HOW I STARTED PORT HARCOURT BOOK FESTIVAL – Koko Kalango
Mrs. Koko Kalango is the delectable lady behind the Port Harcourt Book Festival which thousands now look forward to attending every year. A true ‘Port Harcourt girl’, the mother of two shared the story of how it all began with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine…
Can we meet you? Tell us about yourself…
As you know, my name is Koko Kalango. I’m the founder of the Rainbow Book Club and the Project Manager of the Port-Harcourt Book Capital Project. I am a Port Harcourt Girl (Laughs). That’s how we call ourselves, if you call this city your home. I grew up here. My family house is there; my mum founded one of the earliest private schools – nursery/primary schools here. It’s like 36 years now. My dad was a lawyer; he became a judge. I’m the last daughter of the family and we grew up appreciating education. We grew up to value education more than anything. So, you blame my parents for the work I’m doing now (Laughing). I’m married to a very wonderful, kind engineer and I have two children. I have a daughter and a son, both in secondary school.
Your romance with books, how did it start?
It started at home. My father was a voracious reader and I had always seen him devouring the papers. My mother; she will be reading Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Own magazine. So, in the evenings, they will be having their tea and reading. That’s just how I grew up. All my siblings are doing something incredible in education in the society. So, that’s how it started. It’s a hobby, it’s a passion and it’s also out of burden. As you grow older, I talked to myself – we are always complaining about Nigeria – what can I do? God has blessed me so much, He’s been so good to me and I think I can’t keep it to my two children who are excelling in school, doing very well; my husband has a good job, I’m okay. What about the other children?
The Port Harcourt Book Capital, what led to it, what prompted it?
I believe you mean the Book Festival? (Yeah!) The annual Book Festival was Governor Amaechi’s idea. The Rainbow Book Club had been doing its work; we were doing our work. When Governor Amaechi was Speaker, he attended a session. We had started our Get Nigeria Reading Campaign in 2005. We kicked it off with Chimamanda (Adichie). She had just written Purple Hibscus. In 2006, Prof. (Wole Soyinka) came for our Get Nigeria Reading Campaign and the Governor came. He was Speaker of the House (of Assembly) then. So, he sat there. In fact, we have the photographs and we didn’t really interact because I was too busy organizing. When he came into office, he now was looking for me. Apparently, I too was looking for him, to read for children for me. So, it kind of co-incided. My friend, Dakuku Peterside, I reached him. I said please, I need the Governor to come and read to children for me. So, Dakuku sent the message and he said I’ve been looking for Mrs. Kalango, ask her to come here. So, I went and he said I’m giving you this assignment. I want us to have a festival that brings writers from all over the world to Port-Harcourt. That’s what he said to me and later I would learn, he would say in public, that he had been to other bodies to give them that assignment, but nothing had come out of it. So, he gave it to us and by the grace of God, this is year seven that that festival will hold. It has been holding since 2008 and it has been growing, I believe, in scope and in impact and in quality.
What is your vision for the Book Capital?
My vision is to become the premier festival on this continent; on the continent of Africa. So, I want Port-Harcourt to be the book capital. I would have said book capital of Africa, but we are even book capital of the world. I want Port-Harcourt to be the centre for books on this continent. That when you are saying where you should go when you are talking about books, what is happening in the literary world in Africa, I want it to be Port-Harcourt.
So far, you’ve been able to attract some quality writers. Which writer would you want to attract but hasn’t been able to?
Hmmm! I don’t think I have any favourite. We keep our ear open. We are always reading, seeing what is happening, where are we having new writers and all that. Maybe I will like to attract people who are writing not just core literature, but other things as well. I want the business writers to come; I want the motivational as well. Science-fiction, other things. Not just core literature, because as I said, I’m married to an engineer. So, I’m living with someone who sees things from the other side. So, I want to be able to reach those sort of people as well with that reading campaign and there will be children in our midst who like my husband are interested in Engineering, Mathematics. I don’t want them to think oh, this is all about literature and so it doesn’t really apply to me. It’s not about literary writing, it’s about the book. So, I would want other people writing in different spheres. And I would even want influential people who have written a book for one purpose or the other. I will give you an example. The other day I told my son, do you know Samuel Eto’o? He said yeah, mummy, I know Samuel Eto’o. I said okay, I have a book about him that I got at the London Book Fair and he took the book, ah, Samuel Eto’o! So, I would want the Samuel Eto’os to come and read for me. Last year at the festival, we brought Julius Agwu. Why? We wanted to break that mode of thinking. So, we want to see other people in other sectors writing. There’s a book I love very much and I’ll like to share it with children. It’s by this surgeon, Ben Carson. Ben Carson, you won’t call him a writer; he’s a doctor. But he put his story in a book and it is changing lives. I use it. The other day, I went to my friend, one French lady, she has a home here in Port Harcourt, but out-of-school children. What story did I use to motivate them? Ben Carson! I told them about these boys that were coming last in the class in America. African-American boys. Their mother was not educated. As a single mother; but she knew that books are the windows to the world of possibilities. She took her two young boys and she said every week, two books from the library. I don’t think those boys were happy. But she forced them. Then, they started rising and they began to top their class and see what he is today. So, I would like people that are not only writers, but other people that have succeeded in different spheres; people who have a story to tell. I will like them to put their stories into books and I will like to attract them here.
Of all the writers you have attracted so far, who has excited you the most and why?
(Laughing) – I don’t know about exciting. But they bring different things to the table and I’m so grateful to them. The younger writers have brought their flair, our fathers have brought their flair. You’ve seen J.P Clarke today, Ngugi has been here, Gabriel Okara, Soyinka, Elechi Amadi. So, our fathers have been here. But we are gonna move forward and face the younger generation.
How many books do you read in a week?
I don’t read many books in a week because I can’t afford to and because I love books so much, many times I don’t even pick up a book. That may be a bad thing, but I try to read my Bible every day and my Bible is a book. But I honestly pull back myself because if I pick a book, I won’t be able to stop till I finish it. So, I hold myself back from picking books many times.
There’s this widely held belief that Nigerians don’t read. From experience, do Nigerians read?
Yes, we read. Do we read enough? Do we read as much as I would like us to read? Perhaps not. Do we know the importance of reading, I believe we do. Are we interested in literary things, I believe we do. You need to see the response we get after a programme like this; the interest! People just need an enabling environment. That’s why I’m excited about the NGO that is building us like a library, like a MUSON, for literary arts; Shell has promised; we’ve not signed the MOU because we are part of the process in terms of the ideas and all that. But I’m excited about that centre, because just like MUSON has helped music – you know you have courses, you have concepts. That centre, I believe, will pull different literary people together. Yes, they need encouragement. So, there are groups, but maybe they don’t have a place to meet that is conducive and then I know the challenges in the society. It’s not easy. So, do we read? I believe we read. You should now ask what are we reading and we should now say are we reading enough? I don’t think we are reading enough. Particularly the young people and it’s not a problem that is peculiar to Nigeria. If you travel out, you will see it as well. Everywhere. The young people are distracted by all these devices. So, it’s a real challenge we have in front of us and we are working at bringing back that reading culture.
For someone to cultivate the habit of reading regularly, what must the person do?
I think it’s just to read. But different people can push it at different fronts. Parents – the role of parents is just so important. I think the greatest lesson is what you learn observing; not what they teach you in the classroom. Maybe I will use my example. I will tell you that my parents are the greatest influence on me. They did not take a pen and write on anything, but their lives, the way they will respond to issues. My father got sacked as a judge. He was the first High Court Judge of the old South Eastern state. He was sacked because he would not allow the military to interfere with his judgement. He was just an upright judge. So, they arranged and sacked him. And in his old age I asked him, I said Papa, if this happens again, will you respond in the way you responded? With all the pains you’ve gone through. Not being able to give your children maybe the sort of education you would have wanted to. He said I would do the same thing and he said to me, cowards die a hundred times before their death. So, observing. Just seeing them read and see what I’m doing today. They never knew that just by their act of every evening, having their tea and reading newspapers, that I would love to read so much. So, by example. By example is very important and all of us as adults, I believe we are caretakers of sorts for younger people in one sphere or the other. Let’s push that to them, give them a good book for a gift at their birthday. I think the best is just the personal example.
How do you intend sustaining this project?
What I would say to you is and I keep repeating them – my work, the Rainbow work and The Rainbow vision is a trans-generational work. The work would outlive me, I would tell you that. It will go from generation to generation. How would we sustain that? In different ways. Let me take the World Book Capital Project for instance. Our plan is that after this year, the things we’ve set in motion would not just continue, but multiply. For this World Book Capital, we’ve trained almost 300 teachers and volunteers and we are working with a hundred schools in the city of Port Harcourt to set up a total of 200 book clubs, both at primary and secondary schools level. We have a robust training manual that we use to train and we’ve handed it over to the teachers. In each school, I think we’ve trained like four people. The idea is that even if we started one book club in your school or two or three; in the primary schools, it’s three; secondary, two. After that, we don’t even want to see only that number; I want it multiplied. Why? You have the manual in your hand, you’ve got the training, you have the people, let the teachers open other book clubs. On the part of Rainbow, after the World Book Capital, we would look at how to make it sustainable. Like my children, they are now in junior secondary school. I remember when they were in primary school, we paid for extra-curricular activity. If I saw a book club there, I will gladly pay for it too. So, Rainbow is gonna come up with a model where we can have franchise book clubs around the nation. Somebody can decide, I’m in Benin, I want to run a book club and they can earn money. So, it will even create employment for people and then they will earn and of course, revenue would come to us as the owner of that franchise. That’s some of the ideas we have in mind and Rainbow’s vision is actually the African continent. I don’t know when it will happen, but that is our plan. That whatever we are doing, beginning from here, we will replicate it on the continent.
Why did you settle for the name, Rainbow?
The rainbow has been used by different people to depict all sorts of things. But it’s actually a sign of a covenant between man and God. So, it’s a sign of a promise and if you know your scriptures, in the book of Genesis, after the flood, He put the rainbow in the sky and there’s a lovely scripture that we have on our book, it says when I see the rainbow, I will remember the covenant between God and man. So, I actually believe it’s a call. I try to run away sometimes when I see how big the vision is growing. I’m like how am I going to cope? But I believe it’s an assignment for our society, for our children, for our future. So, we keep at it and we know that it will only grow from strength to strength. It’s to remind me that ultimately, for this assignment, I will answer to God one day.
NB: First published May 2014
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