Is Zimbabwe Reading? – The 2011 Reading Survey

No nationwide survey of Zimbabwean reading levels or habits has been done recently. Accordingly, the actual state of the reading culture and available books must be estimated by indirect assessment. This report by Zimbabwe reads is based on dozens of interviews with donor organizations, booksellers, publishers, librarians, and educators in the last months of 2011.

1.  Readers

2. General Book Situation

3. Book Acquisitions in 2011

4. Other Reading Material

5. 2011 General Assessment



“Reading”, by Nicholas Mukomberanwa, a sculpture in Harare Gardens

More important than the number of books in a society is its capacity and interest in reading — i.e. the reading culture. One can more quickly increase the amount of reading material than the number of people who can or care to read. For this reason, we begin with a survey of the social dimension of reading in Zimbabwe.

Literacy Rate: [Editor: For updated information on literacy, now see the 2010-11 DHS report.] A systematic study of literacy in Zimbabwe has not been done for some time and accordingly the literacy rate (the percentage over age 15 who can read and write) can only be approximated. The usual complications in determining various types of functional literacy are further complicated in Zimbabwe (as in much of Africa) where literacy is measured by ability in English, which is a second language for the majority of the population.

For lack of better numbers, UNDP and UNESCO have continued to report 91.9% literacy in Zimbabwe, apparently based on the last available data provided a decade earlier by UNESCO and the Zimbabwean government in the 2002 census. But this optimistic calculation is certainly out of date, as is UNICEF ’s reported literacy rate of 98% for youth aged 15-24.

Whereas once the major part of the illiterate population in Zimbabwe was among elderly women who had not had access to schooling in their youth, now the increasing number of early school-leavers creates a new and long-term group of illiterates or semi-literates. The dramatic emigration of skilled workers in the last decade has not helped.

The best guesses are that Zimbabwe’s current English literacy rate is now in the mid-80s and is dropping. We roughly estimate that the literacy rate for those over 15 is dropping a half percent each year and that will accelerate to 1% each year as those who left school after 2005 reach age 15. If current conditions continue, Zimbabwe will have a literacy rate of 75% in 2020. After that, the ECD program and new textbooks should cause the rate to rise again. At this stage, it seems unlikely that Zimbabwe still has the highest literacy rate in Africa, with the more reliable estimates from Botswana (85%) and Tunisia (87%) probably surpassing it.

School Attendance: A very disturbing tendency has been observed since the economic crisis hit Zimbabwe in 2005: children are dropping out of school at calamitous rates. About 10-15% of rural children never finish a full year, and another 30% never reach secondary school. No small number of these already dropped out before third grade, mainly due to the pressure of school fees.

The impact that school dropouts have on the literacy rate is obvious, but it also affects the culture of reading in other ways by reducing peer expectations. The cancelling of whole school terms in most rural areas in 2008 and 2009 also introduced school children to the concept and practice that learning was somehow optional. The ongoing damage to the education culture also damages the reading culture.

Harare City Library now only charges fees for borrowing.

Library Usage: Because of library subscription fees, library usage continues to be limited, with students being the main clientele. In 1989, there were more than 150,000 registered public library users using 76 public libraries. The user numbers for 2011 are probably half of that. However, the Bulawayo Public Library still reported a strong count of 10,289 patrons for the year preceding July 2011; the National Free Library had 8016 patrons (but only 250 paid the registration fee to borrow).

Reading Habits: After so many years without books or the promotion of reading, it is not surprising that leisure reading as a pastime is at risk. There are even University of Zimbabwe students who say they have never read a novel. Librarians, publishers and booksellers report minimal interest in books other than textbooks, set texts, and books for exam preparations.



In 2010, the baseline for reading materials was at a low point. For most of the previous decade, the economic crisis dictated that schools and libraries had no funds for purchasing books and shop prices made books unaffordable for most families.

Advanced textbooks are at a premium in Zimbabwean public libraries and are usually kept on reserve or behind locked grates.

The stock of reading materials already in circulation in the country is composed of two categories: the holdings of institutions (mostly libraries and schools) and the home collections of individuals.

  • Public libraries are the major source of reading material for the reading material. In Zimbabwe, they are of two types, both of which rely on user fees: those operated by trusts (e.g. Harare City Librarywith its 6 branches) and those operated by local government councils (e.g. Highfield Central Library and the municipal system). Unfortunately, budgets have left them hardly able to pay for staff (even with increasing fees) and rarely have they purchased books in the last few years, almost exclusively counting on international donations. Because of high demand for the limited supply, popular books are often worn out quickly. In cities, subscription fees (typically a few dollars per month) have reduced readership. In rural areas, some school libraries function as community libraries as well.
  • In 1990, there were about 1,100,000 volumes in 76 major public libraries, i.e. about 1 book per 10 citizens. That total may be slightly higher today through minimal acquisitions, but the most useful books have suffered immense wear (and some theft) and a large part of the collections are now very dated and little used. A simple goal for public library collection of 1 book per 1 citizen would require a ten-fold increase in library holdings.
  • Secondary school library collections vary widely. It is estimated that 30% of government schools have a library, but only the best perhaps 100 schools have separate library rooms with more than 1000 volumes (and rarely more than 3000). Many others have a storage room or “classroom libraries” (usually with 200 to 1000 volumes). Often the most commonly used books of school libraries are actually textbooks stored by the school rather than in student hands because of their limited numbers. Primary schools rarely have more than textbooks and a few auxiliary materials. Totaling the 2,300 secondary schools, a generous estimate of library holdings nationwide would be 2,000,000, but most of them are a generation old or in poor condition.
Few schools in Zimbabwe have a library building like that of Tsatse Secondary School which was built and has been supported by donations from abroad.
  • School textbook collections were in complete crisis until 2010. The 2010-2011 UNICEF ETF program has now made a significant contribution in core subjects (see below), which practically replaces any previous count. However, materials in non-core subjects are still very weak.
  • University library collections vary widely from the strong holdings of the University of Zimbabwe (more than 500,000 volumes) to the very weak collections of newer universities (usually just a few rooms with 10,000 – 50,000 volumes) or teacher’s colleges and training institutes.
  • The National Free Library of Zimbabwe has 112,000 volumes (about the number of the leading secondary schools in the UK or US). Other institutions (museums, archives, depositories, etc) sometimes have special collections but these are best not considered part of the public reading census.
  • Private holdings of books are concentrated among those with higher education. In rural areas, a teacher’s home might have one or two shelves, most other families no more than a handful of books, almost all old textbooks. In urban areas, those families who appreciate education might have two or three shelves, mostly books from their studies, but with a sprinkling of literary classics, novels and romances. But many urban families, because of tastes or means, have almost no books at home. An alternative calculation can be made based on what has been sold by bookstores over the last 30 years. Together these two assessments suggest that, besides textbooks and bibles, private holdings of books are no more than 2 or 3 per capita. The number of these books that were consulted, much less read, the past year was probably small.



UNICEF Donations: The largest change in the reading situation in Zimbabwe in 2011 came through the

Education Transition Fund, coordinated by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education and funded by a number of foreign governments. This heroic effort brought 15 million textbooks in core subjects to children in 5,675 primary schools at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, and then a year later 7 million textbooks to 2,333 secondary schools. UNICEF plans to continue in 2012 or 2013 with supplemental reading materials.

NGO Donations: For a number of years, most of the newly available books in the hands of Zimbabwean readers have come through donation programs of international non-governmental organizations. In 2011, the most active were Book Aid International, World Vision, and US-Africa Children’s Fellowship. Altogether these organizations brought into Zimbabwe about 4000 boxes. ABDO also distributed 20,000 locally purchased books. Including a few smaller projects as well, we can estimate that the total number of books donated by non-governmental organizations was about 250,000. Most of these books were designated for primary and secondary schools, with some for tertiary institutions and libraries. This total includes large numbers of textbooks and used books. These organizations use various networks that reach rural schools and community libraries as well as responding to request from the University of Zimbabwe.

A Book Aid International donation in the Children's room at Mzilikazi Public Library in Bulawayo.

Book Sales: At present, it seems there is no standardized collection of information on book sales in Zimbabwe (one bookseller said the information is just not useful to anyone). But an approximate number of books sold in Zimbabwe was estimated from the activity of bookstores in the country, as well as from the few publishers who sell anything besides textbooks. Estimates vary from 50,000 to 120,000 books sold in total, but the great majority was for school use. One new publisher, Oxford University Press, opened an office in Zimbabwe, but it plans to concentrate on textbooks and reference materials for the present.


Gweru-based Mambo Press is one of the few publishers of children's literature in local languages.



Print media: Some good news in the last two years is that there is more news — that is, if we measure the quantity of

newspapers (titles and printings) in Zimbabwe. The increase in total numbers of newspapers printed and the corresponding competition has increased readership. The same is beginning to happen for magazines, which were once expensive South African imports but now are more

widely available in urban areas. But a continuing problem is that the print media rarely penetrate rural areas, although ABDO arranges newspaper subscriptions for 166 study circles and Zimbabwe reads supports magazine distribution in rural schools.

Internet: Active internet users are still fewer than 15% of the population, but 2/3 of the population have mobile phones which are increasingly a vehicle for some internet usage. Although the new technologies may take some users away from the printed page, they create other opportunities for reading. The electronic information explosion makes it even more important that everyone knows how to read.

Bibles and Religious Materials: Although difficult to measure, one of the most important mainstays of the reading culture in Zimbabwe is the bible. Often bibles are the only real book in a family home and are more likely to be read by a wide range of ages than any other book. Church organizations sell and distribute other religious books or pamphlets widely. Scripture Union Zimbabwe prints and sells sturdy bibles in local languages, but unfortunately their price ($15 or more) limits their market.



Although 2010 and 2011 were marked by the tremendous donation of over 20 million textbooks by international government donors through UNICEF, the reading situation in Zimbabwe continues to be dire.

Some of the current challenges:

— the UNICEF/ETF donation only provided textbooks for children currently in school. To provide books for the large number of out-of-school children will require several million more books.

— 70% of government schools have no separate library room.

— public libraries are not free. Due to minimal or non-existing government funding, they rely on user fees which do not generate much income but keep readers away. A small subsidy could make many public libraries fully free.

— many homes have no books besides textbooks and a bible.

— besides the new textbooks, most books in the country are old and look their age. Shelves of worn books in school or community libraries don’t attract readers the way the books themselves deserve.

Textbooks are not enough: The campaign to provide basic textbooks (which have been mostly missing for a decade) has been crucial. But no culture of reading can exist with just textbooks. For kids or adults to care about reading, there needs to be a full supply of all genres: children’s stories, adventure stories, classics, nonfiction, historical fiction, science fiction, thrillers and romances.

The dramatic need for books can be demonstrated by a simple thought experiment. UNICEF provided 22 million books so that school children now have about 5 textbooks each. If we wanted all those children to have just 5 other books besides textbooks, we would need another 22 million books. At the current rate of books sold or donated in Zimbabwe, we would need 50 years to reach even that modest goal of a few pleasure books per child — much less the needs of adults. A concerted effort must be made to increase the level of books in school and public libraries ten-fold.

Local languages are almost invisible: Except for certain textbooks and bibles, almost all the books on sale in Zimbabwe are in English. The main Harare and Bulawayo city libraries have less than one shelf of titles in local languages (and that includes textbooks). Books provided by international donors are valuable but do not address the needs for materials in local languages. At present, we estimate that there are fewer than 50 titles in print in Shona, Ndebele and other local languages. Some of these are older books kept in stock by Mambo Press; others were published with grant funding in small print-runs. Any given bookshop rarely has more than 2 or 3 titles. Zimbabwe needs a campaign to develop materials in local languages.

 See for articles related to this report for the year 2011.

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