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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Professor Wole Soyinka and President Jonathan’s reading campaign

Nigerian writers have given a cautious welcome to President Goodluck Jonathan’s ‘Bring Back The Book’ campaign, launched in a high profile series of events at the Eko Hotel, Lagos, on Monday, December 20.
Joining the president for the first event of the day, a reading session with 400 pupils from about 20 schools, was Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, who read from an abridged version of his childhood memoirs, ‘Ake’. Soyinka said the draw to the event, for him, was the idea of reading to children, likening the experience to an early Christmas present for himself. The laureate explained the irreverent nicknames he coined for his father and mother, Essay and Wild Christian. The elder Soyinka was known to his friends as S.A, and the way they said the initials, sounded like ‘essay’ to the son. As for his mother, Soyinka told the children that “her Christianity was on the wild side,” hence her nickname, which he never dared utter in her presence. “I hope you have more respectful names for your parents,” he told the pupils, who were all given gift packs of reading materials at the occasion.

President Jonathan had earlier tried to impress on his young audience the imaginative power of books, while introducing his own choice of reading material for the event. “You don’t have to go to the South East to know about the place; you can read about it,” he noted, while summarising the adventures of the protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Chike and the River’, who wanted to cross the River Niger in order to get to the big city, Onitsha. Jonathan then read from Achebe’s book, sustaining the attention of the children, who opened their own copies to follow the narrative. The mention of the word “kidnapper” in the 1966 publication, got the attention of the adults in the gathering. “So, kidnappers have been in the system for a long time!” said one. Other references like gramophone, six pence and one shilling, led to some discussion during the interactive session, when the children put questions to the high profile readers about the excerpts read. There was an unintended commentary on the quality of Nigerian publishing, when the president said of his copy of ‘Chike and the River’ that “There are some errors in the print.”

Goodluck’s friends cannot spell

Not even the president’s own book, presented to coincide with the ‘Bring Back The Book’ campaign, is free from error. In the opening dedication of ‘My Friends and I’, Jonathan pays homage to “my friends on facebook, for keeping me engaged and encouraging me to keep this national conservation (sic) on our country’s future going.” And there the unintended errors end. The 357-page ‘My Friends and I: Conversations on Policy and Governance via Facebook’ is riddled with comments like “U will not make mistakes, only because u listen 2 d voice of the masses. GOD be wit u. U are good 2 go 4 d next 8 years mr president.” Even Reuben Abati, the book’s reviewer, could not but respectfully state that, “Many of Jonathan’s friends cannot spell.”

‘My Friends and I’ is a collection of the interactive exchange over a four-month period between (supposedly) the president and the 350,000 friends on his Facebook page. It is not known whether the ‘friends’ gave permission for the publication of their images and the often badly written commentary originally posted on the internet. Abati observed that President Jonathan, “is the first Nigerian leader to adopt this technological mode of interaction with citizens,” after being influenced by the Obama campaign. The reviewer said the book underscores “the inevitability of digital democracy or electronic democracy… This book demonstrates the passion of Nigerians for their country.” While suggesting that the president’s Facebook publication “makes the political process more participatory,” Abati showed little enthusiasm for the computer language on display on the pages, riddled with jargon and typos. These, he declared, are “a threat to literacy.”

Who’s who

Prominent on the high table were poet Odia Ofeimun; President of the Association of Nigerian Authors Jerry Agada and US Democratic campaign worker, Joe Trippi. In the audience were Petroleum Minister Diezani Allison-Madueke; Speaker of the House of Representatives Dimeji Bankole; Ogun State Governor Gbenga Daniel; Minister of National Planning, Samsudeen Usman and Labaran Maku, Minister of Information and Communication.
The carefully stage-managed event was not without glitches. Maku committed a major gaffe on live television at the event, when he claimed that President Jonathan “has brought Facebook to Nigeria.” He was not alone; a singer who appeared to have been flown into Nigeria to sing the national anthem, not only could not get her pitch right, she got the words of the anthem wrong. The prominent photographer on the day was TY Bello, the woman responsible for the very flattering images of the president that adorned the Eko Hotel lobby.

A sizeable contingent of writers were in attendance, including John Pepper Clark, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta and Lola Shoneyin. For an event designed to promote books, it seemed more like a day for musicians. Some of Nigeria’s biggest pop stars held sway on the stage, just across from the smiling, ‘casual’ jean-and-T-shirt clad Jonathan, who sat rigidly in his chair as D’Banj, Tuface and P-Square rocked the house with singing and dancing. Other performers were rapper Mo’Cheddah and Zakie, who sang a specially composed Hausa number in praise of Jonathan’s election campaign.

What they said

“I decided to publish because I wanted to promote a reading culture and accountable governance,” said President Jonathan about ‘My Friends and I’. He further stated that, “At all times, we should have a book in our hand. This is the way of civilisation.” In his speech on the podium, Odia Ofeimun praised Jonathan as “a new type of leader… who does not put on the airs of an overbearing patriarch or Philosopher King but is prepared to read to children like a next door neighbour.” Reading, he noted, “is an equaliser of peoples. By giving all of us common access to knowledge and entertainment, the art of reading mobilises consciousness, in favour of human empathy and solidarity.”

Ofeimun welcomed the president into the ranks of those who champion a reading culture, saying, “This is the first time a national leader at the apex of decision making would be identifying with the campaign for the development of a reading culture without minding the cynicism of those who believe the situation is too far gone to be remedied.” The poet however decried what he called the “derailment” of public education in the country, the death of libraries in schools and local governments, as well as the “defeat” of the bookshop culture. All of these lead to poor results in the West African Examination Council, he argued. “We have an educational system which gives poor education to poor people in order to keep them poor and unmobilisable,” Ofeimun declared, to audience applause. He called for the provision of the US Library of Congress-styled libraries, to be spearheaded by the National Assembly. He also called on every local government to buy at least 1000 books a year, to revive the reading culture.

Other speakers at the event included TY Bello, Ken Wiwa Jr and Toyosi Akerele, who, in a seeming endorsement of a Jonathan candidacy, declared, “I’m tired of seeing 80 to 85-year-olds determining a future they are not going to be part of.

Labaran Maku and Oronto Douglas, Special Adviser on Documentation and Strategy, represented President Jonathan at a special writers’ event in the evening. Mr. Maku redeemed himself somewhat in a short speech, acknowledging the great strides made by females in current Nigerian writing. “The next phase is the women’s phase,” he declared. There were readings as well as frank discussions about the Bring Back The Book campaign with some like writer Simi Dosekun questioning the value of the president’s book. Douglas, who mounted a spirited defence of the publication, promised to take the writers’ suggestions on publishing and the reading culture, back to the presidency.

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