Recently I was invited to be one of the judges in the maiden edition of the Channels Book Club Literature Prize organized by Channels Television. When Kunle Kasumu the Channels book club presenter first contacted me about being on the panel I had said “Yes” without much thought my interest grabbed at the first instance by the target of the prize; teenagers in Nigerian Secondary schools between the ages of 12 and 19.
The talk of the abysmal reading culture in the country has been repeated almost to the point of cliché. While the older generation, my generation seem to have given up on itself like some lost course that can never be redeemed, many commentators have continued to state that the hope for reviving a vibrant book culture, one that was sure to increase literacy at all levels, revive the publishing industry, produce for us more writers with world acclaim and generally retune our minds to the things that matter lied in (to borrow the words of Chimamanda Adichie) “brain washing” the younger ones so that they grow with a different world view from ours and go back to those things that helped societies evolve to become great. In other words, there is need for concerted efforts at all levels to make the book hip again.
This is what Channels Television is doing through this prize for literature and it is most worthy of commendation.
Being part of this maiden edition has been quite an enriching experience. In truth, it has turned out more work than I initially imagined but all the same very fulfilling. A fulfilment borne out of appreciating the important role one was playing in finding a teenage literary laureate for Nigeria and more importantly, giving a generation of talented young Nigerians a reason to continue reading and writing their own stories.
Seemingly as a tribute to the late literary icon Chinua Achebe who passed earlier this year and who continues to be celebrated world over, the competition chose his best-selling novel Things Fall Apart as the book for this year’s competition. The participants were to, in the first stage of the competition, read the book and write an essay or review of it.
It is amazing the response and enthusiasm the children have shown. Reading through the pile you get the feeling that reading the book, researching about it online or getting clarifications and guidance from parents and teachers has been a journey of revelations for the participants. The organizers couldn’t have chosen a more apt title. For many of the Children, it was evident that this story about the once peaceful and organized African society and how the white men came and disrupted it all was both an important expose into who they were as Africans and also an introduction of sorts into the age old African story telling tradition that now seems all but gone.
Of course there were the sloppy entries, the ubiquitous challenges of spellings and tenses, the overtly polished ones that reeked of adult assistance and plagiarism. But in all, I thought Chinua Achebe would be proud in his grave about this bunch.
Appreciating that parents and teachers might have quite innocently assisted in some of the entries, the organizers thought it wise to have a second stage where the best ten entries would be invited to Lagos and be tested once more in their writing and well as presentation ability. This to ensure that the winner who will be enjoying a sponsored trip to the Frankfurt Book fair – the biggest book party in the world would be one who truly deserves it. Other prizes lined up includes a sponsored trip to the Ake Arts and Book festival which promises to be the biggest the country has witnessed yet, for the runner up and lots of books worth several thousands of Naira for all those on the short-list.
It is said that mighty oceans are a collection of little drops. What Channels television through the Channels Book Club has done by initiating such a laudable initiative is essentially taking the front seat in the drive to return this country to a reading nation. While there has been lots of activity for the adult writers with prizes, the latest being the Etisalat Literature Prize, geared towards encouraging literary craftsmanship being introduced, not much focus has yet been given to the most important segment where these talents are to be identified and nurtured into international stardom. It is therefore worthy of commendation and I think John Momoh and his team deserve to stand up and take a bow.
The call goes out now, to other corporate organizations, those who have a huge annual budget for CSR that hardly adds any value, those who have in their beautifully worded mission statements, lines announcing their intention to build future leaders or create value by supporting ideas, those whose continued existence in the long term is dependent on the existence of a literate population, to emulate such initiatives and be seen, not to be giving back something because good corporate governance practice requires that you do, but to channel the resources into worthwhile activities that truly count.