Being a speech by Adeleke “Mai Nasara” Adeyemi, author, The Missing Clock: Winner, The Nigeria Prize for Literature, 2011; delivered at Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, Lagos on February 6, 2012, at Public Presentation and Award Ceremony, hosted by Nigeria LNG Ltd.
"The evidence of this conspiracy can be found in... the private school with a small room, stuffed with many colourful books telling stories of summer, snow and cookies. We find it in the public school with a room large enough to house a thousand titles... but instead has a few shelves and chairs, and even fewer titles. Both rooms are pompously labelled 'Library'.”~~~Mai Nasara
A certain 18th century English poet woke up one day and penned the following words: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. I am not sure what Alexander Pope was thinking about that particular day but I know he was right about the human heart and its penchant for hope. It was sheer hope that drove me to enter my first published work for The Nigeria Prize for Literature.
If I learnt nothing else from this experience, I have learned that hope drives us towards success even beyond our imagination. I dared hope to make the shortlist; I won the Prize.
Today, I dare to hope again. This time, it is my hope that by the end of this event and long afterwards, the one thing that would mostly be on our minds, and lips, would be libraries. Yes, libraries. I will tell you why in a moment.
Before I talk about libraries, I would like to thank the Panel of Judges for finding The Missing Clock worthy of honour. Similarly, I salute Nigeria LNG Limited for their no-holds-barred sponsorship of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, along with its twin, The Nigeria Prize for Science.
Ladies and Gentlemen, my life has been much enriched by literature. The stories I have read in books have ensured my spiritual, mental, physical, and, yes, financial well-being. It is for this reason that I was not surprised when I came across this quote from none other than Chinua Achebe: “Stories are not just meant to make us laugh; our lives depend on them.”
I have always loved books. My fondest memories of childhood are of the times I spent immersed in books.
Born to Yoruba parents, I grew up in Katsina State, a mere Nigerian boy among many other Nigerian children. That’s why I’m "Mai Nasara" and don’t feel dichotomized. At Government College Katsina, GCK, I was at home in a sea of humanity, a veritable tapestry woven from far-flung lands as of my Japanese woodwork teacher, who put up a plaque at the entrance of the school library that I still see today in my head: “A school is a book in which is written the future of the nation”.
Time will fail me to talk about my English Language teacher, the Ghanaian Mr Sereboh, with his ever-present cane (every one of us knew how to say ‘bulala’ in reverential tones) that thwacked so much more on the blackboard than on buttocks; my Filipino Technical Drawing teacher who, without asking our permission, propped herself up on a box to enable her carry on against all odds at the blackboard.
I was a mere Nigerian boy—until March 1987. That was the first time religious riots came to my adopted home of Katsina. As we embarked on our exodus to the Army barracks in town, because the parents insisted it was unsafe to stay overnight amidst the ‘other’ townspeople, silent stares and stony silences transpired among differently believing neighbours and classmates, employers and employees.
Before that watershed day, I waded through the motley space of the weekly Yankutungu Market on my way home with my childhood friend, CNS Okereke. Although I grew up having several other friends, I remember CNS with fond affection because his family home held a magnet for me: shelves bulging with books and yet more books along with myriad magazines—Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, New African, West Africa, and many others.
Unlike today, most publications of the time were safe for children to read. I bought two newspapers every waking day, from my pocket money; my father bought his own two to make for a bounteous binge-a-day. From my father, and others like Benjamin Franklin, whom I encountered in art and science, I learned that good parents, leaders and role models take special pride in knowledge and do everything to contribute to the education of the young. Mr Franklin in particular fascinates me.
A town in Massachusetts in the United States named itself after Franklin in honour of the famous Pennsylvanian. In return, Franklin, who is revered as the founding father of American Independence, donated books for use by the local residents. He was asked to donate a church bell instead but declined, on the basis that “sense” was preferable to “sound.”
Unfortunately, Nigerian children today feed their minds with “sound and fury, signifying nothing” as William Shakespeare wrote. But it is not entirely their fault. For some reason, those of us who grew up reading good books and learning from stories in them seem to have conspired to deny the young generation the benefit of that knowledge and more.
The evidence of this conspiracy can be found in many schools, and indeed communities. We find it in the private school with a small room, stuffed with many colourful books telling stories of summer, snow and cookies. We find it in the public school with a room large enough to house a thousand titles, like The Runaway Hero, The Great Fall, Heads and Tales, One Little Mosquito and Eno’s Story, by my friends, Uche Peter Umez, Chinyere Obi-Obasi, Yemi Sanusi, Ndidi Chiazor-Enenmor and Ayodele Olofintuade, respectively, and Jelly Baby, by my mentor, Philip Begho, a master storyteller, nestling side-by-side with Mabel Segun and the Dr Seuss’ classics; but instead has a few shelves and chairs, and even fewer titles. Both rooms are pompously labelled “Library”.
But, can we truly say we have libraries in this country?
In a civilized society, the public library is the visible face of government.
As John N. Berry III so rightly observed: “The public library is an excellent model of government at its best. A locally controlled public good, it serves every individual freely, in as much or as little depth as he or she wants.”
Books do change people. Wonder of wonders, they have been known to change society at large.
We will never grow a civilized and responsible citizenry without the book. It is not a luxury; it is a lifeline. There will never be justification to banish the book for only with it can we frustrate the fanatic with his fateful folly.
Community libraries lie at the bedrock of American greatness, a reality I have seen in the public library in the county where I have lived for some time now. I have roamed its length and breadth and depths (yes, it has a basement floor brimming with children’s books for various grades). My wife would later summarize my first trip there to colleagues (who probably all their lives have taken the library for granted) in these words: “My husband was just like a boy in a candy store!”
It was in this library that I finally got hold of Chinua Achebe’s How the Leopard Got its Claws, a boon of a book for children and adults alike that perfectly illustrates the 200-year-old truism by French nobleman Joseph de Maistre: “Every country has the government it deserves” (written on August 15, 1811), often quoted anonymously as, “People get the leadership they deserve.” (Sometimes rendered vice versa as “People deserve the leadership they get.”)
I was a little skeptical when the thought entered my mind to recommend a book, written by a Nigerian author whose entry made the Initial Shortlist for The Nigeria Prize for Literature, 2011, for purchase by my county library. How thrilled I was, really to the marrow, when just days after, acting on a hunch, I logged into my library account and, searching, saw that the book had been purchased by the library!
Ladies and gentlemen, just imagine what a country we will have if children from Anambra to Zamfara, Abakaliki to Zungeru, Akure to Zaria, all grow up reading stories of hope, courage, patriotism, responsible citizenship, of our common humanity, written by some of our best authors! It most certainly won’t be one kept running on barrels of innocent blood spilled hither and thither, every now and then, again and again.
I agree there is a decline in reading culture but can we truly say the books are available for our kids even if they wanted to read? Why can’t we have modern libraries in our schools or public areas?
I asked that last question once and someone said, “Ah, but who can fund such projects?”
“Mo Ibrahim,” I sputtered, before realizing many were listening for my answer. Goodness, help!
I started ‘following’ Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, one of the pioneers of GSM telephony, once I came across something he wrote about an inductee of TIME 100 in 2011. An initiative of Time news-magazine, that annual list brims with profiles of movers and shakers of our world; every edition is a complete curriculum of lessons in leadership and development.
Dr. Ibrahim wrote on the vision of Bineta Diop, founder of Femmes Africa Solidarité, an organization with a focus on women-led peace-building work in the most fragile of states on the African continent: “Women are the economic drivers of Africa, on average working twice as many productive hours as men. They are also the constituency most incentivized to build peace. A gender-based approach to conflict prevention has the potential to transform the continent.”
Indeed, women have a significant role to play in Africa’s development—from Algeria to Zimbabwe, armed with stories of ‘How-to’ for one another and their children, swappable at the well, mill and clothesline. For advancing this view, and so eloquently, I have come to regard Dr Ibrahim as a true visionary, a very wealthy and generous one to boot.
Dr. Ibrahim’s foundation administers the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The award is a US$5 million initial payment (it is believed to be the world’s largest, exceeding the US$1.3m Nobel Peace Prize) and a US$200,000 annual payment, for life, to the African head of state who delivers the most security, health, education and economic development to his (or her) constituents and democratically transfers power to their successor. The foundation, much like the Nigeria LNG-sponsored The Nigeria Prizes, doesn’t always succeed in realizing its yearly goal.
It is my conviction that Dr. Ibrahim’s foundation would even better promote leadership, development and democracy in Africa by paying heed to Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi’s prescription: “If we are to teach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”
The dividends of development will be more visible if Dr. Ibrahim, for instance, redirects his attention and mammoth resources to endowing a network of public libraries, customized to helping our children play catch-up with their peers around the world; give each a head start.
I assure Dr. Ibrahim—along with any other takers out there—that they would, to get the point across more forcefully using an Americanism, get more bang for the buck by building libraries, each determined by John Wood (details later) to cost US$5,000. Just imagine the alternative trail that could be blazed with one Mo Ibrahim Prize money and dole-outs over a ten-year period!
A little math will bring this out clearly: US$5 million equals 1,000 Room to Read-type, ready-to-admit libraries! And from annual add-on ‘maintenance’: US$200,000 equals 40 more libraries, on a yearly basis!
I look around and see many Mo Ibrahims here—which is why I dare to hope. I believe that as individuals, and corporate bodies, we too can join in this noble cause. And we would be in really good company. The Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) built 2,509 public libraries: 1,689 in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific Island nation of Fiji.
When he made out his last grant, the total number of libraries in the United States came to 3,500, nearly half of them built with construction grants made available by Carnegie. The first of Carnegie’s public libraries opened in his hometown of Dunfermline in Scotland, in 1883. The locally quarried sandstone building dazzled all with its stylized sun bearing a carved motto at the entrance: “Let there be light”.
Following hard in the footsteps of Carnegie is former Microsoft top executive, John Wood. His Room to Read, an award-winning non-profit headquartered in San Francisco, California, USA, is founded on the belief that “World Change Starts with Educated Children.” The organization focuses on improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world.
Working in collaboration with local communities, partner NGOs and governments, Room to Read develops literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and supports girls to complete secondary school with the relevant life skills to succeed in life. It currently serves communities in nine countries across Asia and Africa, with plans to expand into a tenth country, Tanzania.
You just must get John Wood’s memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, to read! Today, Room to Read has built nearly five times as many libraries as Carnegie! Incredibly, in 2010, nearly 9 million books (that’s 95 every minute!) were checked out from Room to Read libraries—now numbering 12,500, a milestone achieved over 10 years.
Now all I want to do with this opportunity is to sell John Wood’s model, powered by a one-liner conviction, to Uncle Mo and a smattering of other African entrepreneurs and philanthropists: “It takes educated children to change the world.” A not-so-trivia: Room to Read is now opening new libraries at an astonishing rate of six a day. Compare McDonald’s one new outlet every 1.08 days.
If you are a children’s literature enthusiast, or simply a literature buff, you would give John Wood more than a hug; you would kiss him. You see, for literature to be institutionalized anywhere, it must be indigenized—-something Room to Read is keenly aware of and has been working on.
Hear Wood: “Throughout the developing world, most children don’t have access to children’s books in their local language. The few books that are available are either second-hand books in foreign languages or low-quality, black and white books for more mature readers—not the type of literature that is meant to spark a child’s imagination, curiosity, and a desire to learn to read.”
Of course we can and indeed have built a network of public institutions for the common good. A military ruler once built, by executive fiat, expansive twin office buildings in every local government in the land, to convince the people he meant business with his two-party theory. O that these had been the first set of public libraries!
I make bold to say to you today that there is no other way to go—forward. Our children, especially girls, must gain unfettered access to books and the stories in them because a person’s thinking skills—the conceptualization of ideas and their expressions—are heavily dependent on what they read and learn.
Richard Crabbe, former chairman of African Publishers Network has pointed out that “If education is the road out of poverty (the pervading state of affairs in much of Africa), books are the wheels needed for the journey.” Only from rubbing minds with characters in stories from all over the world will we succeed in inculcating in our people, starting as children, the meziere m ya (Igbo: “Do it a little better for me”) mentality.
My friend (I hope!) Muhtar Bakare, the avant-garde publishing maverick, it was who with his Farafina publishing imprint bullhorn got me into preaching the mantra: ‘Telling our own stories’. I’m happy to announce to the world that he has a working paper for realizing the dream of community libraries.
If you have been friends with me for anything up to a week you’d have heard me share the following: “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.” That quote is from Barry L. Lopez, who went on to say something to the effect that sometimes people need stories more than food to live!
Dear parents and guardians, let us prime our children to go questing... to grow up wanting to read, ask questions, and learn. This is the only way we are guaranteed a future as a nation.
Many of us dream of a better Nigeria for the future generation and rightly so. What baffles me is the seeming sense of helplessness in the land. And hopelessness, which as the poet Pope tells us, is contrary to nature.
Slowly but steadily, Nigeria became a place where the state of mind is ‘Anything Goes’—-what I think Wole Soyinka codified as the doctrine of itirayi. That word is a neologism whose etymology (I like to think the Greek ‘etumos’ is related to the Yoruba ‘itumo’) is simply something contrived from the English verb to ‘try’... as in, to cheat or cut corners!
Well, if you’ve read enough stories you know there is no such thing as cutting corners... and getting away with it! By now you have become a believer in process.
No one seems to know if or how we can achieve our dream Nigeria. Well, I do. I have the perfect answer ready; I have hidden it carefully in Banji’s story in 'The Missing Clock.' All I ask of you today is to put this story and the many others Nigerian authors are telling on a shelf in a library near you, to await discovery by eager hands reaching out to make a contribution.
My wife may not agree that sartorially I’m well-suited for today’s occasion. But if nothing else, my choice apparel is a visual aid for the point of the day.
The garment, as many of you know, is a kaftan. But less known is the icing on the cake. Well, in a manner of speaking.
I’m talking about my cap.
Like the garment it complements, this cap typifies a people. Curiously, the cap is called Mu hadu banki, Hausa for ‘Let’s meet at the bank.’
The origin of such a designation for a mere cap I’m afraid you shall have to find out yourself. Surely that’s not asking too much of you.
While you should not bank on this—or any cap for that matter—to get money from the bank, I’m capitalizing on it to help you get the picture of what I’m convinced lies at the core of why we the people of these Amalgamated Territories of Niger Area (ATNA, I say) have not been able to forge a common identity for ourselves, a rallying point from which core values can become consolidated for building a union with privileges and opportunities accessible to the vast majority.
I have directions for you: Meet me at the library—Mu hadu labri. But don’t show up without children! Whether born to you or any for whom you bear a burden: to see her metamorphose into a Nigerian... calibrated to my benchmark pre-1987 settings, upgraded to the digital Internet age of course. On such children alone we must bank to build the Nigeria of our dreams.
Like a fitting cap, that would be our crowning achievement—and our generation, with its angst and anger, follies and frustrations, would not have been wasted.
If truly we want a better Nigeria, it can happen even in our lifetimes. But we must start now.
At the library—I’ll be waiting.