Whenever I meet someone new, the first question I ask is “what’s the last book you read?” It helps me understand the type of person I’m dealing with, what to expect as the conversation progresses and the possible depth of our relationship.
The answer I get most of the time is the last recommended novel from JAMB (Independence) or the Bible. This has happened quite a lot of times and as someone in the literary space, who hopes to produce works predominantly for a Nigerian audience, it begs the question: Do Nigerians actually read?
I’ve lived in Nigeria all my life and here’s one thing I know for sure: Nigerians are utilitarian. We are the type of people who pick functionality over aesthetics. We have this culture of managing things. Our mindset is If it’s not broken, why fix/change it? We can pay ridiculous amounts of money for the essentials of life–water, shelter, electricity and DSTv–but we aren’t the type of people to splurge on a moment.
If a Nigerian budgets five thousand naira to spend on food, he or she would rather buy foodstuff from the market, make the most of the ingredients and store the leftovers as opposed to spending it at a restaurant somewhere.
Why do we do this? Is it ingrained in who we are or a function of our socioeconomic situation? Could it be both? I don’t know.
To say Nigerians don’t read would be a gross generalization because there are so many factors to consider, of which, the most important in my opinion, is class.
I think Nigerians who are wealthy enough to afford books and actually enjoy holding the hard copy version of books instead of downloading pirated versions online, do buy them. But there aren’t many people like this. Not in this country.
Most of us simply can’t afford to buy books that aren’t our school texts. That’s why you find a lot of us, Nigerians who are passionate about reading, on platforms like Wattpad or Anybooks(up until recently) or Okadabooks where we can read works for free or at a cheaper rate.
To say Nigerians do read books would be a gross generalization as well.
No one is going crazy over the latest novel or excited for it’s movie adaptation. I can boldly say that finding a Nigerian who enjoys reading books (especially fictional books by Nigerian authors) is like finding a needle in a haystack. Almost always, said person is a writer or an editor or a relative of both.
The national library has been an unfinished building for a decade now and rumour has it construction stopped after Obasanjo’s presidency (2006).
And yes, the largest library in West Africa is in Nigeria (University of Nigeria, Nsukka), but as someone who spent a year at Nsukka and actively used the library, I know that most of the books there aren’t accessible to the general public, and those that are are sitting on shelves with dust bunnies.
Will we ever become a people with a palate for reading? Will we ever become a people that become lost in the words of great minds and develop an appreciation for literature enough to pay the price for it? Questions left unanswered.