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The Scrivener: Serving One's Country - Bookselling In Zambia, Part Two

…Our auditor was a qualified pilot and the agent for Piper aircraft. My accountant, a Polish Countess who had once been a Captain in the British Army (I kid you not), prepared a hamper of luxurious food. I knew that she was a gourmet cook — the visitors had no idea what might be in that hamper…

Brian Barratt found himself working alongside some astonishingly accomplished folk while selling books in Zambia.

For the first two episodes of this intriguing three-part series please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

For lots more fun and games please visit www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Kitwe Bookshop, in Zambia, began as part of a missionary enterprise by USCL (United Society for Christian Literature). There were three departments: a general bookshop in the main shopping centre; a warehouse and school supply division; many small kiosks in what were then called African townships. In the 1960s the school supply section became too large for USCL to handle.

E.J.Arnold, then a major school supply company in Leeds, took it over, and I became Manager for the Copperbelt. Initially, Arnold hoped that Zambia would expand the market for their vast range of teaching aids. The dynamic Marketing Director visited us from England and I took him round the various Education authorities. He enthusiastically gave out copies of the hefty Arnold catalogue, with full colour illustrations. I knew that there was very little prospect of selling any of that material. The first need was plain and simple — books.

My immediate boss, the General Manager for Zambia, brought him up from Lusaka. So that the three of us could visit a distant school area, I chartered a small aeroplane. Our auditor was a qualified pilot and the agent for Piper aircraft. My accountant, a Polish Countess who had once been a Captain in the British Army (I kid you not), prepared a hamper of luxurious food. I knew that she was a gourmet cook — the visitors had no idea what might be in that hamper.

We had a pretty bumpy flight and eventually landed on an unpaved earth airstrip. More bumps. Sandy dust filled the air. The African sun was at its highest and hottest. We went to the 'airport' building to get cool, and I opened the hamper. I had enjoyed the flight. However, my two companions, big strong men that they were, felt pretty queasy after our flight. The wondrous spread of gourmet food did not appeal to them. I tucked in while they cautiously nibbled.

Before Zambia Independence Day in 1964, there were three main school systems. By far the largest catered for African children, and that was where most of our business came from. The two main publishers of books geared to the curriculum were Longman and Oxford. They both opened offices in Lusaka, the capital city. A Longman sales rep would visit me regularly, helping good relations by entertaining me to many fine dinners. The only visit by one particular Oxford rep which I remember clearly is the occasion when he rushed in, explained that he didn't have much time because he was playing in a rugby match, and went home.

We were visited occasionally by a McGraw-Hill rep from Nairobi. He was so impressed by the work I did to get his books into higher education institutions that he tried to persuade me to work for McGraw-Hill in the USA. Naturally, I declined.

A second school system had been for European (white) children but became racially integrated after Independence in 1964. They had placed much of their business with a bookshop in Ndola but I was successful in adding a few of them to our list of customers. Mind you, I did initially make an error by ordering, for stock, far too many of the books I thought they would need.

There were also five secondary schools around the Copperbelt, set up by the mining companies. They were run on the lines of English grammar schools. Most of the staff came from overseas. We had some stiff competition for their business but I managed to line up most of them. One had a young English headmaster who had strange ideas. His geography text books had to be a certain size and have blue covers. When he wanted hymn books for the school, I sent him samples of half a dozen suitable books. He ignored them and bought 'Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos' because he got '1,000 hymns for only 1/9d' (one shilling and ninepence). I sighed.

Rival companies were not too much of a threat to us until after Independence, when the market grew and a new supplier set up shop in Lusaka. Competition became fierce. At the same time, there were moves afoot in the political world. It was not too long before the Government set up its own conglomerate to produce and distribute books written by Zambians, produced in Zambia, for Zambian schools. To meet this potentially powerful competition, Arnold merged with the recently established rival company. I remained Manager for the Copperbelt.

State publishing had already been established in other African countries. In Zambia, the two publishers which had done most for Zambia were ignored. The Government chose Macmillan, which had no office in Zambia, as its partner in the new venture. They also set up huge warehousing facilities. Unfortunately, they did not employ people who knew how to run this sort of business.

The first book published was a primary school Social Studies textbook. It was written by a South African and printed overseas. The Government warehousing and distribution facilities were not functioning, so we were asked to handle the stock. I had to find extra warehouse space overnight. The genial Secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society let me rent part of his warehouse.

Tens of thousands of copies of this first new book arrived. The regional School Inspector came to look at them. He immediately rejected them as they had nothing whatever to do with the curriculum. In the end, of course, he had to give way, so that we could set about distributing them.

Things were getting more chaotic. Even though I was a pre-Independence supporter of President Kenneth Kaunda's UNIP (United National Independence Party) and had been asked to stand as a candidate in local elections, I began to feel uncomfortable about the way the country was heading. After dodging rocks and stones while driving through a riot, which the local Government minister seemed to condone, I resigned.

In June 1968, the Minister of Education made a speech at the opening of a new State Publishing warehouse complex. Much to my surprise, he thanked 'Mr Brian Barratt...whose services to this country are very much appreciated by my officials and myself'. Who wrote his speech? The School Inspector I mentioned above, of course.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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