Few days ago, on The Reader’s Hub WhatsApp platform, Social Media Monk took place. Social Media Monk is an interactive and educative engagement with a lead person to help the group through a discussion on any key thematic area of socio-economic relevance. The topic for the day was “Should Readers Speak Up? At what cost”?
The Reader’s Hub is a book club that seeks improves the literacy rate in Ghana. It is made of Readers from across the length and breadth of the land. And it has the blessings of prominent members of the society. Discussions are held virtually for now on its very active WhatsApp Platform.
On this day, our interviewer was Reader Danaa and Lead Person was our Investigative Journalist, Manasseh Azure Awuni. He takes us through Why Readers Should Speak Up and at what cost?
Danaa: Good evening to all. It is great to be part of this wonderful family. Tonight on our schedule, we have social media monk and the topic to digest is: Should Readers Speak up? At what cost?
Danaa: Manasseh Azure, should readers speak up? And at what cost?
Manasseh: Yes. Readers MUST speak up. There’s so much ignorance out there. Reading gives knowledge. And that knowledge shouldn’t be buried while those with nothing to contribute take up the space. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that “ some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony., but we must speak.”
Danaa: How can reading simply be the cure for the ignorance out there? Readers read varied areas.
Manasseh: I agree readers read varied areas. Theirs may not be specific to a particular subject, but reading opens up the mind and creates room for imagination and critical thinking. Reading allows you to question what you’re told. It broadens one’s world view and opens one up to bits of knowledge from different fields. When you read a good novel, for instance, you are likely to end up learning aspects of law, culture, philosophy, governance and a lot more things. Sometimes you decide to research on a topic or subject you find interesting in a novel. So one who reads varied areas is better informed than one that does not read at all. So when readers apply what they read to public discourse, they sound mature and are able to bring different perspectives to the discussion. There’s no better way of enriching national discourse than the contribution from reading minds.
Danaa: Manasseh at what stage in your life did you develop interest in reading, and what kicked you awake to start reading?
Manasseh: In Primary 2, I took a book and started writing words. I wrote them the way I pronounced them. So I wrote biscuit as “biskate”. That’s the earliest I came to develop interest in words. The real motivation came when I was in Primary Four. I was chosen to represent my class in the Milo sponsored Best Students/Pupils Award. I didn’t like Maths and we had to do English, Maths and General Paper. During the exam, a teacher came and stood behind me and read my essay. After the exam, he called me and said he was impressed with my essay. Since the exam was written yearly, I let the praise get into my head and I was convinced that to keep winning, I must do well in English. The first award I got for that exam was in Primary 3 and among my prize was a book titled, The Boy Who Ate the Hyena by James Ngugi or so. My real love for novels started in Krachi Senior High School, where I fell in love with Chinua Achebe. When I completed, I had read almost all the novels in the Library.
Danaa: Manasseh, I agree with your view points. It means that reading gives us the urge to assimilate well in order to contribute to transformation. How can the reader help in this transformational process without access to platforms that will accommodate such cogent views and reach the ears that matter for progressive change?
Manasseh: There are platforms, unless of course one does not want to see them. When I went to the Ghana Institute of Journalism in 2006, I didn’t know what the internet was. Graphic and the few newspapers could not publish all articles so I wrote articles and posted on trees. It was later on that I started publishing on myjoyonline.com and Ghanaweb.com and others. Then later, social media came to the rescue. So readers should get their own blogs and use their social media platforms.
Danaa: Inspiring to follow how articles went up on trees and eventually came together in a popular FOLDER.
Manasseh: Yes. Social media has made it easier for readers and writers to have their views heard without necessarily depending on others.
Danaa: Taking up with Social Media, it is worth admonishing people to read but we live at a time when reading among the populace is at low ebb due to the other negative sides of Social Media. As a practitioner, what are some of the ways you would recommend to get a Ghana reading?
Manasseh: Readers should not be afraid to articulate their views. They should write. They should be consistent. It takes time to build an audience base and a following. The advantage readers have is that they are able to write better than the average social media activist who does not read. So writing in a way that distinguishes you from others will draw readers. With time, they cannot ignore your post even if they don’t agree with you. Be prepared for the fallout of sharing your thoughts because people will insult your mother’s genitals. The anonymity of social media will give people the opportunity to tell you all manner of things. But persevere. And you will succeed in getting people to read.
Manasseh: Social media is very powerful. I did a post today and had 1.8k reactions, 472 shares. It was on a number of WhatsApp platforms. I had no idea how many people it reached. But when I started, getting 100 likes was a problem. So we can all build an audience base by being consistent.
Danaa: On the cost side of speaking, you entreated that we should speak at all cost. What cost comes with speaking?
Manasseh: Whatever you say is likely to be interpreted as being NDC or NPP. Sometimes I make a post that has nothing to do with politics, but some people will sew a political suit for the post and proceed to attack. So politics and how it is done here has a way of silencing people with views. Sometimes, people will call your employees and draw their attention to your write ups or social media posts. I have experienced it many times. Do you remember there was a time Kwame Gyan did a post and pressure was being put on Airtel to fire him? This was in the Mahama era. These are all dangers of speaking up, especially for those of us working in the public sector. But when you persevere, a time will come when your accusers will get tired and leave you alone. But I must caution that one ought to know where one works and put some common sense to it. I can write that “any idiot can implement free SHS” if given the wealth of the nation. But if you work in a government institution, you might lose your job. So you may write the same thing in a different way. Our system is vindictive. Free speech has different meanings in concept and in reality.
Danaa: But same free speech is said to be a fundamental human right protected by the constitution of Ghana. Does this mean we haven’t made progress in establishing its norms in our national fabric?
Manasseh: There is free speech in our books but in practice, it is available to only the politicians. The security agencies don’t enjoy it. Teachers and headmasters who complain about poor infrastructure to the media are likely to be punished by the Director of Education. Nurses fear to speak up if it does not favor the government of the day. In 2017, I visited 53 MMDAs but no single District Coordinating Director spoke to me. They all needed clearance from the Local Government Ministry. I was also out to expose that ministry. Even not many journalists are able to speak freely. If you’re NDC or NPP, you’re covered. Public and Civil servants cannot speak freely without being punished. You’re free to speak if you’re praising the government of the day. Even with that the opposition will take note of that and deal with you when they win power. So the reality is different from what is in the constitution.
Danaa: Do you sometimes get it wrong? If you do what steps do you take to remedy the situation?
Manasseh: I remember someone said I was a disgrace to my profession because I shared a post by George Sydney Abugri with a comment. It tuned out that Sydney Abugri was wrong. I apologized to the man who had insulted me. So I cannot always get it right.
Danaa: I have followed you for sometime now and I’m convinced that you are always on the side of the lower class. It’s also obvious that those who vilify you the most are same group on behalf of the class that is keeping them where they’re. Is that not too big a price to pay?
Manasseh: Well, some youth in Tamale said at a Springboard Road Show programme that I was using my journalism to target prominent people in the north. What they had forgotten was that if the SADA money was well applied, it would have helped them more than me. So you’re right. The very people you fight for sometimes turn against you. There is a quote attributed to Harriet Tubman, which is being debated. It says, ‘I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves’.
Danaa: Do you have any tit-bits for people who want to write and gain a strong footing in the national space like you?
Manasseh: Don’t be too worried about how your views are received. Speak with conviction. A writer should not aim to be a celebrity to be celebrated. The truth hurts if it does not please you. Nobody will smile when they are told they have bad breath. That may be the truth. So let your views be known. Be consistent. Be creative, and that’s the advantage of readers. When you meet proverbs in a book, take a second look at them. Understand the context. Use them to spice up your writing. And with time, there will be something about your writing that will say the same thing everyone is saying in a different way.
Danaa: As a published author, how long does it take your works published? How do you discipline yourself to write?
Manasseh: I would not have published but for the pressure from Nana Awere Damoah. I give him all the credit. The first two books were collection of writings. But The Fourth John was written from scratch and it was very difficult. I had to conduct interviews, fight with some characters who withdrew their consent and I had to discard those pages, get tossed up and down until one night I came face-to-face with JM, the main character in the book for an interview.
It can be depressing. The Discipline? As Jesus said of those who want to follow him, deny yourself, carry the cross daily and write. It’s not easy when you’re not doing writing as a full-time job.
Danaa: How can one develop the habit of reading in other areas that are particularly unrelated to your profession and how do you find the balance between reading for your professional demands and expanding your reading horizon into other fields?
Manasseh: I read what I like to read, unless I’m reading for specific information to use for something, maybe in a book. I find it difficult to read motivational books. But I like biographies and novels. When I was in GIJ, if you saw me reading my notes, then it was just before exams. I spent my time reading mostly novels and books about great people. If you read subjects you’re not interested in, you’re likely to lose interest in reading.
Danaa: What strategies/tactics must one employ in order to read meaningfully and understandably?
Manasseh: Everyone has their own strategies so I will advise people to choose what works for them. I am a slow reader and it helps me in understanding what I read. I also stick to subjects that are of interest to me so I hardly get bored. I hate it when I have to stop reading a book midway through it. So choosing the right reading materials helps to build your interest and helps you to enjoy reading. But I’ll suggest you choose what works for you. Some like their dog meat fried. Others like it grilled. Others like it with light soup.
Danaa: How are you able to fend off the attempts to bribe you to drop a story especially when it’s about strong people who could use other methods to stop you?
Manasseh: I told myself that I would not take a bribe to stop a story. And if a media house stopped me from airing a story because of some external influence, I would resign. Fortunately, the media house I worked for (the Multimedia Group) aired all the stories I investigated even though a lot of pressure was brought to bear to discard some of them, mainly the corruption stories. It’s a very simple decision. The people who have the money to stop stories from being published are generally not exceptional human beings. Some of them are rich not because they have brains but because greed has made the keepers of our national purse stupid enough to award stupid contracts to them. So it sounds insulting for such people to even think they can buy your conscience.
Danaa: You just rightly submitted how reading can cure a lot of the ignorance out there. But sadly we live in a country where a lot of people do not read. What in your view do you think we can do to kindle their interest to read?
Manasseh: Let the change start with you. A few people around you will catch that habit and also spread it. When you have the opportunity to speak to young people, encourage them to read. With time, you will be able to build a critical mass of people around you who will enjoy reading and they will in turn spread the message. Above all, don’t remain a reader for life. Reading is the best preparation for writing. So endeavor to write and spread knowledge.
Danaa: Can Readers change Ghana? What was the influence of Reading in Nkrumah’s stewardship of Ghana? And which author inspires you the most?
Manasseh: Reading can change Ghana. Obama Reads. Dumb Trump does not appear to. So there’s a difference. That’s just by the way. Reading does not only provide knowledge but it shapes conscience and teaches us the right way to live. I have read Mandela, read Luther King Jnr and treasure their sacrifice for humanity and how fulfilling that is. I have read Jeffery Archer’s As the Crow Flies and Sydney Sheldon’s Master of the Game. These books are about businesses, but one was built on the right moral principles so the owner retired a happy man full of satisfaction. Master of the Game was built on cutting corners and unethical business practices. In the end, the owner realized it was all vanity because those she was preparing to inherit it did not end up well and she was dying very disappointed because nothing seemed to work. John Grisham’s Sycamore Row teaches us about justice. Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities teaches us not to destroy what we fail to win because we may end up hurting ourselves even more. The book that inspires me the most is the Bible, specifically, the story of Esther. Nkrumah thought beyond his nation. He had his errors, but he saw a bigger picture. He was not narrow-minded like those we have in recent times.
Danaa: One way of kindling Ghanaians interest is to help supply reading materials in schools and libraries. What in your own small way have you done to help especially the Primary and JHS to develop their interest in reading?
Manasseh: I have done that at the Senior High School level. I have bought books written by Abdul Hayi-Moomen, Kofi Akpabli and Nana Awere Damoah for the library of Krachi Senior High School. I have also donated copies of my books to that school and also to the Bongo Senior High School. I have to pay attention to the Primary and JHS. Thanks for the reminder.
Danaa: How often should readers speak? And how would you maintain relevance within a space like ours where many people hardly remember yesterday?
Manasseh: That’s a tough question. Speak when you have the conviction to speak. Speak when you have the platform to speak. Don’t speak just because others want you to say something. Don’t let people determine when you speak and how you speak. Let it come from within. The second part of the question is even tougher. I have been publishing articles for 11 years now. But there are some people who have just started reading me this month. And they don’t know what I wrote last year. They will judge me based on who is the recipient of my criticism. So your relevance is as relevant as the issues you discuss and the sincerity with which you discuss them. It’s better to be sincerely wrong than to be dishonestly right.
Danaa: Can you share the favorite story you have written with us?
This story was inspired by the debate about Samira Bawumia’s veil in 2017. It gave me a lot of wahala from some of my Muslim friends, but I think it’s worth writing about.
Danaa: Any collection of novels for beginners?
Manasseh: Where beginners mean? Generally, people should choose writers that excite them. I am biased towards African writers. I started reading Grisham, Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer only four years ago. I have spent most of my life shuffling between Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya and South Africa. But everybody has his or her own preference. So choose what is good for you. Spend time in the bookshop, read blurbs and reviews and that can guide you.
Danaa: Please kindly give us any closing remarks you have on the subject matter?
Manasseh: Thank you for the opportunity to interact with you. Forgive me for the typos. I encourage you to keep reading. Reading has cash value. It opens your mind and helps you to reason better. Reading also helps to make you humble because the more you read; the more you realize how little you know. And when you read, aim to be read. Don’t be afraid to write. It is liberating. And it’s rewarding. I meet people and they tell me how a particular piece I wrote years ago was the exact encouragement they needed at a particular point in their lives. You can be a blessing to others if you write or share what you read. So don’t be selfish. Don’t only read. Be read! God bless you.
Danaa: It has been an interesting encounter. We wish to thank Manasseh for the time and solid representation. I have learnt a lot and I believe other members have bagged one or two valuables from the encounter. Manasseh, we are grateful. Cheers.
Manasseh: And just a warning to Samad: any vote of thanks without dog meat will be rejected so doesn’t waste your time.
Edited by Inusah Mohammed
NB: The Editor is a Reader at The Reader’s Hub and also the Executive Secretary at Success Book Club.