Port Harcourt's recent nomination as the UNESCO's World Book Capital City for 2014 is a tacit endorsement of the almost decade-long literary ferment that has burnished its image. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Odo Claire Kalango - better known as "Koko"- was scouring through the internet one April afternoon when she stumbled upon the bid. It was a bid for the World Book Capital City for the year 2014.
The concept, she gathered, was initiated by UNESCO in 2001. That was the year the world body had nominated the Spanish capital, Madrid, as the first World Book Capital City or WBCC. It had also on November 2 adopted a resolution making an annual ritual of the nomination of a book capital city.
Thus, its selection committee conferred the honour on the Egyptian city, Alexandria and the Indian capital city, New Delhi as the book capital city of the years 2002 and 2003, respectively.
But in 2004, the world body thought it could be more interesting to have cities bid openly for the honour. So far, the cities that have won the bid include the Belgian city, Antwerp for 2004, Montreal for 2005, Turin for 2006, the Colombian capital city, Bogota for 2007, Amsterdam for 2008, Beirut for 2009, the Slovenian city of Ljubljana for 2010, Buenos Aires for 2011, the Armenian city of Yerevan for 2012 and Bangkok for 2013.
This information stoked Kalango's interest in the bid. The literary activist, who shared her dreams of making Port Harcourt more renowned "for books than for oil" with a gaggle of literary reporters, saw this as an opportunity. Egged on by her lustrous antecedents as the organiser of the annual Garden City Literary Festival and as the helmswoman of the Rainbow Book Club (around which revolves other literary projects), she approached the Rivers State governor, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, with her idea. Should she give it a shot? Or should she not?
She did. And that was on the closing date of the bid: Friday, April 27. The bid, titled "World Book Capital Nomination 2014: Call for Applications", required each of the candidate cities' programmes to "be aimed at promoting books and fostering reading during the period between one World Book and Copyright Day and the next (April 23)."
So bidding alongside Port Harcourt, as candidate cities, were Ganja (Azerbaijan), Incheon (South Korea), Krakow (Poland), Lyon (France), Moscow (Russia), Oxford (UK), Pula (Croatia), Sharjah (United Arab Emirate), Vilnius (Lithuania) and Yaoundé (Cameroon).
Kalango nursed no illusions about winning when she submitted the bid. Did Port Harcourt really have any hope of trouncing cities like Oxford, Moscow, Lyon or even Sharjah? Indeed local cynics would have thought the Nigerian littoral city had as much chance of winning the bid as a stray dog has of survival in a Calabar side street. "For me, even applying for the nomination alone is a feat," she said.
In her application, she had made a passionate case for Port Harcourt as a World Book Capital City for 2014. The year coincides with the centenary anniversary of the amalgamation of Nigeria by Lord Frederic Luggard in 1914. Nigeria, she argued, "has given the world the first person of African descent to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka; the author of Africa's most popular novel, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe; and younger world-renowned writers such as Ben Okri, winner of the Booker Prize in 1991 and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winner of the Orange Prize in 2007."
Of course, there was also Port Harcourt's growing influence as the literary hub of the oil-rich Niger Delta region. This influence is buoyed by the annual Garden City Literary Festival, called the GCLF, among other ancillary literary events. "The GCLF has been able to attract literary greats such as Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ghana's Ama Atta Aidoo and Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark and Sefi Atta. Guests of honours to the festival have included former Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku, as well as Reverend Jesse Jackson."
Months after submitting the bid, on July 9, Kalango was on her way from Sheraton Hotel when the announcement of Port Harcourt's nomination hit her like a thunderbolt. She had whooped with joy and startled her driver, she recalled. She only settled down to read the details of the email after when she had got home that evening.
Port Harcourt clinched the WBCC 2014 title "on account of the quality of its programme, in particular, its focus on reading, writing and publishing to improve literacy rates," she learnt with delight. The city, also known by its moniker "Garden City", became the first sub-Saharan African city - and the second African city after Alexandria - to win the title.
This nomination, which attracts no monetary reward, is "an exclusively symbolic acknowledgement of the best programme dedicated to books and reading" and takes effect from April 23, 2014 to April 22, 2015. The programmes presented in the bid are expected to be executed during this period.
Tributes poured in torrents. One of them was from President Goodluck Jonathan during the recent launch of the Bring Back the Book campaign in the Bayelsa State capital, Yenagoa. "We welcome UNESCO's recognition of our collective efforts to revive the reading culture. I would also like to congratulate The Rainbow Book Club led by Mrs Koko Kalango," he said in a speech read on his behalf by a representative at the occasion.
"We believe that Port Harcourt is ripe and ready to be the first World Book Capital City in sub-Saharan Africa," assured the Rivers State governor, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi.
The former Commonwealth secretary general, Chief Emeka Anyaoku expressed his confidence "that the impressive record of the Rainbow Book Club and the unfailing support of the Rivers State Government in promoting literary activities will ensure the success of Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital City in 2014."
UNESCO's director general, Irina Bokova extended his "congratulations to the city of Port Harcourt for the quality of its proposed programme, which provides for extensive public participation and aims to develop reading for all" and wholeheartedly endorses "the commitment of Port Harcourt to support literacy through the activities organised for the year."
Even two rival cities in the bid extended their congratulations. The Lithuanian city, Vilnius in its specially-created website for the bid said: "We are very much looking forward to cooperating with our Nigerian member, the Nigerian Publishers Association. Congratulations, Port Harcourt!"
Most gratifying was the congratulatory message posted on the Oxford World Book Capital 2014 Facebook page, which reads: "Well done to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, for winning the World Book Capital 2014! It is a brilliant achievement for a place which may not have the facilities Oxford does but whose passion for literacy won over UNESCO judges ...at the headquarters in Paris. With a focus on reading for all, in particular Nigeria's youth, they were worthy winners. Despite not having the facilities of European cities such as ours, their determination to change this and make available the joy of reading to generations to come should be commended."
Kalango, who expressed her gratitude to the Supreme One, felt "humbled, excited and naturally fulfilled" that her endeavour of the past seven years have come to such a spectacular denouement.
The honour conferred on Port Harcourt, she hopes, would boost businesses in the book chain industry and improve reading culture. The ripple effects of an improved reading culture extend to developments in other sectors like education, healthcare, security and tourism, among others."