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  /  Articles   /  Chukwuemeka Ike: Fifty Years as a Trailblazing Novelist
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Jane Austen

It seems like a contradiction in terms to talk of a ‘gentle giant’ but there could be no more appropriate phrase to describe our icon, the distinguished writer we are celebrating today than ‘the gentle giant’. Lakshmi Kannan, an Indian writer who participated in the International Writing Programme (along with Chukwuemeka Ike) in 1987, devoted an entire short story to her meeting with the celebrated Nigerian writer and the impact he had on the entire body of writers in Iowa. It is an interesting story for many reasons. It was originally written in Tamil (a major South Indian language) and translated by the author into English, as ‘Sable Shadows in the Witching Time of Night’.  While using Ike’s actual name in the story (Vincent Ike),  Kannan uses the metaphor of the jungle (for the Iowa Writing Programme) where predatory beasts prowled about waiting to kill, strip, and devour. In this menacing environment, Vincent Ike the ‘black panther’ paraded with dignity, holding his head high unmindful of the petty goings on in the jungle.  He is a proud and upright being, proud in his bearing, proud in what he represents as a celebrated Nigerian writer, a bearer of Igbo culture and tradition. He is also in Lakshmi Kannan’s description, ‘the Gentle Giant’, the man of humility, secure in his towering greatness. The much acclaimed gathering of writers (from Europe, North and South America, Asia, the Middle East) diminishes in stature to a sweaty, marshy jungle humming with envy and ill-will.  Kannan’s preliminary introduction goes thus:

‘I ran into Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, our participant from Nigeria and a very distinguished and well-known senior writer. His novels and books were widely read in England, the USA, and other English-speaking countries…Very tall. Around six feet, five inches…And with a physique to match. It was a height that nearly made you break the neck while craning it up to talk to him. He would bear down on us from that great big height, so intimidating that it invariably made us feel small. The only thing that redeemed the situation was the expression on his face. It was always, always so gentle. Ike was soft-spoken, his voice low and well bred, his language bearing an unmistakable stamp of refinement and culture. For all his achievements, Ike was incredibly modest. With a natural inclination to respect the person he was speaking to.

He talked now about literature, the compulsive urgency that made one write….Sitting down to speak like that in a soft undertone, Vincent Ike would be suddenly transformed as soon as he got up to walk. He would then turn into a black panther. In the nonchalant grace of the walk, in the way he carried his own huge physique lightly. Every little movement of his body registered an extraordinary strength. And a dignified bearing.  A measured restraint in his speech. A thoroughbred bearing, understated. Every inch, the gentle giant…

The  black panther in the university. A pedigree panther. Poised. Burning energy coolly. A classy panther moving about with a serene self confidence.’

I have taken time to quote at length from Lakshmi Kannan’s short story because it encapsulates the essence of the man, the writer we are celebrating today and his 50 years of writing and publishing in Nigeria and abroad.  Ike’s own book on the Iowa Writing Programme bears the title To my Husband from Iowa and is written from the perspective of a woman writer and participant in the Programme. It is a fictional travelogue which characteristically combines real places and people with fictitious ones. Ike in his book is more charitable towards the gathering of writers and towards idiosyncratic behavior of individual writers than Lakshmi Kannan  is. Incidentally, the book is dedicated to Lakshmi Kannan.

I have divided my address into three sections.  1) Reading Chukwuemeka Ike for pleasure, 2)  Reading  Ike as a Scholar, and,  3)  Reading Ike as a Teacher/ Teaching Ike

Reading Ike for pleasure

The Potter’s Wheel is the book I would read and re-read for pleasure. It is a book that Ike must have enjoyed writing, that is why he decided to translate it into Igbo. In the 1970’s I was writing my PhD thesis on Infancy and Childhood in British Literature and Thought (in Australia), when my husband gave me a copy of The Potter’s Wheel to read. It was such a wonderfully refreshing experience, as I recall. The humour is sustained from start to finish. The diminutive Teacher is appropriately called Zaccaheus, and also ‘the Nri dwarf’, his wife is the ‘Tigress’. The names in the text are particularly well chosen for maximum comic effect. The book has a pictorial and visual quality about it.

The Potter’s Wheel is one of my favourite books for all time. It is set in the 1940’s Nigeria and rests on the Igbo practice of sending one’s child to be ‘trained’ in a teacher’s household. It was training in household chores, in discipline, and in material deprivation. The underlying philosophy is that the harder his life is as a child, the more equipped the person would be to face adult experiences. However, it is evident from the novel that whatever the intentions of the parents may have been, children will be children wherever you put them. They tell lies, they cheat, they hoodwink their guardians when their survival is at stake. It is a constant battle of wits between Madam and Teacher, and the children in their care. The novel has unforgettable scenes of the children’s strategies for survival, scenes of Obu’s bungling in his attempt to cook yam for Madam, hiding palm kernels between his toes to avoid being detected, and impersonating his mother in a letter to his guardian, the Teacher. With psycological realism, Ike presents the shaping and moulding of young children in the ‘potter’s wheel’ of Teacher’s household.  It is also one of the most humorous of Chukwuemeka Ike’s novels.

I wish I could read Anu Ebu Nwa (1999), the Igbo version of The Potter’s Wheel translated by the author from English to Igbo and published by University Press, Ibadan. It must have some resonances unique to the Igbo culture, and humour in the author’s native tongue. Are there reverberations, sighs and echoes which are peculiar to a mother tongue narrative that are lost to us who read the novel in English? But since the book was conceived in English before being translated into Igbo, I believe the author’s imagination is best expressed in the English language. I am grateful for the privilege of reading the novel in English and getting so much of enjoyment from it.

Others like the writer and historian Terri Ochiagha find The Bottled Leopard particularly appealing and enjoyable as a book in the School Stories genre. It is a book that people at the crossroads (between traditional culture and colonial European culture) readily identify with.

Reading  Ike as a Scholar

As a scholar and researcher I read all of Ike’s novels and began to group them for scrutiny. The Naked Gods drew my attention to academia in fiction and Ike’s satire of universities from an insider’s point of view. I noticed that the book abounds in insights into the workings of the university system, but characteristically, Ike ridicules the excesses of the system and human behavior. For instance, he parodies the setting up of committees in the University – there is the Disposal of Prefabricated Buildings committee, and the Campus Beautification committee etc. Ike highlights the deficiencies and flaws in the university system together with the immorality, selfishness, and greed of individual academics and their wives who make up the system. As a scholar I am drawn to Ike’s effective and appropriate (even unusual) use of literary devices in his books.

Having a longstanding interest in women’s writing and the portrayal of women in books written by both men and women, I took a close look at the women characters in Chukwuemeka Ike’s novels. The women here are not passive and pliant victims of social and economic subordination. There are ambitious and self-seeking women in The Naked Gods and The Chicken Chasers, powerful and domineering women like the crop of cabinet ministers we have been recently acquainted with. There are professional women in Sunset at Dawn (radiographer) and Conspiracy of Silence (pediatrician), women who assert their individuality and in some cases play a supporting role in marriage. Even in war situations the men need the support of female partners to achieve their goals. There are seductive and efficient secretaries, and there are plain immoral women. Critics have pointed out that Chukwuemeka Ike portrays his women as capable of utilizing their potential for either destructive or progressive purposes.

Fifty years ago, when Chukwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Supper was published, Nigeria was a newly emergent, independent nation. Ike was writing at a time when there was no tradition of the African novel to fall back upon or draw inspiration from, no trend to speak of.  Achebe’s Things Fall Apart had been published in 1958.  It is evident from the story of Amadi and Aduke in Toads for Supper (1965) and its sequel, Toads For Ever (2007) that Ike is first and foremost an accomplished story teller. The history of post-independence, postcolonial Nigeria can be gleaned from the human, experiential stories that make up Chukwuemeka Ike’s 12 novels and 12 non-fictional texts. The bulk of Ike’s fictional writings are city-based novels. It was the early days of urbanization, the beginnings of institutions, universities, cultural organizations, Examination bodies, and governmental organizations.  Ethnic chauvinism was at its height during this period, Nigeria having been broadly divided into Northern, Western, and Eastern regions.  Ethnic competition between the Igbos, Yorubas, and Hausa-Fulani manifested itself in the social life of Nigeria at the time. Tribal prejudices ran high with ethnic stereotyping and ethnic discrimination leading to mass hysteria later on.

It is evident from Ike’s first novel, Toads for Supper that these prejudices operated at the institutional and personal levels as well. The mirror that Chukwuemeka Ike held up to nature reflected the good and the desirable, as well as the ugly and evil aspects of human nature. Toads for Supper took on the ‘cankerworm of tribalism’ head-on, the culture conflict resulting from this is seen in the lives of Amadi and Aduke, the central characters. Simultaneously the novel brings to the fore the conflicts experienced by young people between tradition and modernity. Chukwuemeka Ike was ahead of his time in addressing these issues in his first novel.  Ike has a vested interest in the subject having married a Yoruba lady himself.  The 1965 novel ends with the two lovers being separated by cultural expectations, by ethnicity playing the dividing role in society. Nigeria was not ready for inter-ethnic unions yet. Things got much worse in Nigeria, after 1965, leading to the civil war in 1967.

Forty-two years later, Chukwuemeka Ike takes up the incomplete love story of Amadi and Aduke and reconciles the ethnic differences in a happy ending in Toads for Ever (2007).  The author obliged readers’ requests that the star-crossed lovers, Amadi and Aduke be revived ‘from the state of suspended animation’ to which he had consigned them in 1965 and be brought together.  By the year 2007, inter-ethnic marriages did not raise eyebrows or become the subject for intervention by elders in the community.  We live in a world without borders in the 21st century – the intermingling of ethnicities and races, and migrations have become widespread phenomena.  There is more information and greater understanding between people. Inter-ethnic marriages are also featured in Ike’s Sunset at Dawn (between Fatima and Dr Amilo Kanu), and The Search (between Ola and Kaneng)  It is interesting to note, however,  that in the year 2015, indigenisation and the rights of so-called settlers are still issues to be dealt with in Nigeria. The rights provided in the Nigerian Constitution are not being implemented because of ethnic chauvinism and the paranoia of state indigenes.

The title of Chukwuemeka Ike’s first novel, Toads for Supper is a conundrum which took me several years to figure out. It is a catchy title for a fledgling novel, a title that was not soon to be forgotten. Conservationists did not have to rise up to the rescue of ‘toads’ in a West African country that were in danger of becoming extinct.  Based on the Igbo saying that any child who eats a toad loses his appetite for meat, the title symbolically refers to the forbidden union of inter-ethnic marriage partners, the Igbo and the Yoruba in this case. The ‘toads’ are rehabilitated in the sequel, Toads for Ever (2007) with the happy outcome of this marriage. Most of the young readers and adult readers in the 60’s and 70’s had been acquainted with Toads for Supper.

Chukwuemeka Ike, (like Chinua Achebe and a host of other Nigerian writers) has chosen to write in English, the language of the colonizer. The early exposure to English language education is largely responsible for this. The first generation   Nigerian writers, like Ike, are comfortable with the use of the English language. It enables the writer to reach a wider reading public outside his/her linguistic group. What is more striking about Ike’s use of the English language is that he appropriates it and makes it his own. The cultural nuances of speech and custom are effectively and effortlessly conveyed by Ike in the English language without the need for a glossary or other forms of cultural explanation. So rich is Ike’s use of English in his 12 novels that two PhD dissertations have been written on it, one by a student in Ibadan and another in Jos. The Jos thesis bearing the title ‘A Linguistic Stylistic Analysis of Chukwuemeka Ike’s Novels’ (by Isidore Nnadi) has  been published as a book in Bayreuth, Germany. Critics have also focused on the ‘phoric flow’ in Ike’s novels, Ike’s use of pidgin English and slang, the lexico-syntactic characteristics in his novels, and on the stylistic peculiarities as evident in his writing. All these point to a master-stylist who is deeply concerned with the craft of fiction and who has a remarkable command of the English language in which he has chosen to ‘speak’ to the world.

From The Potter’s Wheel (1973) to The Bottled Leopard (1985) to Our Children are Coming (1990), Chukwuemeka Ike has consistently displayed a burning concern with children and youth, their education, training, and the future that awaits them.

Adolescents and young adults are at the centre of the two novels, The Bottled Leopard (1985) and Our Children are Coming (1990).  The Bottled Leopard was a WAEC prescribed text for six years which meant that secondary school children across the country have closely read it, enjoyed it, and gained insights from it. The book has also been translated into French as Fils de panthere. Chukwuemeka  Ike writes with autobiographical precision and nostalgia about the 1940’s Boarding School life modeled on the remnants of a colonial culture. Ike appreciates and approves of the discipline instilled in the school, the aim being the raising of young men of integrity who would be the future leaders of the country. The novel, at the same time raises questions about the colonial, imperialist attitudes to indigenous cultures and the conflicts arising from it. Sadly, education has deteriorated and become so devalued in Nigeria over the past thirty years that the CMS supported Government College, Ahia, in the novel (modeled on Ike’s former school, Government College, Umuahia) remains a fictitious institution with lofty and imaginary educational standards.

Our Children are Coming (1990) is an unusual novel for many reasons. On the one hand it fits comfortably when seen as part of a trilogy of novels moving from childhood to adolescence, and arriving at the depraved condition of young adults in this work. On the other hand, the ‘gentle giant’ who has hitherto benevolently approached the foibles of society with subtle jibes, and gentle humour in the two earlier texts, lashes out in vehement anger and satire in this text. Nigerian society of the 1990’s had also unfortunately changed for the worse. The injustices meted out to young people by adult society forms the focus of Our Children are Coming.  Ernest Emenyonu rightly observes that the novel is ‘structured on layers of irony, understatements, sarcasm, and satiric flashes’. (The ‘black panther’ stalking through the jungle snarls – its menacing tone reverberates through the novel). ‘Young people cannot be better than the educational system designed for them’, says Ike. The youth are victims of a corrupt adult society which throws up its hands in despair and says, ‘But, where did we go wrong?’ Chukwuemeka Ike puts his finger on the public conscience through his searching questions concerning the decay of parental power and authority in Nigeria of the 1990’s. How did the children of Eagles turn out to be vultures is the question that cannot be answered. Corruption of every kind festered at the heart of Nigerian society; the family, and the children were at the receiving end of its dubious benefits. The novel is also unusual in style and technique – part drama, part journalism. The title of the novel, Our Children are Coming is a sobering reminder that the children we have nurtured in affluence, in careless abandon, in a country that can least afford it, are indeed coming!

The seriousness of tone continues in The Search (1991) and is accompanied by the gravity of content – sociopolitical predictions and prescriptions for Nigerian society. The conversation revolves around military coups, enslavement to industrialized nations, unmitigated corruption, and ethnicity. The storyteller, Chukwuemeka Ike, continues his search for answers to Nigeria’s problems. It is a complex novel that fuses fact and fiction, historical events, identifiable people and places, and imaginary scenarios.

Ike’s novel Expo ’77 sounds the alarm bells concerning exam malpractice as far back as 1980. It is a sad comment on the decline in societal values and our educational system that our youth have perfected the techniques of exam malpractice to an extent that the author could not have imagined when he wrote the book.  Conspiracy of Silence draws our attention to the social problem resulting from ‘fatherlessness’, that is, the various situations in life when one is unable to identify one’s biological father. The causes range from illegitimacy, cultural practices, and even incest.  Ike’s novels are concerned with transforming individuals and society by drawing attention to the shortcomings and vices prevalent in society. If the choreography of corruption that is unraveling in FIFA were taking place in Nigeria, Chukwuemeka Ike would have written about it!

Chukwuemeka Ike’s bold and compelling venture into historic recording of the Nigerian civil war bears the poignant and symbolic title, Sunset at Dawn (1976). The civil war spawned a great deal of creative activity and fictional mediations in the 1970’s and beyond. There were those writers, who like Ike, had experienced the war firsthand and felt compelled to write about it. The physical and psychological impact of the war on the nation Nigeria is amply documented in the works of Nigerian writers who were participants in one form or another. Soyinka was imprisoned for more than two years during the war, Okigbo was killed in 1967, Elechi Amadi was a federal soldier and prisoner of the Ojukwu regime, Achebe and J P Clark served to publicise the Biafran cause abroad, and Chukwuemeka Ike supported the Biafran cause in various capacities. Achebe’s poetry collection, Beware, Soul Brother captures the anguish and the horrors of war and suggests the need for spiritual regeneration. Achebe’s There was a Country (2013) is subtitled a ‘personal history of Biafra’.  Forty years after the War, Achebe  records the ‘cataclysmic experience’ that changed the history of Africa. In the section, ‘The War and the Nigerian Intellectual’, Achebe has this to say about Chukwuemeka Ike:

‘Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike also supported the Biafran cause and served the Biafran people in several bureaucratic positions. Later through prolific literary output, Ike took a well-deserved place at the vanguard of the continent’s leading novelists.’ (p.112)

The duration of Ike’s novel Sunset at Dawn corresponds to the emergence of Biafra as a nation. The greater proportion of the novel was written during the war. It has the immediacy and dramatic quality of felt experience. But what sets the novel apart from other war-inspired novels is the boldness with which Ike articulates his support for the Biafran nation and records the achievements and the tragedies of that period of Nigerian history. The horrors of the civil war are placed in the context of human stories and the psychological impact wrought by conflict. Biafra was on the verge of becoming a first and truly independent African nation. Ill-equipped as they were in the years July 1967 to January 1970,  the Biafrans managed an airport, refined petrol, made rockets, dried and packaged food and constructed houses made of earthen bricks. War is not glorified however. There was a staggering loss of life on the Biafran side through air raids and the consequences of economic blockade. The novel poses fundamental questions concerning human reaction to conflict. Ike says:

‘It is children…who will find the answer after we are dead and gone. As they grow up and count the cost of this war, they must find the answer.’

Ironically, Sunset at Dawn missed being adopted as a set literature text for WAEC Advanced Level in 1978.  Government intervention prevented the process from going through, purportedly for security reasons. The voices of writers could not be silenced, however. Another generation of writers who did not actually live through the war wrote from communal memory, about the Nigerian civil war with passion and commitment.  Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty and Festus Iyayi’s Heroes are two such works which Olu Obafemi says contribute to the cathartic effect of writing about war, and bring about psychological healing. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is the writer’s attempt, in her words, ‘to engage with history in order to make sense of the present.’

Twenty years after the ethno-religious conflicts in Bosnia, the nation is still smarting from the wounds of war. Civil wars in Angola and Mozambique have left deep scars on the countries concerned.  Ethnic and sectarian conflicts have continued to fester in Nigeria, independent of the law, shredding the fabric of society with hatred and suspicion. The pogroms of 1966 and the Nigerian civil war which came about as a result of ethnocentrism, corruption, and mass paranoia cannot be put behind us without spiritual healing and social peace-building. Succeeding generations have to be correctly informed and have to come to terms with the idea and the reality of a civil war on the Nigerian soil. Reconciliation and national integration have to bring about closure so that the hydra-headed monster called sectarianism does not rear its ugly head in any other way in the future.

Reading Ike as a Teacher / Teaching Ike

As a teacher of literature I have primarily shared my enthusiasm for literature with my students. Chukwuemeka Ike’s novels have been on my course listing year after year, from the 1980’s onwards. I have drawn the students’ attention to the interconnectedness of literature and society, that understanding literature helps us to understand people and situations around us. I have trained them to read between the lines, to ‘see’ meaning in texts, and to see the inter-relationship between texts. I have also emphasized over the years that to be good writers, they have to read widely everything that comes their way. My students have  responded enthusiastically to Ike’s novels and have been able to relate readily to situations concerning young people and problems in society presented in the novels. As a result of their continuing interest, many students have written their BA dissertations on Ike’s works.  Some have gone on to research and write MA and PhD theses on particular aspects of Chukwuemeka Ike’s novels, and on Ike’s use of language and style. Great literature is a gold mine, lending itself to being tapper over and over again for fresh insights.

Chukwuemeka Ike’s book How to become a Published Writer (1991) was a product of his time spent in the English department of the University of Jos as a Visiting Professor and Writer-in-Residence, between the years 1983 and 1985. The book is in fact dedicated to those who enriched his experience at the University of Jos, being mostly students of creative writing. There is nothing more useful and valuable than a prolific and established novelist offering the ropes to emerging writers. Creative writing is often considered as being esoteric, inspired by the Muse, and moulded and shaped by individual genius. It is refreshing to be told by a practicing novelist that the repertoire of skills needed can actually be acquired (in addition to that elusive genius), and that an imaginative piece can be produced using good prose.

Ike offers pragmatic advice on writing accurately and beautifully, and on the importance of training oneself in the mechanics of good writing. The book has sections on ‘Writing Fiction’ and ‘Writing Non-Fiction’ which includes biography, memoir, and autobiography. The book is an abundant reservoir of insights into writing and information on getting published.

There is a noticeable difference between Chukwuemeka Ike’s guidebook for creative writing and other writing manuals. The African writer is not concerned with art for art’s sake – write where your inspiration leads you, as some may put it. A section in Ike’s book says: ‘What your writing can do for Society’. In that section he motivates the writer to answer the following questions: In what ways can your writing contribute to the survival and orderly progress of your society? Are we chasing after rats while our homes are ablaze, he asks. In 1991, Ike writes of   corrupt and purposeless leaders in Nigerian who perpetuate themselves in power while the cheated suffering masses watch helplessly. He suggests that rather than jump on the bandwagon of militancy, ( whether through writing or through action) it is crucial that the writer ferrets out the underlying societal problems which give rise to corruption and other vices peculiar to a developing country. Ike sees the role of the writer as multidimensional – that of dissemination of culture, documenting historical and social events, social criticism, public education, and lastly entertainment. Those who have read Chukwuemeka’s novels know that he does not preach what he does not practice.

Many students have stood on the shoulders of the Gentle Giant – he has guided them by his own practice, encouraged them by sharing information on the pitfalls and triumphs in the writing career.  In this context I must mention that at least three students of the University of Jos have written novels on the ethno-religious crises and other forms of oppression in the country and have been published.  These are Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel (on the Abacha Years),  EE Sule’s Sterile Sky (on the Kano riots), and Richard Ali’s City of Memories (on the Jos crisis).  Toni Kan (Nights of the Creaking Bed) and Abubakar Ibrahim (Whispering Trees) are short story writers who are also graduates of the University of Jos. Ike offers generous praise for his friend and mentor, Chinua Achebe who directed him to the right quarters in the 1960’s for his manuscript to be read. ‘He did not dismantle the ladder’, Ike says, ‘that took him up, to stop others from joining him on top of the Iroko’.

Chukwuemeka Ike has been vitally concerned with the reading culture, the book industry, and access to books by the common man for a very long time. From 1993 to date, he has been the President of the Nigerian Book Foundation. His efforts have gone a long way towards improving the reading culture and the book industry in Nigeria over the past 25 years. Through the Foundation, Ike has also vigorously protected copyright laws and helped prevent the piracy of books. The Nigerian Book Foundation has published three important titles edited by Chukwuemeka Ike – 1). The Book in 21st Century Nigeria and Universal Basic Education, 2). Creating and Sustaining a Reading Culture, 3).Meeting the Book Needs of the Rural Family.

During the 1980’s and early 90’s, Ike was anxious about the uncongenial publishing conditions in Nigeria, particularly for young writers. Those were the beginnings of ‘self-publishing’ when young writers took their works to cheap printers out of desperation to appear in print. Young writers found it impossible to break into the publishing industry in Nigeria unless they had been published abroad first or had won international prizes. Out of great frustration, young writers like Biyi Bandele and Ben Okri found themselves on European soil in search of publishers.  Helon Habila won the Caine prize for fiction and was wooed by Penguin and Norton before Cassava Press in Nigeria decided to publish him locally. Reputable publishing houses in the country continued to seek out established authors while the talented young writers languished in anonymity. The Nigerian Book Foundation established by Chukwuemeka Ike (who is the Founder and Chief Executive) served to encourage young writers and provide a platform for potential authors. Even schoolchildren appear in print in publications resulting from the Nigerian Book Foundations’s ventures into fostering creativity.

With a grant from the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Germany, the Nigerian Book Foundation embarked on a Reading Promotion Programme for five years in different parts of the country. The Pilot Project (1996 and 1997) saw the implementation of the Programme in Ndikelionwu (south-east), Ibadan ( south-west) and Jos (north). During the following three years (1998 – 2000) the Programme promoted the reading culture in the different zones, creating an awareness of books and the benefits accrued from reading as a mental habit and for pleasure.  I had the privilege of serving as Programme Officer for the Northern Zone.  Each zone had a library of good books available for community reading. These were transported to small towns and villages that were identified as locations for the Reading Promotion Programme – Bauchi, Damaturu, Barkin Ladi, Otukpo, Biu, Maiduguri, and so on in the North. Book displays were set up in secondary schools for three days and children and young adults were invited to attend the programme. We engaged resource persons to talk to teachers and pupils on the benefits of reading. Where a school had no library, we donated books and gave ideas on using Book-Boxes and setting up simple libraries. Whetting the appetite of children for books was a most rewarding experience. We organized reading competitions and reading-related games and activities that kept the children engaged at the Mobile Reading Workshops. The Programme that lasted five years alerted us to the dire need for books and access to reading material in different parts of the country, the need to generate texts in local languages, and the need for translation of existing material for local use. All this was done under the distinguished leadership of our celebrated writer, Chukwuemeka Ike.

It is preaching to the converted to tell this audience that reading educates, builds, and promotes understanding, that it opens our eyes to a world beyond, removes prejudices, dispels myths, liberates the mind and improves one’s language and expression. How do we make books accessible to the reading public in Nigeria? As publishers, academics, book lovers, how do we ensure that the wonderful books written by writers like Chukwuemeka Ike are widely read and appreciated? For my own part I have begun with nursery and primary school children in my community in Jos. I read to them once a week from my collection of children’s books, in the hope that it will kindle a spark somewhere, and that some of them will grow up to make reading a pleasurable, mental habit.

In 36 years at the University of Jos, I have sadly seen the quality of education deteriorate, a lot of it directly related to the decline in the reading culture. In the early days (1970’s and 80’s) we routinely gave book lists to our students as additional reading requirement. They went out to the bookstores and bought them; they used the university library extensively. The middle years (late 80’s and 90’s) were lean years of Structural Adjustment when students and their parents could not afford to buy books for reading pleasure. This was the period that introduced unapologetic photocopying of material, and sharing of books among students. This was also the period when the ‘handout’ replaced books as a cheaper version of lessons in print in some disciplines. The year2000 and beyond has seen reading reduced to cell phones. Students access the internet on their phones with such ease that they are done with reading (in the traditional sense) altogether! Their written language is the language of text messages, pithy, cryptic, and badly spelt, using acronyms in place of entire words.

It is as if students come to universities expecting everything free – fees, books, social events – or everything encased in the smart phone, that education itself is contained therein. Over the years I developed a system of lending books to students so that the few who wish to go the extra mile can read with pleasure the books they cannot afford to buy or cannot find in bookstores.

Chukwuemeka Ike’s reminiscences include the Magazine Club at University College, Ibadan which encouraged and promoted creative writing. “The University Herald’ a literary magazine funded by the College authorities provided Ike with another outlet for his short stories. The Students’ Union had another publication, he recalls, called ‘The University Voice’ which also enabled young writers to appear in print.  Chukwuemeka Ike recalls the “Textbook Act’ enacted by Mr William Simpson, Principal of Government College, Umuahia, in the late 1940’s. The ‘Act’ made it a punishable offence for students to ‘read’ (study, swot, cram) their textbooks during their leisure time. It was not an offence to read a novel for pleasure during their free time. In fact the students were required to read at least two novels a term for the joy of reading, and keep a record of the books read for inspection by the Principal. The writers of tomorrow have to be good readers.  They have to hone their skills on homegrown publications in school and the university. Where are the Reading Clubs? Are there School magazines?

We are a nation of newspaper readers but it is not everyone who reads a newspaper that ‘buys’ it. There are those who read newspapers in government offices, and those who read headlines for free from vendors on the pavement. Religious writing gets read widely, especially by women who recommend to each other American religious books and pamphlets. But we are still a long way from reading a book on a long-distance journey, reading in the Bank, or the hospital while waiting to be attended to, taking a book with us routinely when we set out from home, whatever the mission. The joke that if you want to hide something from a Nigerian, hide it in a book is no longer funny.

In this digital age in the 21st century e-publishing has opened up the market for emerging authors who need a platform to display their talents. If these e-books receive favourable reviews, they are available for purchase alongside titles by established authors on book-buying websites. But can we move to e-books without fostering and acquiring the reading culture? We are made to understand that in the West, 25 % of all books read in the years to come will be of the e-kind. Bookstores in the US are shutting down as people take to reading e-books on the kindle and other devices. Some bookstores are reinventing themselves as digital technology alters our perception of acquiring information and reading for pleasure. Bookshops in the West offer free internet access, and facilitate the downloading of e-books. They host Book Clubs, organize book readings by authors, and even offer creative writing classes and summer activities for children. Some have expanded their array of products to include jewellery, cards, music, and educational toys.

Lakshmi Kannan, the Indian writer concludes her short story ‘Sable Shadows in the witching time of Night :  ‘He walked with long strides in an unhurried grace. There were some snakes twining around his feet, some of them poisonous, some others just meddlesome….The black panther found its way through the tangled human jungle with a natural ease. It walked alone slowly, in splendid isolation. Dignified. The king of the wild jungle. The pedigree panther with a coat that shone even in the sooty darkness. Strength in every little movement. In the sinewy limbs. Walking nonchalantly amidst the screeching, smirking noisy animals in the jungle , the panther vanished into the dark continent.’

We celebrate His Majesty Eze Professor Chukwuemeka Ike, today, as many others have done all over the country. This year marks the golden jubilee of Chukwuemeka Ike’s publishing career.  We celebrate the power of the Pen, we celebrate the prophetic attributes of the Writer who ‘sees’ it before it comes to pass and who ‘speaks’ it without fear or hesitation. We celebrate the Writer’s craft, its ability to transform individuals and society through the printed word. We celebrate the Gentle Giant, his humility, commitment, and humanity. I would like to conclude with a poem written by Akachi Adimora- Ezeigbo:

The Legendry Weaver of Tales

Our song is for the One who crossed seven seas

And returned home carrying marvelous trophies.

You garland today and the future with great feats

Your Majesty, you are the jewel in our Literary Crown

Beaded with corals from the belly of rich waters.

Nigerian literature glitters because Ike wove tales

You inspired and empowered multitudinous voices.

African literature glows because you lighted undying fires

That dispel darkness, illuminate shadowy corridors.

Eze Ikelionwu XI, the Lion of ancient Ndike Kingdom

The pride of Orumba North, the wealth of Anambra,

Indeed the treasured wealth of grateful Nigeria,

Your fertile mind – your awesome creative ingenuity

Beckons us, your acolytes, to the feast of returns.

We will frequent your market and buy your wares.

You taught us well to decipher signs of the times

We are not a people that eat Toads for Supper, fat or lean

Though the danger of eating fattened toads is constant

We know that Our Children are Coming, impatient

Yet we hide our faces from the enfant terrible of this age

Let those who dare, touch the leopard’s tail, alive or dead.

It does not matter whether the leopard is bottled or not.

For the one who chases a chicken deserves a fall.

Naturally the chicken will escape unhurt

The wheel of the Eternal Potter will go round on its way

And return with manifold fortunes for the blameless.

As long as the sun rises, so will sunset follow,

Those who heed not the premonitions will not go unscathed.

It is a rare gift to see the end of something at its beginning,

But shall we expose the nakedness of our impotent gods

Before the inquisitive gaze of the supremely uninitiated?

You have been here awhile; you will be here much longer

To fulfill a destiny choreographed by divine powers.

Come, Great One, Man of Culture, accept our greetings,

As we celebrate your fifty years of wondrous creativity.

Join our communal dance of praise, in the land of the living,

For the one who deserves the highest accolade.

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