By Anote Ajeluorou
Last Friday marked the formal closing of UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014, which the Rivers State capital, Port Harcourt, hosted with yearlong book and literacy activities. It’s a book initiative of the world’s cultural organisation to emphasize the place of books in world’s civilization. From April 23, 2014 through April 23, 2015, Rainbow Book Club held various activities to celebrate the book and deepen the values of literacy enshrined in it.
Last month, Director of UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014, Mrs. Koko Kalango, whose Rainbow Book Club managed the programme, handed over to the city of Incheon in South Korea, as host for 2015. Bangkok, Thailand, handed the baton over to Port Harcourt in 2014. It was the first time an Africa sub-Saharan city would host the book capital.
Among activities highlighting the closing ceremony was a symposium designed as an overview of programmes of the book capital, the challenges encountered, the successes recorded and how these could be transmitted to the future in Rivers State in particular and Nigeria at large. It turned out a stimulating and lively show, with discussants from a wide range of fields involved in the book chain, including a librarian, a publisher, an academic and a radio presenter as moderator - Dr. Blessing Ahiazu, Promise Ogochukwu, Uzo Nwamara, Onyi Sunday (moderating) and Chubuike Akwarandu and Breni Fiberesima.
With some 200 book clubs established in primary and secondary schools (both government- and privately-run), the panel was of the view that the book clubs should be sustained and replicated. They also argued that the benefits of the book clubs should be extended to schools outside Rivers State to other states for extended benefits, as a way of deepening the value of the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 across the country. Further, schools where book clubs are established should be assisted to ensure the sustainability of the clubs for their continuing benefits to the pupils and students even after Port Harcourt has ended its reign as UNESCO World Book Capital.
Also, Rainbow Boo Club was enjoined to partner with other book clubs in the city to help sustain the gains so far made. Private schools with wealthy parents were enjoined to assist the book clubs to grow. The panel also tasked the state government to extend the building of libraries in model schools to other schools while private school were enjoined to open up their libraries instead of keeping them locked.
A librarian, Ahiazu said there was need to sustain reading habits, but that this could only happen when there were libraries in neighbourhoods in every community, as was the case in developed countries. She lamented the absence of community and public libraries in the country and said it posed a challenge to literacy and learning.
Parents were also challenged to own libraries at home, as building block for children. “Most parents don’t have libraries at home,” Ahiazu stressed, “Parents don’t encourage their children to go to libraries. Parents need to challenge children to read. Changing values must begin with parents. Give books as gifts to your children, even as wedding gifts. That was what I did to my children. And it helped”.
Rainbow Book Club was advised to maximize the gains made during the year, as manager of the book capital, adding, “Rainbow Book Club should see 2014 as a turning point for the book and pursue policies that are friendly to corporate bodies and individual to support the propagation of books and reading. Government should also introduce tax incentives and holidays to encourage support for books and reading.”
Teachers also had their own share of advice on how to stimulate children’s reading appetites both in and out of schools. It was agreed that teaching was a vocation requiring passion and that it should not be seen as a mere meal ticket, as was often the case. For instance, it was argued that a teacher’s poor handling of a subject could affect a pupil to the extent that he loses interest in that subject. A panelist, Nwamara confessed to abandoning studying engineering or medicine because his Mathematics teacher made the subject difficult for him to understand.
He stated, “Teachers often make learning a particular subject difficult for students. Teachers need to be trained and retrained to make learning fun and effective. Some teach because it’s a meal ticket; teaching should be for the passion. The psychology of the teacher is key. There is need for guidance and counseling units in schools to diagnose students’ problems and steer them in the right course and even determine the efficiency of teachers in students’ performance in a particular subjects where they persistently fail, especially if they are doing well in others”.
A teacher who responded canvassed the need for students to appreciate books and for them to develop interest and hunger to read and enlarge their vocabulary.
Also, Kalango said deepening reading habits among students was a collective effort, saying, “It’s a team effort and not a single person’s effort. Actions speak louder words; it’s a demonstration of what needs to be done. Be careful what you do around children; they are watching”.
Growing up as a child Kalango said she saw her parent reading books, magazines and newspapers in the house, adult habit, which she said rubbed off on her and her siblings; it provided the foundation she was to build on later in life as promoter of books and reading.
She said out of the 12 books read each month while Port Harcourt the World Book Capital six were adapted for stage and properly staged. The other six books had copyright issues that could not be resolved before the event. However, 12 dramatisations were held during the year.
REPRESENTING Rivers State Government was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Mr. Michael West. He said no nation could develop without focusing on education, as it bridges the world. According to West, “There’s no education without books. Reading and writing are hallmarks of education. In Rivers State we realize this and make it a focal point. It’s not just the provision of infrastructure and the recruiting of teachers, we provide well-stocked libraries in public schools. We instruct schools to inculcate reading habits in our children.
“Choosing Port Harcourt as World Book Capital 2014 was an honour for us; we thank UNESCO for the honour. We have named one of our schools UNESCO Primary School to commemorate the World Book Capital 2014. We thank Mrs. Kalango for making this to happen. A reading society will always progress. It’s the only way of transforming our society from that of a third world to the first world”.
Awards in various categories were given to some organizations and individuals who made the World Book Capital year a success.
HOWEVER, the closing ceremony was far less spectacular than the opening in many respects. First, governor of Rivers State, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, whose idea prompted the yearly Garden Literary Festival, later renamed Port Harcourt Book Festival, failed to show up. Not even his estranged deputy, Tele Ikuku, whose office oversaw the World Book Capital programme, showed up or sent a representative. No commissioner also came save the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, West.
Since Amaechi’s political travails with the Presidency, books seem to have taken flight from his menu of activities. The one-time burning passion of the University of Port Harcourt graduate of English and Literary Studies began to nose-dive when he was absent at last year’s weeklong book festival. It was considered strange in a year his city was hosting UNESCO World Book Capital. A Permanent Secretary from the office of Ikuru came in representative capacity for the entire government.
Indeed, it was anti-climax in a sense even from the literary point of view. Notable literary regulars at the festivals were absent. It was at the opening last April that Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka called on the Federal Government to bring back kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls in his keynote address; the call went virile and later became a mantra the world over, which Dr. Oby Ezekwesili later adopted as her year-long mission. She, too, a board member of Rainbow Book Club, did not show up for the closing.
Clearly, the list of absentees was long. Pa Gabriel Okara is another regular of the city’s book activities; he was absent. Dr. Elechi Amadi is another regular at rainbow Book Club events; he was absent. Prof. Omolara Ogundipe didn’t show up as well. Pa Lindsay Barrett was also absent. So, too, was his son, Ignoni Barrett and Kaine Agary, two Port Harcourt literary folks. The Department of English and Literary Studies that usually represents University of Port Harcourt had no regular member in attendance. Dr. Obari Gomba is a notable poet in the city; he didn’t attend.
Just a handful of literary figures were present. They were Chimeka Garricks and Uzo Nwamara and other upcoming ones, including the Songhai 12.
NEVERTHELESS, the N3 billion Port Harcourt Book Centre seems the crowning glory and milestone achievement of Port Harcourt as book capital 2014. It is Amaechi promise delivered. Already near completion, the centre was partly sponsored by Shell Petroleum Development Company, and will be managed by Port Harcourt Literary Society, an unknown body gradually riding on the back of Amaechi’s largesse to push itself forward and in the centre of things. It had been Amaechi’s vision that the book festival be weaned from government’s sponsorship and remain truly independent. This is what the centre would do to give fillip to the literary arts in the city.
But what fate would befall literary activities in Port Harcourt after Amaechi leaves and Nyesom Wike, a legal mind, assumes office as governor? As a former Minister of Education, will he still see the value of books and invest in them by continuing the festival? In fact, what legacy did he leave behind as Minister of Education? Will he dismiss the entire festival and the promotion of books, as his predecessor’s fad that must be dismantled just because of that? As Minister of Education Wike did not attend a single book event, not even the one in the city from where he will govern from June.
This means that the fate of books in Port Harcourt city will face a grim period if Wike were to wield the regular philistinism stick prevalent in Nigeria. In that case, literary enthusiasts in the city will have to develop a formula to continue their pastime without government.