Thursday, November 17, 2005

Nigerian home videos,the erosion of reading and a deep malaise

Reflecting on my earlier post about Pacesetters, the popular African street literature series had me wondering whether home videos have taken the place that novels used to have in Nigerian popular culture.

The very popular Nigerian home video industry is an example of enterprise that has grown from nothing to a huge behemoth now said to be worth millions of dollars with the films watched all over the world. I had thought that it was a purely Nigerian market but now understand that it's a pan-African thing.

I remember reading an article in an international magazine not too long ago describing a journey across Tanzania in a bus where the on board entertainment was a Nigerian home video, and I understand that they sell like hot cakes in Ghana and South Africa and Kenya. I've seen the films on sale on the streets of Washington DC and in Brixton and Peckham in London. For many, the films have become a way of keeping in touch with home.....and for others a way into a world they have never been to....pretty much in the way books have led me into countries and cultures that I have never visited.....

Now there are huge shops selling these films in many Nigerian markets, and people exchange the newest videos with their family and friends, but years ago they would have been exchanging novels and there would have been large bookshops selling these books in the markets. Now all they sell are textbooks, motivational books and religious texts of the "How to Possess your God Destined Wealth" variety.....

I'm not suggesting that all Nigerians read high literary fiction-it varied quite widely. For the women, you had the frothy Barbara Cartland romances, the Bertha M Clay books with improbable titles like Beyond Pardon and for the slightly more highbrow, Denise Robbins whose romances were slightly meatier than Cartland's and unlike Cartland's were not always set in fairy tale castles......Later the Mills and Boon series intruded.

For the men, it was more action stuff- the epitome of which was the novels involving Nick Carter, a sort of implausible James Bond figure who was always armed with "Wilhemina-his trusty Luger" and a stiletto whose name now escapes me

Then there were the James Hadley Chase crime novels which virtually could be found in every home. They tended to have a bad reputation because of the rather racy covers which usually had a combination of a bikini clad blonde and a weapon and the covers often bore no relation to the plot, but obviously must have boosted sales hugely. I remember having to wrap the book covers or even ripping them off so that adults didn't suspect that you were reading a racy James Hadley Chase

The more sophisticated children read books from the Ladybird series- books that I hold responsible for my rather deep knowledge of the largely irrelevant minutiae of the lives of various English monarchs, as well as the Enid Blyton books and then there were a whole series of books by Nigerian authors commissioned by publishers like Heinemann and Macmillan for the Nigerian children's market- including Chinua Achebe's Chike and the River, Cyprian Ekwensi's The Rainmaker and other stories and Anezi Okoro's excellent Tales out of School and More Tales Out of School

And then there were the African Writers Series which published Achebe and Soyinka and Ngugi and a whole host of African writers.

These days, when I go to Nigeria, I visit houses of fairly well-off, well educated professionals in which there is not a single book. Where there are books, they are often motivational or religious. But there are almost invariably rows and rows of home videos. And the story is the same in many Nigerian homes here in the UK.
Which isn't in itself a bad thing, but puts the lie to the story that the withering away of reading is purely economic- perhaps it's something to do with a deeper malaise, probably not divorced from the crass materialism that pervades Nigerian society


Felix Adebayo said...

Your writings brought to mind the lack of reading culture that is present in the current generation of Nigerians. Hardly can you see youths or students nowadays clutching novels or magazines for reading, but they are apt to borrow or rent home videos and waste hours watching movies that always have the same plot.

While I was in Secondary School, I read virtually all Pacesetters novels and almost all African Writer Series of novels and the Fontana Series. No wonder the current generation of students find it difficult passing English Language examination at first sitting. They don't like to read for entertainment. They read only to pass exams.

I had already made a promise to myself that I am going to teach all my children to be book readers just like myself, because this is the secret to intellectual growth and self-development.

Adaure said...

Dude!!! i so totally feel you.
Nigerians have a 'read-only-school-books' mentality. Reading anything else puts you under the aimless and jobless no-future-ambition category... same goes for any one who choses to become a writer or anything related to letters, aside form law... like teh reaction you get when you tell people you are studying history or philosophy in university ...blank stare.
I am of the M & B-Pacesetters-Lamb Tale's stock and I loved reading. I use dto get punished for bring other people's books home.. my mom would always be like, 'have u finished reading all the books in this house', which included some of hers and my dad's texts books from college... most of which i'd read.
It is a shame that many allow themselves to be engrossed in this home video culture that books become alien to them.

My cousins even say I am cheap because every present they get from me is a book. That's the most valuable gift...but please no books for me, have too much already

Jeremy said...

Don't get depressed Naijaman. We are witnessing a rebirth of a reading culture in Nigeria - and its happening right now. The landmark event was the opening of Johnnic's Media Store @ Silverbird in Lagos earlier this year (soon to be chained elsewhere in the country).

We are seeing local publishing take off, reading groups being formed etc etc. Although immensely popular and profitable, I get the feeling Nollywood has run out of steam. I predict people will begin to turn away from the conservative superstitious claptrap as the economy turns around in 2006. A new form of Nigerian film may emerge which could compete with the quality of Senegalese or South African cinema (that's my hope!)

sokari said...

I think there are a number of reasons why Nigerians are not reading, one the cost of books say compared to the average nollywood DVD/video; the availablity of books; and simply the "culture of reading" seems to be limited to three genres - how to get rich etc, religion and romance as in barbara cartland. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had some interesting comments to say about nigerians reading:

Whatever the case I believe people who "read" are in a minority wherever they come from. I know many people who are educated as you put it who do not have a book in sight! People learn to read as children - I was brought up on books from my mother and in turn I brought my own children up with books - loads of them. Books are essential to my life along with music - i even sleep with my books :) 2,3 at a time, i find it comforting!

TRAE said...

i personally am not a big fan of Nigerian films. used to read alot of novels back in secondary school, seems i'm regaining the habit these days. nice write up man. your blog is slowly turning into a "book blog" just as felix's blog is a "phone blog". peace!

Nneka's World said...

Nigerian movies piss me off at times, with all its over acting and all. Giving false impressions to young minds.
I am a book whore :) I love books, can read them for hours on end. I can read anything so far its interesting and grips you from the first page. There is nothing more that pisses me off than a very boring book.

ngozi said...

books are expensive. i moved back 3 years ago, and the only thing i missed about the UK were libraries. i never bought books but i knew i could track down a recently broadsheet reviewed book in any library and have it home with me for a month. i couldn't afford books, but i could still read them. that's what nigeria needs. a president who would give us public libraries. not elite libraries at the british embassy.