World Book Day: The challenges of reading culture in Nigeria

“In these turbulent times, books embody the diversity of human ingenuity, giving shape to the wealth of human experience, expressing the search for meaning and expression we all share, that drive all societies forward. Books help weave humanity together as a single family, holding a past in common, a history and heritage, to craft a destiny that is shared, where all voices are heard in the great chorus of human aspiration.” — Audrey Azoulay

23 April is a day marked out to celebrate the culture of reading and to propagate the importance books and authors hold in our lives and our societies. The date is symbolic for world literature. It is on this date in 1616 that prominent authors; Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died.

Books get people immersed and connect them around a story. In reading, we see revelations of different cultures, identities and languages which enable us to connect to the culture, mind and perspectives of the writer.

A lot of efforts have been poured into waking the Nigerian society up to believe in the culture of reading. Nigeria has produced a lot of world renowned literary icons but Nigerians find it very hard to buy into the culture of reading. Former President Goodluck Jonathan and Prof. Wole Shoyinka tried to make it a mainstream discourse. A lot of NGOs, individuals make efforts daily to make reading a mainstream culture but how have the efforts fared? Have the media helped to make it a mainstream habit of the nation?

As I reflected on what could possibly cause this lack of interest, I see that many parents don’t encourage reading, many teachers don’t encourage reading and in the society, those who lead Nigeria don’t encourage reading. The media are not emphasizing it to create the picture of hunger in the people for reading. Many of Nigerian politicians are not readers. They get into their various offices by how much they can pay and not how they can convince the electorates through their ideas. This is why vote buying and vote selling have become endemic and fighting it is becoming hard as politicians rely so much on it to secure their seats. Where are the role models?

Looking at U.S for example, whenever the First Lady Melania has an outing with the children, she reads a story to them. You watch their movies, you see parents especially mothers read to their children at bedtime. In their trains, buses, parks, people read. Has Nigerian First Lady hosted children to read to them? Has any wife of the governors hosted children to read to them? How many celebrities talk about how many books they read? How will the next generation be made to see the beauty in reading?

A literary society does not count on how many graduates a country churn out yearly, it counts on how many of the people can contribute very wisely to the conversations and policies of the government. This is why Nigeria produces graduates that are actually lacking in knowledge. A look at the level of conversation they hold will showcase how shallow they are and how easily they turn to insults and abuses when they could no longer hold an argument. They found safe havens in the conversations of sexuality and relationships and would spend a lot on beauty and fashion than buy books that will add to their intellect.

People often see reading as leisure and whereas they are often busy trying to make ends meet; they have no business in reading. This is why there are so many educated illiterates and ignorant people who are easily manipulated. People are more interested in getting rich quick without nurturing their minds through reading.

The lack of interest in reading is not unconnected to the fundamental issues like annual budget which education budget ranks below 10%. Education is a powerful tool for development of any nation. With the paltry allocation and the neglect of places of learning around the nation, Nigerians from the nature of their formation from the classrooms are discouraged from seeing the beauty of reading and as World Bank has predicted, Nigeria will likely host about 90% poor people by 2030. Poverty, lack of basic infrastructure discourages reading.

A visit to the nation’s National Library dampens the spirit. A National Library is a pride of a nation. If a nation cannot have and equip a national library and the states cannot have and equip a state library, where do we stand to talk about reading and making it a culture? It is dead from top to down but we must keep up with the efforts.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” — Frederick Douglass

(Published in The Authority Newspapers April 29, 2019)