BY GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR
SOME women stand out. Some others are outstanding. Koko Kalango is one of the few women who combine both traits.
The founder of Rainbow Book Club, Kalango, does not only stand out in her pursuit of academic excellence, but is outstanding in her vision of getting Nigerians to read.
In 2005, the Rainbow Book Club took on the challenge of reviving the dying reading culture in Nigeria. Through various instruments, the club has worked to make this dream a reality: by facilitating and running book clubs, hosting authors, organising various literary activities, publicising good books through our book-of-the-month, running workshops for teachers, holding a yearly writing competition and getting leaders to read to children.
From Get Nigeria Reading again!’ campaign to Book-of-the Month, Leaders Read’ project and The Garden City Literary Festival, her mission has been to encourage reading as a lifestyle, particularly among children in Nigeria.
Her new goal is simple in its definition: Port Harcourt must be World Book Capital (WBC) in 2014.
Considering the caliber of cities bidding for the hosting right such as Oxford, England; Vilnius in Lithuania and Pula in Croatia, it seems a very big challenge.
But the lady is convinced that no other city deserves the bragging right more.
You ask, ‘Why Port Harcourt?’
“Why not Port Harcourt?” she protests, raising a quizzical eyebrow. “The city has a long history in literary traditions and has served as a haven for writers for decades. In the 70s, it had a vibrant cultural centre in the Old Port Harcourt Town that provided entertainment and education through plays directed by the likes of Comish Ekiye with an illustrious cast that included actors such as Doye Agama, Barbara Soki and Aso Douglas. More importantly, some of the early renowned educational institutes in Nigeria such as the Okrika Grammar School and the Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls Secondary School were very active in promoting literature in the city.”
Wearing a luminous smile, Kalango says proudly, “today, the city hosts one of the biggest book events in the continent —The Garden City Literary Festival — alongside other literary events during the year.”
Looking glowingly pretty, she says, wistfully, “the city will serve as an ideal host for the 2014 World Book Capital. It is home to diverse groups of authors, including the novelist Elechi Amadi and poet Gabriel Okara, as well as renowned historians such as Robin Horton and E. J. Alagoa. Also of note is that Port Harcourt represents the rich duality of Nigerian and African literary cultures; the legacy of colonialism and its impact on language, culture and society and the heritage of triumph in the struggle for equity, peace and justice.”
Glancing around her office in Falomo, South West, Ikoyi, Lagos, Kalango recounts, “Nigeria has given the world great writers such as Wole Soyinka, the first person of African descent to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Chinua Achebe, author of the most widely read book by an African, Things Fall Apart, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri, Amadi and many others; Port Harcourt, as the World Book Capital, will not only highlight the past achievements of this region, but will also enrich the current learning climate towards an even greater era of literature.”
FOR the founder of Rainbow Book Club, Nigeria’s literary tradition, which has enriched global book culture, can serve as a driving force for a new literary ‘renaissance’ in the continent.
Signalling to her staff to get water, she brings out some documents to show her guest. The lady, who has equal part admiration and astonishment for her passion, begins to reel out statistics: “Nigeria has a population of about 155 million people. With approximately 800 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa, this means one out of five Africans is a Nigerian. In addition, 70 per cent of Nigeria's population is under the age of 35.”
She says with a brightened expression, “by serving as the host for WBC 2014, with a focus on youth, Port Harcourt will demonstrate what is possible in the African context. This positive step towards meeting a pressing development need among the world’s illiterate population will have a ripple effect in other areas as the HIV/AIDS awareness and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. More specifically, it will galvanise stakeholders to address the wide array of challenges that confront the African book and reading culture, which include low school enrolment, high levels of literacy and limited availability of books. We believe that once the young people of Nigeria are empowered through reading, they can act as an army of change agents not only in Nigeria, but also across the continent.”
She takes a deep breath, and sips from the glass of water in her front. Giving an engaging smile, Kalango says enthusiastically, “with a focus on children and youth, a wide variety of programmes have been planned that will run through the World Book Capital City 2014 and 2015 year.”
The planned activities and all their components, she says with aplomb, are in conformity with principles of freedom of expression, freedom to publish and to distribute information, as stated in the UNESCO Constitution.
Being mindful of the fact that writers all over the world are mostly in danger due to the peculiar nature of their profession, the proposal for Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital of 2014 lays emphasis on the protection of the rights of writers and book publishing companies in line with their fundamental right to publish and distribute cultural and educational materials. The programme on copyright, piracy and sanctity of the written word in Nigeria will draw attention to the dignity of the end product of literary activities to the extent that they are protected and their values restored appropriately within the confines of the time and energy devoted to their production.
The mixture of good education and training sits easily on her shoulder. For someone with a brilliant idea of how to empower the youth through books, 2014 to 2015 will truly celebrate a ‘renascent’ Africa.
Weaving a smile, which glistens, the warm hearted Kalango says, “this proposal, in its concepts and themes, is geared towards the cultural education of society employing the concept of culture, creativity and memory with relations to achieving order both in thought and in action by a wide range of organisations and individuals towards, which this project is targeted. The authors, icons, government institutions, students and ordinary lovers of literature and arts will share and benefit from the activities and programmes arising out of the themes, the concept and motifs of the proposal.”
She says encouragingly, while sipping from the glass of water in her front, the year will kick off with weeklong activities that will have the country’s President in attendance to create awareness.
There will be a theme song competition. Popular Nigerian artists will perform this song at the opening ceremony. Also planned are opening of the multi-purpose Garden City Library Complex, a national symposium with the topic, Books: Windows to the World, performance of a drama, Along Came the Book, that will trace the history of books and the reading culture in Nigeria.
Celebrities Love to Read, where authors, poets, celebrities from film, music, sports, as well as the business communities will read to children at strategic locations across the city, including schools and libraries is also on board.
Culture, Tradition and African Literary Renaissance: A Roundtable Discussion with Young African Authors, where a prominent Nigerian author will be invited to give the keynote a on this subject to be followed by discussion on the role of culture in literary traditions and its impact on the successive generations of writers by young African authors. At the end of the discussion, a communiqué for action will be issued.
“The proposed events have been arranged to draw in participation from various sectors of society including the popular music, film and sports sector, as well as civil society and grassroots organisations, schools, the public and the private sector,” Kalango says proudly, raising her eyebrows, meaningfully.
WITH an intelligent face, dark hair and engaging smile, Kalango says soothingly, “consultations across various stakeholders including writers and publishers associations, government agencies and literary enthusiasts have garnered significant support for the hosting of the World Book Capital in Port Harcourt. In addition, the governor of Rivers State, himself a literary enthusiast, has constituted a dynamic team, which includes private sector and civil society organisations, galvanised by Rainbow Book Club, who will drive the activities for 2014. This team will generate financial support that will enable it effectively cover all the costs associated with the programmes for 2014.”
The passion-driven lady lets out a giggle, “2014 will be exciting for book in the country if Port Harcourt is chosen.”
The soft-spoken lady says, “in the week leading up to World Book and Copyright Day 2015, Port Harcourt will again hold events to round off the World Book Capital year activities and initiatives. This celebration will feature: Port Harcourt World Book Capital Awards (in recognition of the role they have played to ensure the success of the yearlong programme and in promoting the books as our window to a world of opportunities, awards would be given to deserving individuals, schools, libraries, media, civil society organizations and other strategic partners).
An exhibition entitled, Possibilities, which will showcase writings, poems and artwork by children and the youth that have been inspired by the theme of the World Book Capital and others.
Heading into the year will be monthly readings. Each month, the author of the book-of-the-month will be invited to the city to interact with readers and do book signings. Participants will be able to interact with the authors and engage them in discussions on their books.
The 2014 Garden City Literary Festival will have an even bigger audience.
This weeklong festival features an array of local, national and international writers and their works. It will explore the major themes of the World Book Capital programme with a diversity of participants from across the continent, events for children, writers’ workshops, drama performances and symposia.
“As participants climb the tree, and successfully complete stipulated books appropriate to their age group at the required time, they would receive rewards/recognition,” Kalango offers.
Also planned is the Library Support Programme. The Rivers State government has recently renovated over 100 public primary and secondary schools and each of these schools is equipped with a modern library. A book donation programme will be set up and individuals, faith-based organisations and private organisations would be encouraged to donate books or funds, which will be given to these libraries.
She says, “part of this drive will be to solicit for volunteers to teach in an adult literacy programme, which can be hosted in the public libraries.”
There is a pregnant pause. Kalango breathes heavily and smiles, as she scrapes in words to fill the void. “Part of the World Book Capital activities will be the establishment of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Writer/Martyrs Memorial Square to be located in a central point in Port Harcourt. The Square will commemorate the life and work of this illustrious writer and environmental activist who was ‘judicially murdered’ in 1995 by the military government of the time. Apart from this, it will serve as a worthy commemoration and celebration for other fallen Nigerian writers. The day would also be marked by symposia and discussions,” she says.
Kalango also reveals that WBC 2014 will be an opportunity to introduce a writers’ residency programme. Applications will be invited from established and aspiring writers to a one-year residency programme in Port Harcourt at the end of which they will be expected to write stories with themes on ‘possibilities’ for the Niger Delta. These stories would be published in an anthology.
“As Nigeria turns 100, Port Harcourt will launch a nation-wide essay contest. The winner of the contest will have the unique opportunity of presenting his or her paper during the World Book Capital closing ceremonies in March 2015,” she grins ruefully.