About 170 book distributors, temple presidents, GBC members, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust staff and devotees in general viewed the 12th Annual BBT Africa Conference, held online and broadcast at https://www.youtube.com/c/BBTAfrica on Saturday November 6th.
Speakers from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Mauritius participated in the three-hour conference, which is a platform for an exchange of ideas and strategies on all matters of book distribution, publication, and innovation. Inspirational stories, successes and best practices from all over Africa are also shared.
The first Annual BBT Africa Conference was held in 2010, the year after the African division of the Global BBT was established with Jayadvaita Swami as the then Trustee. Pre-Covid, the conferences were held in person in community halls in different African countries, with at least 150 to 200 devotees attending each time. As well as ISKCON leaders, African politicians and thought leaders also spoke.
“After each conference, we generally see a 20% book distribution increase in the country where the conference was held,” says current BBT Africa Trustee Govardhana Das. “People start to distribute books who never have before, and there’s better dialogue and appreciation.”
This year’s conference began with an opening statement by Jayadvaita Swami, Emeritus Trustee of BBT Africa. Due to Covid, the GBC recently resolved that celebrations for Srila Prabhupada’s 125th anniversary would continue on from 2021 into 2022. Since book production and distribution was so pleasing to Prabhupada, Jayadvaita Swami said, we would do well to focus our efforts in these areas if we wish to do something special for his 125th anniversary.
Next Bhakti Chaitanya Swami, GBC for South Africa and Mauritius and current GBC Chairman, welcomed all the devotees, re-emphasizing that of all things dear to Srila Prabhupada, book distribution was the dearest. Thus, Maharaja explained, such conferences where devotees discuss book distribution and inspire each other to distribute books are critically important.
Govardhana Das, who is also the GBC for Southern Africa and a Global BBT Trustee, then talked about The Work of the BBT. Starting at a global level, he pointed out BBT efforts such as the Bhaktivedanta Archives, which preserves Srila Prabhupada’s legacy; Copyrights, which keeps all Prabhupada’s valuable copyrights; and Back to Godhead magazine, which Prabhupada started in 1944 and which is still in print today, with 1 million copies a month in India and 15,000 bi-monthly throughout the rest of the world.
Govardhana then spoke about the urgency with which Srila Prabhupada worked to print literature, even before he came to the West. Then in 1967, just one year after he incorporated ISKCON, Prabhupada said that as the Ramakrishna Mission, the Bible Society and other organizations had their own printing presses, ISKCON should have its own too. When German devotees formed a press in 1969 and called it “Radha,” Prabhupada liked the name and said that since Radharani is the best, topmost servitor of Krishna, and the press was the biggest current medium for serving Krishna, the press “is really a representative of Srimati Radharani.”
Govardhana concluded his talk by mentioning that BBT Africa’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is in isiZulu, spoken by around 12 million people in South Africa, is now in the preprint stage. He also reported that a number of books were being translated in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, for the first time ever. As there are not yet any devotees in Ethiopia, Govardhana explained, this shows how ISKCON expands through Prabhupada’s books.
Mukundanghri Das, Chief Operating Officer of BBT Africa, then showed research on what Africa will look like over the next 30 years, in terms of population growth, economy, languages and people, indicating that Africa has a lot of potential for increased book distribution. He emphasized the need for innovation in the growing area of digital platforms to reach the masses. And he cited the responsibility of the current ISKCON and BBT leadership to be pre-emptive and strategic in developing a 2050 plan for the benefit of successors.
“There are 2,100 languages in Africa, and only 13% of the African population speak English,” Govardhana says. “So there’s a lot of work to be done.” So far, BBT books are printed in 20 African languages.
Next was a panel session on Africa’s Opportunities: Innovation in Outreach facilitated by Aghari Krishna Das of the African BBT, with South African Minister for Book Distribution Vibhu Chaitanya Das; Dwarka Vasini Dasi, one of the biggest book distributors in East Africa; and Prem Vilas Das, a major book distributor in Mauritius. The group discussed the challenges of distributing books during Covid lockdowns, and shared innovative strategies, such as distributing books on Takealot, South Africa’s answer to Amazon; and how South Africa, Mauritius and Kenya distributed 260 Bhagavatam sets online during the Bhadra Purnima marathon.
The Preaching Paradigm: Discrimination and Preaching followed, facilitated by Bhaktin Bontle Tladi, a university lecturer, South African National Council member, and African BBT volunteer. She was joined by Navina Radhika Dasi, head of marketing in Cape Town; Harideva Das, zonal secretary for Mauritius; and Umapati Das, regional secretary for East Africa.
This group discussed how to reach the population in areas with low literacy rates, and the importance of making books affordable (BBT Books are sold at cost price to local people in Africa, as instructed by Srila Prabhupada). They also talked about how to be culturally sensitive according to the region while distributing books, which includes both presenting Krishna consciousness in a relatable way, and publishing books with appropriate covers.
The Preaching Paradigm panel at the 12th Annual BBT Africa Conference. Top left: Bhaktin Bontle Tladi (South Africa), bottom left: Umpati Das (Kenya), top right: Haridev Das (Mauritius), bottom right: Navina Radhika Devi Dasi (South Africa)
Finally, in “What is the Difficulty with French Books?” Mukundanghri Das, Carudesna Swami from Cote De’Ivoire and Govardhana Das discussed how to resolve the issue that the African BBT currently does not have a BBT license to print French books, although 32 of Africa’s 53 countries speak French. “The French language that is here is a different dialect to the one spoken in France, so we cannot just import books,” Govardhana says. “So the BBT Africa is negotiating to get a license from the Global BBT to print French books on African soil.”
The 12th Annual BBT Africa Conference concluded with three resolutions: to resolve the French books issue; to note changes in demographics in Africa; and to produce a strategy for the next ten to twenty years on how to reach those demographics.
“Overall, these conferences create camaraderie, an open-door-policy, and free exchange of ideas between the African BBT and the devotees and temples it serves,” Govardhana says, “So that together we can find the best way to send out Prabhupada’s books.”
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