.

Being surrounded by books tends to raise your standards about the world, you are more inclined to seek a rational explanation to questions about how the world works, and you begin to see the value certain traits– reflection, thoughtfulness, quietness; after all, you can’t read and talk at the same time.

It’s like clean air or sunlight – it just has inherent value, in and of itself.

The same inherent value can be seen in having women in the workplace. Gender equity is smart economics, the people who study these things say, as studies show firms that have more women in its leadership ranks report a better financial performance than their competition. 

Children of educated women are better nourished, less sickly, are less likely to die in infancy, and perform better in school. When looking at different regions, one study estimated that 0.4-0.9% of the difference in GDP growth is accounted for solely by differences in the gender gap in education.

But like books, there is an intrinsic value in having women around – men behave better. If you watch school-age children for example, when girls are around, the boys will tend to watch their language, chew with their mouths closed, sit up straighter and try not to make embarrassing noises.

At university, when one male student gets a girlfriend, you can be sure that his roommates will try and make an effort to tidy up a bit when she comes visiting – beds will be “made”, at least so that she can get somewhere to sit, dirty shoes will be left outside. Just by her presence, standards are raised.

It’s the same at work – a male-only office will tend to have tell-tale signs, like groundnut husks strewn all over from coffee break snacking.

Generally, you don’t see the same effect on girls when boys are around – perhaps they are just gigglier, but girls tend to handle their manners and tidiness more even-handedly.

The debate about the intrinsic value of things like books and art continues to plague universities around the world, whose arts and humanities departments are under siege, as today’s competitive, capitalist economy demands to see the “bottom-line” of everything – how studying Victorian novels, Shakespearean theatre or African oral literature will help you be more ‘marketable’ – to use that blunt word that African parents love to use.

Arguing that art is just inherently valuable – “art for arts sake” makes one sound terribly elitist, and even out of touch with African realities.

But just having a library of books around you is a good place to start in continuing to make Africa a more scientific society.

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