After Naomi Sanusi (not real name) 18, completed her final exams at the Federal college, she told her father that she would love to be a chemical engineer.
‘Ah, that means that you’d have to spend more time at the library’, her father told her. ‘I know just the place to take you. I used to spend time at the Library at Okhoro’, Mr. Sanusi said to Naomi. ‘I’ll take you there on Saturday’.
So on the Saturday both father and daughter visited the library. At first the gateman wouldn’t let them in. ‘There’s no longer a library there…it’s dead’, the gateman said to Mr. Sanusi. The signpost of the library said : ‘…since 1957’.
‘Dead…what do you mean?’
‘Nobody goes there anymore…weeds overtook it after they abandoned it. You can see for yourself if you want’, he shrugged as he saw that there was look of disbelief in Mr. Sanusi’s face. So he let them in. Father and daughter took uncertain steps towards the building. From a great distance, they could see a massive tree standing like the angel chasing Adam and Eve from the garden, daring the duo to proceed any further. Its branches spread out like a semi-opaque veil flung carefully over a cenotaph to hide it. Two other trees stood silently watching the duo approach.
‘Daddy, let’s go back…’ Naomi tugged at her father’s shirt sleeve. ‘I don’t want to go there!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m here with you…nothing will hurt you’. They trod on, until they were within sight of a building standing there like a sepulcher. Its windows were either broken or covered in dust or were just covered in dust. An ashen grey hung on the walls of the building like a leprous patch, spread over the building like some leeches tired of feeding on their host but unwilling to get of it. At the entrance, a strong white gate held together by a padlock seemed to snarl at Mr. Salami and Naomi. He took a step back and walked gingerly to the side of the building, and peered inside. The bookshelves stood like un-embalmed mummies, with their innards drenched and dried or caked or just holding on to the worn shelves. Some shelves already seemed tired from being beaten by the rivulets dripping from the smiling ceiling, and had held on to their more sturdy ones for some support, spilling some of the books. Index cards like tiny sachets of biscuits left uneaten after a funeral lay packed side by side like a column of soldiers frozen into oblivion and inactivity by a spell.
‘Daddy…’ Mr. Salami did not hear his daughter. He continued to stare. A little boy sat at one of the tables. He was twelve or eleven maybe. He was engrossed with a comic book. Every once in a while he would look away from his book, and glance at the clock on the wall. Mr. Salami’s gaze followed the little boy’s – 3:30, nearly time for closing. Mr. Salami peered at the lad’s face once more. It was familiar in a queer kindness. As the boy made to stand up, a voice said, ‘It’s time Salami…it’s time to go home’.
‘Daddy please let’s go…Daddy!’
He snapped out of the reverie at seeing himself in this place where he once visited and spent time. He knew all the shelves and once befriended these rotting books, soaked by the rain and left to dry by the peeping rays of the sun.
Mr. Salami held his daughter’s hand to go. But he couldn’t resist the itch to take a last look and he did, this time at the other building just by the abandoned library – St Joseph’s Anglican Church – Chapel of renewal. Roof like a triangle hanging in the air, paint sweet and fresh like a fresh almond fresh from the oven, the sun seemed to shine brighter on its side.
He put his hand on his pouted lips and whispered to Naomi, ‘Wait awhile, I’m coming…just wait here’. Naomi nodded at him as he walked to one of the windows of the Chapel of renewal and peered inside the way he peered inside the old building of books. The three Chandeliers hung like acrobats from slender gauze from the ceiling, as if they were angels bringing down the light of God to parishioners of a new age. Mr. Salami looked from the Chapel to the old building and from the old building to the chapel and sighed.
He walked back to his daughter, took her hand and strode off, a faraway look on his face.
‘I hear there’s a new library in town…maybe you can use that one? They say it’s at Sapele Road’.
‘Okay dad…Daddy, what’s up with you?’
Mr. Salami sighed again. ‘Don’t worry let’s go home now’.
The following day, Naomi woke up early and headed for the new library in town. It was a big building with a big bank annexed to it. There were other offices on the building as well. She walked in looking for a seat but the whole of the seats were already taken up. But Naomi wanted to study, and looking ahead of her, she saw another section of the library with computers. Without wondering why it was left unoccupied, she gingerly strode towards it.
‘You can’t go there’, a voice said to her. It was the attendant, a young fellow of about 25. He’d been looking at Naomi the moment she walked into the library. ‘You’re not allowed to study there…’, he said again.
‘How come…sir? There’s enough room here and I’d like to use the computers as well. I’ll pay’, she said, reaching into her rucksack to retrieve her purse.
‘Keep your money. You can’t sit here and you can’t use the computers’.
Naomi continued to stare at him. There was a certain semi-darkness surrounding the library that Naomi could not readily tell its source. It made it hard for her to see the chap’s face. She moved a little closer to him.
‘Oh, I need to register here first?’
‘Then what…!’ A few heads turned in Naomi’s direction. It wasn’t hard to know that she was upset.
‘Are you new here?’
‘So you think that you’re smarter than your mates sitting outside? You think they didn’t see this part of the library before going to look for a place to sit and study outside…?’
‘Sit outside wher…!’ She followed the direction of his gaze. Yes, out there in the open, groups of young boys sat cross-legged using their cross-leggedness to hold their books. Others were sitting on the veranda, making small talk, earphones stuck in their ears and making a show of restudy. Of course she’d seen this lot lolling around as she walked into the library but it didn’t occur to her that they here to study like her.
‘But…’ she began.
The young man looked at her again. ‘Because you look new here, I’ll tell you...see those computers?’
Naomi nodded, the lines on her head already furrowed beyond the limits that her brow should allow.
‘Nothing’s wrong with them…you see the other ones over there?’ Naomi nodded again ‘They were sent here from America by people from this town who live in there. But the governor took them away and replaced them with these ones…they are China, fake! But these ones here they are very good…but they can’t work!’
The young man looked up at the ceiling and Naomi followed his gaze. The ceiling fan hung over their heads like a big spider, still, and eavesdropping on their conversation.
‘No light…’ both of them said at the same. Naomi managed to squeeze out a wry smile out of the abundance of her worry. ‘So apart from the computers not working and apart from no light to power them, you see why your mates are outside?’
‘Why…? Naomi asked, that uncertain smile still hovering on her face.
‘Nobody can study in here with the heat. So your mates prefer to stay outside…though I can’t understand why they still come every day and lie on the grass pretending to study. They should stay at home.
So Naomi went home, her father’s frown on her face. Naomi is not the only one who is unhappy with the libraries in Nigeria. Available data from the higher educational institutions in Edo State like the University of Benin, Benin City, the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, the Igbinedion University, Okada, the Benson Idahosa University, Benin City, The Federal Polytechnic Auchi, Benin City, Edo State Institute of Technology and Management, Usen, the College of Education, Ekiadolor, indicate that a good measure of the student body have no access to modern libraries with which to carry out decent research. What eventually makes it tough for these youngsters is that of these institutions of higher learning only two of them, the University of Benin and the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, are Federal schools. The remaining are private schools with well-stocked libraries. But you must be rich to attend these schools.
Edo State where Naomi hails from has a population of about 5million. It has a Gross Domestic Product of about $10.7billion. Reliable information from the Federal Bureau of Statistics indicates that the major sources of its mainstay include crude oil, rubber, cocoa, cashew nuts. Edo state is blessed with rich mineral deposits like quartz, amethyst, dolomite, granite and limestone which form the industrial raw material base of the production of cement at Okpella. Born on August 27, 1991, it has 18 local governments which form the nucleus of what looks like a mini-Nigeria. Sixty five percent of its population is between 18 and 25. But if there is one setback/problem with their aspiration and their preparation to meet the future, it is with the lack of properly furnished libraries with which they can prepare to face the challenges of their future.
Presently, the state library in the capital city located at Sapele Road in Benin City was built with support from the Edo Indigenes in the United States. Even though the premises can hold up to 400 hundred students, it is hardly inadequate. Every year when these young boys and girls from the 18 local governments of Edo state prepare to sit for the local entrance examinations to university, the University Matriculation Examination, UME, they find their way to this inadequately stocked library, hoping to use it to improve on their chances of passing the exam. While most like Naomi are disappointed and return home, the more determined ones mill around the over-congested premises of this library making a determined effort to either concentrate on their studies, or make a show of doing so. From 2010, the examining body, JAMB, announced that it would no longer conduct the tests using the paper based, PBT format, but that it would adopt the SAT/TOEFL computer based test, CBT or the Internet based tests. Since there are no internet facilities, relevant books at the disposal of more that 50 million young people in Nigeria wishing to take the tests, there is usually mass failure.
But this can change. The government and prominent Nigerians must support Nigeria libraries with internet and with books. Most of the governors who say they cannot pay salaries of civil servants are billionaires. They are richer than the states they govern. Will only a billion naira, all libraries in Nigeria can have internet, power generating sets and good books.
Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku is editor in chief of Bob MajiriOghene Communications, Benin City. @DsighRobert.