Bush Telegraph, Culture and an Illiterate Nation

by Michael Oluwagbemi II

“A home without books is a body without soul.” – Cicero

Where have the books gone? That is a question I keep asking my self. I remember growing up in the ancient city of Ibadan and toadying up to those good books. We never had the luxury at home of having the colored television or the internet or other distractions that have taken over in this day and age. It was all about the books. During weekends, we looked forward to being shipped to the British Council Library in Dugbe; to the Macmillan House, Spectrum Books etc. All straddled in the business district of the ancient cities of seven hills. In those days, visiting the University of Ibadan library was a favorite past time.

We read far and wide. I remember consuming the Macmillan Encyclopedia. We even had a contest of compiling the royalties of England, Wales and Scotland from the 3rd century to date. We toiled day and night through archives, encyclopedias to win the little prize money that was to be won: put up by our social studies teacher. Reading was fashionable but I guess now it is not. We enjoyed the pacesetter series. Remember Christmas, Director, Crossfire, South African affair and what the future holds? Those were books that had the knack of making you space travel. The few romantically minded ones amongst us tucked away Mills and Boons in the deepest crevices of their closets. For in those days, when morality was extolled woe betide any child caught with those raunchy novels. The girls still read them anyway, and the guys gladly bought them to lend to these willing hopeless romantics. We also read Hints and Hearts: yes, the guys did. Some said it corrupted us; as if we cared. All I remembered was those stories were jolly good: really good.

As we grew up we transitioned to the high school standard bearers. From Eze goes to School, to Chike and River and Drummer’s boy; we were introduced to the works of Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. We read those tales that took us to the future in boarding schools- Akin’s Holiday and College Days of John Ojo were the bomb. Remember those books written by Mabel Segun the matriarch of African Writers series? We had My father’s car and My father’s daughter. There was also Koku Baboni and Sugar girl. Books that extolled the virtues of humanity and fed our inquisitive minds with tales that extended beyond our world view. Those were the good times. In those times as well, we started having a peek at the English writers. Our first introduction to Shakespeare: Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar all in short story version. No one could understand the older English extended version, but some of us did try pretending to understand to impress the girls. Heck, it worked.

Oliver Twist, Silas Marner, David Copperfield, Thirty Nine Steps and Child of Two worlds all came much later when we were introduced to the African Writers series. Then, you were Mr. Nobody in school if you cannot recount the favorite proverbs from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. My favorite still remains the adage that said “Since Eneke the bird have learnt to fly without perching, we have learnt to shoot without missing”. How about the line about the mouth of kings and his mother’s breast? Those were good times, good books and exhilarating memories. Remember the story of Bambulu in Wole’s Lion and jewel? “This is the child of my brain, the product of my endeavors…” it goes. Tales of brother Jero and the compendium of short stories by Cyprian Ekwensi expanded our vision of what we should be as modern Africans and introduced us to the realities of the world we lived in. Books by Kenyan writers like Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o gave us the first taste of imperialism and evils of colonialism. They shaped our view of our history. How about Facing Mount Kenyaby Jomo Kenyatta and Zambia shall be Free by Kenneth Kaunda?

Enough of the reminiscing; let me lament. These days, when I go to our public libraries especially in our tertiary and secondary institutions I just want to cry. The books have turned to groundnut sellers’ best friend, often finding themselves in Ojota’s garbage cans than the brains of little children that they were meant for. Reading is no longer fashionable to the extent that even the free readers association that rose to enviable height in the last decade of the last century have virtually been wiped out. Now books have been supplanted with a vibrant rumor machine; a rumor mongering populace that hardly checks their facts against documented evidence is doomed as a nation. The bush telegraph (rumor mill) is free, cheap and rapidly expanding in our country. People read newspapers these days to check for job adverts and GSM deals: that is the nature of our economy. The other day, I met a young one that schools in Nigeria when he came on vacation here to the US of A. After finishing SS2 he still has not read Things Fall Apart…I wondered aloud what kind of country we lived in. Here a student just confessed to not reading one of the foremost if not the most popular book ever written by an African. It struck me something was really amiss. The young man went further to tell me he had read just two books throughout his secondary school on his own time: hence, if they are not required, he doesn’t care. What a country!

The long years of military did contribute to our current state. It was not in the interest of the state to allow authors to flourish. Many of them were social activists: men like Achebe, Soyinka, and Saro Wiwa etc were either hounded to jail, exile or killed. The book was the greatest enemy of the state and history was hardly taught in our schools. For the first time, the teaching profession was devalued and 419ers glorified to high heavens as they made nonsense of our literary culture. Visit your local library to havea testimony to this effect. Dated books covered in dusts and hardly any professional librarian will point you to a cold sore fact: this is the depth of literary malfeasance.

Children these days like their counterparts around the world (I admit) are distracted by various new technologies. But unlike the rest of the world these technologies are hardly being deployed to help their brains develop. They go home and play Nintendo and Play Station games and watch home videos all holiday long. Even there is a story out there that there is a thriving Nigerian pornography industry patronized by our children and young adults. Haba! Parents have long abandoned the practice of taking their kids to the local library either for lack of time to do so while chasing the almighty naira or dollar or for a lack of interest. In those days we got books as birthday presents, these days children get gift cards, watches, even jewelries. We have materialized our value system to the extent of losing our broad vision of an educated and vibrant population. No wonder, we have cash and carry legislators as well as “On Sale” electorates.

Unlike most other parts of the world, we cannot afford to be bookless. Nigeria still has a long way to go in development and creating a bookless next generation is a perfect storm for underdevelopment. It is time we start building back our local libraries, giving them

a much needed verve of new technology to broaden the horizon of our children. E-books, internet connection and brick and mortar reading rooms are sorely needed in our educational institutions and our communities. A donation of a thousand dollars or more to your local government library might buy some desks, a few books; who knows, it might restore the hope and rekindle the mindset of the future president, first lady, senator or governor in our country.

Parents should stock up their libraries with those books that enriched their childhood and many more interesting ones that came after their time (Purple Hibiscus is one of such). They should encourage their children to read periodicals and newspapers instead of relying on rumors and hearsays for current affairs news. Educative radio programs should be encouraged: it enlivens the imagination of little children and improves their literary skills. Take your time out in the evenings (instead of lunging with the TV remote) to relive the past with your children, discuss the books you have assigned to them for reading, share your perspective and you might be indirectly building up a better future for our country. Everything including television and video games should be done in moderation not at the expense of another form of media nourishment. The internet is our friend in this endeavor not our enemy.

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tolu September 29, 2008 - 12:07 am

i have read 80% of the books mentioned. Thank God!!!..thank you for this..im glad im not alone in my thoughts

Anonymous June 29, 2006 - 8:38 am

Great writeup. I really wish the youth of today would spend more time reading.


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