[By Pelu Awofeso]

Front view of Azaiki Public Library, Yenagoa, Nigeria
Front view of Azaiki Public Library, Yenagoa, Nigeria

At first glance, you would think that this building is a 3-star hotel or a celebrity’s home in a highbrow neighbourhood. But, no, it is a library — a public library for that matter — in Yenagoa, south-south Nigeria. What’s more: the trendy exterior, the all-white walls and pillars, the well-kept lawn and landscaped premises all speak of a deliberate attention to detail.

In case you didn’t know: Public libraries are dead in Nigeria. And so to see that one exists in such posh surroundings thrills me on end. After paying the requisite annual subscription (I opt for WORLD MEMBERSHIP category), I usher myself into the equally breathtaking interiors, stacked with 100, 000+ books. Whatever subjects interest you, I can bet that the Azaiki Library has a book on it.

“This library is unique,” librarian Emmanuel Eze tells a group of visiting youths, all members of the Bayelsa State NYSC Culture and Tourism CD group. “It is a two-storey, multi-purpose building where you learn something every step you take and everywhere you look.”

True. The building, more or less a mansion, is a six-in-one-facility: aside from the traditional library (and reading rooms) on the ground floor, it also houses a museum (second floor, dedicated to the Niger Delta); a Centre for Research, Documentation & Development Studies (Second floor); a photographic gallery/ wall of fame of hundreds of the world’s most influential personalities (from the ground floor up); a coffee-bar (first floor), and an e-library (first floor).

Eze is addressing the visitors  at the ‘Nelson Mandela Square’, the front section of the reception area named after the eminent South African political activist and former president, who passed away in December 2013, aged 95.

The Corps members take a group photograph by the Autograph gallery of the library. Image courtesy of Chika Uwadoka
The Corps members take a group photograph by the Autograph gallery of the library. Image courtesy of Chika Uwadoka

“South Africa is the most visited African country, no doubt. The founder of this library, Prof. Azaiki, is a well-traveled person, and he always like to keep memories of places he has visited through pictures,” Eze says in his welcome remarks. “When he is not in Nigeria, the likely country to find him is South Africa, and in the course of one of those visits, he might have had the opportunity to meet with the late African icon.”

The furniture here is two sets of settees with frames made out of traditional cooking pots. On the wall nearby is a gallery of strikingly framed photographs showing Prof. Azaiki with some of the VIPs he’s met over time in his home country of Nigeria and abroad, including former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s one time Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon.

The tour takes the visitors through the reading rooms (named after some sons of Bayelsa State, including former president Goodluck Jonathan, former governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and renowned poet Gabriel Okara), the cataloging section, the function/ screening rooms and stopping for a while at the boardroom. “This is the brain of the library, where we brainstorm,” Eze says, as his audience files in one by one. “This is where we have our annual meetings, our emergency meetings and it is where important decisions that have to do with this place are made. More importantly, the photographs/ biographies in this room are of leaders who have impacted the world positively.”

He couldn’t have chosen a better time and place to prick their minds. Most of the corps members are in their 20s, and they will pass out of the NYSC scheme in a few weeks to face the grim realities of the Nigerian job market. First, he tells them of China’s current technological feats, which has seen the Asian country unveil an unmanned plane and underwater vessel.

“After that, the country is proposing to build a tube-train that will travel from Beijing to Washington in two hours. Imagine what that country is doing. We keep saying we are the future of tomorrow. Tomorrow will never come — we must decide to be leaders of today. And to be leaders of today, you have to use your brain.”

As at the time of my visit, Librarian Juliet (left), assisted by Patience (right), have together catalogued some 30,000 books of the Azaiki Library
As at the time of my visit, Librarian Juliet (left), assisted by Patience (right), have together catalogued some 30,000 books of the Azaiki Library

The boardroom is quiet, the corps members fully attentive. If Eze’s speech is inspiring, the collection of framed photographs and biographies in the boardroom — and throughout the library — is even more so, comprising personalities dead and living, who by their actions have benefited humankind—From Abraham Lincoln to Margaret Thatcher to Kwameh Nkrumah, they are lumped in categories like: ‘African-American Leaders’, ‘100 People who Changed the World’, ‘50 Women who Changed the World’, ‘Influential African Leaders’, ‘African Civil Rights Activist’.

The hallways are packed with even more portraits and profiles of heroes of every conceivable field of human interest across several generations, some of whose stories I know already but most are new to me: Golda Meir (Teacher and 4th Prime Minister of Israel); Pope John Paul 11; Julius Caeser; Bruce Lee; Elton John; Jane Goodall (humanitarian & Environmentalist); The Nicholas Brothers (tap dancers); Helen Joseph (South African anti-Apartheid activist); Voltaire(French writer & philosopher); Akbar (Moghul Emperor, India).

Eze wraps up in the boardroom by complimenting the American educational establishment, citing Yale and Harvard universities and two of America’s best known geniuses — Mark Zukerberg and Bill Gates—for special praise.

“Bill Gates produced his first software at age 12. Has a 12-year-old Nigerian child created anything that the world is dependent on today? Why are our universities not ranked among the very best in the world? Our Colleges of Education ought to be the most influential tertiary institutions in Nigeria, but we have turned them to glorified primary schools. Some private nursery schools are far better than some higher institutions.

“Recently in China, teachers were celebrated as angels, because they are the ones imparting knowledge in the leaders. Teachers sat with the country’s president. What am I trying to say? We need to use our head well.”

Up at the museum section, the touring party comes face to face with Azaiki, author and co-author of various books on Agriculture and a 2011 recipient of a national honour, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).  In a pre-recorded ‘welcome’ video that runs for about five minutes, the Agronomist-cum-politician talks about the vision behind the museum, one of which is to showcase the region’s heritage and history, and its struggles with environmental pollution owing to more than a half-century of crude-oil exploitation.

NigerDelta museum2
The Niger Delta Museum memorialises the life and struggles of Environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the ‘Ogoni Nine’, all of whom were hanged by a military government in 1995. Photograph courtesy of the Azaiki Public Library
The negative impact of crude-oil in the Niger Delta gets detailed treatment in the museum dedicated to it, documentaries and all
The negative impact of crude-oil in the Niger Delta gets detailed treatment in the museum dedicated to it, documentaries and all. Photograph courtesy of the Azaiki Public Library

“Oil has been a source of anger, frustration, violence and killing in the Niger Delta,” he says, his smile a pleasant contrast to the grim stories that awaits the visitors in the gallery. “We want people to see, feel and touch the Niger Delta…You will see our past, you will see our today, you will see our culture.”

At the end of the tour, I ask Chika Uwadoka, Vice President of the CDS group, what she thinks of the entire experience. “Quite an interesting place to be, quite educative,” she tells me. “It has one of the best features I have ever seen in any library. In fact, it is the best of its kind.”