Nahida Esmail is a Tanzanian author popularly known for her children’s books and young adult fiction. Since 2014, she has been able to secure Burt Award for African Literature for her book ‘Detectives of Shangani – the Mystery of the Lost Rubies’ and she has been nominated for her fourth Burt award this year on the sequel of ‘Living in the Shade – Aiming for the summit.’
Nahida Esmail spoke to Success yet again on her determination to continue writing despite the harsh reality Tanzanian writers face today and her forthcoming ventures.
How has your profession in child psychology influenced you as a writer?
I wanted to dedicate my time to raising my girls and that is why I didn’t take up a full time job in child psychology . However, it is important to apply psychology to the stories when teaching them through books. I feel it is important to teach life lessons and embed values that we have been brought up with; I can tell that through stories because I believe there is stronger impact to correct a child through a story form.
What is today’s reality in terms of the success of a published book in Tanzania today and internationally?
The reality is harsh, we have a problem. Publishers are not interested in printing until or unless they know how much money the published book is going to make. And this is only possible if we had readers. Unfortunately we don’t have the culture of reading yet. So it is a vicious cycle, we have the writer, but not enough readers and therefore slim chances with the publisher.
Students will not buy it, because children are confined to only few books which are in the curriculum. They aren’t encouraged to read other books. If you go to a big book-store we have in Tanzania, you’ll find most books written by the international authors. We have a very tiny selection of Tanzanian writers. Maybe if there was a large range of books by Tanzanians, people would buy. Again, this is part of the vicious cycle.
For my books to have international success, it depends on publishers. For example, all my books go through publishers, and it depends on how much of an effort the publishers are making in terms of marketing. Example they could have an e-book format, I think they need to be fiercer in their marketing strategy to come up with new ideas such as an e-book format but I guess they hold back because of low readership.
We really have a long way to go for the kids to start loving books, but the question is, ‘who is making that effort?’
What makes you not to quit writing despite being aware of the harsh reality the Tanzanian writers face today?
My determination can be summed up with this one quote, ‘stories worth reading, stories worth remembering.’ My children play a big role in inspiring me to keep writing. I also want to be a catalyst for change in education in Tanzania.
I’ll compare my situation with a small story. Let’s say an old man planted an apple tree, he starts with a seedling. Most probably he will not be able to enjoy the fruits but he is doing it for the future generation. His children will enjoy the fruits of his struggle, he might not.
I think all Tanzanians need to lead by this example; they need to mobilise for a better future. Example, the situation people with albinism face today which is portrayed in my book ‘Living in the shade’. The circumstance might not change now, but I am hoping through reading and efforts, the future generation will be able to terminate a senseless thinking that the body parts of albinos have magical powers.
Where do you think Tanzanian literacy stands with relation to books written in English, which is considered the second language?
If all secondary school students have to learn English, why is their foundation not strong enough to make them competent enough to make the biology or chemistry books an easy read?
It becomes a challenge for many to understand concepts in their text-books which is written in English. As a result the students cram.
I have taught in the past and my experience is that when you give a student a question using different words but leading to the same answers, as a teacher, I will be told to ask questions which are in the book.
Our children are so stuck in ‘passing the exams only’, they will not read anything else. You know they need to understand that books teach you so much and it encourages independent thinking. I think there should be more books and children should be encouraged to read books which are beyond their curriculum.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers who want to begin writing children’s books or young adult fiction in Tanzania today?
They should not rely on writing as their sole career yet. It will not pay them their bills. Many of my fellow writers have a full time job and they do writing as their side thing. However, they should not give up, because they can contribute to the change we are looking for. They should ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to write?’
If the young writers want to write to change and improve the way Tanzanian think then that is what they should focus on – and that should be their inspiration. So basically, the aspiring writers should take this time as an opportunity, if they want to write, they should just do it. Success will follow.
What are your forthcoming ventures?
I just signed a contract with a Ghanaian publisher for a picture book, which was long-listed two years ago for the Golden Baobab competition. Their aim is to have more African children books and ‘Bahiyya the pretty Zebra’ will be my first big picture book.
I also have a book launch in South Africa at the end of this month. The book is ‘This is Islam’ which focuses on the similarities between Islam and Christianity.
Lastly, a sequel to ‘Living in the Shade’ has been shortlisted for the Burt Award for African Literature and the book is yet to be published this year.