Wakaabout Series: The Mansion Library in South Nigeria

mansion_libraryBy Pelu Awofeso

Africa is a beautiful mosaic of untold stories. Pelu Awofeso, Nigeria’s travel guru, gives us access to the one place that tells some of these stories in a delectable way, while being ever so pleasing to the eye. Nigeria’s library mansion is a unique treasure and hidden gem. In this Wakaabout Series, Pelu uses the pidgin English term for “one who is always on the move”, waka about to guide you through the library.

At first glance, you would think that this building is a celebrity’s home in a highbrow neighborhood. 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 the World Membership category), I usher myself into the equally breathtaking interior, 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-story, 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 Center for Research, Documentation and 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 countries, no doubt. The founder of this library, Professor 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 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. “The photographs/ biographies in this room are of leaders who have impacted the world positively, Eze says.”

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 cataloged some 30,000 books of the Azaiki Library. Image courtesy of Pelu Awofeso.

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 Caesar; 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).

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 honor, 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 memorializes 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 await 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.”

Pelu Awofeso is an award-winning travel journalist and blogger. See more of his travel stories here.