Fast readers of Ethiopia or Addis’ avid culture of newspaper reading

Montage of Addis Ababa sights.

Last updated on March 6, 2015

What would you do if you were an Addis Ababa resident too poor to purchase local press, but as many of your compatriots, couldn’t live without catching up on latest news? You would probably rent a read.. and make sure you read fast enough not to be charged extra.

Ethiopia-based Mohammed Selman, a lecturer in journalism and freelance writer, documented this avid reading culture in a fascinating account for Mail & Guardian almost a year ago.

The nation with the second-largest population in Africa — some 80-million potential readers — registers among the fewest number of newspapers on the continent. At present only a handful of local newspapers and two handsful of local magazines circulate in Ethiopia, with a total weekly circulation that barely equals that of one day of Kenya’s Daily Nation‘s 50,000 print run. By comparison, Fortune, reportedly the leading English weekly in Ethiopia, publishes 7,000 copies a week at most.

Some corners of Addis Ababa are reserved for newspaper passions, Arat Kilo being one legendary neighbourhood. It is not only the home of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s spacious palace and the country’s Parliament building but also of flat-broke citizens with rich news-reading addictions. Berhanena Selam, the nation’s oldest and largest publishing house, where 99% of newspapers get published, has a seat in Arat Kilo too. As the hub of street newspaper reading, Arat Kilo entertains more than a thousand people a day.

Merkato in Addis Ababa (Photo by Jessica Lee).

“Paper landlords” offer “news seats” to readers who gather on the edge of a road, in a nearby alleyway, even inside a traffic circle. And for years, these “paper tenants” have happily hunkered down, reading a copy of a newspaper quickly and then returning it to watchful owners nearby. One copy of a newspaper may quickly pass through a hundred readers before, late in the day, it is finally recycled as toilet tissue or bread wrap.

Addis Ababa readers are privileged. The distribution system in Ethiopia is under-developed, so major cities elsewhere in the country receive newspapers a day or two later.

Now, as a rising number of unemployed people hunt for jobs through newspapers and a growing population of pensioners distract themselves with news, news seats are popular pastimes. And this is true despite prices for newspapers doubling as a result of the rising costs of newsprint and the country’s latest round of inflation and devaluation.

Addis’ avid readers can get their news fix by renting a paper for half an hour. On Saturdays, it can be tough to find an empty ‘news seat (photo by Mohammed Selman).

Few Ethiopians read newspapers, magazines or books alone in public but they do banter in groups. Only a few cafés allow their verandahs to be news seats to attract more customers. On the contrary, many street-side cafés post No Reading signs next to No Smoking signs.

Nowadays, traditional newspaper vendors and peddlers find themselves challenged by newspaper lords such as Boche. From a flat stone in Arat Kilo, Boche earns bread for his family of six by renting newspapers and magazines from sunrise to sunset.

Wearing worn overalls, he spreads the day’s newspapers around him and passes copies to paper brokers, mostly kids; his “paper constituencies” may reach 300 people a day. His attachment to this task is legendary. “I have a beautiful daughter called Kalkidan,” he says. “I named her after a magazine I lease weekly.”When papers start to wear out with over-use, Boche splices them with Scotch tape. Then he affixes his signature so everyone knows which copies belong to him.

Merkato (Courtesy ethiopianreview.com).

Merkato, one of the largest open-air markets in Africa, now has a place for newspaper addicts around the Mearab Hotel.

Other Addis neighbourhoods, like the affable commercial district Piassa, have also created newspaper circles for paper tenants. Yohannes Tekle (29) has been a regular reader of street papers for seven years. These days, especially, when a newspaper costs up to six birr (75 US cents), he rents one for 25 Ethiopian cents (which is less than one US cent).

And this is what they do to revive the reading culture in Rivers State, Nigeria, with a focus on Port Harcourt, the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014

_______________

Before this government, usually you would find people in the buses with their books and with their newspapers, now you can’t see that.

When I read in the bus now, I become like an alien. People start looking at you like this [cranes head over shoulder]. ‘He’s reading. What is he reading?’ They look inside. Someone might ask you, ‘Why are you reading this? Are you in an exam or something? Is there an exam or something?It’s just disappeared, the whole culture of reading.

The last two paragraphs are about Sudan. Intrigued? Read on here.

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