Port Harcourt to host year-long Books Olympics
If anyone needs more proof that Nigerians can be world beaters, they need only to look to the Rainbow Book Club (RBC), a not-for-profit organization that promotes books and the reading culture. On Wednesday 11 July 2012, it won Port Harcourt an exalted place on the global literary map when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the oil-rich south-south city the World Book Capital (WBC) for the year 2014.
In a very competitive bidding process that had such first-world cities like Oxford (England), Moscow (Russia), Lyon (France) and seven other competing cities in the fray, Port Harcourt’s winning calls for a national and continental celebration.
It’s ‘good news for a change’
Kalango describes the news as both humbling and encouraging. “This represents a significant opportunity for Nigeria to embark on a genuine re-branding campaign,” says Koko Kalango, RBC founder, days after UNESCO made the announcement. “Most of the news coming out of Africa is negative. The Port Harcourt World Book Capital represents a positive aspect of our lives as Nigerians and Africans - that is good news for a change.”
The WBC programme has been an annual tradition since 2001, when Madrid (Spain) became the first ever World Book Capital; in recent years the status has been conferred on Buenos Aires (2011), Yerevan (2012) and Bangkok (2013).
“We expect every Nigerian to see this as his or her victory. We would need all hands on deck. We will need to work with relevant government ministries at the federal and state level. We would need the media houses to help us create awareness for our programmes,”says Kalango. “We would need the Arts communities to help with executing programmes; icons in different fields (music, Nollywood, sports) would be needed as mentors; the corporate organisations can see this as a Corporate Social Responsibility opportunity and provide financial help. The grassroots organisations can help with mass outreach, civil society and NGOs can partner with us. Professional organisations can lend us their expertise. We would also be working with schools. We would need many, many volunteers. It will take a collective effort to deliver the programmes proposed.”
With this development, Port Harcourt has earned the hosting rights to a Books Olympics, so to speak, and goes on record as the first sub-Saharan city to do so. According to the judging panel, “Port Harcourt was nominated as World Book Capital 2014 on account of the quality of its program, in particular its focus on youth, and the impact it will have on improving Nigeria's culture of books, reading, writing and publishing to improve literacy rates”.
For the 2014-2015 literary year (23 April 2014-22 April 2015), Port Harcourt will “organise and run a larger number of events around books, literature and reading,” according to the International Publishers Association, which has representation on the WBC jury. “The title is also used to promote tourism and draw national and international attention to the literary heritage of a city and nation”.
Incidentally, a good number of Nigeria’s literary greats (like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Elechi Amadi, Gabriel Okara, to name but a few) were born and bred in Port Harcourt. Even then, the annual Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF), hosted by the Rainbow Book Club and now in its 5th year, has become one of the biggest writers’ gathering on the continent, attracting in the recent past the presence and participation of such accomplished writers as Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ghana’s Ama Atta Aidoo and Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and J. P. Clark.
Ode to Old Port Harcourt
Port Harcourt has a long history of literary traditions and has served as a haven for writers for decades. In the ‘70s, Port Harcourt had a vibrant cultural centre in the ‘old 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. Early renowned educational institutions 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.
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.
The 23-page Port Harcourt bid Executive Summary is a remarkable raft of books-related activities. It highlights the significance of 2014 as Nigeria’s centenary year (the country’s North and South Protectorates were amalgamated in 1914) and locates Port Harcourt as both the nerve centre of Nigeria’s economy (because of its vast crude oil deposits) and a literary hotspot.
“This title would boost business in the book chain industry. We expect heightened interest in, and greater support for, book related activities. We expect to see more libraries, bookshops, and publishing houses emerge not just in the city but throughout Nigeria. This should result in an improved reading culture,” Kalango says, adding that “an improved reading culture will have a ripple effect on other areas of development because it makes dissemination of information easier, thus adding to our intellectual bank and our knowledge economy. We should therefore see a reduction in the challenges we face in other areas such as education, healthcare, safety and security.”
Literature in the service of tourism
The theme for the WBC year is ‘Books: Window to our World of Possibilities’. “This captures the simple but powerful concept that the act of reading books provides knowledge and exposure, allowing the reader to be transported to new worlds, introduced to new concepts and ideas and invariably transformed. Enlightened, individuals are then empowered to protect their democracy, promote social justice and contribute towards the development and advancement of their communities and societies,” the bid document reads.
Kalango envisions something with broader significance. “The World Book Capital should also translate into what I call intellectual tourism. Already we have people coming from around the country, other parts of the continent, and even other continents, for the annual Garden City Literary Festival. Now, we would expect an increase in these numbers. Increased visitors to the city and indeed the country should mean more business opportunities for us,” she says.
The Port Harcourt WBC 2014 bid team is convinced that, “Nigeria’s great literary tradition, which has enriched global book culture, can serve as a driving force for a new literary renaissance in Africa”. What’s more: the 2014-2015 literary year “would kick off with a week-long run of activities in which the President of Nigeria would be in attendance, to create awareness.”
Awofeso is a recent winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Awards.