Library in a Mansion

Library in a Mansion

By Pelu Awofeso

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

Just so that you know: Public libraries are dead in Nigeria; and so to see that one exists in such posh surroundings thrills me on end. I pay for WORLD MEMBERSHIP category on the spot, and usher myself into the equally awesome interiors, stacked with 100, 000+ books.

“The Azaiki Public Library is unique,” librarian Emmanuel Eze tells a group of visiting youths. “It is a two-storey, multi-purpose building where you learn something every step you take and every where you look.”

True. The building, more or less a mansion, is a six-in-one-facility: aside from the traditional library on the ground floor, it also houses a museum (second floor, devoted 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), reading rooms (ground floor) and an e-library (first floor).

Between them, Juliet (Left) and Patience have catalogued some 30,000 publications in the Azaiki Library

Eze is addressing the visitors — members of the Bayelsa State NYSC Culture and Tourism CD group — at the ‘Nelson Mandela Square’, the front section of the reception area named after the famed South African political activist and former president, who passed away in December 2013, aged 95.

“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, possibly why he chose to honour him with this space.”

The furniture here are two sets of settees with frames made out of traditional pots. On the wall nearby is a gallery of beautifully 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 Corps members in a group photo at the autograph section of the Azaiki Library, Yenagoa. Included here are pictures of global figures signing autographs: The Dalai Lama, Margaret Thatcher, Angelina Jolie, Fidel Castro, Chinua Achebe, Oprah Winfrey, Pele, Michael Jackson, Angela Merkel, Rihana, and many more. Photo courtesy Chika Uwadoka

The tour takes the visitors through the reading rooms, the cataloging section, the function/ screening rooms and the boardroom. “This is the brain of the library, where we brainstorm,” Eze says, as his audience file into the room 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. Half of the corps members, mostly in their 20s, 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 exploits, 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. Imaging 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.”

The boardroom is quiet, the corps members totally attentive. If Eze’s speech is motivating, 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: ‘African-American Leaders’, ‘100 People who Changed the World’, ‘50 Women who Changed the World’, ‘Influential African Leaders’, ‘African Civil Rights Activist’.

Pelu Awofeso (foreground) with Librarian Emmanuel Eze (background) in the exquisite Coffee Bar of the Azaiki Library, Yenagoa. It parades photographs of The Obamas, Taylor Swift, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Sean Connery, and Mohammed Ali among other world renowned personalities

He then goes on to compliment the American educational establishment, singling out Yale and Harvard universities for special praise. And two of America’s best known geniuses — Mark Zukerberg and Bill Gates.

“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 come 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). “We want people to see, feel and touch the Nigeria Delta,” the Agronomist-cum-politician says in a pre-recorded ‘welcome’ video, explaining the reason for the museum, which is a heart-touching tribute to the heritage and and history of the region and its struggles with environmental pollution owing to more than a half-century of crude-oil exploitation, ‘a source of anger, frustration, violence and killing in the Niger Delta’. “You will see our past, you will see our today, you will see our culture.”

A section of the Niger Delta Museum — photo courtesy of the Azaiki Library.
A section of the Niger Delta Museum — photo courtesy of the Azaiki Library

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.”