Ken Ike Okere
Fellow Since 2008
Abuja Literary Society
This profile was prepared when Ken Ike Okere was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
Ken Ike Okere created and leads a range of programs that spark young people’s interest in reading. As Ken works to promote a vibrant literary culture in Nigeria, young people are increasingly turning to books as a source of both knowledge and entertainment, and to school ‘literary clubs’ as spaces for lively discussions on issues of national importance.
The New Idea
Over the last decade, young Nigerians’ interest in reading has decreased dramatically. In fact, a poor reading culture has been blamed for Nigeria’s slow growth in several fields and indentified by many as one of the main causes of the society’s weaknesses. Ken has co-created and nurtured a platform, the Abuja Literary Society (ALS), to revive that dying culture. Through, a special purpose platform, The Abuja Read Project (ARP), which he founded, he is establishing reading clubs so that young people can be more knowledgeable and more productive members of society. Through ARP, young people act as peer educators who set up groups in their schools that focus on not only reading, but also on engaged discussion and debate, critical review, and other forms of expression. As members of reading clubs spread these programs around the country, thousands of young people are renewing Nigeria’s reading and literary culture, despite dismal levels of state funding for education and libraries.
Ken believes that the poor reading culture in Nigeria has a deep impact on the Nigerian society in general and on the younger generation in particular. In Nigeria today there are hardly any libraries stocked with books and the few libraries that do exist are dilapidated. Since the success of academic institutions at all levels relies on libraries that can provide relevant reading materials, the lack of such resources is having a deep and detrimental impact on students. Libraries need to be able to offer a comfortable environment and a good stock of quality books in order to engage young readers. Unfortunately, most schools don’t even have a library in which students can study, much less spend their leisure time.In Nigeria today, falling standards of education and crumbling infrastructure are some of the greatest problems affecting young people. According to the Central Bank of Nigeria (2000), Nigeria’s financial investment in its education system is lower than many less affluent African countries. The federal government allocation to education has declined steadily since 1999 and even more so during the last five years of military rule. The slow erosion of Nigeria’s once vibrant educational system can be blamed on a combination of the poor leadership during three decades of past military rulers, a legacy of rampant corruption, and the targeted exiling and killing of prominent literary citizens. Today, when government officials have attempted to rectify the problem though enacting appropriate legislation, they are undermined by corruption and overwhelmed by the current educational quagmire. As of result of neglect, quality educational literature has become exorbitantly priced and thus children cannot afford books for their classrooms or for leisure reading. The problem is most dramatic in the primary education sector, where early exposure to books and reading has been shown to have positive effects on a child’s mental development. Meanwhile, widely available media like the internet have created a diversion for young people and have already replaced books as leisure activities. Without access to books, and encouragement to read them, generations of Nigerians will grow up in a world where reading is a lost art. This will have untold consequences for the literacy rates, mental development, and futures of Nigerian youth.
Ken has identified the link between reading in school as well as for pleasure and its positive effect on overall literacy. His main strategy is to replicate the very successful ALS model through establishing, nurturing, and networking reading clubs in 20 schools in Abuja, starting off with ten in the metropolis and branching out to satellite towns. He has also set up weekly literary clubs where people come to read together and partake in the reading culture. Each club organizes weekly activities, including story-telling competitions. The meetings are designed to be as interactive as possible for young participants, where works are read and critiqued, and where topical issues are discussed and debated in a lively format. There are also book reviews, oral presentations, and musical renditions. Finally, Ken uses drama to address the lack of literacy forums and to promote a vibrant literary culture in Nigeria. Drama also provides a powerful way to contribute to the socio-political discourse.In all his efforts, Ken works to ensure that his literary clubs are self-sustaining and self-propagating by stressing that parents are the first ones to play a role in educating and training their children so that they are interested in reading and seek out books in their leisure time. Since libraries are essentially non-existent and rarely seen as sites for recreational reading, Ken distributes suitable reading materials to families. Ken has realized that certain books interest students more than others and by making more of these sorts of books available he can improve the quality of libraries even if he himself can’t rebuild the actual buildings. In this way, Ken continues to advocate for environments that encourage reading and parents, children, teachers, students, and people of all walks of life are beginning to internalize this culture of reading.
Ken has always had an entrepreneurial quality that he has consistently relied on to improve people’s lives and access to basic services. In 1998 he put together the equivalent of a local yellow pages when there was no data available. With determination he and his team of four walked through all the streets of Abuja, knocking on every door to collect information which they then compiled to complete the first directory service in Abuja, Nigeria. His yellow pages have come to be relied upon by city authorities for data and the service has expanded to cover Nigeria.Ken’s quest for more knowledge has always been an important aspect of his childhood and he always partook in literary competitions as a child. His interest in development started in the central Nigerian city of Jos, after his National Youth Service. He established the Plateau Theatre Company, a purely educational drama troupe, following his findings which revealed that reading and literary culture were fading rapidly. While he recognized the need for education reform and investment, he still believes that few forces are as powerful as reading, drama and literary appreciation, and he set out to make sure Nigerian youth do not grow up without experiencing them.