Growing up in Sokoto, North West Nigeria, Uchenna Emelife often found himself making gestures of excitement as he passionately discussed a new book he was reading or compared characters from novels that shaped his youth. From an early age, the 22-year-old developed the hobby of reading books – a hobby considered rare where he comes from.
The books he devoured were mostly written by Western writers. The literature he avoided, however, was that of Africa. He had a biased view of it: one shaped by common clichés of racism, colonialism and the corruption of postcolonial works. But today, he is the co-founder of a book club whose mission is to promote the reading of African literature in a country where would have one of the lowest read rates in the world.
Africa’s most populous country has seen a decline in reading culture, attributed to poverty, unemployment, and more. concerns both civil servants and academics. According to a 2020 study based on 1,000 Nigerian students, almost 18% of respondents indicated that they had not read any books outside of their studies or career; more than half of the total respondents admitted to having read between 1 and 3 books in the past year; just 1.9% of young people said they had read at least 14 books during the same 12-month period.
The relationship with novels is even worse in the north, where a conservative society sees reading as a waste of time and resources. According to Aisha Omarlecturer in the Department of European Languages at the Federal University of Birnin Kebbi, northern Nigeria’s terrible reading culture is “the result of the low level of education in the region, and also the fact that most schools do not offer literature as a subject in primary and secondary schools.”
“Students therefore miss the opportunity to be forced to read and eventually develop a culture of reading,” she says.
This prompted Emelife, a literature student at Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto, to start a book club in her home country in a bid to turn the tide, especially following her newfound appreciation for African literature. .
“At first I believed that Africans could not write, I found their stories boring, mostly political,” he said. OkAfrica. “When they’re not talking about racism, colonialism and the consequences of colonialism, they’re riding corruption; the same thing over and over again,” he says.
But in 2015, Emelife was swept away after reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichieit’s purple hibiscus. “It was different from what I used to read. One thing that stood out to me was the familiarity, especially because of the story settings. They’re Igbo. They’re Catholic. I I’m Igbo. I’m Catholic. my father is so much like my father,” he says. This sense of familiarity sparked his love for African literature.
Rodiyah Omotoyosi Mikail, co-founder of Book O’clock, speaks to students as part of Book O’clock’s plans to instill a love of reading African literature in young people in Sokoto.
Photo: Book Hour
Since then, he has longed for a community of literary enthusiasts with whom to share his new passion. But it is only at the end of April 2020, with the schools switch off to stifle the spread of COVID-19 in the country, that Emelife and her literature-loving friend Rodiyah Mikaillaw student at the same university, posted “Book O’clock” online, via a Whatsapp group, to make African literature appreciated by young and old.
“When the pandemic hit, and everyone had to leave school, we felt there was no better time for some sense of community than now, when COVID had taken away that sense of community. ‘unity’, says Emelife.
For Mikail, she hopes the book club erases the stereotypes associated with reading in the North – whether it’s for nerds, for the privileged or arts students. “Reading should not be limited to a few people. It’s for everyone. It helps to think better and broaden the mind. It makes you more tolerant of others. It’s just something everyone should be doing,” she said.
As to why the book club focuses on African literature, Emelife believes that, aside from the fact that contemporary African fiction is so diverse and rich, “if we had grown up watching African cartoons, reading African books, we wouldn’t be as addicted to the West as a generation.
At first, the book club started with virtual book discussions, and in December 2020, they started hosting monthly African book readings, attended virtually by renowned African writers like Ukamaka Olisakweauthor of Ogadinma, Oyinkan Braithwaiteauthor of My sister, the serial killer and Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobiaauthor of son of the house and winner of the Nigerian Prize for Literature 2021.
Through the online club shop of second-hand books for the most part, literature enthusiasts can access copies of The secret life of Baba Segi’s wives, in every mirror she is black, dreams and nightmares match and other contemporary African works that once required a long journey to distant Lagos or Ibadan to obtain.
Working alongside like-minded platforms, the self-funded club also held a one-of-a-kind book and art festival in Sokoto in July last year that drew around 700 attendees.
According to Umar, initiatives such as Book O’clock “are relevant in tackling the endemic culture of bad reading in Northern Nigeria”. In order to make literature more appealing, she says, “more literary clubs need to emerge to make learning and reading fun, reach a wider audience, and spark people’s interest in reading.”
By visiting high schools in Sokoto, Book O’clock members hope to ignite young people’s passion for reading. Between April and July 2021, they visited nine schools, giving a book to each of the 500 students they spoke with. They have since started a book club at one of these schools, and work is underway to start more to bring together literature enthusiasts, old and new, at each school.
Members of Book O’clock at American Space in Sokoto.
Photo: Book Hour
Nesca Moses, 16, a student at the Global Kids Academy, says the club’s visit to her school increased her love for African books: “I actually love African authors and literature, but after meeting [members of Book O’clock] I had more fun reading. More and more students at my school want to know more about African authors.
Abdulrahman Ibrahim, 23, an English student at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, credits the book club with helping him change his reading habits. “Before joining the club, I found it difficult to read for long periods of time. But after joining the club, I devote myself to reading more recommended texts in the club. I now find pleasure in reading because it “It’s like a challenge. We read one or two texts a month and I also participate in the discussion,” he says.
Since its launch, the book club has grown from 70 dedicated members to 125, in addition to those who come from time to time.
According to Emelife, the pandemic and the school life obligations of the students who run the book club have both been major obstacles – the latter preventing physical meetings and the former limiting such events. “Book O’clock is run by students and it’s very difficult to do everything you have in mind when you have school to attend. So sometimes you go weeks or even months without literary activities because that we don’t have time for that,” said Emelife. However, he hopes moving forward with more events on the pitch will attract more and more enthusiasts.
But another challenge has been the lack of resources. Entirely self-funded, co-founder Rodiyah said many ideas, including book giveaways to students, had to be put on hold due to the unavailability of money. “The book club is entirely funded by donations from members who are largely students. We really have a lot of ideas, and like any start-up, funding is something difficult. We will come up with an idea, but we’ve got to put it aside because there’s no funding.”
Mockery and ridicule have also been a challenge in a culture that demeans reading. Emelife remembers how he was once mocked, on air, by the presenter of a radio show to which he was invited to talk about his initiative. “These little comments are quite touching. It’s a bit disheartening,” he says.
Nevertheless, the Book O’clock team is determined to move forward. Rodiyah envisions the book club will become “a great literary platform that has extended its reach to nooks and crannies of the country; a well-structured literary platform that publishes, which is present in different schools in northern Nigeria and even in Nigeria”. For Rodiyah and Emelife, and the voracious readers they cultivate, it’s about much more than getting together to discuss books.
This story was written in collaboration with Egab.
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