By Chukwuma Ajakah
The 20th edition of the Nigeria International Book Fair (NIBF) opened last Tuesday, July 27, 2021 at the Habour Point Event Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos with the Wife of Ekiti State Governor and Chairperson, Nigerian Governors’ Wives Forum, Her Excellency, Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi advocating that women should be encouraged to participate actively in the book value chain.
Speaking as the Conference Chairperson during the opening ceremony of the International Conference, Erelu Fayemi, a feminist activist and gender development advocate commended the organizers for holding the annual event despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 and dedicating it to women, saying: “I am extremely pleased that this year, the International Book Fair has decided to focus on the role of Women with the theme ‘Awakening the giant in women for the Growth of the Book Ecosystem. I know it is not easy to organise events like this these days due to the challenges of COVID19. Even though this is a hybrid event… it will not be without its difficulties. I therefore appreciate the resilience of all the participants.”
The organizing bodies of the book fiesta include: the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC), National Copyright Commission (NCC), Nigerian Publishers Association (NPA), Booksellers Association of Nigeria (BAN), Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Nigerian Library Association (NLA), Chartered Institute of Professional Printers of Nigeria (CIPPON), Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria (REPRONIG) and National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS).
Reminiscing on her heydays as a student, the amiable First Lady of Ekiti State said: “I won a prize when I was eight years old for being ‘the best-read student in the school’, going by the number of books I took out of the library, so this means I have always been a bibliophile- a lover of books. It is no surprise that I met (and married) another bibliophile… in a library! I am proud to be part of a generation that was raised to see books as an integral part of learning and character building, beyond whatever was required for study as classroom texts.”
Fayemi who is also an author and member of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) with books such as Speaking for Myself: Perspectives on Social, Political and Feminist Activities in Africa (2015), Speaking above a Whisper (2013) and Where is Your Wrapper? (2020) to her credit, decried the apathetic disposition of the present generation of young students about reading, saying: “We are literally begging our children to read something that goes beyond 140 characters. Everything is now ‘too long’, ‘too intense’ and ‘too deep’.”
Recalling the good old days, she reminisced: “a good book took us back in time to ancient lands around the world. We could take part in treasure hunts, wars, death defying stunts, exciting car chases and high wired schemes of clever criminals that writers such as James Hardley Chase liked to champion. We could also acquaint ourselves with the constant struggles between tradition and modernity, through the lives and choices of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana or Flora Nwapa’s Idu and Efuru. Whether we were looking for action, drama, history or romance, there was a book we could read.”
Erelu Fayemi explained that students used to compete with one another over the number of books each had read, saying: “We grew up seeing the contestations of an Africa finding its way in a changing world, through the eyes of Ngugi wa Thiong’O, T.M. Aluko, Elechi Amadi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Denis Brutus, Ayi Kwei Armah, Okot p’Bitek, Christopher Okigbo, Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba, J.P Clark and many others.”
Revealing her motivation for reading and writing, Fayemi enthused: “I believe that wherever you might be located in the book value chain, whether we write, print, sell or buy books, we are doing a combination of speaking up, bearing witness, teaching and learning. Speaking from a Writer’s perspective, very few writers ever get rich from writing, they are a tiny percentage. Yet we are astronomically rich when it comes to imagination, creativity, passion, courage, envisioning and social engineering. These are the attributes that help transform societies and change narratives. ”
Fayemi opined that the writing space is a veritable platform to showcase and exchange knowledge for sustainable national development. She implored women to participate actively in national development, saying: “As an African Feminist, one of the things that is very important to me is the reframing of the narrative that leaves the African woman voiceless and without agency; narrative in which she is always the receiver and never the giver; one in which women are just passive observers in nation-building and not key players in the socio-economic and political growth of their nations. Nigerian women have always told stories, have written, published, printed, and sold books. Yet their contributions continue to be under-valued and discountenanced. I thank the organisers for an opportunity to correct this imbalance.”
Erelu Fayemi revealed that Nigeria features poorly on most global indicators measuring Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) and was yet to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), warning that “If care is not taken, we might not meet most of the SDGs in 2030. Millions of women and girls in Nigeria still suffer from the feminization of poverty, lack of access to basic resources, disease, violent conflict and the use of culture, religion and tradition to render women second-class citizens.”
Moreover, she observed that “Crimes against women, young girls and children are on the rise. Gender-based violence, femicides, rapes, sexual assaults, harmful traditional and religious practices, voluntary and involuntary commercial sex work, trafficking, sexual exploitation, institutionalized gender-based discrimination and kidnappings, make private and public spaces in Nigeria very unsafe for women and children.”
“Through the writing of Buchi Emecheta, Mabel Segun, Flora Nwapa, Molara-Ogundipe-Leslie, Ifi Amadiume, Mariama Ba, Ama Ata Aidoo, bel Hooks, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Charlotte Bunch, Germaine Greer, Angela Miles and many other feminists around the world, I learnt early on, the critical importance of creating space for women’s thinking, writing and community activism. I grew up with the different debates around feminist naming, and the misconceptions around it. To me, Feminism is a global struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression. This means confronting the Political, Economic, Educational, Social, Religious, Cultural and Technological institutions that inform patriarchal norms and values. I have done this using my various identities as a Writer, Activist, Mobiliser, Non-Profit Specialist and Politician.
Answering the question: “How can we awaken the giant in women’ in the book ecosystem?” Erelu canvassed that “We should encourage girls to read as much as they can, right from an early age, and not just self-empowerment books or romantic novels. Reading beyond what is required for school texts is no longer common, with the new generation preferring to spend their time online rather than bury themselves in the latest Chinua Achebe book. Just like we have Spelling-Bee Competitions, we can start organising Book-Reading Competitions online or offline to encourage the culture of reading we are all keen to bring back.” She further suggested that books should be made accessible to young girls and women: “If you have books you don’t need any more, donate them to a school or Gender Studies Center. I donated over 1000 books I had acquired over many years to the Center for Gender and Social Policy Studies at OAU. Parents and guardians, buy your girls a book as a gift instead of a pair of earrings, or at least include a book in her gifts!”
Fayemi also posited that more online book-clubs for young women should be opened as a way of exploring issues of concern, pointing out that she runs an online mentoring platform known as “The Wrapper Network” which serves as an information and enterprise development forum for young women whose activities include sharing their thoughts through conversations and book reading via a Book Club. She further stressed that “Women and girls should be encouraged to write more.
As women get older it is more difficult for them to find the time to write, but they need to be encouraged. Where is the next Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Chimamanda, Sefi Attah? We should also continue to organise as many Essay-Writing Competitions as possible. Every year we have the JKF Essay Writing Competition in Ekiti State with different categories from primary to post-graduate levels.”
Moreover, she expressed the view that enterprises in the book value chain led by women should be supported by commercial institutions, corporate bodies and individuals, adding that even with technological advances in the book eco-system, women should not be left behind, but should rather “be encouraged to use the digital space to upgrade their skills and knowledge and take advantage of the digital market spaces that are opening up.” Erelu Fayemi expressed the hope that there would be a book festival for women in Nigeria to expose the hidden talents who can play key roles in the book industry.
Activities featured at the 2021 NIBF include: Book Exhibitions, Publishers’ Seminar on: “e-publishing & the challenges of Digital Divide in a Developing County Like Nigeria”, Librarians’ Workshop on: “The Role of Women in the Growth of Book Trade & Librarianship in the 21st Century”, Printers’ Seminar on: “Bringing Book Manufacturing Nearer to the Market Place-A Post-COVID Strategy for Attainment of Local Book Production”, Sustainable Development Goals Book Club’s Discussion on: “Children’s Literature and Sustainable Development”, Mathematics and Spelling Bee Competitions, Book Club’s Presentation & Discussions, Book Reading and Interactions, Launching of Booksellers’ New Directory and Dr. Wale Okediran’s Book titled: Madagali.
Earlier in his welcome address, the Chairman of Nigerian Book Fair Trust (NBFT), Gbadega Adedapo, remarked: “We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamics in our contemporary world, reshape the conversations, ensure that women’s voices are heard and heeded, not trivialized and ignored. We shall continue to keep the spirit of possibility high amongst our women in the book ecosystem.”
The keynote Speaker, President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), Geneva, Switzerland, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi joined virtually with the inspiring message that more women should enlist in the book industry chain for personal and societal development because “When sleeping women wake mountains move.” Conference speakers and resource persons featured at the event include the Secretary General, Pan African Writers Association (PAWA), Dr. Wale Okediran, Dr. Lola Akande, Mrs. Folashade Anna Shinkaiye, Dr. Sophia V. Adeyeye, McDaniel Moses and Mrs. Florence Adesola Faleiye.
Noting that Nigeria is ranked among the countries with low reading culture, the Chief Host of the occasion, First Lady of Lagos State, Dr. Ibijoke Sanwo-Olu who was represented by Mrs. Edith Egube, wife of the Hon. Commissioner for Economic Planning and Budget, described the book fair as a laudable initiative with a profound and apt theme.
“Our sisters out there should embrace reading and improve the reading culture,” she said citing the widely held belief that “Readers are leaders.’ Sanwo-Olu explained that reading helps people to maintain the mental health that will enable them to develop the needed emotional intelligence to handle issues and relationships.
She buttressed the pivotal role of women in societal development, saying: “I believe that women have a key role to play in the development of the children who we say are the leaders of tomorrow. Women can help deepen the reading culture. We must all contribute our own quota by encouraging women and children to engage in reading.”