Encouraging reading in Nigeria - the Synergy
Richard Mammah is the Project Director of Synergy Educational, PO Box
53486, Falomo, Lagos, Nigeria. +234 1 263 3278 (tel), +234 1 263 3278
It may no longer be news that Nigeria, Africa's
most populous nation, produces the bulk of literatures from the continent.
It may also not be news that Nigerian writers both at home and in the
diaspora have won some of the most significant prizes in the continent
and beyond: Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri and
Buchi Emecheta are household names across the globe. However, in more
recent years Nigerians have been fast ignoring, even abandoning books
- that same item that has earned the nation so much fame.
A little story will illustrate this point. Recently this writer, in
the company of a visiting German publisher, made a trip to Onitsha,
the south eastern town famous for its prime location on the banks of
the River Niger, for its status as a commercial nerve centre, and for
the impact of its book publishing industry - the same that inaugurated
the world-famous Onitsha Market Literature.
In the course of this trip, we discovered that
Onitsha was still the geographical frontier it had always been and that
it was still commercially important - indeed it had even grown into
a gargantuan Nigerian trade centre - but that Onitsha's third flank,
its book status, had been almost completely eroded. The bookshops, printing
presses, publishers, authors and itinerant book vendors are now few
and far between, and Onitsha's schools, which used to be status symbols,
now rely on coercion to compel parents to send their children there.
Whatever happened to the land that had inspired texts as vivid and diverse
as Veronica My Daughter, When Love Whispers and Chike and the River,
and nurtured and encouraged authors and such bookpeople as Ogali Ogali,
Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe and Emmanuel Obiechina?
Analysts of the Nigerian book scene have several
explanations for the reading drought presently afflicting the land.
Absence of a coherent government book development policy and the associated
lack of political will to redress the crisis frequently recurs in discussions
of the problem. The nation's underdeveloped publishing infrastructure
is another problem, and the overall decline in Nigeria's economic fortunes
with its negative impact on the purchasing power of the average Nigerian
is a third culprit.
Looking beyond these, however, there is yet another
hindrance: the inability of book people themselves to respond to the
crisis; as we say in Synergy, 'blending our own energies that our people
would read'. This is the origin of Synergy Educational.
Synergy began as a child of necessity. The writers,
journalists, publishers, readers, parents and students who make up Synergy
had heard a lot of talk about the low and declining reading levels in
Nigeria and we decided to not only investigate this claim but also to
initiate practical responses should they prove to be true.
After putting together a small flexible working
team, we began with a feasibility survey of reading habits in the Lagos
area. 208 respondents, drawn from urban and semi-urban Lagos, who represented
a cross-spectrum of gender and occupational categories, were polled.
The majority were already familiar with the book, appreciated its real
value to them and to society and had favourite subject areas. But, more
often than not, they could not find the books that they would have loved
to read, nor did they have the time either to go and look for the books
or to read them.
Building on this survey, we undertook a pilot
six-week reading promotion activity in July/August 1998 at the Amen
Nursery and Primary School in the semi-urban district of Magodo in Lagos
State. This programme had in attendance 33 pupils from Abia, Delta and
Lagos State Schools and the results were most interesting: many of the
pupils were already captive readers, a few of them were already potential
authors and every one agreed to sign on to a book club if they could
Synergy's nationwide 'twelve schools reading
project', which is being supported in its pilot phase by the Heinrich
Boll Foundation, is built upon this experience. It incorporates monthly
sessions with writers and facilitators talking to student audiences
about reading and making books come alive; the establishment of reading
clubs; and participation in Synergy's annual primary and secondary schools'
story writing competitions, which result in the publication of an annual
To reach the post-school segment of the population,
Synergy Educational designed a programme to persuade them that the book
was as important as many of the other concerns to which they presently
gave time and attention, if not more so.
Building on the belief that the memorable books
of a nation rank among its most enduring cultural legacies, and that
the written word of a people is often its most effective ambassador,
Synergy Educational in April 1999 conceived the 100 years of the Nigerian
book international exhibit, conference and road tour (the Century Book
Project) as a means of highlighting and celebrating the Nigerian book
as a foremost cultural property of the nation and her peoples.
The exhibit, which in its first phase is a year-long
national and international road tour, was flagged off on 16 November
1999 at the National Assembly Complex, Lagos. It is designed to impact
on such diverse areas of the Nigerian book as readership promotion,
documentation, evaluation, celebration and cultural exchange. It has
since made stops at Ibadan, Ilorin and Makurdi in Nigeria, and Harare
during the 2000 Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Support for the exhibit
has come from a variety of individual and corporate patrons including
the Ford Foundation, Educare Trust, CSS Limited, West African Book Publishers
Limited, the Association of Nigerian Authors and the Benue State University.
Synergy's star event for the year is the Lagos
2000 Bookfair in November 2000, the week of Professor Chinua Achebe's
70th birthday celebrations. 16 November, the exact date of Achebe's
birth, is marked at the fair as Chinua Achebe Day, featuring readings
from Achebe's works, a critical review session, an exhibition of his
works and writings and a dramatization of Things Fall Apart.
This is Synergy's own way of celebrating this cherished icon of our
The Achebe birthday celebration is complemented
with another inspiring book event, built around Professor Wole Soyinka's
Ake: The Years of Childhood. This pioneer 'African train tourism
reading promotion' involves writers, public functionaries, visitors,
and others commuting in 'reading coaches' from Lagos to Abeokuta to
Lagos, reading all the way and visiting historical sights mentioned
in that book. [end] [BPN, no 2627,
2000, p. 15.]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 26-27, 2000>>