The other day, in a telephone conversation with my friend the writer, Kofi Akpabli, about everything and nothing, he mentioned that Accra had been declared the World Book Capital (WBC) 2023.
What? When? Why? These three ‘Ws’ flew around my mind, bumping violently into each other in vain.
How come this was not a headline news event? Or it had slipped beneath the radar, as the state of the economy, political stories and some salacious gossip about private lives scrambled for our attention?
After our conversation, I went hunting for this story.
Soon I found it on the website of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
A press release dated 22nd September 2021 and posted on the website read:
"Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, has named Accra (Ghana) as UNESCO World Book Capital for 2023, following the evaluation of the World Book Capital Advisory Committee.
"…the city of Accra was selected for its strong focus on young people and their potential to contribute to the culture and wealth of Ghana.
Accra’s proposed programme seeks to use the power of books to engage these young people, as an effective way of skilling up the next generation.
"The city proposed to the committee a broad programme that targets marginal groups with high levels of illiteracy including women, youth, migrants, street children and persons with disabilities.
Measures to be implemented include the reinforcing of school and community infrastructure and institutional support for lifelong learning, in order to foster the culture of reading.
By championing the publishing sector and other creative industries, the programme also aims to encourage professional skills development to stimulate the country’s socio-economic transformation.
"Activities will include the introduction of mobile libraries to reach marginalised groups, the holding of workshops to promote reading and writing of books in different Ghanaian languages, the establishment of skills and training centres for unemployed youth and the organisation of competitions to showcase Ghanaian arts and culture and promote inclusivity.
"The application from Accra also includes a strong human rights dimension, which aims to raise public awareness of freedom of information and expression, building on its own promotion of these rights as well as its involvement in World Press Freedom Day.
"The year of celebrations will start on April 23 2023, on World Book and Copyright Day."
‘Ghanaians do not like reading’
One of the most popular sayings in this country is that ‘Ghanaians do not like reading’.
Well, what I know is that generally, reading is not a habit one suddenly picks up as an adult.
It is best nurtured from a young age and then it becomes a lifetime habit.
I know a number of people with a string of academic qualifications who do not read outside their bibles – not even magazines or journals.
Unfortunately, many who have been brought up on a diet of books and a culture of reading find themselves straying in adulthood, distracted by very busy work and social schedules, social media and a 24/7 news media cycle of modern society.
I was one of those lost souls, but I have rediscovered the light and have challenged myself to read at least two books a month this year.
Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long a Letter’ is done, and I am currently on Peter Abraham’s ‘Mine Boy’.
I intend to cover fiction, historical narratives and autobiographies.
I am also working quietly on putting a novel together.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to a reading culture is access to the right materials in the first place.
For the book lover in Ghana, the main complaints are availability of titles, finding the right one-stop bookshops where they can get the books they crave and, with the increase in traffic in cities, the inconvenience and frustration of hopping from bookshop to bookshop, and its associated stress.
For book lovers outside the capital, especially, these issues are compounded by lack of access to well-stocked outlets for books.
This is where Booknook.store, a fast-growing online bookstore operating out of Ghana, comes in.
Set up by Kofi Akpabli and his fellow writer and friend Nana Awere Damoah and some friends, Booknook is the bridge between author/publisher and reader and a very convenient platform I use regularly.
As Nana Damoah puts it, "Wherever you are in Ghana, Booknook.store should be your closest bookstore.
And you shouldn't be limited in what books you can get because of your location, whether in Abetifi or Zebilla."
Beyond access to books, there is a support system that must be available and functional, if a reading and literary culture is to have any meaning, and in Ghana, the signs are encouraging.
For instance, the ‘Pa Gya!’ Literary Festival, a three-day literary arts festival featuring activities such as readings, panel discussions, performances, book launches and sales, literary prize awards and many more has been taking place in Accra at the Goethe Institut for quite some time now.
The Accra International Book Festival is also another important pit stop on the literary landscape.
Still on promoting reading, in 2015, Kofi Akpabli and Nana Awere Damoah gave themselves two targets: to do quarterly public book readings and to extend the activity beyond Accra.
They dubbed it :DAkpabli Readathon.
A number of book clubs have also been popping up quietly in the country, especially involving young children.
In September last year, Worldreader Ghana collaborated with the Accra World Book Capital 2023 Secretariat and other stakeholders to organise the Accra DigiRead Experience on the Accra Metropolitan Assembly premises, while the Naky Nugget Series, the GBDC, Ghana Education Service and other stakeholders collaborated in October 2022 to organise the Ashanti Regional Book Fair in Kumasi to promote reading among children.
The Ghana Library Authority has also been involved in several book reading initiatives across the country.
The exciting thing about all of this is that while some of us had to contend with and gorge on Alfred Hitchcock, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Barbara Cartland, Sidney Sheldon and Enid Blyton books as little children, the young ones of today have a wide range of fantastic Ghanaian and African authors to choose from whose stories they can relate to.
The Booknook online store is an excellent resource for this.
Still on the writing side, the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW) website has a number of innovative programmes for writers and would-be writers, while the Writers and Readers Grotto in Accra offers the space for writers and would-be writers to meet with each other and with readers to discuss their work and get feedback.
Reading enriches our knowledge bank, transports us into worlds we had never imagined existed, and irrigates and nurtures our imagination.
A reading culture may not be a bread-and-butter affair, but man shall not live by bread alone, as the good book reminds us.
Balance is key.
As the American author Mark Twain famously put it, "the man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read."
So grab a book and get reading.
I wish the Accra, World Book Capital 2023 Secretariat, the very best as it rolls out its programmes to celebrate this important feat.