Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Endangered culture

Lagos is a city always on the move. Even on holidays, Lagosians are in a hurry to keep up with appointments and parties. Amidst the shuffling feet of commuters and the honking horns of motor vehicles and cycles, one of the most endearing images on the ever bustling Lagos Island is that of the roadside bookseller. It is an interesting fact to know that in all the hustle and bustle of city life, Lagosians do take time to buy books and read. It is their knack for reading that has ensured the survival of the book market at the CMS Bus Stop on the strategic intersection between Marina and Broad Street, two major commercial areas on the Lagos Island.

New books, used books, antique, self help, motivationals and rare books are stocked by the roadside sellers who have been there for many years. Just like instant coffee, roadside book stores create easy access to books for a population always in a hurry. Among the more popular titles on sale are Chinua Achebe’s 1958 classic Things Fall Apart and the more recent Dreams from My Father and Audacity of Hope both by American President Barack Obama.

“Some of the books are not in shops” says a Lagos residence simply called Prince who picked up two volumes at the roadside. “They are also easy for me to buy them on the way to work” he says.

The efforts of the Lagos government at cleaning up the city and restoring it to its master plan could signal death to the pastime of browsing and purchasing literature on the streets. Many of the sellers have been made to vacate their positions and retreat into a less visible area where the public does not easily get access to them. This is a disregard to the fact that society needs books as well as newspapers, which ironically have been allowed to remain on the streets to sell.
Christian, a father of three, has been a seller on the road for more than 12 years. In all that time he has sold many a book to several thousand people. One of his most famous customers is star comedian Ali Baba who he says comes to buy volumes on English grammar. But perhaps his greatest joy apart from fulfilling his many expectations on the home front (building a home in his village, moving from an Ajegunle hell hole into a more spacious residence in Isolo and keeping his children in school) with proceeds of the trade is the testimony by people of having bought books from him that have changed their lives.

“When a man walks up to me dressed in a good suit and tells me he got his new job after reading a book that he bought from me, I feel so happy” Christian says.
But sales returns have been low since they were made to vacate the roadside and enter into a fenced commune not so far away. Many of their customers have stopped coming, making true of the aphorism in a city like Lagos: out of sight, out of mind.
Only time will tell where the greater danger lies, for a mind that does not read is like a stream which does not flow, it slowly builds up with fungi and bacteria.

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