Congolese Bookworms Stand Up!
When Alpha Ramazani takes holiday trips to Brussels in Belgium, it’s usually not all pay and no work. The 33-year old Congolese sets out to obtain dozens of kilos of extra luggage crammed with the latest big-name novels, self-help books, biographies and other literary works to bring back to his bookstore in the capital city Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ramazani shares the challenging transportation process, "For one thing, it's an eight-hour flight. Preparing all that, it's really a personal investment. Especially over there when I arrive, it's a bit complicated at customs."
Book Express, the tiny 30-square-metre shop, located on a street with bustling bars and pavement terraces that Ramazani opened in Kinshasa, his home town, in 2019 after working at a bookshop in Brussels.
Despite the extra cost and hassle that this so-called labour of love takes to haul the books back to his shop in the DRC, the books are sold at roughly the same price as in Europe.
Figures that can often be many times higher than the average daily income — as a book that typically sells in Kinshasa for the rough equivalent of 17 euros amounts to nearly half of the DRC's average per capita wage, which is around 35 euros per month.
The Local Book Industry Has Room to Grow
Ramazani goes over the list of people who come to his bookstore, "First there are the intellectuals, politicians, university professors who come to buy political theory books. Then there are mothers who come to buy children's books, books for kids. But as far as general politics is concerned, there is a vacuum, there is no demand."
The way Ramazani operates Book Express may seem like an ad-hoc system to provide newly-published books today in our times of globalised trade and fast international deliveries but the country’s current economic challenges make it a less interesting location for publishing giants which typically set up in other more stable parts of the French-Speaking world.
An unidentified local bookseller believes in the potential and importance of the local market of book publishers and book store owners, "May people have the courage and love to set up bookstores in our country, to strengthen us, the booksellers."
New books are sold in several other outlets in Kinshasa, including France's cultural shop window, the Institut Francais, as well as by publishing outlets such as Mediaspaul and Cepas that are Catholic-owned.
Grands Lacs bookshop — the biggest bookstore in the DRC in terms of shelf space, is where books are published and sold. There is also a thriving second and third-hand book market enlivened by street hawkers pitching ancient works on law, the economy, management and history.