Rethinking the "good book" in Nigeria: Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Purple Hibiscus, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes on why nobody reads in her native Nigeria--or, rather, why no one reads fiction:
In all the bookshops I have visited, the shelves are overwhelmingly stocked with Christian and business self-help books, God's Plan for You, The Richest Man in Babylon. This suggests, then, that our economy has not prevented us from reading; it has only prevented us from reading literature. The real reason for this may not be the economy itself, however, but what we have turned to in response to the economy: a scarcity-driven brand of religion where pastors in sleek churches assure you that God wants you to have that new Mercedes-Benz.

Islam, a stronger force in Nigeria than Christianity, has had its own scarcity-driven mutations, but Christian religiosity exploded in the early 1990s, when Nigeria was passed from one dictator to the other, amid the trauma of an annulled democratic election. Things had never been so bad and, in the face of a brutal government and an effete civil society, Nigerians turned to a new brand of Christianity. It was vibrant; it was intensely focused on material progress, with pastors quoting scripture that portrayed wealth as a spiritual virtue; and it was loud. People were required to talk up God all the time. Government officials were required to be publicly holy, as if this would assuage their corruption. So my former state governor, who did not pay teachers' salaries, held public prayer meetings every week. Fraudsters gave interviews where they attributed their wealth to God. Our remarkably unpopular president said he was chosen by God. Religion has become our answer to a failed economy; "My God is a rich God" and "Only God can save Nigeria" are popular expressions.

Christian and business self-help books sell, then, because they sustain the status quo: the former affirm that God wants you to make money while the latter teach you how to go about it. They are disquieting in their obviousness and seem informed by a rudimentary utilitarianism: what practical and immediate benefit will I get from this book? Even the fiction and poetry used as textbooks are approached in the same way: students read them alongside pamphlets such as Sample Questions and Answers and they are only a means of making up the required subjects for O-levels. There is no room for real literature and perhaps this is why there seems to be no room for subtlety in Nigerian public life. Because we are not literary, we are too literal. Because our religiosity is individualistic, we have neglected social consciousness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did you say Nigeria, or the US of A?