Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Year of the Nigerian Reader

This Economist article highlights the sad truth that even though 2007 has been "the year of the Nigerian writer", it has not been the same for the Nigerian Reader. It's harder to change behaviour in grown adults than it is in our children, so the focus should be on the next generation. So, how DO we get our children excited about reading amidst the poor infrastructure around education and health in Nigeria? Should we wait till we've solved all our other "big" problems? It's good to see there are those out there who are keen to get Nigerians reading (again?). And for those who feel like doing something about it this minute, here are just some ways: One Laptop Per Child and Merry Hearts.


Award-winning novelists have more readers abroad than at home

WHEN a bookstore in Makurdi, the central state of Benue, wants to buy Chimamanda Adichie's latest novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun", it sends a text message to Muhtar Bakare in Lagos, down south. Mr Bakare, a publisher who heads Kachifo, replies with a bank account number and a price. Once the money is transferred from Makurdi to Lagos, Mr Bakare loads the books onto a public bus, which then begins a day-long trip to the other side of Africa's most populous country.

Though Ms Adichie's second novel, winner of this year's Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, may have sold over 240,000 copies in Britain, in Nigeria it has shifted barely 5,000. Her book, like others by Nigeria's novelists, is stuck, often literally, in a publishing industry in shambles.

Nigeria was once the centre of literary publishing in west Africa—not just for local companies but international houses as well. But when military rule and economic decline saw much of the middle class flee in the 1980s, the publishers left too. Today, there is no distribution network and scant demand for fiction.
In order to survive, publishers switched from literature to textbooks, certain to be bought by students and schools. Fiction is much harder to sell. By the time a novel is printed and transported across the country, the price may be as much as a tenth of an average worker's monthly salary. Ms Adichie's novel costs N850 ($7.30) from Kachifo and goes up to N1,500 in bookshops in Abuja, the capital. Far more readers choose self-help and religious books that are supposed to have a more immediate pay-off.

So pity the enthusiasts who persist in trying to sell novels. Mr Bakare likens his business to the telecom industry, which has had to build its own infrastructure from scratch. He is not building roads or relay towers but a network of bookstores, buses, taxis and bank transfers. Cassava Republic, a publisher founded last year, operates with a low profit margin for now, in the hope that it can cultivate a loyal base of readers that will one day meet costs. The founder, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, says she wants her customers' "intellectual hunger to be as pressing as their stomachs".
Her hard work may just be paying off. Ms Adichie says she is starting to get e-mails from all over the country—from Kaduna in the north, Lagos in the south and Makurdi in-between. She is flattered by the foreign attention but says that Nigerians are still her most important audience. "Half of a Yellow Sun" is mainly about the Biafran War, a conflict that, from 1967-1970, split Nigeria apart; its scars still linger. Ms Adichie is telling Nigerians about a history that was never taught in school—and which she wants more of her countrymen to know about.

Muhtar Bakare launched his publishing business Kachifo Limited, which trades under the name Farafina, in June 2002. (Check out their free online magazine @ www.farafinamagazine.com )Over the last couple of years, "Farafina has become one of the most energetic and forward looking book-publishing companies in Nigeria... attempting to balance cost, quality and marketing with the kind of self-confidence not common in that industry." (Nigeria Daily News)


Kome said...

just based on this...i think we can all step in here and volunteer our services, like a buy a Nigerian book or two and donate it to a school we went to back home???

I for one will buy at least a few copies and donate them to both my primary and secondary schools...it only takes one to make a difference!

Let's stop the empty talk and actually do something...lets not just tell others to read, let's give them books to read. It may not be the most impactful answer, but we have to start somewhere.

Pledge a book this christmas!!


I really like Kome's idea and it shouldn't be hard to pull off. But, I am not volunteering for this one, I hardly have time to breathe, talk less of organize projects. If you manage to get it organized, let a sister know...

Misan said...

Kome, i'm feeling your lead o. But i'd take it a step further and say we donate to children in the neediest schools. It's doable, even if you only affect a handful of students, to them it'll make all the difference.

Solo, i feel you on your plate being full o. I think one of the great things in life is the ability to share your ideas and infect others with your passion, so that they can help deploy those ideas that they feel more passionate about, you know.

Confessions of a moody crab said...

Hey Kome, I like your Idea! Do you want to take it up? Cos I'm definately interested.

Kome said...

be rest assured i plan to follow through with this idea, no matter how simple the output becomes... I will keep you all posted on future developments and will keep you clued in on how you can help/contribute.

nneoma said...

totally agree with you. imagine my surprise when i went travelled to the villa in december and found that none of my cousins (who came from the cities and are in the mid twenties) did not know who Chinua Achebe is. If we have no appreciation for our literary giants of old, where is the readership for this new crop of exciting writers...

Misan said...

Welcome Nneoma! Yes o, i can understand your pain, as I had to introduce my friends in naija to Chimamanda's literature this xmas, some had heard about her but most hadn't read any of her work.

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