BY MULUGETA GUDETA
In her blog post entitled “The Dog Days of Summer…weather and Creativity”, blogger Marlyn Barefoot writes about the connection between the weather and the artistic creativity. She says that, “It is not surprising that warm weather has positive effects on the mind, body and soul…but does it affect also our creativity? Studies show that not only is the human brain more mentally fit, but we are also our most creative selves when out in the warmth.”
This may be true for Western society and Western climatic conditions but it is entirely different when we look at our own realities of climatic variations and their effects on the mind or on creativity. Personally I feel the urge for literary creativity during the Ethiopian rainy season when it is cold outside and the sky and air are weighed down by thick fogs and a gentle drizzle showers the tin roofs in the neighborhood. Marlyin Barefoot does not tell us about the physiological relationships between warm weather and brain function in general and artistic creativity in particular.
There is no known theory about creativity and climatic conditions or a common denominator that governs people’s mental condition according to changing weather conditions. The truth is that artistic creativity is a subjective state of mind and depends on the physiological and psychological condition of individuals at particular times. However, I cannot be sure about these things because I am neither a neurologist nor a psychologist to speak about these things with some degree of authority.
However casual observation may give us a clue as to the tenability or untenable nature of the above observations. Here in Ethiopia, we have one of the best imaginable climate in the world. The cold season is neither cold nor hot but temperate while the dry and hot season is neither hot nor dry. Extreme weather is almost unknown in Ethiopia except in the Danakil Depression or one of the lowest point in the world which has its own beauty and attraction despite the volcanic nature of the area. It is nevertheless true that catastrophic weather conditions that cause drought and famines visit us from time to time.
Coming back to the issue of the influence of climatic conditions on the state of human creativity, we can safely assume that people in this country and in the capital Addis Ababa seem to be particularly attracted to creative activities during the rainy seasons when the rains are neither torrential nor catastrophic. Compared to European or American winters, the rains in Ethiopia or here in Addis often give you the impression that you are being showered with lukewarm water while going out in the rain which is gentle to the feeling and rather romantic in sight and sound. I presume that this may be the perfect backdrop for the creative impulse to find expression in reading or writing books. We may not be sure about this statement because its truthfulness depends on further observation and investigation.
One hypothesis is that people choose reading as a recreational or serious activity because they are not used to go out in the rain or because it harder to travel in the city under the rain as public transportation and the condition of the streets worsen during the rainy seasons. Maybe this feeling of being claustrophobic or lonesome would determine our choice of mental activities. Under these circumstances, we choose writing or reading over all the other indoor occupations that are available to us.
Anyway, public libraries are filled with readers. Book exhibitions and sales take place at the Exhibition Centre here in Addis Ababa and people seem to be fond of talking about literature and the arts in particular during our rainy season. According to recent reports from the publishing industry, books are being published despite the rising cost of printing and print paper.
Ethiopia has a history of thousands of years of printing in the traditional way by producing ink from leaves and other ingredients and pens from bamboo stick and other materials. Unfortunately, this tradition had not grown to produce the techniques of modern printing which only started at the turn of the last century. Ethiopian writers have been asking for government to intervene with initiatives that could help alleviate the burden of publishing by importing printing machines and paper tax free and encourage investors in the industry to benefit from these initiatives. Discussions have been taking place for many decades in order to push for new policies that would encourage writers, publishers, printers and other stakeholders of the publishing industry. Yet, nothing has come out of all the debates, the discussions and the demands for government to intervene with the above positive initiatives. Nevertheless, the discussions and debates around these issues are still going on.
Recently, there was a gathering of book readers and people from the cultural world at the Wemezeker public library here in Addis Ababa where most of the prominent writers in these countries spent their school days frequenting this place and collecting ideas and inspirations for their later careers. Wemezeker is known as “The national Archives and Library and was inaugurated in 1944 by Emperor Haile Sellassie. It is therefore a piece of Ethiopia’s cultural history that has weathered the ravages of time and still stands tall at a time when the world of culture is confined to the smart phone or computer screens.
In the last few years alone former book lovers have defected to “cyber-reading” or e-book reading after abandoning the pleasures of reading from real books that are palpable and come with their natural odor of ink and paper that give the reader real inspiration to seek wisdom or happiness. Young people have nowadays defected in droves from the world of real books to the fantastic world where flickering lights and ads give you the headache, blurred eyes and cram you heads with floods of stressing lights and colors.
Recent surveys have pointed out that the joy of reading is bigger with real books produced in the traditional way, than books read on electronic devices. The recent fall in sales of Kindle reading devices may be linked to the tendency to get bored with electronic devices and the urge to return to the traditional way.
According to a report by a local TV station, attendance at the Wemezeker gathering was disappointingly poor although prominent Ethiopian men and women of letters and book lovers were present at the gathering. As the presenter of the TV program satirically commented, there could be more attendants had YouTubers, Tiktokers and other social media heroes been invited to attend the gathering and express their view on reading or writing. The poor attendance at the gathering might be the result of the massive defection of young book lovers to the world of social media, the failure on the part of the stakeholders to solve the problems related to publishing books, the rising cost of new books emanating from the ongoing economic recession and the traditionally poor culture of reading that is still prevailing in our society. More than 80 per cent of the Ethiopian population lives in rural areas and economic, social and cultural underdevelopment in these areas has greatly undermined the spread of literary culture there. Add to this the new generation’s undue infatuation with new technology and social media and you have the complete recipe for the closing of the national mind.
Back in 1987, American philosopher Alan Bloom wrote a book entitled “The Closing of the American Mind” in which the author criticizes relativism as something undermining the critical thinking and eliminates the point of view that defines cultures.” Young students at higher educational levels are not trying to redeem our traditionally positive attitude to books and writing or reading and consider the shortcut solution of what we may call “technology fetishism” as an alternative to critical learning while Bloom said “universities too have failed to serve the needs of students.”
It is not obviously enough to publish, sale and read books. The most important thing is to know what to read and properly digest what we read. At the personal level, people can read for pleasure, recreation or as a pastime. At the national level we read to acquire knowledge and information that would help us navigate through the storms of our journey in life. We should therefore be able to read books critically and sift through them to sort out what serves our purposes and what do not meet our needs. We should read to develop our critical thinking whether we read on electronic devices or with real books in our hands.
The rainy season is already announcing its presence with flashes of thunder bolts and booming sounds in the sky. Students will soon go on vacation and need enhancing means of spending time and achieving mental growth. Books are the tested and confirmed weapons for the mental development and critical thinking of young people. Literary discussions like the one recently organized at Wemezeker public library should be part and parcel of the quest for critical thinking, personal and social advancement.
THE ETHIOPIAN HERALD SUNDAY EDITION 28 MAY 2023