Thursday, April 23, 2015

Where's the Nigerian Book...?

It is my guess that today April 23 will come and go without any fanfare. It is not April Fool’s Day nor is it an election. At least people remember an April Fool’s Day, and in an election, a lot of monies get spent in the printing of leaflets and handbills which only take care of the political needs of politicians eager to capture power. That is the typical Nigerian spirit especially as it concerns anything and things that concerns books. As a matter of fact, it is known all over the world that if there was anything you are interested in hiding from a Nigerian, you had better conceal it in a book. This anecdote calls to mind a story my father told once told me. He said that there was boy who hated to read. His father did everything he could to make his boy cultivate the habit of reading his books but the boy wouldn’t budge. He would play football, watch television all day and hang out with his friends. So the man had no choice but to ship his son off to a hostel – but he did so without giving him any pocket money. Nobody can say today what led to this man’s very strict behaviour with his son but when he the boy fell sick and needed money for medicine, he simply  sent a message back to his son to ‘read your Oliver Twist’.  The long and short of this little anecdote is that eventually the boy died from malaria because he refused to look into his Oliver Twist where his father had left him pocket money for the whole of the term.

This looks a little far-fetched but the plight of authors, poets, dramatists and anyone involved in the production of books in Nigeria is no different from the plight of the father above. While politicians of recent have spent a lot of resources with hiring ghostwriters to write memoirs and autobiographies that have no immediate use to national development, budding writers, poets and dramatists are abandoned to their fates. There are a million and one Nigerian writers needing just to attend a writer’s conference, or need a residency where they ply their art in the solitude and quietude necessary for the mind to operate. I recall yesterday the pride I felt at listening to our Ben Okri, author of The Famished Road, giving a talk on culture and art to a packed hall in Brussels.  Okri was only a teenager when he returned to the United Kingdom after the Nigerian Civil War. Groomed and tutored in an environment that recognizes the importance of books to the development of the mind, he has gone ahead to clinch very respected awards like the Caine. The curious thing in all of this is that our country rushes on headlong to claim him as ours even when we have not put anything on the ground to nurture the capacity and the potential of the individual to contribute to the development of society. It is the same fate with ‘our’ Chimamanda Adichie. The story is that when the poor girl wrote her first book, nobody in Nigeria gave her more than a first glance, but all of that changed the minute she travelled out of Nigeria and was properly groomed in the fine-art of storytelling in the United States. Today, TIME magazine recognizes her as one of the most influential 100 Africans alive today, a credential she shares with Muhammadu Buhari, Boko Haram leader Shekau, Oby Ezekwesili and Christopher Ofili, a Nigerian artist in the UK.

The decision by the UNESCO to celebrate World Book day on April 23, birthday of the World’s celebrated writers, William Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de va Vega cannot have been misplaced. Other countries like Sweden, Spain, the UK and the United States of America, street carnivals, book readings and fairs herald April 23. Books develop the mind and the mind is usually the battlefield upon which all of life’s battles are fought. If the people who lead us do not read books, we would be led by people bereft of ideas. And you know what, ideas is what rules the world today. People are the books they have read, and I would love to reinforce this statement by saying that nobody was born a doctor, lawyer or journalist but by the books they have read. I remember interviewing a microbiologist, Hadiza Mohammed, a female writer from Kano State whose first book, Life of an Almajiri, is in the market today. When the Ebola epidemic lasted, she said that she was really embarrassed that it is only in an underdeveloped continent like Africa where people are not reading would anyone deign go drink salt water solution as an antidote to the virus. 

If Nigerians were not thoroughly embarrassed at the onset of the presidential elections over the scandal of one aspirant not having gone to school, some of us were. We were embarrassed that a lot of the leaders of today read and have written books which contribute to the development of the common mind of humanity. But here we were, with people in government throwing barbs at the people who were once in government and who didn’t do much to develop the habit and culture of booking. 

We raise our voices once more, and encourage very rich, successful and wealthy people to give their names to endowments and residencies and grants that would develop writers, poets and dramatists. Without this kind of person in Queen Elisabeth 1, William Shakespeare would have been nothing much today. She was not known for many good things but one of the things that has established her epithet as patron of the arts was that she recognized the place of art, music and culture in civil governance and gave it massive encouragement. The example of Wole Soyinka comes to mind. After becoming a Nobel Laureate, WS has allowed his name to be used to identify with an award for excellence in journalism, and literary creativity. 

We call on other multinationals, big companies to emulate the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas company, NLNG, Etisalat and other companies who articulate their corporate social responsibility by creating awards for literary creativity. It is also interesting to note that while the rebasing of Nigeria’s economy took note of the contribution of Nollywood,  and went ahead to vote large sums of money  for all aspects of film production, nothing was done in the area of  book publication. But if we all consider the chain of production and how book production contributes to the informal sector of the economy, we would certainly be asking one question: Where's the Nigerian Book?

Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku writes from the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ, Benin City.