James: Creating platform for mental development and information

James and former Minister of Information, Chief Alex Akinyele

Dr. Raphael James is the founder and Director-General, Centre for Research, Information Management and Media Development (CRIMMD), Lagos, currently the largest private Photo Museum of Nigerian History with over 35,000 photographs. Aside this, he is the publisher of African Dame and The National Biographer magazines and runs a free library to promote education and reading. James has published 23 books and also donated over 23,000 books to schools and NGOs across the country as a way of encouraging reading. He spoke to OMIKO AWA on his library project, Photo Museum among others

You have received over 90 awards for your free library and museum projects. How do you feel?
I give all the glory to God Almighty. The awards encourage me to keep doing the little ‘nothing’ that I have been doing. I feel excited whenever I am called upon for an award, mostly the ones that appreciate the things I do. I remember some young men writing me for an award and they asked me to pay. I told them out rightly that I am not qualified for their award. I know money is spent to organise the events, and I may appreciate you on my own accord, not when it is made compulsory. I have been honoured in the U.S., the U.K., China and other African countries like Gambia, Ghana and Kenya. I have also commendation letters form the former U.S. President, Bill Clinton, and from Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

What is the motivation for the free library and picture museum?
My biggest motivation is to make the world a better place for all to live. I sincerely believe that if we read, we will see all the secrets hidden from us in the midst of books. In the last 14 years, my library has produced medical doctors, engineers, journalists, military officers, accountants and ICAN professionals. I always feel satisfied when some of them return to visit us and they tell me things like ‘Sir, I used your library while preparing for GCE, WACE and even JAMB.’ Working with these young ones has also given me the opportunity to counsel lots of them. I have saved lives; I have met with young people at the verge of committing suicides and I talked them out of it. A whole number of schools have visited my museum and they gained historical knowledge, because we are among the best. As a matter of fact, we run the largest Photo Museum on Nigerian history with over 35,000 historical photos dating back to 1884.

In these days of Internet and social media, what is the place of a museum?
Yes, we do. What we have is a historical museum centred on Nigerian history. Three quarters of what we have are not in the social media; even when you find some of them, they are not in a common place where you can access them. You know, children learn faster through photos and that is why our museum is the ultimate. In all, the countries that brand themselves as world leaders, they preserve their history and store them in museums that are well taken care of and protected. Honestly, the social media do not prevent museums. Rather, it compliments it because through the museum we have a lot of historical photos to push to the social media for the world to see. For example, we are making plans to host a website that will have on display some of the photos in the museum.

Museums are storehouses of culture and history. From your experience, why are these treasure houses not getting the desired attention from government?
I feel pained, lots of pains for this. Take, for example, the National Museum at Onikan, the library attached to it has water dropping inside it whenever it rains. The National Library in Sabo, Yaba, Lagos, is collapsing and there are people there. Although I am sure some of them must have complained to the authorities concerned, but people in authority are not bothered. They are not living up to their responsibilities. In Imo State, the governor demolished the Mbari Cultural and Art Centre located at Ikenegbu. I visited it in 2015 during my tour of Eastern Nigeria. It was an open-air museum housing monumental art works that depict prosperity, peace and social life in Igboland. But now, all that is history. Very painful; I wept when I read about it and I wished it is not true. Governments-owned libraries are collapsing, books are stolen daily and the old books there are not taken care of because of poor welfare for staff.

Is there any connection between poor leadership and poor reading culture that have become way of life in our clime?
Yes; it is very true. You see, it is one thing to have a first degree and it is another thing to be able to defend the certificate. Today, the educational system is so rotten that one can buy a certificate. Undergraduates cram texts and go to exam halls and deliver it to their lecturer and walk out feeling satisfied. It is high time people read to gain knowledge and not just to pass exams. It will help the country to move ahead and make us a better and greater place. No educated person will go physical when challenged. What you see at the Upper and Lower Legislative Chambers where tables and chairs are used as weapons when provoked is due to lack of reading culture. There is no difference with what the bus conductor, who cannot express himself properly, will do when provoked. I have tried to reach out to some state governors to inculcate reading culture in their states by making them build libraries and promote reading, but they are not interested since it won’t bring money to them. They will rather under-develop libraries so that the younger ones, especially children of the poor, cannot read and gain knowledge, while they send their children to good schools abroad, where libraries are properly kept.

How do you source materials for your library and museum?
For the library, I buy books with my personal funds, though I have had some authors donate their books to us and some other organisations like the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in Lagos and Rotary Club International. They both donated about 100 books each. When students make requests for books, I go and search for them and buy for the library. For the museum, I visit different places with my camera, snapping and reshooting. I also buy pictures from old photographers, media organisations and, occasionally, I use the social media, when I am convinced the photo is accurately related to the story. I get photos from books and old magazines published in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

What is your impression of engaging state governments to invest in preservation of cultural heritage?
Very poor and most disappointing, I may say. Most of the people in government are in power for their selfish interest. A state government was to buy books from me, over 100,000 books to set up a library. Those to get the books inflated the price by 500 per cent and I refused to use my letterhead to write the letter of interest to them because of the fraud and the project was called off. Why can’t the so-called leaders lead properly? It’s very painful to see sycophants in government. I will tell you, in all sincerity, most state governments are back-peddling to help the youths become readers. They would rather send their own kids abroad to go and read and come back to lead because they understand that readers are leaders.

From free library to a free skill-training centre for women. Why the digression?
Yes; I run a free skill acquisition centre for women. It started in February 2016 and by December of the same year, we had trained 96 women for free. In 2017, we trained 1,875 in different skills. I had a funny experience of a widow, who came to me for financial help and to spur me to help her, she wanted me to sleep with her. She said she had been using money she got through this means to fend for herself and her children. At this point, I wondered how many other women were in similar situations. So, I decided that the only way to help solve the problem was to set up a place where I could empower women through acquisition of skill to fender for themselves.

In February 2016, the centre started with five sewing machines, four laptops and one computer desktop for computer training, and some catering equipment. We train women and some girls on tailoring and fashion designing, computer training, catering, bead-making, soap making (liquid/tablet & detergents), liquid disinfectant production, hat making, make-up artistry, germicide production, ankara bags and shoe-making among others. From our records, until December 2017, the centre has organised 296 skill-training programmes and has trained a total of 1,875 women in different skills for free.

You have called on people to collect and keep stamps because it is one of the hobbies that could easily rake in money. Of what use are stamps to museums?
Stamp collecting, which is called philately is of high value, as a hobby. It is a hobby one can start with N100 at age 10 and by the time you are 50 years, your N100 worth of stamp would be valued for N100,000. It’s like artworks; the older it stays the more valuable it becomes. Stamps represent the history of each issuing country because they are quite historic. Each stamp has a rich history behind it and some depict culture, too. My eyes were opened to the importance of stamp collection, while in secondary school, when I visited a stamp club in Lagos, where I met a lot of stamp collectors. I realised the value in stamp collection and went on collecting it. I also collect post cards, bank notes, coins, marbles, stones, plastics and toy cars. I have coins from about 123 different countries across the globe. Stamp collection is the king of all hobbies in the world and I will encourage the younger ones to get addicted to it. They can do more research work to get more information on this world class hobby.

When do you hope to expand the facility to include the storage of other archival materials?
That is quite true. I do have visitors from all over the world. It is one of the projects we have earmarked to carry out; by the time we are through with it we shall be on our way to having the largest information and historical research centre in Nigeria and Africa. We have need for a bigger space for the library, museum and the skill centre. For example, our library has a collection of close to 27,000 registered members over the last 14 years. We have all their phone numbers and emails. So, just imagine if 100 people decide to visit us at once? Presently, our sitting capacity can take only 15-18 persons, depending on the arrangements, but our resources are massive.

Aside publishing The National Biographer and African Dame magazines, you recently published books on women, including Nigerian First Ladies, which chronicled the achievement of first ladies from first republic to 2014, as well as 100 Notable Nigerian Women. Why these books on women?
I love women – my mother, wife, daughters, my thousands of girlfriends; I respect women because I believe they are not cared for enough, and people hardly give them the honour and respect they deserve. So, I write books to expose their good qualities and achievements. I want men to appreciate and respect them. We have great women leaders in Nigeria, but most times our focus is always on the men. Pushing women to the frontburner is what motivates me to focus on women. My book, Her Excellences –– First Ladies Of Nigeria has its foreword written by Nigeria’s first First Lady, Noble Lady Victoria Nwanyiocha Aguyi-Ironsi, who happens to be the oldest living first lady. The late Prof. Dora Akunyili wrote the forward of my other book, 100 Pioneer And Remarkable Women In Nigeria.

What is the linking thread for your magazine publication, museum and drive for reading?
They all have to do with managing information and appreciating historical value of Nigeria. The magazine profiles great achievers in the world; it looks at the positive side of people. Each publication comes with exclusive interviews with lots of photos to tell the story. The museum stores photos and historical data and the library creates avenue for people to walk in and study.

What is your view on returning history as a subject to be taught in primary and secondary schools?
A people without history do not exist. It is an insult to us as a nation that we depend on foreign media for our own history. The British Library has more materials on Nigerian history than all the libraries in Nigeria put together. The few materials that we have here are not taken proper care of. I beg to be corrected: Do you know that there is no record of who designed the Nigerian Coat of Arm? I have searched and have spoken to people in authority and there is no record of the designer anywhere. It is high time we return history to our primary and secondary schools. We need to know our history to know where we are coming from. This would enable us know where we are going. Anyone with the information of who designed the Nigerian Coat of Arms should please get in touch with me.


In this article:
Raphael James
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