The audience broke out in cheery applause as the panellists concluded their session on “Recollections of the Biafran War”. Authors Chudi Offodile, Retired Major General Paul Tarfa, and Dr. Elizabeth Bird exited the stage, leaving a charmed audience to reflect on the conversations of the previous 90 minutes on the importance of documenting stories from Nigeria’s civil war.
Mr. Offodile, a former member of the House of Representatives and author of “The politics of Biafra: And the future of Nigeria”, is accosted as he retakes his seat at the Aké Arts and Book festival.
The bold attendee, a young woman, swears she would break her usual poor book habit on his behalf. “I don’t know how but I’m going to read your book because I really enjoyed the panel,” she gushes.
That is a typical response at the Aké festival.
Established in 2013, the Aké festival made its Lagos debut this October after five incredible years in Abeokuta, Ogun State. Over a four day period, attendees could choose from over 40 events which included a screening of the controversial Kenyan LGBT drama, Rafiki, a panel on Afrofuturism, several book chats, and an interview with Nuruddin Farah, one of the world’s greatest contemporary writers and a frequent Nobel Prize candidate.
“All of this is geared towards promoting, developing and celebrating creativity in Africa”, according to Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Aké Arts and Book Festival director. “Aké Festival also brings writers in contact with readers which inevitably promotes the reading culture,” Shoneyin confirms.
Nigeria’s reading culture
Nigeria has produced some of the best authors in the world, from the amazing Buchi Emecheta to the award winning Wole Soyinka. Given this rich literary history, it is a bit odd that sales of literary fiction continue to struggle.
Do Nigerians read literary fiction outside the school syllabus?
Wana Udobang, a poet, journalist, and filmmaker, rebuffs the idea. “Of course, Nigerians read,” she says. In her view, the problem is not a lack of a reading culture, but that those interested in reading don’t have access to the type of books they want. Indeed, there are bookshops in Nigeria, but these are not (accessible) enough for everyone interested in reading.
And while educational publishers can market their textbooks to schools, literary publishers target a more elusive market and often struggle with distribution.
In a 2018 interview, Enajite Efemuaye, Managing Editor at Kachifo Ltd, an independent publishing house that includes Farafina Books, explains that distribution is an issue because book stores tend to be independent single-outlet units rather than national chains like Barnes & Noble, a Fortune 500 Company in the United States.
As a result, the propagation of Nigeria’s reading culture only occurs at schools, with books like Frank Ogbeche’s “Harvest of Corruption” and Bayo Adebowale’s “Lonely Days” on the 2018 JAMB English Literature syllabus. However, students see reading as a necessary evil to pass their exams, and not something they would eagerly do outside of the classroom.
Like Lola Shoneyin, Efe Paul Azino, writer, poet, and founder of the Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIP Fest), is one of those filling the holes in Nigeria’s reading culture through literary festivals.
With LIPFest, a week-long event that brings together poets, writers, and literary enthusiasts for conversations and workshops on art and culture, Efe Paul Azino creates a space for already existing literary lovers and encourages those who are not as interested to pay attention.
“Every human has a propensity to want to consume stories, to learn and experience the world around them. If we improve access by investing more in education, creating an environment for bookshops to thrive, then the reading culture will be significantly improved. That’s part of what we wanted to achieve with LIPFest,” he tells me.
Literary festivals to the rescue
One of the most interesting features of literary festivals is how they include school trips. The idea behind these trips is to get students interested and engaged in the literary world as early as possible.
For example, Paul Azino and his team visit schools and teach students how to write poetry, often with the help of writers and artists.
“The school visits came pre-imagined with the poetry festival. We had a genuine interest in having workshops for students interested in creative writing who would benefit greatly from craft lessons by established writers and poets,” he explains, before adding, “Sometimes all it takes is an encounter for the creative spirit in a young person to be awakened.”
Mr Paul Azino believes these trips have been successful and reveals that schools have asked for the team to come by away from the festival schedule. “We are going to start year-long school visits next year,” he says excitedly.
While the Aké festival also includes school trips, it goes further with Ouida Books, which doubles as a publishing house and a bookstore. According to Lola Shoneyin, it was important to give people access to books that match their taste.
“Nigeria has little book hubs in markets and some shops for books here and there, but I am interested in getting them access to the latest books as soon as they come out,” she outlines.
Adaobi Onyeakagbu, lifestyle reporter for Pulse Nigeria, visiting Ouida Books for the first time during the Aké festival, agreed with Ms Shoneyin's declaration. “There were a variety of books to be bought. I had to start avoiding the store because the books were too good, and I was running out of money,” she laughs.
Literary festivals have thrived in Nigeria, and provide one way of building a reading culture, but even their organisers admit a lot more help is needed.
“We cannot ignore the importance of state intervention,” Efe Paul Azino argues. “But what happens when the leaders meant to intervene don’t understand the culture of promoting reading among the populace?”
In his opinion, there are not enough policies in the country geared towards literature. The Ministry of Information and Culture, tasked with promoting tourism and culture, tends to focus on Nigeria’s booming music industry alone.
Lola Shoneyin agrees that government support has been minimal. In the absence of public money, organisers of literary events and art festivals often resort to seeking funding from international sources like the British Council.
Private domestic capital has also been slow to flow into the space.
“Surely, the private sector has enough incentive to put their money towards the development of culture in Nigeria—it is a valuable culture,” she says.
And book publishers also have to do more, she argues. Using Ouida books as an example, Lola says there’s nothing wrong with putting a little bit of money aside for marketing, to create awareness of the author and book.
“In our publishing house, we organise marketing for our authors; they visit the radio station, the TV station, talk to book clubs for their books, etc. It is important that publishers play their part too.”
If history is anything to go by, a lot of these interventions may never materialise. So, for now, literary festivals will remain king, and a haven for Nigeria’s book lovers.