02 September 2005

The Magic Calabash and Macmillan Publishers

The Magic Calabash and Macmillan Publishers The Gambia.

Soon, the secondary schools in The Gambia, and in several other African countries, will have the pleasure of reading, as part of their literature books, a novel written by Nana Grey-Johnson. The Magic Calabash, which was locally published in The Gambia, has been reedited and republished by Macmillan Education Publishers. This is not the first time Macmillan is doing this, but it is quite an encouraging and a laudable venture in the area of literature under the management of Macmillan UK’s local representative in The Gambia, Mr Theophilus George. Unlike the previous one, this one is specifically suited for teaching and learning a literary text. The book proposes a series of questions at the end of each chapter to guide both the teacher and the student towards the global comprehension of the story. The Magic Calabash is a story of New Town, a section of Bathurst, and expresses the concerns and worries of a young married man, Erubami, who faces serious financial, economical and social pressure around him. It is a story that Nana wanted to tell and which he told well for justifiable reasons. He believes Bathurst is changing fast and Gambians have forgotten the sweet smells of akara, beans and yams, hot pancakes and roasted peanuts that float the air in the mornings. They have forgotten the bustle and jostle of busy and happy pedestrians who seem to know each and everyone. They have little knowledge of the beautiful gathering at Aunty Marlen’s bar at the corner of MacDonnell Street and Thomas Street where the jungle juice is served and tongues are loosen to joke, criticize, tell stories or make trouble. Nana wants to remind people of New Town in its prime time. Here is a young man in the story who wakes up in the morning to find there is no more job for him, his wife heavy with a baby, his close friend and brother involve in politics, he is accused of theft and life starts to become unbearable until he meets kuss-kuss, the kondorong. The “short man-like thing in a large hat, calabash-like in shape, which covered most of its face”. When Erubami decides to steal the calabash-like hat that will assure him a constant flow of cash, little did he know his life would take a sudden twist, which will have a dramatic impact on his family and close relatives. Will Erubami bother to find a job again? Will he solve all his problems? Will he be able to keep the strange hat? How will his relationship with his pregnant wife end up? Burning questions, whose answers are found in this wonderful story of New Town. A town where politics and gossip are not spared. This is what The Magic Calabash is all about. A book that “skillfully evokes a picture of The Gambia today, in its all-important historical context, and with a clear-sighted view of the economic, social and political upheavals currently taken place.” An 'unputdownable' book, to be started only when the reader is sure he or she will not be disturbed.
The burning questions in the minds of the other writers is why Nana’s book. Why The Magic Calabash? What does it take to publish with Macmillan? What is Macmillan’s role in The Gambia? Who is representing Macmillan? Etc.

The Managing Director of Macmillan Education Publishers The Gambia is Mr Theophilus George who was invited to answer to some of the burning questions asked above and many others.
Mr. George taught both in the primary school and in the secondary school before going to the Yundum training college as a lecturer. It was at the college that he developed interest in publishing. This came about when the then Principal proposed to develop materials for primary schools. The Principal introduced the Yundum College Resource Centre. Mr. George’s interest in publishing expanded then, along with the centre. When it became a huge project, the Ministry of Education decided to separate it from the college and make it an independent body. The new unit became the Book Production and Multimedia Resource Unit (BPMRU). It became the publishing organ of the Ministry of Education. It was first situated at the Bishop’s Court in Banjul before it was transferred to its present location in Kanifing, after the World Bank provided the funds for the erection of the needed infrastructure. That is where local publishing really started. Mr. George will rise to the position of Deputy Director Education Services with more responsibilities. But then, this gave him more time to look into some of the school materials. It was during his tenure that in 1992, they developed the first World Bank project for the school curriculum in the main core subject areas, namely English, Maths, Science and Social Studies. Macmillan came in to provide training to some Gambian teachers in editing and writing and the first generation of books will be developed in 1992. Since then, the BPMRU was closely working with Macmillan.
On Mr. George retirement, he was appointed Managing Director of The Daily Observer, which was at its infancy then. It was only when the paper was sold out that Mr. George became part of Macmillan on a full time basis. He became the first local representative in The Gambia and contributed immensely in producing learning materials.
Founded in 1843 in London, Macmillan Publishers Limited publishes educational, academic, literary and children’s books. Macmillan Publishers has existed in The Gambia for more than 40 years now. They have published school materials as early as in the seventies. They have published several Gambian authors in the early eighties such as Ebou Dibba and Sheriff Samsideen Sarr. Macmillan also organizes training sessions for authors and teachers and they mount an exhibition of their books at the National Library every two years. Some of the publications they have done are pre-school materials such as First Steps. This is designed specially for young children and introduces them to alphabet, colours, shapes and sizes, pre-reading and writing, and early numbers. Many other learning and teaching materials, namely The Gambia English and English for the Junior and Senior secondary schools, The Gambia Mathematics for JSS and SSS, The Gambia Sciences, O’Level Chemistry, Biology, The Gambia Agriculture, The Gambia Social and Environmental Studies, The Gambia Population and Family Life Education, Islamic Foundation Course for The Gambia and Transafrique, have been published by them and specifically designed for the Gambian schools.

How does Macmillan Education Gambia arrive at deciding what book to publish for the Gambian public?

Macmillan is a multi-national publishing house, we do not publish specific country titles but we look at those that will suit the entire continent and even beyond, where the market can be available in Europe or elsewhere. So when a manuscript is presented, first the manuscript will have to be sent to the UK. Readers there will read and assess the suitability of the manuscript in terms of content, language and style. If the readers accept the title, they will write to the author expressing their interest to publish the book. Macmillan will be responsible to foot all the cost of production and royalties will be arranged with the author. This process is a long one as not only one reader will look at the book but about five of them and they will all send a report to the commissioning editor who will then decide whether the book is marketable. The most recent one is that of Nana Grey-Johnson entitled The Magic Calabash. This book was published earlier in The Gambia. When Nana and I agreed that it could be interesting for a larger public, the publication went through several phases. First, all rights were relinquished by the original producer and Macmillan took it over. Then Macmillan had to reedit the book which took almost eighteen months. This was frustrating to Nana who was a little impatient and I had to reassure him that the process takes time. Several things were going on during this period. Illustrators were involved and professional editors studied the manuscript. It is now in the market and not only a lot cheaper than the previous one but also much more adapted for the school.

Explain your relationship with the writers associations and the Gambia Teacher’s Union.

I provide assistance where I can. I have undergone rigorous training to manage Macmillan in The Gambia. It is my fervent wish to see good books written by Gambians. However, it takes a long time for a book to be published. Writers also must be willing to see their books criticized which many hardly tolerate. However, unless writers accept criticism, and unless they accept changes in their books, then it might be difficult to publish them. Macmillan is quite prepared to send local representatives to provide training for emerging writers if required but unless works are up to standard and marketable, it may be very hard to publish them.

What is your reaction to self-publishing in The Gambia?

It is a good thing because not all the writers have the necessary funds to publish with publishing houses abroad. But one setback in self-publishing or local publishing is that it is limited to The Gambia because they may find it difficult to access the outside market. If Macmillan were to do the publishing, they will promote the book not only in The Gambia but in several other African countries. In the case of Nana Grey-Johnson, we have written letters to all our markets. Imagine 43 markets in Africa, Asia, South America and even the Caribbean. Before the end of the year most of them will show interest. In our next book exhibition in 2006, we will go a long way in publicizing this author. Another new development is the creation of a new Reader’s Series which I hope to start soon. I approached the Gambia Teachers Union who gave me an excellent collection of stories written by teachers. At the moment some of these books are being edited and before the end of year we will be able to see proofs of some of these titles coming up. I support self-publishing but I think after some time, some of the writers need seek support and get some of their materials published abroad. I have advised several of my Gambian friends writing books to try to link up with Macmillan, but the major problem is agreeing on the royalties. A self-published author basically owns the book and enjoys all the financial benefits. However, for international publishing houses, as they are responsible for editing, illustrating, printing, distributing and marketing, the author benefits from the royalties. Where a writer asks for 30% royalties, this is far too much. A famous author publishing with Macmillan may get up to 10% royalty but this is even very rare. As Macmillan distributes the book in a much wider market, a 10% royalty is quite a lot of money. So a new author may not get what one wants initially but over the years, say as the money keeps coming in a period of ten to twenty years, there are benefits. Royalties are an ongoing thing and even where the author dies, the money keeps coming and can go to someone else of the author’s family.

It is very hard to find books written by Gambians and published by your company. Yet some of these books are used in the school system and other books could make interesting reading for students and adults alike. You said earlier that Macmillan has been here for more than thirty years. Why haven’t you ever thought of creating an outlet to sell books in The Gambia?

This is where I will urge Gambians to invest in the area of bookshops because Timbooktoo is the only real bookshop we have in The Gambia. It is possible to have several other bookshops and Macmillan will be willing to give them the initial support they would need. Our business is to support bookshops too. I sell books but that is not my role and I would prefer to give these to the bookshops available so that they could have all the necessary discount. The bookshops we have are not really of standard and before I give them books I have to inspect to confirm that they have the necessary infrastructure and what is needed to well preserve the books etc before I can apply for Macmillan to give them the titles they need. I encourage Gambians to see book selling as a good venture.

Is Gambian literature sufficiently represented in the school system?

I think Gambian literature is sufficiently represented in the school system but for some reason or the other teachers are shying away from the subject. It is certainly because of this that students are not interested in the subject. I think there are a number of factors. When we were going to school literature was a very important subject, but nowadays it is given a second place and I do not know why. But I think it is for the Education Department, the school authorities and the inspectors to look at closely, for it is a shame to give it a second position in the school curriculum. Another factor is that students do not seem to like reading, and literature calls for a lot of reading.

Now that Nana Grey-Johnson’s book is published, will you be publishing other Gambian authors?

I know some Gambians have been writing, and we have sent their manuscripts to the UK. But some of them have been sent back because there are not suitable. Let’s remember that Macmillan is a publishing house but we concentrate only on materials designed for the school curriculum. Some of the books that they are writing have no relevance to the curriculum and Macmillan may not be interested. Not only are we closely involved with the Education departments of the countries we deal with but we also make sure that are books are current with the curriculum. Literature is a component of what we are doing but it belongs to a separate department called Pan African which is a totally independent body. If I have suitable material for publishing from The Gambia, I will send it to the Pan African Department for vetting and publishing. I have approached several Gambians on this subject but I am yet to receive suitable material for publishing. But what we are doing now is to encourage Gambians to participate in the African Writers Competitions. Surprisingly, I have got almost thirty (30) contributions from Gambians which I will be forwarding to the Macmillan headquarters and the first price calls for $5000. I am hoping that a Gambian would win that. The title of the story of the winner will be published free of charge. Two years ago, a Gambian was short listed, but at the final stage he was unfortunately omitted. I am encouraging him to try again.

What makes a good writer? Is it publishing with a renowned publishing house or the writing style?

A good writer is difficult to determine. If one is only writing for The Gambia then it is fine. However, if one is writing for a wider public outside The Gambia, then the title must be marketable. But this is possible too. A very good example is Meet Me In Conakry by Samsideen Sarr. Each year, nothing less than 100.000 copies are sold in Uganda. It is a popular title in Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania but unfortunately this is not the case in The Gambia. This is a big market and until now, Samsideen is still receiving his royalties which is between 5% and 10% on a book written almost ten years ago. Another popular author widely marketed is the late Ebou Dibba. Most of these authors are more popular in East and South Africa and particularly in Nigeria but not in The Gambia. Unfortunately, this is where Gambians should recognize their authors and include them in the school curriculum. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is for the Education Department to make sure these books are listed and proposed to WAEC. Macmillan is not the only possible publishing house for they could approach Longmans or Evans but as I work for Macmillan, I can assure you that we are very generous and like to encourage people. By next year this time, they will see more than twelve books published by Macmillan. Another good writer coming up is Ramatoulie Othman whose stories I enjoyed reading. In fact one of her stories that I presented to Macmillan UK interested them and they have requested that Ms Othman re-writes it for teenagers. There goes another author in the making.

What could be the role of Gambian writers in the development of the country considering the major changes that have occurred in recent years?

Writers are an important component of the society and with their skills they could write on important issues affecting societies thus sensitizing and enlightening them. To produce a good story, the subject must be interesting, relevant, and must deal with contemporary issues. I therefore encourage authors to keep publishing locally and with time we can even arrange for international publishing houses to publish Gambians in The Gambia. What is important at this stage is to encourage authors to write for the Gambian public, and soon we will find a much larger public outside The Gambia. I think that is going to be my major role before I retire from Macmillan.

What are the possible obstacles to creative writing and publishing in The Gambia?

First it is TIME, then resources. Another thing, for a piece of work to be of substance, one has to do some research. Conducting research is not that simple. The other day a young man came to me and requested for funds from Macmillan to conduct some research. I asked him to write and I will forward the letter for consideration. To properly conduct any research here, one will need funds particularly if it requires traveling upcountry. Unfortunately there is a lot to write about and little research conducted for reference purposes. Another thing is getting a printing house to do the printing even though the writers themselves do the type setting. Printing houses will have to be paid to do the printing. Imagine they ask for an amount between thirty and sixty thousand dalasis, where will these writers get that huge sum unless they approach the banks. If they were to face certain institutions for loan, be it the bank or any other institutions, the unanswerable question is when these books will be sold. This is why so many manuscripts are lying at home and gathering dust. It is true that institutions like Macmillan can be approached for publication, but again Gambians must understand that not everything they have written could be published by Macmillan.

What is your reaction to the establishment of two publishing enterprises in The Gambia, Sandeng and Fulladu? Do you believe quality work is assured from books published by these enterprises?

Publishing a book involves so many things some of which is editing the manuscripts. If it is a book destined for the school then one thing has to be considered: its relevance to the school curriculum. However if it is a novel or a collection of poetry meant for reading for pleasure, then it is quite a different matter altogether. A publisher would make sure that he/she has all the necessary set up such as editing and composing facilities and then probably seek for printers. All publishing houses start small and then grow big through time. All these publishing houses in Europe started the same way. For authors who may not be able to approach international publishing houses, they can certainly publish with Sanden or Fulladu. Once their titles are popular then they can approach bigger publishing houses such as Macmillan and negotiate with them. Macmillan can, for instance, agree to take care of the outside market while the local publishing house takes care of the Gambian market. We want to make sure that we market books written by Gambians. If we take the case of the Magic Calabash, we are doing the promotion and we will market the books on behalf of Nana Grey-Johnson. This will be difficult for smaller publishing enterprises because they may not have the funds but bigger publishing houses do.

There are two existing writers associations in The Gambia: The Gambia Association of Writers (GAW) and the Association of Authors and Writers (AAW). In your opinion, how could these associations help alleviate some of the difficulties associated with the production of quality writing, publishing, and marketing?

We publishers would like to associate with these associations because this is where we have good authors. They should open up and include big publishing houses as we can become members to these associations. We can be very helpful in providing the necessary funds and organizing training workshops. Sending them for training overseas and for attachment to bigger publishing houses is all possible within our means. These associations are very important. They must look for potential authors and guide them. They should even have funds to attend meetings outside The Gambia. So I will recommend that these associations be fully fledged organizations and to seek funds from outside. I can assure you that Macmillan is willing to work closely with them.


I cannot conclude this interview without putting down the reaction of Nana Grey-Johnson towards the republication of The Magic Calabash.

Nana Grey-Johnson: Thanks to Mr. Theophilus George for considering the republication of my book The Magic Calabash. He is a tireless man and sometimes I ask him to give me some of his energy. He has seen this thing through and I practically had nothing to do with it apart from agreeing to the editing and signing several documents. The process of getting the book published by Macmillan, I owe to nobody else but Mr. George. Why he saw some redeeming value in The Magic Calabash is a question only he can answer. What I can say is, as the Macmillan representative, he read the book and he was able to convince Macmillan that there was a way through with this book. I am still dazed and baffled because I was only writing a story for Banjul people to read about how I grew up. I cannot thank him enough.


Anonymous said...

In my perception Mr. George and Mrs. Grey-Johnson are heroes.

Getting jobs done is less easy then talking.

William Deyman

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Anonymous said...

Am a Gambian student studying abroad and have read the Magic Calabash several times over.It is a wonderful book.

Thumbs up for Mr Nana Grey-Johnson and Mr George.