By Kehinde Akinfenwa
NIGERIA has been rated by the World Culture Score Index as one of the countries in the world with the lowest reading culture, while available statistics from National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education shows that 38 per cent of Nigerians are non-literate as four in ten primary school children cannot read for comprehension. Regrettably, this adverse development is an ominous challenge the country seems not to be paying needed attention to.
There is generally a poor reading culture in the country. The rich literacy history the country is famous for is gradually been eroded. Once upon a time, the country paraded the best set of authors and publishers in Africa. Then, reading was an innate affection for both young and old. This reading inclination reflected so much on the quality of leadership and civil discipline that brought pride to Nigerians anywhere in the world. The downturn in reading and book readership actually has a global dimension, especially given the onslaught of the digital revolution. Globally, the influence of new technology has altered the disposition to reading. Before now, schools engaged and participated in reading activities to enhance the thinking and creative ability of students. But lack of availability of suitable reading materials, absence of well-designed reading activities, insufficiency of trained staff to prosecute reading culture in schools and ineffective monitoring and evaluation of readership promotion programmes are constant challenges currently affecting readership development.
In Nigeria, reading culture has suffered from widespread poverty, corruption, ineptitude and a dearth of dedicated quiet reading spaces like libraries. The decline in the standard of education has seriously affected reading ability. And it becomes harder when you have to deal with the many distractions and challenges that come with being an adult and living in a country like Nigeria. Perhaps, our socio-economic environment is not reading- friendly. The daily struggle for economic survival provides little or no time for people to cultivate a good reading habit. Equally, high cost of books, particularly imported ones, has contributed to low readership promotion in the country.
Studies have shown that there is an almost symbiotic relationship between reading and intelligence. The analytical skills that provide the ability to understand issues and solve problems are the product of intensive reading. Reading regularly is a way to mental health which enhances emotional intelligence, helps with self-awareness, empathy, social skills and managing relationships more effectively. Reading also provides a therapeutic effect and inner tranquility, while also slowing mental decline. Thus, the relationship between reading, knowledge acquisition, intelligence and personal empowerment is crucial for economic and societal development. A critical mode of thinking and human development is lost in the absence of reading.
It is, however, cheering that certain individuals and organisations are making concerted efforts to revive reading culture in the country. The Lagos State government, for instance, has been making huge attempts to revitalise reading culture, especially among the younger ones. The state government made the annual World Literacy Day one of the most celebrated in the state’s official calendar. Also, through the Lagos State Parks and Gardens Agency, LASPARK, the state government has established libraries in almost all the state owned parks, availing users the immense opportunity to read while having fun. To further improve reading culture and empower children through books, government introduced reading clubs in its parks where students meet with Nigerian authors on a regular basis to read to them and improve their reading skills.
It must be emphasized that the interest expressed by private institutions in trying to keep reading and literacy alive is commendable. Over the last decade, a number of literary prizes have helped in supporting Nigeria’s literary circles. The 9Mobile Prize for Literature, backed by the telecommunication company, the Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by the NLNG Gas Company and the Miles Morland Grant, which supports authors working on a novel for a year are among some of the clear-cut interventions aimed at improving reading culture in the country.
In February 2018, GTBank announced the launch of “The Dusty Manuscript,” a contest for Nigerian crime and romance fiction writers with finished but unpublished novels. The top three authors from the contest were rewarded with a publishing contract with Kachifo, one of the country’s renowned publishing houses.
Also, as part of her initiative to rekindle interest in reading, You Read Initiative, a CSR programme of GTBank launched in 2017 recorded a landmark achievement when 40-year-old Olubayode Treasures Olawunmi broke the Guinness World Record for the Longest Marathon Read Aloud. The record, which since 2008 was held by Nepal’s Deepak Sharma Bajaan after he read a total of 17 books in 113 hours and 15 minutes, was shattered by Olubayode early in 2018 as he achieved the feat for 120 hours in Lagos.
Olubayode’s story indicates that with the right structure and sincere determination, Nigeria can build a society of intellectuals and educated minds because a reading nation is a knowledgeable, tolerant and violence free society. The culture of reading must be activated in children from a very young age. More books should be procured for children than smart phones and tablets. Nigerian homes need to be fitted with more bookshelves and bookcases than flat screen TVs and laptops.
While it is imperative for federal and state governments to increase funding in education, they must take an active role in resuscitating reading habit, refurbishment of existing libraries and redesign of the school curriculum. We need an effective campaign to bring back the libraries to our schools and communities. Reducing environmental noise, which is inimical to reading, must be a policy imperative for governments across the country.
For Nigerian literary canon to develop and expand, private and social sectors need to collaborate on initiatives that promote a strong reading culture in the country. Rather than scrambling to sponsor events that have little or no value to the future of the country, private organisations are enjoined to redirect their CSR to sponsoring campaigns to revive a reading culture in communities where they operate.
If reading culture is on an irretrievable decline, writing profession and the publishing industry is at great risk. The decline or demise of publishing industry is not without long-term implications for the enlightenment of society and human capital development in the country.
More importantly, the absence of effective reading ability is a barrier to a civilized political culture and economic prosperity. To attain the socio-economic height of our dreams and aspirations, we need to develop literate citizens who are able to read widely to unlock the world treasure of knowledge and participate in the dynamic civilization of the world. It is, therefore, essential that policy makers with evidence based data or information monitor and evaluate educational policies and literacy programmes in Nigeria.
- Akinfenwa is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information &Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja