interviewBy Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Mrs Koko Kalango's name is synonymous with the Garden City Literary Festival. For five years, she has been running the festival and recently spearheaded the campaign that made Port Harcourt UNESCO's World Book Capital for 2014. In this interview with Sunday Trust, she talked about the significance of that nomination and the challenges of organising the 2012 literary festival.
You are staging this festival for the fifth time. What are you doing differently from previous editions?
Well, this year is special as we've said it already. It's our fifth year. That's a significant landmark. This year, Port Harcourt was nominated the World Book Capital and we are also using this platform to formally present the city as UNESCO's World Book Capital 2014. This year also, we are coming out with a book on 50 Nigerian authors, a coffee table book, on this same platform. The President has written the foreword to the book and the governor, whose idea this festival is, has written the introduction. So we believe it is a historical document. It has never been done before. It is very special to compliment the work that we've been doing in the last four, five years. This year also, we have more workshops. We brought in Polly Alakija, a British lady who has been writing for children. So she is at a workshop where she is working with children on their creative writing skill. This year, we have a special dance drama by Amatu Braide who was a lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt and it's titled Evil Blade [it's] on female genital mutilation in line with our focus on women. She had pushed such issues but she died in 2003 and because of the import of her work, we thought we should showcase one of her dance dramas.
How significant was it getting the nod for the World Book Capital?
It was enormously significant because we are the first city in Africa to get it by public bid and Alexandria, Egypt, got it but not by public bid because the first three years were just awarded and thereafter they started calling for public bids. We had 11 cities competing this year including Incheon, South Korea, Lyon, France and, of course, Oxford in the UK. And, of course, you won't have thought that we stood a chance. But I am excited, I thank God that incspite of the stiff competition, we clinched the bid to be World Book Capital for 2014.
Organising this festival is hectic and 2014 is going to be bigger. How do you think you will cope?
That's a very good question. Well, all this is a build up to 2014. You know, growth is normal in life, so we expect to do better and we expect to expand. So this is good practice for 2014 but also in that year, because this is just a weeklong festival, that year it's a whole year, so we are going to call for partners from all over. The corporate organisations have to come on board, not just the government at the state level but at the federal level as well, because it's a continental honour, the NGOs the publishers, the booksellers, other people working in literature because it's victory for all of us, an opportunity to put our country on the international map forver that in the year 2014, this nomination was enthrusted to us and we delivered. So every hand is going to have to be on deck for us to deliver. So, I am excited.
How do you think you are going to be able to keep that event running for a whole year?
Well, it's not just this event. When you go on our website, you will see our proposal, it's a series of events. We will have libraries set up and we will have a central library running a library support programme to ensure those libraries are fully maximised to be able to monitor use and evaluate impact. We have already set up a book club so we are going to set up even more so that in that year, anyone who steps into Port Harcourt will know that we are holding the title of the world book capital. And we've set up programmes that will set up popular culture, so we are going to look to work with Nollywood, with the music industry, the fashion industry. We are going to key into existing events in the city such as the Carnival in December. Those sort of events will take up a book theme that year and it will reflect every facet of life in our city.
As part of the festival, you have workshops running and you've had to deal with one of your facilitators withdrawing for instance. So how difficult has it been handling that?
Well, what we try to do, apart from the key names we feature, we try to have other participants. We have a few we highlight and we have seminars going on. We have symposia other writers and academics are part of. So, we will look in that pool to replace whoever is not able to come so that those workshops go on.
And one of the problems, I notice, is that the participants for the workshops are not being accommodated...
Yeah, why would they be accommodated? If you go to any such festival anywhere in the world everyone would pay to be in such workshop. I've been to the London Book Fair and some of other book fairs and for you to go through the gate, you have to pay. But this one is free. All we ask is that you send in samples of your work according to our specifications. They are looked through by experts and we shortlist people for the workshop, so I think we've done very well. That's very kind and generous of us (laughs).
And I actually I must say to you that in the past, facilitators have asked that we get participants in the workshop to pay. So it's something we are looking at doing in the future, even if it's a token because sometimes, the way human beings are, when we pay for something we put more value to it but when it comes free we don't really value it much.
Do you then have the impression that previous participants haven't been appreciative enough?
Ehmmm! Let me just say that sometimes we have some very good and serious participants but we do have the odd person here who turns up and is playing truant. So that's why we are thinking that it is wise, just like other festivals in the world, to ask participants to pay so they can be more serious and more committed. But once you are offering a service to the public, you will have those who are appreciative and those who are not. That's part of life.
So, what have been the challenges organising this year's workshop?
This year, as I had mentioned to you at the beginning, is bigger because we have clinched the UNESCO World Book Capital nomination and it makes it so much bigger. When we started planning, we didn't put that in mind and then, suddenly, comes this wonderful victory and we are still working with the same resources as last year and yet, our team has almost doubled. So the work is much more and on strained resources but we have also gotten creative so we called for volunteers. So lots of the people you will see are volunteers.
Yes. (Laughs) we went into the volunteer culture as they do in the West. I have never heard of it here but I decided to try it and so far it's been working.
And how committed do you think the voolunteers are?
Well, from the beginning we let them know that they have to be committed. We give them stipends for transport and lunch and then they have to sign as they come up, certain number of hours and certain assignments. In London, what I know, and in America I have worked as a volunteer as well, is that you come in to work but you have come to learn so you can put that experience in your resume particularly when it's a significant festival, as this one is. One of the things we've done is that we trained them so they can take that away with them. And we had an intensive two-day training on customer care and customer relations.
Are you looking forward to expanding the festival, like the Hay Festival, just spread it around a bit?
That I can tell you, no. We are not going to do that.
We don't have the vision of the Hay Festival. Just like everybody goes to New Orleans for the Jazz festival and everybody goes to Nottin Hill for the London Carnival it's the same way everybody will come to the Garden City for the Garden City Literary Festival. So is it going anywhere? It's not. It's a Port Harcourt City Festival(Laughs)