Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Why I Read: Raisedon Baya

My first serious read was a strange one – very strange for a young boy living right in the middle of the township. I was in Form 1 at Sobukhazi Secondary School and had just joined the Mzilikazi Community Library’s senior section. Why I joined the library when most of my friends and young boys my age were not members, and not interested in becoming members of the library, I don’t know even up to this day. Some of my friends and peers even went to their graves without seeing the inside of a public library.

Books were not the in thing for young boys growing up in Makokoba then. Young boys my age played hard, smoked hard, gambled hard, and hustled hard. There was no time to waste, no time for books and what many called girlish activities. The decision to join the library changed the course of my life and steered me away from danger and early death.

So there I was in the library, moving from one shelf to another looking for my first serious read. The library was always a cool place. The place had a good air conditioner that tirelessly blew a soft breeze around the room. Its floors were always sparkling clean as if the building didn’t belong in the township. You entered the building and immediately forgot that you were in the middle of Mzilikazi Township. After walking around, marvelling at the stacks and stacks of books neatly covered in plastic, I stopped at the African Section. This section was to become my favourite corner of the library for many years.

I remember picking a few titles before I saw it. I don’t know what drew me to the book but I remember holding Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood in my hands and feeling very excited. A strange choice for a young boy you might think. Why this particular title I have always wondered. I was just a boy, and very adventurous too, so why was I attracted to The Joys of Motherhood? My mother was not a joyful woman or mother then – she had too much to do and too many children to look after for her to sit down and savour the real joys of motherhood. Perhaps I took the book because it was the kind of book I wished her to read – just so that for a moment she could feel some happiness for contributing to the human race. (The basis of the novel is the necessity for a woman to be fertile, and above all give birth to sons – and my mother has six sons!)

Whatever the reason, I took the book home and plunged into the world of literature. My love for words and my serious flirtation with literature began that week. I was also very lucky to have a big brother who was an avid reader as well. My brother read anything printed. He ate words for breakfast, lunch and supper. He devoured books, in all their sizes, shapes and smells. He introduced me to the likes of Desmond Bagley, Robert Ludlum and to naughty writers like James Hadley Chase and Nick Carter. I remember him trying to hide Nick Carter's novels from me but I always found them.  I learnt to read faster so as not to get caught or to avoid him taking the books back before I finished reading.

In books I discovered a lot. I discovered priceless treasures. I discovered things neither my parents nor friends and peers could tell me. I discovered a world bigger and much better than Makokoba, Mzilikazi and the other townships I knew. I discovered that words could give me wings, wings I used to fly to places far and beyond. Books took me to countries I never imagined, books introduced me to many cultures. I travelled to Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon, Senegal and other African countries – countries I didn’t even know where to place on the world map – through the eyes of writers like Ngugi, Es’kia Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, Ousmane Sembène, Kalu Okpi, Micere Mugo, Can Themba, Grace Ogot, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Miriama Bâ and Chinua Achebe. I travelled to Europe and America on the pages of works by the likes of Agatha Christie, Desmond Bagley, Jeffrey Archer, Len Deighton, Leo Tolstoy and many, many others. Long before I knew what a passport was I had crossed borders. I was introduced to fascinating characters by these writers, some of these characters have stuck with me to this day.

I discovered that I could temporarily escape the poverty and monotony of township life through the pages of a book. Books became some form of escapism. With the years I realized the more I read the more better I became at seeing the world. The more I read the more I saw possibilities of getting out of the township. The more I read the more I wanted to write, to share my own stories – stories about where I came from and the people around me. I suddenly wanted my life, my friends’ lives and the world I lived in to also be on pages of books. Reading inspired me to write. 

Now I read for pleasure. I read to escape the harsh realities of my surroundings. I read to expand my horizons and knowledge base.  I read to feed my insatiable brain. Sometimes I read just to experience the sumptuous taste of good words strung joyfully together into beautiful phrases and sentences. – remember writing is like cooking, it’s art. I read because there is nothing that uplifts my spirits better than good literature. I read because there is so much joy wrapped up in ink and paper and this joy is much better than pizza, a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine. And so today I say enough respect to all writers and storytellers of the world. Thank you for writing and keep the stories coming.

Raisedon Baya is a leading playwright, theatre director and festival manager based in Bulawayo. He has published a novel, Mountain of Silence, an anthology of plays, Tomorrow’s People, and features in an anthology of folktales, Around The FireFolktales from Zimbabwe. Some of his stories appear in Short Writings from Bulawayo II and III, and Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe, and his short story 'The Initiation' is to appear in Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories.
A former teacher and National Arts Council employee who worked at ZBCtv as a producer and commissioning editor, he has written over a dozen critically acclaimed and award-winning plays for television and stage. Several of his plays have toured Africa and Europe.
Two of his plays, Super Patriots & Morons and The Crocodile of Zambezi, are banned in Zimbabwe. In 2009 Raisedon Baya was a recipient of the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. He writes a weekly arts column for The Sunday News.

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