Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 26-27, November 2000 


Encouraging reading in Nigeria - the Synergy story

Richard Mammah
Richard Mammah is the Project Director of Synergy Educational, PO Box 53486, Falomo, Lagos, Nigeria. +234 1 263 3278 (tel), +234 1 263 3278 (fax),

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 find one.

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 anthology.

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 times.

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 26–27, 2000, p. 15.]

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