“Create A Better Reading Culture In Africa” – Nahida Esmail

Muna Kalati: Please tell us about yourself.  Could you give us an overview of your career? Why did you become interested in the world of children’s books? Is it a choice or a stroke of fate?

Nahida Esmail: I completed my high school in Dar es Salam and then went on to complete my higher education in the UK. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Being adventurous by nature I then decided to learn how to fly in the hope that I would become a pilot. After getting my pilot’s license, I returned to the UK to complete a Master’s degree in Child Development with a specialization in Early Childhood Education.

Still searching for my path, I ended up in Egypt to study Arabic and Islamic Studies. While I was there, I met someone, got married and moved to South Africa. I started collecting books even before I became pregnant with my first daughter. I wanted my children to read good books from across the globe. I lived in South Africa at that time and when I returned fulltime to Tanzania, I was disappointed at the lack of good reading books. That is when I decided I would write material that my children could relate to. I am a mother to 3 girls (1 of them being my niece). I enjoy mountain climbing, and have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, and have written two (2) young adult fictions centred on Mount Kilimanjaro. I have also climbed Mount Fuji, Mount Damavand, Mount Toubkal, made it to Mt. Everest base camp and ascended Machu Picchu. I hope to write more stories about mountain climbing.

Muna Kalati: What were the first children’s books you read? Were they African? Any childhood authors you remember? What did these reading practices teach you as a child?

Nahida Esmail: I grew up reading and loving Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit and fell in love with the Famous Five and the Secret Seven series. It was through her books that I began to read. African books, till I was much older, were not easily accessible. South African books were, however, available but it was difficult to relate to apartheid. I remember when I was about 16, we had an African reading week and it was the first time I read books from West Africa and loved the stories because I could relate to them. In the international baccalaureate program, at age 18 we read, The Gunny Sack written by M.G. Vassanji, a Kenyan writer living in Canada and I could very much relate to this story. It was probably the first fiction book that I had read written by a Kenyan.  

Muna Kalati: You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

Nahida Esmail: JK Rowling – I would like to know where she really got her ideas from – did she dream any of them? Are there any other powers she has that we don’t know about?

Shakespeare – to find out what possessed him to write in riddles and why he couldn’t use easier English. His works made our life as students difficult J.

Khaled Hosseini to teach me how to write.

Muna Kalati: What is your favourite genre and what moves you most in a work of literature?

Nahida Esmail: That’s a difficult question because I like different genres. I love The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho because it’s such a hopeful book where your dreams come true. I enjoy sci-fi, fantasy stories, historical fiction, memoirs, children’s literature, young adult fiction, biographies. As you can see, I like different genres and it depends on my mood what I want to read. Sometimes it depends on what story I am writing as this will prompt me to read a certain kind of genre.

Muna Kalati: How many children’s books have you published to date? Could you name them?  Would you like Muna Kalati to make some analysis or review on these books?

Nahida Esmail: I would love for Muna Kalati to make some analysis or review my books. I have about 30 books published which range from children’s picture books to textbooks. Some are available for free online.  Here are some of my titles for picture books and young adult fiction:

Bahiya the Little Zebra (Brittle Paper List of Children’s books by African Writers 2021)

Mr. Zebra goes to the Market

              Toby the giraffe

The Lunch Box

Gida the baby Elephant

Rina the grey Rhinoceros

Foxy Joxy plays a trick (free online)

I am Bakari

Young Adult Fiction:

Zamda’s Kilimanjaro Journal (free online on World reader app)

The Detectives of Shangani – The Mystery of the Lost Rubies

Living in the Shade

Living in the Shade: Aiming for the Summit (1st prize for Burt Award)

Karafu a Freed Slave

Lessilie the city Maasai

Muna Kalati: How do you promote your books? What is the reception of your work with the public? 

Nahida Esmail: My publishers do much of my promoting, and I try to promote on my social media pages or talk about my books when I get invited to places to give a talk. My books are not very well known to the public. Reason could be because the focus of students is on books that are part of their syllabus and my books are not part of the school curriculum.

However, I have come across a thesis written on my books or my books mentioned in some works. This means that my books have reached audiences I didn’t know they had. I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a thesis that was written by Moikan Senyititled‘Social values in young adults’ novels: A study of selected works by Nahida Esmail.’

Muna Kalati: You are the recipient of several Burt Literary Awards. How did you feel when you were shortlisted and declared the winner? How has the awards you received helped in promoting your books and providing greater visibility for your work?

Nahida Esmail: My first story ‘Living in the Shade’ was written within a month as I only found out about the award then. So, when I was shortlisted, my first reaction was shock! Then came the realisation that I could contribute to the literature scene in Tanzania.

The Burt award has been the biggest catalyst in giving me recognition as a writer as the award was across a few countries in Africa: Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya. This meant that the winners of the Burt award were also mentioned in those countries. The way the Burt award worked was that it printed 5000 copies of the winning titles and distributed 3000 to local schools and left 2000 for the publisher to sell. So, my titles were distributed to schools around Tanzania. The question is whether the books were read or just sat on the shelf collecting dust as it was not part of the curriculum.

Muna Kalati: What are the difficulties and obstacles you have faced? Has access to publishers been easy? Is it possible to make a living only from this profession?

Nahida Esmail: There are many obstacles to writing in Tanzania, one of them is that it’s not easy to get published. In general, publishers will look for books that will bring them a profit and fiction stories, if they are not considered part of the curriculum, do not do well in the market. Therefore, they would not be interested in publishing it.

It’s not possible to make a living only from writing! Well, at least not yet! Money from royalties is peanut money. There could be many reasons for that and one of them could be that we don’t have enough interest in local writers.

I write for many reasons: I feel I can give back to society through my story telling because stories live on for generations. I write because I want to make a difference. I write because I find it therapeutic. I write because our children need to hear stories they can relate to.

Muna Kalati: What do you think of the general situation of books and reading in your country? In Africa? Do you have any proposals to improve its management?

Nahida Esmail: Since last year things have been happening on the literary scene in Tanzania. So, we can say that post-COVID-19 the country has woken up and realised that reading is the way to get into a literate society and a literate society will bring about great advancements. The father of the nation, Mwalimu Nyerere, was an avid reader as well as a writer and the government introduced a writing competition this year to promote Swahili literature. The Tanzania International Book Fair is coming up this year and the 2021 Nobel prize winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah has Tanzanian heritage. So, things are definitely moving the right way. There are writers’ conferences happening across Africa.

African Writers’ Awards are gaining momentum. I am a judge for the Wakini Kuria Children’s Literature Prize and we get entries from all over Africa.

Muna Kalati: What is your vision for the future of children’s literature in your country?

Nahida Esmail: Africa has a rich storytelling culture and I hope that a lot of those stories will be captured in writing by the children of Africa. We still have high levels of poverty and illiteracy which we hope will be removed with better quality of education. The goal is to first increase readership and get the children to love reading and then the future of children’s literature will be very promising.

Muna Kalati: What informed your decision to become a life-long sponsor of the African   Teen Writers Award?

Nahida Esmail: I have a 15-year-old and I would like to see her write one day. You get back what you give to the world. I hope this will encourage lots of African teens to write and literacy rates soar. We have so many untold stories and unheard voices on the continent and I hope this will get more pens writing.

Muna Kalati: What advise will you give to young people who wish to explore their talents and express themselves through writing?

Nahida Esmail: I think determination is the bottom line. Many natural writers don’t believe in themselves and have a great fear of failure. A writer has to grow thick skin because people out there can throw negative comments. If you take it personally you will stop writing forever.

Muna Kalati: Any last words?

Nahida Esmail: Let’s all play a part, even if its small steps, towards creating a better reading culture in Africa. The reading culture will create good leaders and we can lead the world.

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