Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria is the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2014! Yes, she outclassed Oxford in the United Kingdom, Lyon in France, Yaounde in Cameroun, Moscow in the Russian Federation, Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Vilinius in Lithuania, Pula in Croatia, Incheon in the Republic of Korea, and Ganja in Azerbaidjan.
Almost unbelievable? You best believe it as week-long ceremonies to mark the event are holding in Port Harcourt from today 22nd April to 26th April, 2014.
The Port Harcourt Writers Hangout hung out with Koko Kalango, the Project Director for the PHWBC 2014 and Founder of the ubiquitous Rainbow Book Club and she shared behind-the-scenes gist of preparing a bid for the World Book Capital, the commencement and running of the 6-year long Port Harcourt Book Festival formerly known as the Garden City Literary Festival, and the establishment of Libraries in Rivers State.
We also got some background on the passion that drives this lady of books; her biggest achievement will be sure to shock you! Enjoy your read and make plans to be at the Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, Rivers State for a week filled with literary bliss.
In the Beginning
Mrs Koko Kalango candidly admits that she started reading to young children from sheer loneliness. With a childhood filled with books, reading, theatre and quality education from parents who treasured education and all things literary, adulthood filled her with a longing for the practises that had shaped her as a child.
As a housewife with time on her hands, Koko Kalango read to her children assiduously, even extending the favour to their schools where she read from time to time. “I have all kinds of certificates from my children’s schools,” she says’ “Being a mother is the most important job,” she adds.
One long summer, Koko Kalango decided to make some impact in the impoverished shanty town near the estate where she resided. She bought books on her housewife’s wages and took them over to the communities; to her dismay, she discovered that most of them could not read. Even those in in secondary schools and that raised quite a different issue.
Koko met up with a lady who could teach phonics and arranged for her to school the children. No, it wasn’t pro bono. Her huge fees were paid by smart thinking on Koko’s part. She set up a Summer Book Club for the children of wealthy parents in her estate and invested the proceeds into settling the phonics teacher. Taking from the rich to invest in the poor; wealth distribution.
Eventually, Koko Kalango brought in interns to understudy her with a huge plan of running the classes for a year in four different locations and tracking any impact they had made… and the Rainbow Book Club came into being.
“I had this dream where I would take my template to the United Nations and show them what could be done in Africa…and today that dream has been birthed.”
As part of the Port Harcourt Book Festival, the Rainbow Book Club now has the resources and experience to formalise the more informal aspects of their operations over the years. The dream has spread its tentacles into Africa and beyond.
“In 2005,” Koko Kalango vivaciously narrates, “I wrote to Chimamanda Adichie, and my letter said, ‘Dear Ms Adichie can you allow Purple Hibiscus bloom in the Garden City?’ For some reason, she replied and with sponsorship from the British Council, the ‘Get Nigeria Reading Campaign’ went live. It killed two birds with one stone; we were able to meet this vibrant new author that was everybody’s darling and kick-start the campaign to sensitize Nigerians on reading.”
“In 2008, when His Excellency, Governor Amaechi came into office, he called for us and commissioned us to birth his dream of holding an annual literary Festival and hence the Garden City Literary Festival now the Port Harcout Book Festival [PHBF] was initiated.”
Becoming a World Book Capital…
Buoyed by their success in organising the PHBF for 6 years and counting, they decided to go for gold and bid for the title of World Book Capital. She informs us that UNESCO requires that the city authorities back any bid for the title so the Government of Rivers State as well as other prominent institutions, organizations and authors signed up to support the bid.
Was it a case of favouring the underdog? Koko says an emphatic ‘No!’ “The Rainbow Book Club employed a consultant who put our ideas into the format and handled the business side of things, and we observed what our contender s were doing and tried to do even more. I believe we had a world-class bid and even the judges said so.”
‘Port Harcourt was nominated World Book Capital City 2014 on account of the quality of its programme, in particular its focus on the youth and the impact it would have on improving Nigeria’s culture of books, reading, writing and publishing to improve literacy rates.’ ~ World Book Capital 2014 Selection Committee.
6 years on, what Impact? Where are our Libraries?
Soberly, she reflects, “This issue of libraries is a serious concern but we are not the Government or the Library Board. However we keep bringing it to their attention because we cannot be the World Book Capital without functioning libraries.
Growing up, I spent Saturdays in a well-stocked library but I hear that although the structure still stands, that library has not received a new influx of books in almost thirty years. The Government has promised to refurbish and build new libraries but I am not the Government, so I cannot be held liable.”
One piece of good news though on this angle; the construction of a Cultural Centre which is a project of the PHBF in conjunction with the Port Harcourt Literary Society is on track and will include an Events Centre amongst others to raise funds for the continued running of the centre and its affiliates.
Koko smiles as she replies, “When I go home and my husband and children are clapping for me, excited about my presence in their lives, that’s my biggest achievement.”
What can we say? She loves being a wife and a mother, and despite her many achievements, some even surpassing her imaginations, a happy home is her greatest crown.
*For the schedule of exciting events at the Port Harcourt World Book Capital, visit www.portharcourtworldbookcapital.org.
Editors Note: I will be a panelist on a PHWBC Session with Upcoming Writers; the topic will be ‘Digital Publishing and Upcoming Writers; Challenges and Possibilities. It’s 9am -10am on Friday, 25th April at the Royal Banquet Hall, Hotel Presidential Port Harcourt. Do drop in and let’s talk!