By Anote Ajeluorou
After a little over a year, President Goodluck Jonathan’s pet project on resuscitating the interest of Nigerians in reading books, was launched in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, in what will be a state by state launch until the president’s gospel of books is taken round the country. Last week in Yenagoa, he paid particular tribute to the efforts of Nigerian writers in championing the cause of books, especially with Mr. Rotimi Babatunde recently winning the prestigious Caine Prize. Prof. J.P Clark-Bekederemo chaired the event.
Although state matters had prevented him from personally attending, Jonathan had nevertheless shown that the Bring Back the Book campaign wasn’t another electioneering gambit to woo Nigerian voters when he launched it two years ago in Lagos. Although it was a bit long in coming, especially after over a year, what came through at the Bayelsa launch was the steady fulfilment of Mr. President’s desire that Nigerians be made to repossess the book as essential tool for development and national pastime.
This much he stated when the Minister of State for Education, Mr. Nyesom Nwike, who represented him, said at Gloryland Cultural Centre, Yenagoa, “The initiative was conceived as a citizen’s framework after much consultation. It was in response to lingering concerns over the flagging reading culture in our country, and the general apathy to books, especially among the youth, who represent our collective futures. To arrest the slide and give a boost to our development and advancement as a nation, the flag-off witnessed a high participation of children, as our Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka and I read to over 400 school children”.
Jonathan enumerated the various programmes held so far to consolidate on the gains of the Lagos launch to include “a Book Industry Conference which took place at Eko Hotel Lagos; a University Launch, attended by over 3,000 participants at the University of Benin, Edo State, and an FCT Launch at which I was represented by the Vice President, Mr. Namadi Sambo”.
He also stated that he had “accorded the Bring Back the Book campaign the status of a Federal Government programme facilitated through the Ministry of Education, so that we can make the necessary in-roads into schools all over the country. By so doing, we will get our pupils reading to feed their imagination, for the upliftment of the entire society. Give a child a book, and you will enable the success of a generation, as well as those to come”.
He went on to stress the achievability of the campaign, especially with the blossoming of talented writers on the Nigerian literary scene, saying, “let me assure you that the goal of the Bring Back the Book is an achievable one. We are fortunate that we are championing books at a time when Nigerian writing is enjoying resurgence at home and on the international stage. Our writers are doing us proud.
“There is a flowering of talent and creative expression, which can only inspire the young ones, while at the same time stimulating the production of new materials for a nation of readers to savour. A Nigerian, Rotimi Babatunde, was earlier this month announced as the winner of the 2012 edition of the Caine Prize for African Writing, making him the fourth Nigerian to win this prestigious prize in 13 years.
“The good news doesn’t end there. The city of Port Harcourt, here in the heart of the Niger Delta, has just been declared the UNESCO World Book Capital City for 2014. It is particularly heartening to note that Port Harcourt beat no less than Oxford, the storied centre of learning, to clinch the World Book Capital City 2014 designation. The UNESCO Selection Committee chose Port Harcourt over 10 other world cities because of the quality of the programme, for ‘its focus on youth, and the impact it will have on improving Nigeria’s culture of books’.
“We shall do all we can to make Port Harcourt’s Book Year a highly successful one. The Book is coming back to Nigeria. We are the future of Books and the Book is in our future. We shall as a government support all efforts aimed at reviving reading and literacy”.
The launch of the first Public Community Library in Yenagoa, facilitated by the Community Defence Law Foundation (CDLF) with the support of Ford Foundation had held a day earlier, and named after emeritus professor of History, Prof. E.J. Alagoa.
Earlier, Clark-Bekederemo expressed his delight at the launch, describing it as a family occasion, with children as centre of attraction. He advised that children needed good education from their parents, adding that his own children often told him that the best gift he gave them was to have sent them to school.
He noted, “The book the president has asked us to launch today is your best friend”. He noted that among the three choices to make in life, which included choice of partners, choice of life’s journey and choice of book, Clark-Bekederemo said, the book was the most enduring life partner from which divorce was impossible, saying, “So, treasure it, as you treasure your life’s partner. It gives you solace, solitude even in the midst of a festival, a crowd”.
Senior Special Adviser to the President on Research, Documentation and Strategy, Mr. Oronto Douglas, had also enjoined the students drawn from 25 schools in Bayelsa State to utilise the opportunity of the launch to rededicate themselves to their books, saying a book reading culture was one, “that will ensure that children’s education should not be left in the hands parents alone; the sector is critical to our collective humanity, the development of our society and advancement as a people. Bring Back the book is to ensure our future and to banish ignorance for a new dawn”.
In each student’s backpack were eight different literary books from which Douglas enjoined the students to begin building their own library “so that the era of darkness and backwardness will be banished from their lives”.
One of J.P. Clark’s famous poems, ‘Streamside Exchange’ was read by a JSS 2 student, Dara Horsefall Ila, from an e-book version from the Prof. E.J. Alagoa Library, as a demonstration of the array of materials, including hitech-library materials, available for use. Thereafter, Bayelsa Cultural Troupe did a skit the need to start reading early in life and the multiple benefits to be derived from it. However, the skit was laden with too much pidgin stuff, especially in a programme designed to encourage students to read good materials.
In his paper titled, ‘The Future of the Niger Delta: Hopes, Dreams and History, Prof. Alagoa said, he desired “a Niger Delta endowed with a thriving economy, within policies serving the best interests of its people; a moral society anchored in the love of truth and justice”.
THERE was also the Celebrity Reading section, with some Nollywood star actors taking the lead. Dakore Egbeson read Gabriel Okara’s poem, ‘The Call of the River Nun’, Omoni Oboli read ‘Streamside Exchange’, Desmond Elliot read Bina Nengi-Ilagha’s ‘Condolences’, while Omotola Jolade-Ekehinde read J.P. Clark’s ‘Night Rain’. Lambert Itoto’s read his ‘The Girl-child’s Desire’ piece while Nengi-Ilagha read ‘A Street Called Lonely’.
The First Lady of Bayelsa State, Mrs. Rachel Dickson, also joined the Celebrity Readers, when she read an excerpt from Ayodele Olofintuade’s Eno’s Story to the delight of the students.
However, performances from the star actors could best be described as average in spite of the enthusiastic reception they got from the students who idolised them in their performances on screen. Jolade-Ekehinde read ‘The Night Rain’ poorly, as she struggled with the words, and it ended up not reading like a poem at all.
A Rev. (Dr.) Canon Steven Davies admonished the students to take their books seriously, “as books changed the world; books take you round the world, being the cheapest way to travel round the world. You should write your own stories to recreate the story of Bayelsa and Nigeria”.
Wife of the late slain human and environmental rights activist and author, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Maria Saro-Wiwa, praised the Bring Back the Book initiative, and said her husband was a great lover of books and a voracious reader. She said the future of Nigeria would depend on how much was invested in education otherwise she would lag behind among nations that appreciate the value of books.
She noted, “My husband was a man of ideas who wanted Nigeria to achieve her full potential. I welcome this initiative with pleasure. Saro-Wiwa would have been happy with this idea. I commend President Jonathan, who has been a supporter of Saro-Wiwa and the state governor, Seriakie Dickson.”
Secretary to Bayelsa State Government, Prof. Edmund Allison-Oguru, who represented the state governor, Dickson, assured the students of the governor’s passion for the project, saying it was why he had made strides in the state’s educational sector. Such strides, he stated, included shifting education to the front burner by declaring a State of Emergency in Education in the state. According to him, a committee was going round the schools to determine areas where renovation and rebuilding of schools were necessary for intervention.
School uniforms and books would be free from next season, Allison-Oguru assured, adding that N1 billion had already been set aside for scholarship and grants to Bayelsa State post-graduate students to further develop the human capital needs of the state, and “as a way of bringing back the book culture in the state, and as a way of bringing back the culture of meritocracy and standards”.
A lover of books and a businessman, who appreciates the President’s Bring Back the Book initiative, Alhaji Musa Bello, donated 50 computers to schools and Non-governmental Organisations in the state as a way of boosting Mr. President’s book initiative.