The just-concluded 21st Nairobi International Book Fair allows us to reflect on the trends in book publishing in Africa. In a way, international book fairs are a microcosm of the state of publishing in the continent. At the Nairobi International Book Fair, many publishers showcased school textbooks and a few creative or trade books. Save for a few university presses that had tertiary books, it appears that local publishers are not keen on producing knowledge for higher education or for general reading.
In the early 1990s, Philip Altbach argued in his essay, Perspectives on Publishing in Africa, that books were fundamentally significant to the development of African countries. Altbach pointed out that developing local publishing houses will allow African countries to not only create an infrastructure for intellectual culture but also resolve the challenge of sustaining an intellectual life with returns from sharing ideas. His argument underscores the fact that publishing is perhaps the best platform for creating a livelihood for the many Africans who work with ideas.
Altbach wrote his essay in the wake of multiparty democracy campaigns in most of Sub-saharan Africa. He envisioned that in the absence of credible media houses and constant government censorship, publishing houses were well suited to upholding free expression.
Though Altbach was cognizant of the neoliberal forces that privileged international publishing houses to the local ones, he was optimistic that African countries could still build and develop their own knowledge production infrastructure. In addition to South Africa, which had a thriving publishing industry, he singled out Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe as countries that had made significant progress in developing local publishing industries. He further observed that Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire could build a thriving publishing culture.
Although there are some research and a lot of policy reports that explore ways of developing new reading publics in Africa, most of these studies are either written from a neoliberal perspective that privileges books as commercial entities and authors as self-entrepreneurs or from a western perspective of knowledge production. While there is nothing wrong with publishers getting returns on their investments or authors earning a livelihood from their works, it is troubling when publishers limit themselves to producing school textbooks for basic education because they are more likely to be bought by parents or governments.
In my view, publishers who rely on government tenders undermine their ability to shape a reading public. Instead of producing books that engage society and issues that affect it, these publishers wonder in corridors of hotel conferences conducting workshops on how to write for governments. They are forever chasing government tenders and have no time to innovate or shape the educational agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the act of gaining government tenders, after all, are governments not the major funders of basic education in most African countries? What is wrong are the models of publishing that are specifically geared in meeting government book demand.
If publishing houses are to develop into meaningful knowledge producing platforms, they must redefine their business models. They need to think beyond producing for basic education because most research is conducted at the university level. Since it is already established that few governments are keen on promoting local publishing industries beyond buying textbooks, publishers must devise ways of getting ahead of governments in shaping the reading public. Investments made in tertiary, trade books, and creative books publishing while may seem unprofitable in the short-term, have the potential of shaping the public psyche and developing new reading publics in the long-term, a situation that would be both beneficial to the business interests of publishers and authors, and the development of a nation.
Most publishers are quick to complain that the public does not read books, and therefore, they cannot waste their resources publishing books that will never sell. However, the reality is that many readers face challenges accessing books from the continent because of poor distribution. Many publishers are stuck with orthodox means of publishing that do not match the reading habits of the modern world. Whereas most of the world is doubling their efforts to have books on multiple platforms, most publishers in Africa restrict themselves to print publishing. It appears then that what is mostly construed as a lack of market for books can be addressed by developing better distribution channels.
In most African countries, publishing industries enjoy low entry requirement and have the privilege of autonomy and lack of constant government interference or regulation. This is the kind of freedom that enables innovation and allows creativity to flourish. It then seems to me that there are many opportunities for publishers to build the much-needed infrastructure for knowledge production in Africa. But if publishers participate in promoting neoliberalism, they risk being its first casualty.
Carol Cohn’s Women and War has challenged me to reflect on the following questions: With all the legislation and resolutions calling for a more participatory role for women in peacebuilding, how come peace negotiation tables or peace processes are dominated by men? Will peace agreements be effective if more women were involved? During the 2008 peace negotiations in Kenya, there was a 33% women representation in the mediation team and 25% representation at the negotiation table. The peace agreement signed resulted in a new constitution that gave a very critical treatment to gender. It rejected the historical exclusion of women from the mainstream society and struck at the socio-legal barriers that Kenyan women have faced over history. The new constitution created space for women to maneuver their way in the private and public sphere on an equal footing with men, but also institutionalized direct gender-specific measures that sought to correct the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from the society. Such measures included affirmative actions that sought to elevate women to a pedestal that had hitherto been the preserve of men.
Whether the women negotiators made all this possible is hard to tell, but we can clearly deduce that women did gain a lot from this new constitution. However, the implementation process was clearly designed in a way that involves both genders, that is, no state department or commission can be headed and deputized by people of the same gender. Has this solved the problem of gender imbalance in my country? No. Unfortunately, most agencies headed by women have been criticized in the recent past for underperforming. The public, which does not take into account the fact that the women who were appointed into the offices were either politicians or friends of politicians and that their performance does not in any way reflect the ability of women to hold higher offices, have already expressed their stereotypes that women cannot do certain jobs.
Some initiatives such as affirmative actions have backfired. For instance, when you lower university points for female students, you give them an opportunity to join university but force them to compete with male students for certain majors considered “good” e.g. Medicine, Law and Engineering etc., you haven’t improved their future as much.
I think the best way of involving women in peace processes is to go back to the basics. We first have to educate the society on the critical position a woman occupies. It is not enough that individual women know their rights, the whole society must be educated in this to the extent that they cease from making gender distinctions consciously or unconsciously. When this is done, people will remember to involve women in pre-negotiations, which mostly determines who gets a seat at the table, which in turn determines the affairs of a post-conflict society.
Two years ago, Kenyan authorities arrested a Chinese restaurant owner who allegedly had a “no African” policy in his restaurant. The restaurant, simply known as Chinese Restaurant, is located in Kilimani, an affluent suburb for the upper class in Nairobi. Local newspapers reported that the restaurant only allowed tax drivers or Africans accompanied by Chinese, European or Indian patrons. Most Kenyans were outraged by these reports; they took into social media calling for the deportation of the Chinese business owners. The government was at first reluctant to act but they finally gave in to public pressure and arrested the restaurant owner for running a business without a license – but not for racism as most Kenyans would have preferred.
The restaurant cited security concerns as a reason why they barred Africans into the restaurant but this does not hold considering that they even barred prominent Kenyans, a former cabinet secretary, and a permanent secretary who would not by any chance be members of Al-Shabaab, the militant Somali based terrorists that the Chinese patrons were afraid of. Even if the threat was plausible, it is not a viable reason for profiling people and singling out a race as potential terrorists. Most Africans considered the actions of the Chinese patrons as racist but there is no way of knowing their true motive. It could be that they were truly concerned about their safety or they did not simply consider Africans worthy of their company. I have considered this question carefully, and I contend that what happened in Nairobi was a matter of misguided cultural power dynamics between Africans and Chinese patrons.
Most Chinese in Kenya have no previous experience with the various ethnic groups that make up the country. Even though Chinese contact with Kenyans dates back to Sung Dynasty (960-1279), it’s only recently that their presence in Kenya has become noticeable. There is archeological evidence of Chinese presence in the Kenyan coastal region, particularly in Lamu. Local legend has it that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors washed up on the shore hundreds of years ago, and the locals rescued them. The sailors converted to Islam, intermarried with Africans, and were assimilated into the community. A report on China Daily, July 11, 2005 indicated that DNA tests conducted on Kenyan women in Lamu confirmed that they were of Chinese descent. This indicates that Africans and Chinese have had a cordial encounter and are not incapable of living together. However, the recent wave of Chinese migration into Africa while beneficial economically, it poses new type of cultural challenges.
China established diplomatic relationship with Kenya in December 14, 1963, shortly after Kenya’s independence. Despite the two country’s different economic models – Kenya having embraced capitalism while China favored communism – they have continued to enjoy a cordial relationship. According to the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies’ 2008 report on China-Africa Economic Relations, The Chinese embassy in Kenya is arguably their largest embassy in Africa both in terms of size and employees. This may perhaps explain the surge in Chinese immigrants to Kenya in the last two decades. The Chinese contractors are managing major government and private constructions across the country.
Despite the thriving construction industry, the major Chinese immigrants are mostly merchants, importing merchandise and selling to retailers in Kenya. I have observed that Chinese traders in Kenya rarely deal with the locals directly; they prefer working with middlemen, thus avoiding the necessary contact that can boost their familiarity with the host. Furthermore, the Chinese construction companies do not hire Kenyans; they do all the work and sometimes prefer living in their own quarters. With this kind of lifestyle, the Chinese have little exposure with local people, and have no way of learning about local culture, leave alone embracing it.
Interestingly, due to Chinese investment in Kenya, some Kenyans are learning Mandarin through the Chinese sponsored Confucius Institutes around the country. However, one cannot stop to think that the cultural literacy is only happening one way, hence creating a cultural power dynamics. Howard French’s 2014 book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New empire in Africa, has extensively covered this aspect of cultural power dynamics between ordinary Chinese investors and Africans. French writes a story about a Mr. Hao Shengli, an investor in Mozambique whose belief about Africans is in the lines of “I didn’t think they were so clever, not so intelligent…we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully” Obviously Mr. Hao does not hold Africans in high esteem. To him African culture is subservient to his.
As much as Mr. Hao is not a representative of Chinese people, in a way he is typical of most investors who now flock various cities across Africa. Most countries in Africa have yet to reflect on the impact of Chinese investment in their countries. But with the increasing immigration of Chinese businesspeople into African cities, this kind of reflection is inevitable. As often is the case, the most noticeable effects are on cultural compatibility. The Nairobi incident demonstrates that there is a wide cultural divide between Africans and Chinese. This issue must be addressed with utmost urgency lest the cordial relationship China enjoys with African countries be ruined.
Of course it is upon the Chinese businesspersons to learn the African philosophy of Ubuntu (humanness), and African Values of community. There is a lot to be gained through mutual respect and honest dealing. As much as the Chinese government is investing in Africans who are trying to learn Chinese culture, it should do the same to the Chinese who want to learn African cultures. For China to represent a new awakening, it must do, and behave better than the European colonizers at whose hands Africans were humiliated and their dignity violated.
The incident in Nairobi, for all we know, may have been a misunderstanding but nevertheless it sowed seeds of discord and loss of trust that the Kenyans had for Chinese business-people. Deliberate steps must be taken to restore the relationship to its better form. It seems to me that cultural knowledge may be the most important business skill that any Chinese hoping to invest in Kenya or Africa ought to possess. History shows that most Asians who have come to Africa for whatever reason usually prefers to build a home in their host countries. The Indians who built the railway in East Africa are now part of our proud heritage. Even though most of them never made any effort to integrate or assimilate to the local culture, they somehow found ways of maintaining a healthy relationship with Africans. There are a few exceptions to this, for instance, the tragedy that came with Dictator Idi Amin of Uganda who in the 70s expelled Asians from Uganda. The Ugandans saw the Asians as a threat to their economic lives. Of course they were wrong but populist ideas and reasoning often do not go together.
There is no better way of securing the future of Africans and the Chinese than to invest in cultural programs that foster mutual respect. Such programs might include student, farmers, businesspeople, and government exchange programs among others. Of course, such programs often take long in impacting a society. But they are worthy looking into.
I recently attended a beer festival at Taybeh, an all-Christian Palestinian village in Ramallah. The village has about 1, 500 people. Taybeh is an historical city that has changed hands several times – from the natives to the crusaders to Saladin to Ottoman Empire to the British, to Jordan, and to Israeli Occupation Army. It is believed that Jesus retired to this city after resurrecting Lazarus. It was a place of safety far away from the Pharisees who wanted him dead. I counted about three ancient churches including St. George Church, which was built in the 5th century.
Taybeh festival is more than a beer event; it is a reconstruction of Palestinian cultural image in an effort to maintain the relationship to the land and a sense of hominess in the face of the Israeli physical isolation of Palestinians. The brewery was founded in 1995 by David Khoury who was buoyed by the wave of optimism that followed the signing of the Oslo accords. This is an indication that a peace agreement can potentially bring more investments in Palestine. Palestinians in the diaspora will be more than happy to return to the homeland and develop their economy.
Outside Teybeh Factory
This brewery that has made the city famous and attracted many tourists is surrounded by Muslim villages that abhor alcohol consumption. The brewery owners are cautious not to offend the Muslims. Thus, we were requested to not to carry beers beyond the gates of the factory because villagers do not want to see people drinking alcohol.
I noticed that the event attracted many people especially foreigners and Arab Christians. There were people even from the US embassy. To me Taybeh project represents the unlimited economic activities Palestinians can engage in if they were allowed to. One of the reasons why Palestinians are suffering is their lack of economic opportunities.
Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Robert C. Gregg
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often referred as “Abrahamic” faiths due to their common ancestral heritage and their belief in one God. But do these religions worship the same God? Six years ago, Stephen Prothero, a professor of Religion at Boston University, wrote: “for more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into fantasy world in which all gods are one…but this idea of religious unity is wishful thinking and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.” This argument is gaining grounds in some recent scholarly works that emphasize differences in religions as a foundation for interreligious dialogue. Gregg C. Roberts’ new book, Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an example of a work that seeks to explain how “Abrahamic” religions have developed different interpretations of their shared stories. Gregg, a professor of religious studies at Stanford, observes the overlap of these religions with the aim of exploring “how interpreters told the stories using story expansions and noticeable twists in order to advance their communal interests.”
The book departs from the usual narrative common in some interfaith dialogue literature that seek to show how common religious traditions can join hands and enhance each other by demonstrating that Abrahamic religions bear in common the potential of mutual understanding due to their shared stories. Gregg shows that these religions have difficult and irreconcilable differences in beliefs and practices. He reasons that understanding and appreciating these differences instead of romanticizing similarities will enhance mutual understanding.
Gregg advances his argument by tracing five shared (scriptural) narratives as they were later understood by Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpreters. They include: Cain’s murder of Abel, his brother; the clash between Abraham’s two women, Sarah and Hagar; Joseph the young Hebrew slave in Egypt, tormented by the sexual advances of the wife of his master; the disobedient prophet Jonah and the whale, and finally the saga of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Through exploring sacred scriptures (Bible and Quran), text interpretations, sermons, and artistic works such as paintings and sculptures, Gregg shows that these religions “shared sacred stories but lived by rival interpretation of them.” He further reveals how interpreters deliberately sought to build and sustain their own religious society’s identity, purpose, and confidence in their uniqueness as God’s special people. In order to accomplish their objectives, interpreters often employed combative and satirical techniques to discredit the other religions. This is manifested in the manner in which they twisted the five stories to enhance the development of their tradition and to lay claims to a unique identity. They used shared stories to draw lines of exclusion and distinguish “us” from “them”. Gregg’s book exposes major points of contention and how interpreters fashioned their commentaries around this points, thereby developing unique identity.
All stories except Mary’s (the Hebrew Bible does not have the account of Mary) seem to follow the same pattern – Judaism tells the story of the one God, the creator and his holy people, Christianity takes up that story but incorporates Jesus as a bridge between God and his holy people and finally Islam recapitulates some basic components of the same story, affirming Judaism and then Christianity, but taking the story onward to another climax where they assert their superiority. It is through such interpretations that the core theology of these religions is revealed. For instance, Jewish interpretations of the story of Cain and Abel portray their belief about the world – it is based on God’s justice and equity. Thus, their interpreters sought to examine whether the world works in accordance with God’s judgment of what is right, or in accordance with God’s (unjust) favoritism. Their conclusion – Cain is punished and Abel considered right – help us understand their belief that God is a deity whose dealings with his covenant people are fair and equitable. This further explains why they tended to make Cain’s crime and his criminal nature the chief point of the story. Their working system finds its dynamic in the struggle between God’s plan for creation – to create a perfect world of justice – and man’s will.
On the other hand, Christian interpreters sought to demonstrate that followers of Jesus were on the side of God-approved Abel, the righteous brother, and were called upon to battle Cain-like people who threatened them both within and outside their own church communities. These early Christian interpreters strove to creatively enhance the shared stories in order to educate and build up the faith of believers. They understood their religion to be anchored in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ who is God became human. At the center of their religion is Jesus – who is a fulfillment of the prophecy told in the old Hebrew Bible and also as a fulfillment of Gods promise to David. Hence, the Christian interpreters whose work Gregg analyzed tried to present their commentaries in a manner that reinforces the centrality of Jesus in God’s covenant with Abraham. For Christians, the story of Abel, Sarah, Jonah, Joseph and Mary points to Jesus and his mission.
Saint Matthew was concerned with linking Christ with Old Testament prophecies. Therefore, his account followed a formula explanation (e.g. all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the lord) with a strategy of proving to the believers that indeed Jesus was the promised messiah. On his part, Saint Luke was preoccupied with filling gaps in the Jesus narrative through using versified speeches declared to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Neither the Jews nor the Muslims bought this idea of Jesus being the messiah for it sought to contradict the very foundations of those religions.
Given the significance of Jesus to Christians and their claim that he was the promised messiah, Jews interpreters were obliged to challenge devotion to Mary and her child and to annul their places in the divine scheme of things. They mocked writings or interpretations that reinforced the idea of Jesus as a messiah, and insulted Mary, his mother as a whore. They portrayed Jesus as an illegitimate son – fathered by a Roman soldier (Joseph Pandera), hence discrediting the immaculate consumption of Mary. The interpreters argued that Christians misinterpreted Isaiah’s prophecy – they pointed out that Isaiah prophesied about the birth of King Hezekiah and not Jesus. Since the story of Mary and Jesus is not contained in the Bible, Jews interpreters were generally reacting to Christian interpretations. In fact, they managed to use the real events of Jesus’ life against him. This reality of being aware of the other interpreters’ works perhaps explains how Muslim commentators approached their interpretations.
Gregg demonstrates that Muslim interpreters had knowledge of both Jewish and Christian doctrines, hence they did not have to retell the five stories in their entirety – even the Quranic narrations gives the indication that the audience was familiar with some of these stories. They retold the stories, filled the gaps and offered extensions that reinforced their beliefs that Muhammad is God’s prophet and that the world order is based on God’s justice and omnipotent sustenance of the universe. Their major goal was to prove that Islam was the true religion. For instance, Gregg presents the Qur’anic instance where the Muslims fault Jews for claiming that they killed Jesus. He also presents a Quranic verse that demonstrates that Jesus was not God. All these reinforce the Muslim interpretation of Jesus as just a Prophet, hence reinforcing the claim that Muhammad was the last prophet of God and there is no such thing as Jesus being God.
These shared stories though different, are connected through their intended outcome – to show that these religions had different beliefs and they did not necessarily care for the same things. Stephen Prothero developed four-part approach for distinguishing religions whereby he argued that at the heart of every religion is a problem, solution, technique and an exemplar. For instance, Christianity has the problem of sin, hence their solution is salvation, which can only come through a combination of good works and faith through the examples of saints and ordinary people of faith. Islam unlike Christianity does not believe in the concept of original sin, thus their problem is different. Prothero’s approach though simplistic, can actually help us understand the differences in the five stories Gregg has presented.
Gregg has demonstrated how “Abrahamic” religions interpreted five shared sacred stories to reinforce their beliefs and position themselves as God’s chosen people. For instance, through the story of Cain and Abel, we saw how they focused on those elements that defined their belief in and about God and through the story of Abraham and his two women, Gregg demonstrated how the narratives of these women were fashioned to serve each community, resulting in their becoming mothers to three families – three diverging religions.
Gregg’s book is unique in that it goes beyond the textual interpretations to incorporate artistic works such as paintings and sculptures. These include archeological works going back to second century. Gregg’s exploration on its own does not help peacebuilders or practitioners trying to promote interfaith relations. However, it does help counter the notion that the way toward interreligious understanding among the Abrahamic faiths is through emphasizing similarities in the religions. Stephen Prothero’s work goes a step further to suggest a new path for interfaith relations – Interfaith Dialogue 2.0.  This path open to all religious traditions and its foundation is the genuine recognition of the existence of boundaries and fundamental differences in religions.
Perhaps the major weaknesses in Gregg’s book are that he does not explain how the differences in the religions can utilized in interfaith dialogues. Even Prothero does not comprehensively explain how this can be implemented. This could be area peacebuilding scholars and practitioners can do more research.
Prothero, S (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.
 James L. Heft, S.M (2006). Passing on the Faith: Transforming traditions for the next generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 598
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.
 Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers.
 Ibid. Pg. 16
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 463 – 472.
 Ibid. Pg. 517 -518.
 Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers. Pg. 27.
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 543
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 545 – 546.
 Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 26 – 27.
 Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 434.