How to ‘Bring Back the Book’ (1)

(By Tochi Okafor)

However, the present administration’s zeal to revive the reading culture is not in accordance with proper knowledge.  From the name given to this initiative, it is obvious that the effects of the problem only excited the originators of this campaign and, therefore, the approach employed so far revealed lack of proper diagnosis to find out the root cause. When you say “Bring Back the Book” what comes to mind is that the book is missing. So the problem is not about the reader but a case of disappearance of books from school libraries.    Record reveals that no school in Nigeria has ever had a case of missing books, at least until publicly made known, and common sense confirms that more books have been sent to libraries. It is “the reader” that is missing in the students. One may argue that name doesn’t matter but names as labels create experience.

In recent years, the release of results of the Senior Secondary Certificate of Education, SSCE, conducted by the West African Examination Council, WAEC, and the National Examination Council, NECO, have been greeted with outrage from stakeholders in the education sector. The reason for the outrage is not farfetched. The percentage failure has been on the high side. – Simeon Nwakaudum SA to Minister of State for Education. (DAILY SUN, Friday January 18, 2013)

   Our university system is lacking the kind of development consciousness that can move the country. – Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, Former CBN Governor (PEOPLE’S DAILY, Monday, November 26, 2012).

   Unfortunately, too, we have corps members who can hardly communicate in English language let alone being able to teach in the classroom. – Brig. Okorie-Affia, NYSC DG (DAILY SUN, Friday January 18, 2013).

   The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction – how to teach himself. – Herbert Gerjuoy.

    Tomorrow’s (21st century) illiterate will not be the man who can’t read, he will be the man who has not learned how to learn. – Alvin Toffler (bracket mine)

Great nations are built by great minds. Great minds are nurtured by great books. But how do we aspire to the reading of great books if we lack reading habit that sustains access to books in general. – Odia Ofeimun.

   Any people that are starved of books, especially the right kind of books, will suffer intellectual malnutrition, stagnation and atrophy. – Obafemi Awolowo

  It is chiefly through books that we enjoy intercourse with superior minds. In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours. God be thanked for books. They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. Books are true levelers. They give to all who will faithfully use them, the society, and the spiritual presence of the best and greatest of our race. – William Ellery Channing.

    Reading not only enlarges and challenges the mind; it also engages and exercises the brain. Today’s youth who sits mesmerized by a television is not going to be tomorrow’s leader. Television watching is passive. Reading is active. –  Richard Nixon, Former USA President.

IT is no longer news that the habit of reading has become anachronistic among the younger generations in the world but more of concern in Nigeria. The indices are clear. For pupils and students, WAEC and NECO results are visible thermometers for measuring the falling temperature of our country’s reading culture. Among the graduate class, unemployability rate and inability to speak good English as observed by NYSC boss tell the story better. To avoid much rhetoric on the level of mental decay and importance of reading good books as a tool for national development, I chose to invoke and borrow extensively the voices of authorities at various quarters of youth education and development as paraded and quoted above. The reason is to channel our focus not on the problem per se but on the WHY and solution to the problem of flagging reading culture in Nigeria. It is my intention that through this piece the attention of Federal Government and stakeholders in education sector and youth development ministry will be drawn to the primary cause of this unprofitable apathy and the proposed solution.

   In a bid to resuscitate the culture of reading, the President on December 20, 2011, launched a book campaign called ‘Bring Back the Book’ in Lagos. He re-echoed his avowed commitment to bring back the book in the Yenogoa launch of the programme when he said, “I have accorded the Bring Back the Book campaign the status of a Federal Government programme facilitated through the Federal Ministry of Education, so that we can make in-roads into schools all over the country. By so doing, we will get our pupils to feed their imagination for the upliftment of the entire society.” By this utterance, President Goodluck Jonathan has shown that a reading nation is a leading nation and should be applauded for such a bold and brilliant initiative.

   However, the present administration’s zeal to revive the reading culture is not in accordance with proper knowledge.  From the name given to this initiative, it is obvious that the effects of the problem only excited the originators of this campaign and, therefore, the approach employed so far revealed lack of proper diagnosis to find out the root cause. When you say “Bring Back the Book” what comes to mind is that the book is missing. So the problem is not about the reader but a case of disappearance of books from school libraries.    Record reveals that no school in Nigeria has ever had a case of missing books, at least until publicly made known, and common sense confirms that more books have been sent to libraries. It is “the reader” that is missing in the students. One may argue that name doesn’t matter but names as labels create experience.

    No wonder, the approach to the programme has been anything but an apology. You set up an event, invite movie and music stars to stage a jamboree with books; great authors and dignitaries to read books before the students with branded outfits who are merely excited at the prospect of seeing their President live and an extension of Nollywood live performance. At the end of the book jamboree, you donate books, computers and other facilities including grants and scholarship by the word of mouth. It is clear that Bring Back the Book is like an administered drug by a lazy medical doctor who failed to carry out necessary diagnosis. If the problem were that of illiteracy, the best place to teach them how to read should be in the classrooms, not in an expensive event of one day. If what they need is books as the name suggests, then send books to schools. On the contrary, you and I know that the problem is not illiteracy or scarcity of books. It is a case of lost appetite for reading. What could be the cause?

    To address this all-important question, it is only appropriate to trace the flagging trajectory of reading culture from pre-independence thinkers down to post-independence Nigerians. The generation of Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904), Obafemi Awolowo (1909), Ahmadu Bello (1910) and cream of those young intellectuals that constituted the defunct Nigerian Youth Movement (1923 – 1937) were lovers of books. Out of insatiable hunger for knowledge, they left the shores of Nigeria in search of books. The rationale behind their motivation was a discovery that the only difference between the whites and blacks was not really a matter of skin colour but grey matter. And the only way to bridge this gap and dismantle the demeaning machinery of colonialism was to embrace the power of books.            Returning to Ghana in 1934 at age 30 after years of fruitful intellectual sojourn in America, Zik’s power of pen and speech inspired the would-be president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah to go in search of Western education. Filled with intellectual radicalism of Marcus Garvey’s writings, Nkrumah later returned from America and birthed the political independence of Ghana in 1957.

    The second generation of book lovers was that of Achebe (1930), Soyinka (1934), Anyaoku (1933), Ojukwu (1933) and Gani Fawehinmi (1938). This precocious group knew that the only way to be relevant in the society was to engage their minds with books. The reason is not farfetched. The influence of the previous generation gave them terms of reference for life.

   The post independence thinkers who were mainly trained in UNN and those universities established in 1960s were lovers of books too. These were generations that never knew what it means to seek for job employment. If you want to get government scholarship to travel abroad for a second degree in order to belong to the class of Zik and Awolowo, then you have to be a voracious reader. At worst, there is a job opening waiting for you in the Nigerian civil service commission. For private establishments, competition for brilliant students was simply very high. Contrary to the reality of today, it is the employers that hunt for employees.     In addition, for these generations of Nigerians, going to school was far beyond getting a certificate. The motivation and influence of role models (references) were strong and positive.

   The post independence generations were lovers of books but bad role models to the younger generations. These generations found themselves in Nigerian civil service when Nigeria became an oil rich country. With the emergence of the term “national cake” nearly every civil servant and politician converted his or her position into a family pipeline for drawing from the humongous oil wealth of our country. Parents sent their wards to school to obtain a university certificate at all cost in order to be part of the beneficiaries of the free “national cake”. The egregious corruption in civil service was so cancerous that sanctity of university system was affected in two major ways. A student proudly pays his way to obtain a certificate since there is an uncle in civil service who has secured a job for him. University administrators were forced to divert development funds to their private pockets in order to keep step with their counterparts in government. The case got worse when useless job vacancies were being created just to accommodate relatives and children on government’s payroll to the point that about 78 per cent of our annual budget are spent on paying salaries to people who have no work to do in government.

    The idea behind the above analysis is not to expose the depthless level of corruption and decay in Nigerian civil service but to show how the motivation and reference for reading shifted. A graduate friend of mine after looking at a ‘big book’ I was reading confessed while pointing at the book: “This is the greatest punishment you can give me. Do you mean you can finish this book?” Out of pity, he advised me to stop punishing myself because books don’t work today, even if I am lucky, it will take a long process.

    The word “punishment” needs to be pondered upon. I think the usage here linked pain to reading of books. In all sincerity, my friend was right. What is the need of reading books when you have a godfather in government who can facilitate your employment? When you can pay your way through school and come out with first or second class honours? When what you studied doesn’t count? When illiterate politicians have humongous houses in Abuja and arrays of exotic cars? When a female graduate who can’t express herself in English language without repetitive grammatical blunders can have expensive cars and houses all paid and maintained by a politician ‘friend’? When armies of old and young brilliant graduates are roaming the streets without befitting jobs simply because they have no body in position to ‘fix’ them or money to ‘buy’ employment opportunities? Why do I need to subject myself to the discipline of reading when all that I needed is one ‘solid contact’?  The mental laziness has reached a degree that a two-page proposal sent to government ministry, agency or parastatal can pass from one office to another without a single reading.

Unfortunately, the situation has degenerated to a point that the so-called wealthy and powerful elites got where they are not by power of reading of books but by “connections” and family legacy of corruption. Books have been abandoned (not missing) because they are no longer relevant in Nigerian context. Charlatans and inferior minds are the new role models. Let it be stated that the cause of general apathy for books in Nigeria is lack of motivation and bad role models (negative references). Until it is tackled from this angle, you may bring back all the books from Europe and America to Nigeria but you may not find a single reader in the people.

•To be continued

• Okafor, a multi-talented dynamic philosopher; a certified motivational speaker, and author, is the executive director of Dream Connect.

Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

RISE NETWORKS

"Nigeria's Leading Private Sector and Donor funded Social Enterprise with deliberate interest in Technology and its relevance to Youth and Education Development across Africa. Our Strategic focus is on vital human capital Development issues and their relationship to economic growth and democratic consolidation." Twitter: @risenetworks || Facebook - RISE GROUP || Google Plus - Rise Networks