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Charles Kakira and the sowing of his mustard seed

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Charles Kakira and the sowing of his mustard seed

There was a very good man in Kabaare of my childhood called Charles Kakira. He was the general manager of Uganda Bookshop, opposite the Uganda Transport Company bus park, which was a magnet that pulled our young minds towards a love of reading without the pressure or fear of failure. 


The Uganda Bookshop was a mandatory stop on our adolescent explorations of our beautiful, peaceful, and underpopulated town. I see Mr. Kakira standing behind the counter, his beautiful smile and twinkle in the eye, inviting me to partake of the latest arrivals. I hear his friendly voice inquiring about my health and academic progress, with a genuine desire to see me succeed, just as he wished for his own children. His arrangement that allowed me to take books that I wanted, to be paid for later by my father, was a priceless investment for which an ordinary “thank you” is inadequate expression of my gratitude. I was not the only one who enjoyed this privilege.


Kakira, like many of our elders, took active interest and pride in our lives. He considered it his responsibility to bring Banyakigyezi girls and boys into the mainstream of Uganda’s literate world. I still do not know how that relatively small room that was the entire bookshop accommodated so many of us at once. We did not consider it to be just a place to buy reading and other scholastic materials, but a meeting place to learn from him and from each other. I do not know how he managed to persuade parents that selling non-compulsory books to us was a necessary part of our growth and development. After all many thought that reading Achebe, Ngugi, Dickens or Paton was, at best, a waste of time. Kakira knew otherwise.


Sadly, Uganda Bookshop in Kabaare, like many other wonderful institutions of our childhood, seems to have died with Kakira. Last time I checked, its successor, now located elsewhere in town, still offered textbooks, exercise books and such, but no great literary works to separate me from the cash in my wallet. Then, horror of horrors, when I asked the helpful lady behind the counter whether she knew or had heard of Mr. Charles Kakira or his colleagues Sebikari and Muzahura, she drew a blank. 


If my people cared about the great heroes of our past, they would have already named a street and a building in Kabaare in Kakira’s honour. Why, a public library bearing his name should have already become a central gathering place for the knowledge hungry folks, of whom there must be thousands in that beautiful town. 


In my opinion, Kakira was the engine that propelled the reading culture that became second nature to my generation, an affliction we have happily lived with, much to our advantage and pleasure. I refer to reading that we do either for pleasure or acquisition of knowledge but not directly related to mandatory professional or academic reading. 


Ugandans are renowned for their excellence in mandatory scholarly reading at all levels of learning. However, I am told that our culture of reading for pleasure has declined. Now, I have not seen a published study or survey to support that claim. All I have are anecdotal observations by a few book publishers and booksellers who have affirmed that claim to me, based on the low sales of their inventories. The problem with that is that it assumes that hard copies of books are the only sources that Ugandans read. I do not know whether we have factual evidence that digital books are rarely read by Ugandans. 


However, we get clues from countries where surveys on the subject have been conducted and published. Here in Canada, studies have shown a worrisome decline in reading for pleasure. A Canadian study published last year showed a weekly book reading rate of 49 percent. It was worse in the USA, where only 40% self-reported to have read at least one book in the previous year. The story is the same in other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD.) For example, a New Zealand survey in 2019 reported a steep decline in pleasure reading among primary school students. 


Some of the possible contributors to this decline were lack of motivation, peer pressure, negative attitudes to reading, lack of reading skills, limited choice of reading material, competing priorities, inconsistent teacher/school messaging and implementation, and limited understanding of the importance of reading for pleasure. It appears that the advent of social media may have had a very negative impact on this aspect of human intellectual nourishment. 


The situation in these developed countries may well be better than that in Uganda. Here, I speculate, of course. As a regular book buyer, I find that the cost of books in Uganda is high relative to people’s disposable incomes. This may be a disincentive, even for bibliophiles who must prioritize their spending in a country where health care, education and so much else that was free when we were young, is now unaffordable.


Access to public libraries is not as easy as it used to be. As a young adult in Kampala, it took me minutes to get to the library at the USIS or other libraries in the city that were open to the public.  Today, getting anywhere in Kampala is hard work that probably discourages all but the book addicts.  


The literate Ugandans may also be as addicted to social media and its offerings of snippets of sentences as their North American counterparts. I am certain that very few people read what I write, for it seems to be only a few people who have the patience to read anything that is more than 50 words long. 


If it is true that the reading culture in Uganda is in decline, then we are in trouble as a country. Knowledge is power. Intellectual nourishment enhances our world view and empowers us to analyze life and other people’s words from a broader context than that offered by the disjointed snippets on social media. There is evidence that reading for pleasure enhances brain and mental health, cognitive and social/attitudinal competencies, academic performance, positive peer and family relationships, and avoidance of risky behaviours.  


Inculcating the habit of reading for pleasure in early childhood is especially important. Mr. Kakira and our parents all over Uganda knew this long before scientific studies supported their actions. With the evidence-based knowledge we have, there is no excuse for not offering Uganda’s young generations the opportunities to jump onto the virtuous reading cycle where the more they read, the better they read; the better they read, the more they enjoy reading; the more they enjoy reading, the more they read. 


This cycle was a healthy mustard seed that Kakira and his counterparts in the land sowed many decades ago. It is still bearing fruit in Uganda and all over the world. It is worth watering. And saving.


© Muniini K. Mulera

Level 1 (XP: 0)
7 months ago
Hello Dr. Muniini K. Mulera!
I have always read and still continue reading most of your articles in the Daily Monitor. About the reading culture in Uganda and around the world, a lot has sincerelly changed, especially with the advent of the social media where everyone is a "writer" and a "publisher" Having limited time as most people claim is not an excuse at all, because if you trully love someting, you will always spare time for it. Most people are target readers and finding pleasure readers is not that easy. We can only HOPE that the situation changes with time.

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