As bibliomania hits Guinea, book lovers seize rare chance
As Conakry's year as World Book Capital gets under way, book lovers in Guinea are seizing a rare opportunity to instil a lifelong appreciation for the written word in a nation where most people are illiterate.
The ramshackle west African capital ushered in a year of all things literary on Sunday with acrobatics, slam poets and books in every corner, beginning a year of events as UNESCO's designated capital for the promotion of reading.
Images of authors' faces and dust jackets are newly splashed across walls and billboards in this city of two and a half million people, while books multiply by the minute on stands and in neat arrangements on the floor for pedestrians to browse.
The World Book Capital concept is now in its 17th year after beginning life in Madrid in 2001 with the aim of promoting a year-long programme of events to make bibliophiles out of the most reticent readers.
Speaking at the opening event in the city centre, President Alpha Conde described the UNESCO designation as "more than an honour", calling it a unique chance for Guinea to "initiate its cultural renaissance and return to its former place in the cultural arena of Africa".
Conde described Guinea's literary figures as bulwarks against an Africa "at risk of losing its cultural identity".
However, the country's literary path is laden with obstacles.
According to the most recent UN data just 25 percent of Guineans are literate, and of those who completed school just 35-40 percent read regularly, according to the education ministry.
"We are making a big push because Guineans don't like to read at all," said Mamadou Bailo Diallo, president of Guinea's street booksellers association.
"We are trying to persuade Guinea to buy books," Diallo added. "But what is really important is not to buy, but to read."
Many of the booksellers offer second-hand stock in so-called "bookshops on the floor", selling them directly from the pavement.
As the city prepared for its year of the word, this traditional method was mixed in with more conventional bookstands set up for the ceremony, where children's books nestled next to encyclopaedias.
- Underfunding -
For a country struggling with high rates of poverty, buying books can slip as a priority when it is sometimes difficult to meet basic needs, a gap the World Book Capital concept hopes to address.
Sansy Kaba Diakite, the director of the project in Guinea, said a digital lending initiative will offer an alternative to underfunded and neglected African libraries, and promised that Conakry's citizens would not be the only ones to benefit.
"Exercise books, books in schools, in universities and bookshops" were being distributed in four provincial locations, he said, with the particular aim of celebrating Guinean authors including Camara Laye, a pioneer of francophone African literature, and novelist Tierno Monenembo.