By Anote Ajeluorou and Greg Nwakunor
THE attention of the literary world finally turned to Port Harcourt on Tuesday as the current UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 (WBC). The formal handover was held on Wednesday at the Marquee, Hotel Presidential. It was graced by a galaxy of literary personalities and political leaders including former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd), Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Pa Gabriel Okara, Elechi Amadi, Prof. JP Clark, Prof. Igwe Chukwuemeka Ike, Prof. Omolara Ogundipe, Prof. E.J. Alagoa, former Minister of Culture and Tourism, Dr. Graham Douglas, former World Bank Vice President, Africa Region, Dr. (Mrs.) Oby Ezekwesili and a host of others.
The year-long duration of the Garden City hosting the book capital has ‘Books: Windows to Our World of Possibilities’, as theme.
The resonating message at the opening wasn’t so much only about books but the need for peace to reign in the country so that the book could truly play its role of enlightening the minds of even insurgents’ current stands against what the book represents. In a soul-wrenching moment designed to drum support for the abducted schoolgirls, chairman, board of trustees of Rainbow Book Club, technical partners to Rivers State Government on WBC, Ezekwesili led the gathering to call for the immediate release of the remaining abducted schoolgirls in Borno, saying, ‘Bring back our daughters!’ She said it was traumatising that schoolgirls should be taken at a time when it was particularly difficult to get them into school.
Amaechi offered to admit the rescued schoolgirls in schools being remodelled in Rivers State, by way of rehabilitation. Chairman of the opening, Abubakar, sued for peace as panacea for the book and learning to thrive.
Also, Soyinka called on President Goodluck Jonathan to ensure the schoolgirls were brought back from their abductors, whom he accused of imposing an unworkable, ultimate fatwa on the collective existence of all Nigerians. He said Jonathan’s Bring Back the Book (BBtB) campaign that was initiated in 2010, which he regrettably lent his presence and support, failed to truly bring the book back. He urged Jonathan instead to bring back the schoolgirls, as an act of correction of his poor performance shortly after the Nyanya bombing, as he took to the dance floor in Kano.
While delivering a keynote address entitled ‘Republic of the Mind and Thraldom of Fear’ Soyinka also accused the federal government of impoverishing the book environment by arbitrarily imposing import tax on books as further disincentive to education. He charged that books should have free access into and from Nigeria, as the country was a signatory to all international conventions to that effect.
On his part, Amaechi restated the power of literature as escape from the mundane, and asserted that education facilitated the process, adding, “The power of great literature is immense, a key to other kingdoms, an escape from the dull and mundane. But great literature is helped by illiteracy. Only recently, UNICEF released figures of out-of-school children, with about 10.5 million in Nigeria. Rivers State Government appreciates the challenges posed by having so many children out of school; we’re working on reducing the numbers. We have completed over 300 new primary schools, all of them with libraries, new model secondary schools and a new campus for our state-owned university.
“As part of activities for our year as World Book Capital City, we would propose to complete libraries in 23 Local Government Areas, seven new libraries and one Port Harcourt Book Centre, where we would be able to host writers in residence among other things… We are determined to make the most of this awesome opportunity and while we thank UNESCO and partners for picking Port Harcourt above such favourites as Oxford, Lyon, Moscow and Incheon, we must congratulate last year’s Bangkok for an amazing job as we look forward to passing the baton to Incheon, Republic of South Korea, host for 2015”.
Also, Ezekwesili commended Rainbow Book Club for bringing the glory of the World Book Capital 2014 to Port Harcourt and Nigeria. She said “any time Nigerians competed against the best they win; it’s the greatness within us coming forth. The most significant thing is not bringing WBC but the enduring legacy of books in us, that reading culture be embedded in young people. Reading a book stimulates the brain and decelerates old age. For young people, to read a book is to prepare yourself for the future. It’s so fitting that we are celebrating the natural wealth in book reading; it’s a shift from the easy wealth to one of greatness. We must replace oil wealth with intellectual capital. Make sure that from today you start to read a book”.
As chairman of event, Abubakar appraised the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 event in the light of World Copyright and World Book Day, which also fell on April 23, and said it was a historic celebration, as it coincided with Nigeria’s centenary. He commended Governor Amaechi for his, “revolutionary intervention in the educational sector, in infrastructure and teacher training. Port Harcourt is haven to book-lovers, with the festival featuring an array of interesting writers. Port Harcourt has a busy year ahead in implementing its programmes. It’s our hope that it lives up to the expectation of UNESCO, so it reverberates across the world as the most successful”.
But the former Head of State sued for peace so that the book could thrive, adding, “We need peace in this country. If there’s no peace, there will be no time to read all the books. All Nigeria must put hands on deck to bring peace to this country”.
On his part, President Jonathan, who was represented by his Special Assistant on Documentation, Ms Molara Wood, praised the organisers for making Nigeria proud, when he noted, “As you all know, Port Harcourt has for many years been a pivot of book and literature-centred discussion, as well as a melting pot for writers and artists whose works help to enrich our lives. It is against this background that the Federal Government threw its support behind the Port Harcourt World Book Capital bid. It is to the glory of our collective effort, that the shared golden dream of the Rainbow Book Club, and the entire readership and literary community for this city has today been realised.
“The special position of this city in the Book world owes largely to the Port Harcourt Book Festival, organized by the Rainbow Book Club, with its monthly book readings, guest writers and Role Models inspiring the young ones through reading events, library rehabilitation and other activities. It is no surprise therefore that UNESCO has recognized these antecedents through its designation of Port Harcourt as World Book Capital 2014.
“The Port Harcourt World Book Capital programme is rich and varied, and will touch every age group, especially the youth. It is heartening to note that the international dimension will ensure that these activities will resonate around Africa and extend to the global Book world.
“For the first time, the shortlist of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing is being unveiled in Nigeria, right here in Port Harcourt, as part of World Book Capital events. Without doubt, the writers on the Caine shortlist will number among the future touch-bearers for writing from the African continent”.
Rivers State’s Deputy Governor, Mr. Tele Ikuru, commended the efforts of his boss, Amaechi for rescuing the state from criminals that had masqueraded as militants and thus bringing peace and glory to Port Harcourt since 2008 when he assumed office. Education, Ikuru also stated, has been one of Amaechi’s legacy in the state, as he worked tirelessly to reinvent its educational wheels through remodelling of schools and providing important software for learning. He also noted, “Since 2008, Amaechi has been sending the message of education, education, education; education is the key. Even the insurgency in part of the north can only be resolved through education”.
Also present at the opening ceremony were delegations from the preceding host cities of Bangkok, Thailand and 2015 host, Incheon, South Korea, who made presentations. While Bangkok gave valuable gifts to Amaechi for succeeding them, Incheon invited the book-loving governor next year to its opening. The Bangkok delegation also gave cultural presentations including three poets performing with the accompaniment of a poet-flutist. Thereafter, two pole fighters took the stage and thrilled the audience, who were followed by puppeteers, who also excited the audience with their performance.
Both Garcia of Hay Festival and Elechi Amadi gave insight into Africa 39 book project, which will also form an innovative part of the UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014. The idea is to select some of the best writers on the continent under 40 and celebrate them all through the duration the city hosts the book capital. Although Lola Shoneyin and Chika Unigwe are 40, others fall below to make the selection an interesting mix of some of the best young writers emerging on the continent.
The day ended with a dinner at Government House, where a dance drama Obele and the Storyteller was staged.
A day before on Tuesday, children’s activities took centre-stage at the Banquet Hall of Hotel Presidential. 100 Years Around Port Harcourt: A Communal Story written by public secondary school students in the state on the sights and sounds of their local communities was launched. The idea is to aggregate all the local flavours each locality has to offer the world, as told in stories by the young ones, also as a measure of stimulating their interest in their culture. The book was edited by Project Director of PWBC, Mrs, Koko Kalango and author of From an Orphan to a Queen Esther, Mrs. Titi Horsfall. It was also reviewed by Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mrs. Ibim Semitari and presented by Commissioner for Education, Dame Alice Lawrence-Nemi.
But before the presentation, students from some of the participating schools shared their experiences with the audience on how they approached their subject and how the project greatly enriched their intellect, as it deepened their understanding of their local cultures and tradition. Some wrote on marriage system, chieftaincy titles, festivals, and a lot of other interesting local materials.
The Deputy Governor, Ikuru, who later joined the school students, commended them for producing the book and expressed his delight that it came to fruition.
Thereafter, a local drama group presented The Fate of Okuama, a play that centres on problems facing communities in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. With the discovery of oil wells and their exploration, both land and aquatic life are drained from the once thriving communal occupations of these hapless communities who come under the relentless onslaught of oil-induced degradation of their environment. Ultimately, the deprivations occasioned by these activities, with blatant connivance of local, powerful interests would lead to the rise of militancy that threatened Nigeria’s oil interests and peace.
Eventually, a call to cessation of arm struggle is made and reached based on the book, as a medium of enlightenment in redressing festering communal problems. The Fate of Okuama is written and was directed by Frank Macualay. Although successfully executed, and spiced with songs and dances, the plays is somewhat too didactic, as it echoes the power of the book to transform repetitively.
STILL on Tuesday and shortly after the public school students had their book presented, selected primary and secondary school students from private schools in Port Harcourt milled into the same hall for the Celebrity Reading event. It seemed ironic that public school students were not part of this important event that exposed their private schools’ counterparts to these role models largely made up of film actors – Chinedu Ihedieze (Aki in Aki and Pawpaw fame) and Patience Uzoku – from Nollywood. They were joined by the state’s First Lady, Dame Judith Amaechi.
Interestingly, the level of English language proficiency attained by these two separate students from public and private schools was glaring. While the public schools stumbled through their narratives, those from private schools showed efficient grasp of the medium of communication that put the two groups as far apart as possible. Unfortunately, both commissioners did not stay to witness the private schools’ performance to take necessary cues on what to do to redress the so-obvious anomaly.
Ihedieze read an excerpt from Jaja of Opobo, Uzoku from The Barber’s Cleaver Wife and Amaechi’s wife from Beem Explores Africa. The three celebrities also took time to explain the peculiarities in the worlds they inhabit, as the students quizzed them closely to have a glimpse of their personal and professional lives.
They wanted to know why Ihedieze is so short, to which he explained that he was thought to have reincarnated his grandfather, who was over seven feet tall. He, however, said he didn’t believe so or else he would have been as tall as his grandfather. He told them he was over 30 and married and wasn’t ‘small’, as they supposed. He also told them he and his acting ‘twin’ Osita Iheme(Pawpaw) were not twins or brothers at all but professional colleagues, who met by accident on the acting job, saying fate brought them together. While he is from Abia State, Iheme is from Imo but that they grew up in reverse states. He also said, “We are enjoying the unique advantage God ‘dashed’ us!”
Ikedieze admonished parents not to impose profession on their children or wards, but to allow them to do what’s in them, adding, “Let them enjoy themselves in what they want to be. In Nollywood you’re being paid to enjoy what you are doing”. He stressed the importance of getting a manager as an actor to get the business side of things right.
On her part, Uzokwu’s life experience presented an example of the struggle of one woman who overcame life’s challenges. Now a grandmother, Uzokwu said she has four biological and four adopted children, with whom she struggled to get a handle on life. From a teacher to a broadcaster, she fell into bad times when she was sacked and her husband took ill. But she stated that she adjusted fast and took to baking, as a way out and from where she found the means to also start school herself while her own children were also still in school.
But now she is at the pinnacle of her career just as some of her children were abroad chasing the golden fleece.
Ultimately, she triumphed and today her success is celebrated all over. On her perceived wicked role, which Mrs. Amaechi asked her, Uzokwu said it was producers’ fault to type cast a person in a particular role he or she has excelled in, and charged viewers to demand otherwise from producers, saying producers merely responded to viewers’ role preferences for actors. She, however, stressed, “Reading is the foundation, the key to a successful life and career. If you can’t read, you can’t know what to say as an actor”.
Uzokwu said she saw herself in the life of the Barber’s story she read to the students, as it reminded her of her years of struggling to overcome challenges.
Mrs. Amaechi also came under the intense lenses of the children who wanted to know what being the governor’s wife entailed and so on. However, one pupil sought to know if it was true that she was once a housemaid who eventually rose to be governor’s wife. Touched, Amaechi took time to explain to her young audience the true facts and dispel what she saw as aimless rumours making the rounds in her city. A princess, she said she grew up in the home of one of the greatest educationists in Port Harcourt from where she attended the famous Abonima Government Girls College and from then onto Rivers State University of Science and Technology.
Ikedieze and Amaechi laced their admonitions to the young people with biblical precepts that urged them to stay on the straight and narrow path so it could be well with their future.