Raphael James is indeed a very vibrant and most engaging personality; one that you will call a man of many parts. Amongst others, his passion spans areas like zoo-keeping, women’s development, travel and the environment. But what excites us about him at the moment is his voracious books appetite: James would have every Nigeria youngster reading continually!
A graduate of Psychology with Honours from the Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti; he also holds a Certificate in Conflict Resolution from the California State University anddiplomas in Computer Desktop Publishing and Journalism.
Post-graduation, he served as Administrative Officer,Ondo State University Ado-Ekiti; Administrative Manager, Nigeria Philippines Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Apapa; Media Relation Manager,Slok Group Ltd, owners of Slok Airline; Special Assistant (Research) to the Chairman of NARECOM in the Presidency at Abuja and as Media Assistant to the Abia State Governor, 1999-2000. He has served as the Director General of the Centre for Research, Information Management and Media Development CRIMMD, Lagos since 2004.
He is also the founder of the Photo Museum of Nigeria History and the Publisher of African Dame and The National Biographer magazines. An author with over a dozen books in print, he is also the founder of CRIMMD BOOKSTORE and runs a free public library that have contributed to the upliftment of the educational standards in Nigeria in the last 10 years. He spoke with Richard Mammah at his Idimu, Lagos office on the eve of the forthcoming National Reading Week, Nigeria, 2016 which CRIMMD is actively involved in as a facilitating organisation.
Where did your interest in books come from?
As a young man I read one of these popular sayings about the white man hiding their secrets from us in books and became inquisitive; wanting to find out what they were hiding from us1 I remember going to my school library and I wasn’t really intent on reading then, I was just searching for where and what it was that they were hiding from us and I kept searching and searching and I didn’t really see anything but by the time I entered the university and I started learning more, I understood what the statement meant which is like saying the whites had written their techniques in books and it is only when you read them that you will find out those things.
I remember as a student I was one of those who read books a lot. I was studying psychology but when I read, I read other non-related subjects and in subsequent examinations, when I’m asked questions on psychology, I would respond with a little of the direct psychology studies I had imbibed but would then bring in other things from what I’d read to answer particular questions. My lecturer used to call me and say; ‘Hey, which book are you reading?’ and that was actually my secret. I didn’t make a first class but I was very proud of myself and since then I have said to myself that if I had seen the secret of the white man, I should then go on to show other black man how to also see it and one way I felt I could do it was to get involved with books.
Meanwhile, all of this time, I have a very scruffy handwriting, what I would describe as the most terrible handwriting that you could find! It was so bad that for much of the time, even I would find it difficult to decipher and read what I had written! As such, one thing I never expected of myself was to write books as the fear that I would write something that I could not read was always there. But when I discovered that my dad was smoking and I was looking for how to help him stop smoking, I felt the best thing to do was some serious research on how to stop smoking and that was it! I think I was in Class 3 in secondary school then when I started putting that book on how to quit smoking together, and it took me some time to finish because it was only after I had left secondary school that I could say I had signed off on the project.
When the then Minister of Health, Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti saw my manuscript, he encouraged me to go on and publish and till today that has been my motivation. When I look back today and see young people struggling to write, I say to myself that if Ransome-Kuti could assist me in the way he did, why don’t I just assist someone else?
Interesting. Now, CRIMMD has been involved in book donations and there are even some donation activities going on at the moment. What has making books available to people got to do with enhancing the reading habit?
Let me put it this way. I didn’t first start my current activities by setting out to run a library. No, the notion actually was to run a centre for research, and the centre has nothing to do with the library. However, because I was running a centre, I had things like photocopying machines, computers for typesetting and all that, and I noticed that most people that were coming to my centre didn’t really understand what ‘the research’ meant as they simply thought, ‘oh, it is a business centre;’ so people came to merely do photocopies and make calls and then go away.
In several cases, I also saw people who came in with somebody else’s, maybe their brothers’ or cousins’ results, and they would come with Tippex, erase the original name of the bearer, write their own names on a sheet of paper, superimpose same over the erased text and then proceed to make photocopies of the new documents!When I asked them why were they doing this, they would say that they were either looking for a job or admission to the university. My challenge to them then was this: if you were going to use somebody else’s certificate to look for admission, how are you going to defend it? I kept asking them: how would you defend it; and on deeper thinking over the issue I now concluded that the one way to make them understand that they can actually define these things in an alternative way was to encourage them to read.
I understand that there are two types of critics: there is a critic who comes around and says the gutter is dirty and make so much fuss about why the gutter is dirty and what government is not doing to fix it and there is also a critic who notices the gutter is dirty and goes into the gutter and cleans it. In doing so, he is passing a message that this gutter was dirty and I have now cleaned it! I said to myself, instead of complaining that the educational standard is failing, let me help to stabilize it and one way I felt I could do so was to establish a library and let people have access to it.
The cost of books is very expensive, I’m not doing book donations because I have excess money, I’m actually a struggling person, I try to make ends meet to feed my family but again if I don’t in my own way help these young ones to gain knowledge and they become criminals tomorrow, what are the chances that I would not be one of their victims?That is it! And so I have kept saying to myself: let me help them; if they read and yet go into crime, the chances then will be that they may then become only pen robbers and not armed robbers! So the idea also came up; let me look for a way to encourage the younger ones to move away from crime; and so I started giving out books. What I do is that whatever little coins I make from my other businesses, I invest in buying books to lend to NGO’s and schools and I tell them:‘I’m not just giving you these books to keep in your shelves, create a space where the younger ones can gain knowledge.’And it is paying off.
Only yesterday, a young boy called me. In fact, he sent me a text and I replied asking who it was? He sent another text where he said: ‘My name is Austin, I’m 12 years old, I’m calling you from Benue state.’ Immediately, I called the number and he said he had just written a book and I asked him how he got my number. He said he got my number from a book I published for a young girl and that the title of the book was‘Freedom.’It connected as that is the title of the book by my daughter, Oluebube Sharon James. I asked him to give the phone to one of his parents and he gave it to his mom but she was not really willing to talk and I said: okay, let me talk to your dad. If I’m going to be involved with the making of your book, I need to know that somebody in this family is interested in what you are doing; that’s the only way we can help ourselves to grow and that is what exactly happened.
Alright. Now, to a related subject: we have a school system and students get into school and the focus out there is on getting certificates and passing examinations; what effect does this have on the reading habit and our society?
The truth of the matter is that the school system has affected us a whole lot. Way back in the 40’s to the 60’s, I wasn’t really there but at least from what we have read and seen, most of our parents stayed at home and from there did their GCE A levels and the Cambridge exams. Now the issue is that they had time to study at home. The main interest we should be pursuing in the educational system in my view is that we should read to understand what we are reading not just read to pass exams as is the vogue now. The school system presently encourages reading to pass examinations at all costs. I left the university in 1990, served in 1991 and from 1991 till date I have never presented my certificate for a job but I’ve been working. In most cases people just look at me, assess me on the basis of who I am and what they see and offer me a job! Maybe for documentation reasons, they would later ask me to present my CV but nobody has ever asked me to present my certificate to get a job and it is not because I’m the most brilliant person but someone I’ve learnt how to manoeuver my way to get what I want. The school system that is encouraging a culture of reading for certificates is not helping us. Now you see students even during exams they cram their subjects, they get to the exam hall and download same and the next morning they are blank!We should be more interested in providing the books and then encouraging the children to just continue to read so that they can truly know; and keep what they know! When people come to read in my library, I am most pleased when they simply come to read for pleasure. Let us encourage ourselves to read more; that’s the only way we can learn better and faster.
As you have said, you run a library and there are a handful of libraries here and there but it looks to me like we don’t have enough libraries in relation to our population in Nigeria. So what do we do?
I remember saying once – and a lot of people challenged me over it – that if Nigerians would have as much libraries as the number of churches that we have, Nigeria would be a far better country than the United States of America. On every street in Lagos, you will see a minimum of two churches. I’m not against the churches but what I’m saying is that if we provide at least two libraries in every local government, it would go a long way in helping these young children to grow. A lot of these young ones want to read but they don’t have access to books.
I use my library as an example. I know the number of people who come here to read and in some cases, people would just be passing by, and they will say,‘oh it’s a library’ and then come in to read. Because the libraries are not there, students don’t have access to books to read but one thing they have access to is the internet and I’ve noticed that if you go to the cybercafés and see 10 young people on the net, you will notice that 6 of them are watching pornographic movies; they are not reading anything! So we are not encouraging ourselves, rather we are using the system to breed more evil in the society and I think one way we can stop it is for us to try and provide libraries for our teeming population; it will go a long way to change the society.
Can we stay some more on the point about children and their interest in the internet, new technologies, the mobile phones and all of that. You find young people immersed in these digital gadgets and a report says this is even affecting communication because they almost don’t care anymore for social discourse. Now when it comes to reading, how much of a negative effect are these gadgets having on our young people and how do we get around this?
Let me use the example of my own children. They would stuff their ears with earphones and I would be shouting ‘Hello, Hello’ but no one is hearing! So I ask them, ‘do you understand what you are reading’ and they would say yes. I tell them it’s not possible, that there is no way you can assimilate two things at the same time. Of course I know that as a young man growing up I used to read with music but the music then was such that it would be playing in the background; not plugged to my ears!
There is another side to it also. My daughter came back home from school one day and said she wanted to use the internet and I asked what exactly she needed it for. She said that her teacher had given her an assignment and she wanted to use the internet for it. I said no, you are not going to use the internet, I’ve a library and I would give you a book where you can get these materials you need. But she persisted that the teacher had said to use the internet. I dismissed her protestations, gave her the book and said, let’s prove your teacher wrong: use this book and you will see the answers to the questions here, so she used the book and the next day when she got to school the teacher marked her wrong. Incensed, I went to the school to see the teacher and I said ‘sorry, this is the question you asked, is it possible for me to see the answers of other children’ and she said no, that I wasn’t even meant to be allowed into the school if that was my purpose. I insisted and by the time she brought other scripts, I discovered that half of the class gave the same answer because they had all downloaded from the same source on the internet and now the answer my daughter gave wasn’t wrong but it’s just that the teacher only knew the answers she was expecting from the internet! So I said,‘you see you are not helping these children to develop proper research habits. In my own days in school, the practice was that the teachers would tell you to go and do your research and come back with your findings; no one would tell you were to get the answer.You have to source for the answers widely but it’s not the same system now!’
To a large extent, we are destroying the educational system with such practices now. And I understand it’s not only in Nigeria where this is currently happening. I was discussing with a friend of mine in Abuja recently and he said: ‘would you believe that almost half of American youths don’t really bother with going to school again?’ I said why, and he said that they believe that English is their language already so they do not need to go and study it and so they just sit at home! We shouldn’t join them in such destructive gambling. We are a developing nation and so we should continue to put our focus on continuing to develop. We are not at the same level with them so we should not be part of what they are doing in this regard.
Looking forward, 10-20 years from now, what do you think that the book landscape would look like?
If I use myself as a yardstick to judge, if I continue doing what I’m doing and get some 10-15 people to join me, we are going to change the system. I believe strongly that we can change the system. In Abuja recently, I met a young lady who said she’s starting a library and I said whatever I can do to encourage you I will do. I also have a friend who started one in Benue state and I donated books to him. The whole idea is this: let us in our own small communities contribute to the promotion of the reading culture.
I started my library with less than 100 books and today I have over 47,000 books in the period of 13 years. These things take time to grow. It’s not going to grow overnight so if we all start with the few book we already have, they will grow. I’ve friends who have two, three, four hundred books in the house and I tell them not to keep them there since nobody is really reading them inside. Even if it’s through collaborating with a nearby church, create a small library in the church and let the youths go there and read. I sincerely believe that this is one very good way we can bring about the much desired change in our environment.
And talking about change, I’ve also been saying something else (Interestingly the way the system is, the Nigerian system does not use you because you are good,it uses you because you are connected to one person or the other). I always brag that if I have the opportunity to hold a position in the education ministry, as the chairman of the libraries board for example, I can establish a library in each local government of the country without collecting money from the federal government. This is very possible because I have the requisite experience in this regard and if the government can give me this responsibility and give me a period of two years (I’m looking at two years because a year is 365 days and two years would give us 730 days, which is close to the 774 libraries needed to ensure that there is one located in each local government in the country). This is then to say that I would almost be establishing one library per day! I can do it, and if I don’t do it under two years I will resign because I would not have any other reason for being there any longer.
That has been my system, I started my career with Newswatch and after two years I resigned since I couldn’t make any changes. I went to Government House,Umuahia with my governor then and I said if I am your special adviser and you are not taking my advice then there is no reason for me to be here, I also pulled out. I’m not pulling out because I’m rich but because the system is not welcoming my ideas and I think my ideas are good, I have tried them elsewhere and they have worked. I am therefore using this opportunity to throw a challenge to the Federal Government, give me two years to establish 774 libraries for all of the local governments in Nigeria.