Reviving a Reading Culture in Nigeria’s Youth

by Sheyi Oriade

An associate of mine, who through his sundry labours, has been immensely successful in acquiring copious amounts of promissory notes in various currencies – quantities of which – he readily acknowledges he will have considerable difficulty in exhausting in this lifetime and perhaps another; has now, on the dawning upon him of this realisation, decided to divert considerable chunks of his formidable stockpile to charitable ventures.

As a man given to the dictates of his own counsel, he has decided that the principal beneficiaries of his newly found philanthropic ethos will be the indigenes of his ancestral home in Nigeria. And his bequest to them will take the form of a state of the art library. An edifice, whose facilities will befit the information age in which we live; and bring his people – in touch and in tune – with defining events around the world, as and when they occur.

Towards the fulfilment of this aim, he set up a committee comprising some of his home town’s respected elders; mandating them to determine the feasibility of his proposition; and to identify a suitable location for the building of the proposed structure. And so in workmanlike fashion the committee set about its appointed tasks.

Before long, the committee submitted a report of their initial findings, to their philanthropic patron. It was an unusual report, in that it contained one question requiring the donor’s clarification on a certain issue before matters could proceed further.

The question was:

What purpose did he intend for the library to serve?’

On receiving and reading this question, he was both perplexed and apoplectic. Was the purpose, for which a library was to serve, not obvious, he thought? He wondered whether he had been mistaken in enlisting the services of his clansmen. But as things are often not as they may first seem, he decided that it was perhaps best that he met with the committee to unravel the knots in which they seemed to have become entangled.

It transpires that whilst undertaking their exploratory spadework on their patron’s behalf, the chosen elders discovered that for many of their town’s youth, reading had lost its allure. Too few of them, it emerged now saw any utility in reading as a matter of course, or a matter of pleasure, or a matter of leisure. Their main preoccupation seemed to be – as one of their infamous role models famously put it – to ‘get rich or die trying’ by fair or foul means and as quickly as possible.

As disappointed as they were at this discovery, the chosen elders felt that the youth were not entirely to blame for this mindset. For all around them, on display, were to be seen examples of semi-illiterates and illiterates flaunting their riches with abandon. With hardly anyone, giving a moment’s thought as to how they came about their riches. In the opinion of the youth, the reading or mastery of books had nothing to do with the perceived ‘successes’ of these people.

In their worldview the life of an ‘alakowe’ (book oriented person), was, is, and will always be, a constant struggle to make ends meet; and these ends rarely ever did. And, this in spite of their numerous academic titles and letters; which to the youth were of little or no consequence in today’s Nigeria. Nigeria, according to them, was a ‘cash and carry’ society. So the so-called ‘book people’ were to be shunned, rather than emulated. As far as they were concerned the semi-illiterate and illiterate rich in their midst possessed a more effective formula.

Against this background, therefore, the committee cautioned the budding philanthropist to hold on to his funds and forget about building a library. It was foolhardy, they advised him, to waste his resources on a generation of people who had more respect for a four-wheeled drive vehicle than they did for the four walls of a library.

Now if these localised findings are true, and worse still if they are of universal application across Nigeria, then it does not bode well for the nation. For if our youth lack critical reading skills, from whence do we expect our future thinkers to come? Any nation without thinkers to chart its course will eventually sink without trace.

For instance the mediocrity often manifest in government circles, can it not be said that it is indicative of, and perhaps rooted in, the collective incuriousness of our ruling classes? Which in itself is a result of their poor aptitude(s) and inadequate/non-existent critical reading skills? Thus, is it really a surprise that these days, our universities are more often shut than they are open? Do we really expect anything different? When hoodwinkers, rather than thinkers chart the course of our nation.

Perhaps some influential thinking person or people will prevail upon the federal minister of education to begin a process to reclaim the minds of our youth. Mental states such as semi-illiteracy and illiteracy do not become them. This process, he can begin, by promoting a national reading campaign aimed primarily at primary school pupils in order to lay a proper foundation for their further and future learning and that of our nation. Such a campaign, amongst other things, should encourage the reading, by these pupils, of at least one book a month. And to complement and ensure its success, a system of book tokens, to facilitate the easy access to affordable books should also be introduced.

Whilst a reading culture will not, in and of itself, resolve all of our problems, as there is a huge gap between knowledge and know-how, it will at least cause more of our youth to think and question their government’s actions and inaction and hold them to greater account; which in the long run will serve us well.

As for my wealthy associate, he has now abandoned his plans to build a library. He has, instead, set up a scholarship fund to support the education of keen and gifted indigent indigenes of his hometown. Bless him!

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