A community youth group has set up the Jenta Read Initiative in Nigeria's Jos city. Photo: Others

By Umar Yunus

In an oft-invoked scene from the Hollywood rom-com, You've Got Mail, actor Meg Ryan's character, bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly, muses thus on reading, "Because when you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does."

Reading transmogrifies into a culture when the leisurely act of poring over pages filled with words strung together as sentences meant to educate, entertain and enrich — not necessarily in that order — is celebrated within families, institutions and societies.

The habit, once formed, makes people read widely, adequately, and independently. The culture thrives, with it, the capabilities and understanding of the human mind.

Kelly, the nerdy cult character inspired by Miklós László's 1937 Hungarian play, Parfumerie, would have been sad to note that various studies have shown reading as a culture decline globally in recent years.

The buck stops at the usual suspects: digital distractions, shrinking attention span, socio-economic instability, poverty and corruption, among others.

Writing on the wall

Nigeria, Africa's largest economy, is ranked among the countries at the bottom of the global pile regarding reading culture, according to the World Culture Score Index.

Statistics from the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education show that 38 per cent of Nigerians are unlettered. Four in 10 primary schoolchildren cannot read for comprehension.

This trend is gaining ground as efforts by the government to reverse it have proved ineffective due to corruption and bureaucratic bottlenecks.

The silver lining is that some communities and individuals have taken it upon themselves to reverse the trend by adopting various approaches. The settlement of Jenta in Jos, the capital of North Central Nigeria's Plateau State, is an example.

Concerned over the low literacy rates there, the community's youth wing has set up the Jenta Read Initiative that offers free educational and library services intending to inculcate the reading habit in members, primarily children.

Christopher Manga, one behind the project, tells TRT Afrika that the mass literacy initiative hasn't come a day too soon.

Much persuasion

"Basically, we came up with the idea when we noticed how fast our people, especially the youth, are engaging in social vices. We realised the majority of them are either school dropouts or those who have never been to school," he says

One of Nigeria's most famous literary books by Chinua Achebe was published in 1958. Photo: Others

"We decided to find a way of providing them free education so as not to give them any room for excuses. It was a huge challenge at the beginning because only some of them accepted our offer. But after much persuasion over a long period, we convinced them to join us."

Manga and his fellow literacy crusaders mobilise people who understand the value of education within and outside the community to donate books to the library. Their initial target audience was the youth and children.

"Frankly speaking, we have come a long way. During our formative days, we got to a point where members used their rooms as library spaces because we didn't have a place. We now have a building and recently purchased a piece of land for expansion," he says.

Apart from helping members continue their education, the library offers computer training and video presentations for children on weekends. Members can also borrow books to read and return within two weeks.

According to Manga, the Jenta Read Initiative has shaped the lives of many young people who might have gone astray otherwise. As he happily points out, "they are useful to themselves in particular and society at large".

The movement spreads

It's the same story at both Tudun Wada and Anguwan Rukuba communities in Jos.

The young educationist and writer Wungakah Tongjal champions another approach to promoting reading culture. His book, The University Library, highlights a library's multiple functions and importance to its users.

Tongjal also talks about making a library attractive to people, thereby drawing them in and helping them reawaken the habit of reading.

"The basic argument is that the library is a place not just for books. There is more to a library than just a place for keeping books," he tells TRT Afrika.

40% of pupils in Nigeria cannot read for comprehension according to official figures. Photo: AP

"Part of the aim of writing the book is to speak of ways to make the library attractive and appreciable. Public libraries in countries like ours don't look inviting, and there's little maintenance. Making these spaces beautiful will draw people's attention and make them more interested in reading and telling stories."

More comfort

Tongjal has developed a unique educational approach called "Bookmathics" to encourage teenagers to engage with books. According to him, the project offers a different approach to teaching from what it used to be.

"The basic aim of Bookmathics is to achieve scientific literacy and appreciation for learning, both of which will make the young ones lifelong learners. I want them to see learning as not just a thing for a classroom or any such formal setting, but a process that can take place in different ways and forms," he explains.

He believes holding classes outdoors provides students a varied setting with multiple possibilities and stimulates different learning abilities.

"The choice of outdoor class offers a wider range of comfort than a normal classroom. The students get absorbed by the scenery and nature, giving them freedom to want to express themselves and learn more," he says.

Janet Farding, under the Jarding Reading Garden and Resource Centre, offers her space free of charge to people who need a serene environment to read, write or engage in any educational activity.

Recreating passion

According to her, the serenity of the environment attracts those who need a secluded space to operate without distraction.

Jarding says her decision to contribute to the initiative was informed by her desire to encourage people to engage more in reading, a culture she has observed is on the decline compared to what it used to be in the past.

"Reading books was a pastime when we were growing up. There are now many distractions that make reading less relevant to children. So, to recreate the passion of reading in young ones, we devised an attractive initiative to quickly reignite the habit of reading in them."

Besides a space that soothes as much as it enhances the pleasure of reading, Jarding's centre offers a book exchange programme to widen the initiative's scope. And just like at The Shop Around the Corner that Kelly inherits in You've Got Mail, love happens when words meet eyes at the right place.

TRT Afrika