23 April 2014

A STROLL WITH KOKO KALANGO (For World Book and Copyright Day)

                    "A room without books is like a body without a soul" ~ Cicero

Today, history will be made in the literary world, as the first sub-Saharan African city will be crowned 'World Book Capital City'. A title bestowed by UNESCO on cities around the world who have good programmes that support reading, books, and literacy. In her congratulatory message to Port Harcourt, the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova said, "I extend my congratulations to the city of Port Harcourt for the quality of its proposed programme, which provides for extensive public participation and aims to develop reading for all..."

My guest today is the brain behind this feat. Mrs Koko Kalango is one of Africa's leading book activist who started her book activism in 2005 with a goal to see kids in rural communities in the Niger Delta reading again. Well, a couple of years after, here she is organizing the 'world cup of books'--if I can call it that. Such a great story she has, and it's that story she'll be sharing with us in course of this stroll.

Who is Koko Kalango? What's her secret? How did she quickly grow to international recognition in the twinkle of an eye?--or should I say in the flip of a page. This and many more on my stroll with Koko Kalango. Sit back and enjoy.

Ebenezar: Thank you so much for making out time to stroll with me, Ma.

Koko: You're welcome Ebenezar, happy to talk with you.

Ebenezar: Let's start from the beginning, your childhood. I once heard you say, you read a lot of books while growing up, and that helped to give you a solid academic foundation. Using yourself as a case study, what can you say about the effect of reading on a child's mind?

Koko: (laughs) well, If I'll use my example, I come from a family that values education. My father was a lawyer, and he later became a judge. My mother started one of the oldest nursery--and it became primary--schools in Port Harcourt. So, it is in that environment which I grew up. I always saw my father reading newspapers, and my mother usually read women's world and Reader's digest. In the evening, you'll see them having a cup of tea and just reading together. I had so many books all around me and so I grew interested in reading.

Ebenezar: Okay?

Koko: Reading builds a child up in different ways. Reading makes you travel to places you may not be able to go to physically. I believe reading also develops a curios mind, and that's what true education is, it's about being able to access situations; looks at things from different angles...

Ebenezar: Very true.

Koko: So, reading broadens your intellectual horizon. It helps you tap into what other people are thinking. When people research and put that information in a book, you are able to share in that knowledge by reading. Reading also builds your vocabulary, it gives you a better grasp of the language. When you read well, you write better.

So parents who care about the academic performance of their children--and that should include every parent--should understand that children do better when they read. Not necessarily to pass exams, but just to get into the habit of reading.

Ebenezar: Thank you, I totally agree with you on that. Still talking reading, today is world book and copyright day and apart from encouraging the reading culture, another aim of today's observance is to highlight the copyright laws in different countries. Do we really have copyright laws in Nigeria?

Koko: Yeah, we do have copyright laws in Nigeria. We even have a copyright commission with their head office in Abuja, but I think the challenge is, how much of these laws are being enforced? That's the problem! I usually say something that makes people laugh sometimes, but it has a very strong message and it is, "If you want to know a best seller book in Nigeria, don't go online, don't look for polls, just check which books are being hawked in the traffic"

Ebenezar: (Hahah) that's so true..

Koko: (hahaha) Yes, because that's where you see many pirates sampling their products. So it's the enforcement of these laws that is really an issue. Once a book is recognized, the pirates go to work. Once a book enters the curriculum, the pirates go to work as well. So instead of people to buy from the publishers they prefer to patronize these pirates and..

Ebenezar: ...buy the cheap copy like I do sometimes? (hahah)

Koko: (hahaha) Exactly, so you can see, you can even attest to it. It's an attitude fix we need. Because if these laws are rightly enforced, people will be encouraged to write more, knowing that their creative effort will not be wasted.

Ebenezar: that's true, we hope something is done quickly.

Koko: Yes we do.

Koko speaking at the opening ceremony of PHBF
(Image Credit: Sahara Reporters)

Ebenezar: Okay, so let's talk about you... You're one of Africa's leading book activist. You're organizing readings, overseeing the Rainbow book club, traveling from place to place. Do you still have time to read?

Koko: (chuckles) Well, yes I read everyday. For survival I need to read my bible.

Ebenezar: (hahaha)

Koko: Yeah, So I do that, and I still make out time to read. It may not be as much as before, but I read the papers every day and when I want to relax, I pick up something light.

Ebenezar: Light? Okay?

Koko: (haha) by that I mean, not a very serious book. I find African authors very intense and serious, and I believe it's a good thing because of all we've gone through as a race. But when I want to relax, I take something lighter.

I pick up, maybe a tabloid and I just read it to laugh. There's always something light and silly in it.

Ebenezar: Do you have any favourite author?

Koko: I don't want to sound like a cliche, but I seriously love Chinua Achebe's works. He's one of my favourite story tellers. One of my favourite books of all time is Mariama Ba's 'So long a letter', I read it in french. Mariama was senegalese--she's late--and the book has a very simple and beautiful story line. I like books that are very simple to understand like Chinua Achebe's works.

Ebenezar: Wow, that's great. Still talking reading, you started the 'Get Nigeria Reading Again' campaign in 2005 right?

Koko: Correct...

Ebenezar: And many great authors and literary figures pledged their support to the campaign back then, but looking at that goal 9 years down the line. Is Nigeria reading again?

Koko: well, I'll want to believe we are reading more than we were reading before. Why do I say that? I say that because, there's more attention to the issue of reading around the country. When we started, we did not hear other voices talking about reading, but right now, we can hear so many echoes all around. It's really a great sign of progress.

Ebenezar: Okay, talking about progress, the rainbow book club, which you founded about a decade ago, has made so much progress both nationally and internationally. You've grown from organizing small readings for children in rural areas; and book festivals to actually winning the the World Book Capital City bid. What have you learnt from the transition?

Koko: Well, it's a simple biblical lesson I've learnt. If you're faithful in little things, you'll be given more.

Ebenezar: that's like the great summary right?

Koko: Yeah, that's the summary of it all.

Ebenezar: Port Harcourt is the first sub-Saharan African city to be called world book capital city, and in fact the first African city to be nominated by public bid. The eyes of the literary world is on Port Harcourt and on you. How does this make you feel?

Koko: it's a very exciting thing. It's an incredible opportunity and throws a challenge which we are not daunted by; we are not shying away from. We are taking it headlong and our vision is to deliver the best world book capital ever.

Ebenezar: To mark World book capital city, libraries will be built, competitions will be organized, reading clubs will be started, there'll be workshops... My question is what are some measures put in place to ensure continuity of these programs after 2014?

Koko: For the rainbow book club, we are implementing programs, and the World Book Capital year is just a beginning of the next phase of our work. It's not the end. Most things we are doing this year are things we've planned to do a long time ago. The vision of our work has always been Africa, and what the world book capital city has just done is to give us a better opportunity to express ourselves. We actually expect to see a multiplication in our efforts.

Yes, training is very important in what we're doing and so presently we are training about 300 teachers to run book clubs in primary and secondary schools. We have already organized programs that will keep off after 2014 to ensure sustainability in the whole process.

Koko and Gov Amaechi reading to School kids
Ebenezar: Wow, well done Ma. You know sustainability and continuity is also a problem in Nigerian Government today. We have successors who don't like to continue projects started by the predecessors, and considering the fact that the Rainbow Book club has enjoyed enormous support from the current governor of Rivers state, do you have any fears that things will get difficult after the general elections next year?

Koko: No, I don't have any fears. Our work is a development work which is beneficial to the society, and development partners play a role which is complementary to Government. I don't think it's a work that can be ignored. I even believe it will actually grow stronger after this governor's tenure.

One of the things we've done to ensure independence, the annual literary festival for instance, is being held by an organization with a board of trustees. So plans are on and I express no fears whatsoever.

Ebenezar: Okay, as a book activist you've achieved almost everything any book activist could dream of. Personally, you're one of my role models and I just keep asking myself, is there any thing still left for her to do? Do you see yourself retiring soon?

Koko: well, at this tender age of 47, why will I be thinking of retiring?

Ebenezar: (hahah)

Koko: I also don't agree that I've achieved everything anybody can dream of. I'm just at the beginning. For me personally, God has graciously given me different gifts and there's still so much I want to do before I find total fulfillment. One of the things I'll still do is, write books. For some time, I've been encouraging people who are writing but I also have my own books. Some of them are manuscripts and by the grace of God once the World Book Capital project is over, I'll be able to step back and publish my own books.

Koko Kalango and I after our stroll
Ebenezar: Final thought, in course of your career you've met many great writers and I'll like to know if you have any advice for young writers who hope to make it to the top of the literary world someday.

Koko: if you want to make it to the top, you have to work hard. Don't look for shortcuts, it doesn't work! If you get there through a short cut you'll come crashing down. And I'll like to end by saying what has being the testimony of my work, when you're faithful in little much more will be given to you.

Ebenezar: Thank you so much for having this stroll with me, Mrs Kalango.

Koko: Thank you Ebenezar, the pleasure was mine.

For more about Koko Kalango and to follow the Port Harcourt World Book Capital City 2014,  click here 

Reading has really impacted me in ways my pen cannot even explain. It has opened my mind to world hidden from the naked eyes, and infact I'm so addicted to books right now that, these days it's part of my fashion. (Haha) Yeah, I walk around with a book and read in the bus; on the bank queue; everywhere. Somehow I think I make people around me feel bad for not reading (hahah) maybe..

So I'll encourage you to read something today--and henceforth. Like a wise man would say, "if a book is too much, read a chapter. If a chapter is too much, read a paragraph. If a paragraph is too much, read a sentence. Just makesure no day goes by without you flipping a page."

Congrats again to Port Harcourt and Mrs Kalango for the #PHWBCC2014. I wish us--cos incase you don't know, I'm from Port harcourt boy ☺--the best Book capital city ever.

Till my next stroll on April 26th--World Intellectual Property day--with Jonathan Strickland, tech blogger on How Stuff works and Discovery; Jesus loves you.

           "Sensible words are better than gold or jewels" (Proverbs 20v15 CEV)


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