Benefits of UNESCO World Book Capital as Port Harcourt reign ends



FOR one year, Port Harcourt, the capital city of Rivers State served as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Book Capital. That reign ended last Thursday, when the city handed over Incheon, a city in South Korea, which is the 2015 UNESCO World Book Capital.

While the reign lasted, the Nigerian city, which also witnessed some very troubling political happenings as well as maiming of political opponents, needless violence and several deaths, contributed its quota to stimulating interest in books and reading around the country.

The designation runs from UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day (April 23) of one year until April 22 of the following year. That perhaps explains why the handing over took place on a day set aside to attract attention to the need to respect and protect intellectual property rights across the world.

By way of introduction, the title of “World Book Capital” is conferred by UNESCO, on a city in recognition of the quality of its programmes to foster the promotion of books and to encourage reading.

Initiated in 2001, the city of Madrid, Spain blazed the trail in the concept as it was the first ever city to be bestowed with that title. It was followed by Alexandria in Egypt in 2002 and New Delhi, India in 2003.

Port Harcourt, the immediate past World Book Capital City, is the second African city and the first sub-Saharan city to be so honoured.

The brain behind Port Harcourt’s emergence remains the Rainbow Book Club, based in the oil city, which submitted a bid to UNESCO with the support of the Rivers State government, which was actually instrumental to the choice of the city as the 2014 UNESCO World Book Capital.

With the theme: “Books: Windows to our World of Possibilities”, Port Harcourt beat 10 other contenders to clinch this nomination, which many believe has had a catalytic effect on the Niger Delta region. In other words, the honour done the city is believed to have helped in creating a band of social change agents who will collaborate and actively participate in building a peaceful, prosperous society having been informed and empowered by reading.

Amongst the criteria that the nomination committee looks before designating a city are: the degree of participation of all levels (from the municipal to the international level; the programme’s potential impact; the scope and quality of the activities proposed by the candidates, and the extent to which they involve writers, publishers, booksellers and libraries; any other projects promoting books and reading and the extent to which the programme respects the principles of freedom of expression, as stated by the UNESCO constitution as well as by Articles 19 and 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by the Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials.

In her address at the opening ceremony of the Incheon World Book Capital 2015, the Director of Rainbow Book Club and Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014, Mrs. Koko Kalango, highlighted the many virtues of the book and why it continues to be a sort-after commodity in spite of the socio-economic problems that often militate against it.

In her address at the event, Kalango recalled, “Nigeria became the World Book Capital amidst mixed feelings of joy and grief. Nine days before this historic occasion, Boko Haram abducted over 200 girls from a high school in Chibok; an Islamist extremist group that believes western education is evil.  It seemed ironical that the book was being brought to focus, against the backdrop of a retrogressive and dangerous movement directly opposed to the ideals of the World Book Capital initiative. Such tragedy, if anything, should challenge us to continue to work to rescue our society from the grip of those who stand against the progress and liberty that education brings.”

She continued, “The plight of the missing school girls was given prominence by Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate for literature, Professor Wole Soyinka, in his keynote address at the Port Harcourt World Book Capital opening ceremony, where he called on the Nigerian Government to ‘bring back the pupils.’ His alarm triggered off the now worldwide campaign with the slogan ‘bring back our girls’. Soyinka’s call for the return of the schoolgirls has been echoed by thousands around the world including Malala, (the girl-child education activist), and Michelle Obama.

Ironically, barely a week after Port Harcourt ended its reign as the World Book Capital, the Nigerian military Tuesday announced the rescue of 293 females from the notorious Sambisa forest in Bornu, some of which are believed to be the now famous Chibok schoolgirls.

Kalango continued, “Two days after the Chibok girls were kidnapped, 304 people, mostly students from the Danwon High School, here in South Korea lost their lives in a boat mishap when the MV Sewol sank just off your coastline.

“A year has gone by but the pain and agony of these tragic incidents remain with Nigeria and South Korea. In spite of these terrible occurrences, and the many challenges of the world in which we live, the book continues to stand out, the repository of the written word, enabling mankind pass on information, and therefore knowledge, from generation to generation. Today the book has brought us together as a family, united by a shared thirst for knowledge, linked by the common desire to advance the written word for benefit of the individual, the society and our world.

“For Port Harcourt, our tenure as World Book Capital has been one of excitement, new discoveries and ‘possibilities,’ which was our theme for the year. We had a rich and varied array of programmes for a wide reach and maximum impact. There were programmes for children and youth, arts and culture, library and community development and deliberate plans for sustainability beyond the World Book Capital year,” she submitted.

Asked by The Guardian to state some of the benefits that have accrued to the country on account of being the host of the immediate past World Book Capital, Kalango said, “Some are tangible others and intangible.”

“It brought education to the forefront of our national consciousness and triggered off more attention to the books in our personal and national life. It also put Nigeria on the world map for achievement related to books – an area where we have unparalleled laurels with authors such as Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka; Chinua Achebe – the author of Africa’s most popular novel, Things Fall Apart and Zainab Alkali. It also shone light on Port Harcourt authors like Chimeka Garricks, Gabriel Okara, Elechi Amadi and Kaine Agary, as well as the younger generation of authors like Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Chika Unigwe, Chibundu Onuzo.

Further more, “it showcased Nigeria’s rich literary heritage – our authors and literature and boosted tourism in the sense that as a result of this nomination, we had several new visitors to Nigeria and Port Harcourt in particular. We collaborated with several international partners and as a result of the various programmes they came to Nigeria. Such collaborations include partnership with UNESCO, PEN International, HAY Festival. Also this year, the Port Harcourt Book Festival had more international participation.

In addition to these, “We have represented Nigeria on the world stage by participating in various international book fairs in Cape Town, South Africa, London, United Kingdom and Frankfurt, Germany. These outings helped create awareness of our literature and encourage discussions around as we also organised discussion forums with Nigerian and African authors.

“We have groomed writers through the Writers in Residence Programme, which resulted in a publication of an anthology of the 12 authors who participated. We also continue to run writers workshops during the PH Book Festival. Again, we had a writing exercise that involved secondary school students in Rivers State and from around Nigeria. In addition, we organised a national essay competition for students in tertiary institutions.

In the course of the year we organised an adult literacy class through which we have passed on lifelong skill of reading and writing. This is a skill that would help with dissemination of information, which has a spiral effect on health, safety, general wellbeing of those who participated.

From this World Book Capital year we would have published eight books, four of which are anthologies, two are the products of a writing exercise with children in Rivers State and children from around Nigeria while two are a record of the WBC year.

“We have promoted Nigerian and African writers by featuring a book of the month in the 12 months of our tenure, and have nurtured artistic talent by collaborating with the University of Port Harcourt to adapt our books of the month for stage performances.

“We have been able to set up 12 “seed” libraries in indigent communities such as orphanages, prison, home for street children, home for handicapped children. We have run 200 book clubs in 100 schools in Port Harcourt and through this exercise over 68, 000 books have been donated to the libraries in these schools,” she stated.

Kalango, who is the Festival Director of Garden City Literary Festival added, “ We have built human capacity by training teachers and volunteers to run book clubs for sustainability even after the year. We have also trained the volunteers in several other skills, which would remain with them. We depicted the history of the book in Nigeria through an epic dance drama and collaborated with some prominent Nigeria musicians to come up with a WBC theme song. By this, we also took the reading campaign into the domain of popular music culture for wider appeal.”

On the level of success the initiative enjoyed, Kalango, who studiedFrench at the University of Benin and International Relations and Strategic Studies at the University of Lancaster, England said, “Statistics from our measurement and evaluation records suggest that we have made appreciable impact on the society. Also, the feedback we get from participants in the various programmes are very encouraging.

“But with an endeavour of this nature, the true level of success may not be immediately apparent. This programme would have a long-term effect. It’s true benefits may be felt more in the years to come. I believe that change has begun in our society, through the book. There is a renewing of the mind that should result in better values and character building, particularly amongst our young people that would ultimately change society for the better.”

On what would have been done differently, if the same opportunity were to present itself again, she responded, “In the light of where we found ourselves and the resources made available to us, considering the obstacles we faced and the frustrations we experienced in running this programme, we did our very best. We worked with all our heart.

We are grateful to Governor Chibuike Amaechi for this opportunity. It would have been great if more support had come from the private sector and the Federal Government.

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