Reading unlocks the imagination, but it also unlocks the soul of a person. It has the potential to unlock the soul of a nation like Liberia struggling so desperately to find and define itself.
I remember my first love.
It was a dog-eared copy of ‘Breath, Eyes, Memory’, a coming-of-age story loosely based on the life of its Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat. I found it on the bookshelf of my local library, a red-brick building in the heart of Washington, D.C., with life-sized Egyptian pillars.
I was 12, and the protagonist, Sophie Caco — an immigrant from Port-au-Prince who moves to New York to reunite with her mother — gave voice to my very own story of migration. It appeared as if Danticat were speaking through me, to me, and about me, all at once. This book was the closest I could find to an authentic Liberian story while abroad, far removed from the grotesque images of war and carnage on international newsfeeds. After reading it close to 10 times, I eventually bought my own copy.
Since then, ‘Breath, Eyes, Memory’ has been replaced by a number of other loves, but none more gratifying than the love of reading. Whenever my world seems to be teetering on an edge, reading brings me back to centre. Reading gives me the vocabulary to express myself intellectually and emotionally. Reading makes me appreciate the power of words.
The old adage is true that reading unlocks the imagination, but it also unlocks the soul of a person. It has the potential to unlock the soul of a nation like Liberia struggling so desperately to find and define itself. I’m convinced that if Liberia had a culture of reading, we would develop a critical consciousness. After all, good readers make critical thinkers, and critical thinkers transform societies.
But first, we need access to books. And I don’t mean any old books. The influx of books donated by well-meaning philanthropists may be helpful for now, but what we really need are books with cultural relevance. There’s nothing more empowering than seeing one’s reflection on the pages of novels, on the covers of historical texts, or in the bylines of anthologies. And there are a number of promising initiatives that promote this kind of reading culture.
The Liberia Association of Writers (LAW), in collaboration with CODE Canada, recently started producing children’s books by Liberian artists. At the moment, LAW is collaborating with the Ministry of Education to introduce these books into the elementary school curriculum. And One Moore Book (OMB) (http://onemoorebook.com/), a publishing company established by Wayetu Moore, a young Liberian social entrepreneur based in New York, was founded in January 2011 to publish culturally sensitive children’s books for countries with low literacy rates, like Liberia. Moore and her four siblings, all artists in their own right, wrote, illustrated, and published the first series of books about Liberia.
At the end of this year, OMB will launch a Haiti series featuring Haitian writers and edited by Edwidge Danticat. And next January, OMB will publish a Liberia Signature Series, featuring veteran Liberian writers Stephanie Horton and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. The Series will also include Gbagba — a book written by me and illustrated by Liberian artist and FrontPage Africa layout editor Chase Walker — which educates children about corruption. My goal will be to ensure that every 10-year-old child in Liberia has his/her very own copy.
I am hopeful that with initiatives like LAW’s and OMB’s, Liberian children will begin to appreciate who they are while also developing a critical consciousness about the world around them. A case in point, I recently bought children’s books written by Liberian authors for my three-year-old cousins, Mardie and T-Girl. They now carry the books to school, to bed, to the bathroom. Even though they cannot read, they make up stories from the pictures, silencing my deep alto adult voice with their loud, high-pitched children’s chatter. I can see a spark in their eyes whenever we read together.
To develop that spark of consciousness in all Liberians, we must build a library in every county capital. Monrovia already has one. Michael Weah and his team at the We Care Library, a spacious second floor suite on Carey and Gurley streets in Central Monrovia, have done a phenomenal job of cataloguing hundreds of books of all kinds. The library even has shelves sectioned off for Liberian authors, with the likes of well-known writers C. William Allen, D. Elwood Dunn, Bai T. Moore, K. Moses Nagbe, Angela Peabody, and Wilton Sankawulo, as well as emerging writers Watchen Johnson Babalola, James Dwalu, and Elma Shaw displayed. And before it went on hiatus, the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings was regularly displayed on We Care computers.
But we need more around the country, especially on university campuses. I remember the challenge of teaching English composition and African literature at Stella Maris Polytechnic and the University of Liberia, respectively, without books readily available in-country. I would take my students’ assignments home to grade, and spend half the evening crying over pages bleeding with red-ink correction marks. There were so many errors in punctuation, spelling, and grammar, but I was always mindful that these students neither had the foundation in English instruction, nor the books available to emulate good writing.
The students constantly complained that they had to read novels in my class without fully appreciating that readers make better writers. Monrovia-based colleges/universities should lead the way in developing a culture of reading by establishing one large inter-university library, accessible by registered students and open to the public. Small, micro university libraries here and there are not the solution. We can demand that a portion of all social development funds be used for library construction and maintenance.
We also need bookstores, and I don’t mean reserving a few shelves on grocery store stands. I mean a mammoth bookstore that could be franchised throughout the country when the time is right. Right now, the space underneath the Ministry of Education on Broad Street seems to function as our national bookstore, but pirating books with little respect for copyright laws is not the answer. This is where public-private partnerships come in. Instead of opening a village of entertainment spots that sell ‘five for five,’ entrepreneurs should be thinking about selling books at an affordable rate. The demand will follow.
I know that developing a culture of reading requires capital, but it’s an investment worth making. Just as we recognize the importance of physical infrastructure in national reconstruction, we must think of books as the intellectual infrastructure needed to protect that development. We must develop a thirst for knowledge that only a love of reading can quench. I discovered that when I was 12.
It is not too late for Liberia.
* This article was first published in Frontpage Africa newspaper: http://tinyurl.com/c8odej3
* Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at [email][email protected]