SDG4 focuses on education and aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” It includes seven targets, which cover eliminating disparities in accessing education at the early childhood and primary levels based on gender, ability, and other socio-economic factors and, as much as possible, encouraging all women and men to stay through to the tertiary level; ensuring that all youth and a large proportion of adults are literate and numerate; and ensuring that all learners can get the knowledge and skills needed to gain employment and contribute to sustainable development.
When we talk about education and learning, most people’s first thoughts go to formal institutions of learning. However, as a continent, where learning has traditionally existed outside of the school walls and where knowledge has been historically passed from one generation to another by telling stories and other oral traditions, like songs and poetry, literature and the arts have been significant pillars in knowledge-building and dissemination across Africa.
Formal learning starts in early childhood and even though primary education is officially free and compulsory in Nigeria, according to UNICEF, only 35.6% of children aged 36–59 months receive early childhood education, while only 61% of 6- to 11-year-olds regularly attend primary school.
Data from the Nigerian Ministry of Education revealed that 38% of the country’s estimated 200 million population were not able to read or write. However, the illiteracy figure had gone down to 31%. This was attributed in part to establishing access to adult and non-formal education programmes in 377 centres across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja and providing teaching and learning materials to all 36 state agencies for adult and non-formal education.
Outside of schools, vocational centres, libraries (which are few, far-between, and frequently poorly stocked), and bookshops often remain overlooked as sources of learning and as contributors to literacy in Nigeria.
I run Patabah Books, a large bookstore in the Surulere Local Government Area of Lagos State, Nigeria. As a second-generation family-owned bookshop, I can’t ignore the evidence of the value it brings, given the hundreds of clients we serve every year. Many of them are families with young children as well as young adults. Established by my parents in 1987, the bookshop is now run by my brother and I.
Lagos, a city with an estimated population of 15 million, has an abysmally low number of bookshops. However, the number of physical bookshops is complemented by: one, street-side booksellers who stock new and used books, predominantly business, religious, and self-improvement books; and two, in-traffic vendors who hustle small but mighty selections of bestsellers, many of which are pirated copies. And there are now a rising number of online bookshops.
Research showed that reading for pleasure as a child has been powerfully linked to the development of vocabulary and maths skills up to the age of 16.
As a child, reading filled the gaps in my learning. Those things that school and my parents missed, I accessed through reading. Reading stoked my curiosity and introduced me to an astounding breadth of subjects. I looked forward to visits to the bookshop to pick out new books for myself and developed a regular reading habit, which I still maintain as an adult. As a bookshop owner now, I am conscious of the responsibility that we carry to provide interesting and plentiful books to attract young children and to encourage in them a love for letters since I know from my personal experience that young readers are more likely to remain life-long readers and learners.
So, while Patabah stocks a wide and varied collection of books for young readers and adults across diverse genres, the books for children and young adults hold a very special place in our hearts.
We know reading is fun and we want to showcase this by organising events for children with authors who read from their books and answer questions from the children. This not only brings the books to life in a special way, but it also showcases a possible future career in the literary arts, because virtually all the authors who have visited Patabah admitted to reading non-stop as children.
We also encourage parents to create time in their busy schedules to read because we are aware that parents who read and model behaviour that their children will copy. So, Patabah organises regular readings for adults as well as children and we strive to ensure our shelves are well-stocked with diverse titles and subjects, including books in Nigerian languages and games.
It is important to spread the gospel of reading and learning beyond the physical walls of the bookshop. Patabah exhibits at schools and at book fairs, showcasing carefully selected titles to suit the occasion.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped in this regard because, almost overnight, the bookshop had to close its doors and due to movement restrictions in the early weeks, we could not even deliver books to our customers. On Instagram and Zoom, we therefore launched our series of author interviews, which enabled us to connect with readers and potential customers across the globe.
The book retail business is a tough one in Nigeria. Beyond the distractions posed by social media, video games, and other digital tools that are prevalent worldwide, in Nigeria, we also have to contend with competition from pirated books, which are much cheaper than genuine copies. We have to contend with the high costs of books and a turbulent economic landscape that places books far below the basic needs of food, clothing, and housing.
During the riots that tore across Lagos in the aftermath of the End SARS protests in October 2020, shops and businesses all over the state were vandalised and emptied of their contents. In the shopping mall in which Patabah is located, we were almost the only store whose inventory was left largely untouched, save for the Bible section. That was cleared out. Hearing this, you may be prompted to agree with the cliché that most Nigerians don’t read or you may conclude that people who read don’t loot shops. I like to think that it is the latter point that holds true.
The fact that Patabah has been in business for close to 36 years shows that bookshops have a special role to play in fostering a love of learning in children and in raising literate, curious, and knowledgeable adults. We have clients who come in regularly to seek out new books: children who light up when they spot the latest titles in their favourite series and whose parents complain that they will finish the book within hours. We have our early readers from the 1980s and 1990s who are now parents and returning to buy books for their own children. All of this indicates that bookshops are addressing a demand that isn’t being met elsewhere.
About the Author
Oreoluwa Lesi, a Nigerian social entrepreneur, holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Essex and a Masters degree in Information Systems from the London School of Economics. As the founder and executive director of the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC), Oreoluwa champions the inclusion of women in STEM fields, empowering over 43,000 girls and women across Nigeria to pursue technology careers. Recognised as an Ashoka fellow and recipient of the Anita Borg Change Agent Award, she is committed to supporting women in computing. Oreoluwa also serves as a Director of Patabah Books, a family-owned Lagos bookshop promoting literacy and education, aligned with the UN SDG Book Club African Chapter.
ABOUT THE AFRICAN PERSPECTIVES SERIES
The African Perspective Series was launched at the 2022 Nigeria International Book Fair with the first set of commissioned papers written and presented by authors of the UN SDG Book Club African Chapter. The objective of African Perspectives is to have African authors and subject experts in the Club’s network contribute to the global conversation around development challenges afflicting the African continent and to publish these important papers in the SDG Book Club blog hosted in the Stories section of the UN Namibia site. In this way, our authors’ ideas about the way forward for African development can reach the widest possible interested audience. The African Perspectives Series is an initiative by and property of Borders Literature for all Nations.