By Chris Onuoha
Koko Kalango is a household name in educational book publishing. She is an author and a pastor, born to a Nigerian father and Jamaican mother.
In 2014, her publishing firm, Rainbow book club, which has contributed immensely to improve the reading culture among school children in Nigeria, attracted the UNESCO World Book Capital to Port Harcourt. Recently, she celebrated her 50th birthday with a historic book; in a coffee table format called ‘One Love’ documenting decades of Jamaica/Nigeria relationship. In this interview, Koko speaks about the book and the long standing relationship.
You have come up with a historical book that tells an existing cultural bond between Nigeria and Jamaica. Now, what were you thinking about before you embarked on this project and at what point did it strike you to pick up your pen and write the book?
Being born to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, I have grown up in two worlds. I have grown up with first-hand experience of the interaction between Nigerians and West Indians, not just from my parents but from the wider Caribbean-Nigerian community. I am a witness to the contribution of people like my mother, Mrs Claire Bassey, to their adopted land and I thought their story should be documented. I began gathering these narratives in 2016. But the final decision to be the one to tell it came for me on a trip we took with family and friends to Jamaica to celebrate my 50th birthday.
Obviously, your mum inspired this book ‘One Love.’ Give us a brief insight of the book, its target audience and what you intend to achieve with it.
Yes this work was inspired primarily by the life of my mother. But hers is just one of many stories of Jamaicans and indeed Caribbean nationals who have called Nigeria home. My research took me as far back as 1846, when Jamaican missionaries, Andrew Chisholm and Edward Miller, sailed into Calabar, my hometown, with the Scottish Rev. Hope Waddell. Testament to the impact of their work is the Hope Waddell Training Institution, a foremost educational institution in Nigeria. Rev. Waddell and his team established Nigeria’s first printing press and that mission facilitated the translation of the Bible into Efik.
For the over 170 years that have followed, many others came, like Robert Campbell, Rev. Ricketts, Lucy Stewart, Amos Schackleford, Lackland Lennon and Sidney Moss.
The majority of those I profiled arrived in the 50s and 60s and this group comprises mainly of women, like my mother, who migrated to England in the wind rush generation, met Nigerian students in the UK, married them and came to Nigeria. They have made significant impact in the fields of Education (like Prof. Dorothea Baxter-Grillo, Prof. Patick Wilmot, Mrs Sheila Alli and Ms Carmen Latty), health (like Mrs Cynthia Mbonu and Mrs Adeline Ndoma-Egba), Horticulture (like Mrs Beryl Ediale), Civil society (like Mrs Izarene Aret-Adams), Civil Service (like Mrs Carelene Alaja-Browne) literature and the arts (like Lindsay Barrett) and tourism/entertainment (like Michael Williams). I must confess I first began with an ambitious plan to tell the story of the Nigerwives (foreigners married to Nigerians).
Then I narrowed it down to West Indians and ended up narrowing it even further to Jamaicans. Nigerian men are not marrying foreignerslike they did in my parents’ generation.
So that community and that story is fading away. I decided to record it so that readers, now and in future generations would know they came, they lived amongst us and they made a difference. Wole Soyinka has described this book as ‘a most essential contribution to the literature of the African diaspora’. I chose the coffee table book format to make it easy and pleasurable reading. This book should interest lovers of history, culture, current affairs, international relations and indeed anyone who appreciates a good story.
When other foreigners were flying out of the country en-mass during the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, your mum refused to leave, rather chose to trek the long distance with her children. In this show of love, tell us more about your family war experience and reasons why she became different from others Naijawives?
I was just seven days old when the war broke out so I cannot give you an eyewitness account of that experience (laughing). But from the stories my parents and siblings tell, it was a horrendous one. Prominent professionals on the Nigerian divide were hunted down and sometimes killed. For this reason, my father had toleave Port Harcourt to go into hiding, after he had sent the family ahead of him to find refuge in Calabar. At a pointmy mother and the 7 young girls with her had to abandon their Mercedes Benz and continue the journey on foot. There was a time the party walked 17 miles and even had to cross a river on felled trees. Indeed, during the war, foreigners had the opportunity to take the Red Cross flights out of Nigeria. I think each family took the decision that was best for them. My mum opted to stay. Her resilience has taught me that love is sacrificial and unconditional.
…Still in the family, your mum once dreamt of becoming a model. Was there any of your sibblings that eventually became a model?
None of her descendants is in mainstream modelling but my sister, Eme Akenzua, Creative Director of John 3 V 3 Hats, is a milliner. By virtue of her vocation she models her hats and other head pieces. Then my niece, Kene Okpaise (Kene Rapu) makes footwear which she also models. This is the nearest we have come to modelling (laughing).
Jamaicans contribution to Nigeria development was visibly felt during the “Amalgamation period” as documented in the second chapter of the book. Did this impact rub off on Jamaican soil back then?
I divided the book into three parts; profiles of those who arrived before the amalgamation (1914), those who came between the amalgamation and Independence (1960) and those who came after 1960. I think the contribution of Jamaicans to the Nigerian story is seen in different ways in all three sections of the book. Between the amalgamation and Independence we have people like the Hitchmans who were teachers in Itigidi in present Cross River State (from 1915-1921), someone like Emmanuel Scott came in the late 1940s. He worked in the Salvation Army in Lagos and designed the curriculum for the Yaba College of Technology, then spent decades in the old Bendel where he was instrumental in education and agriculture. Then we have Elijah Petgrave who was an Engineer with the Railways and Maisie Dankaro, who worked as a nurse in northern Nigeria.Others like Mrs Joyce Igiehon worked as a nurse in Ibadan and Benin and of course my mum, who founded Springfield School Port Harcourt over 42 years ago. I believe they were missed by their family backin Jamaica. I believe that their coming to Nigeria made Jamaicans back home realise there was a home for them in Africa as many of them yearned to return to Africa.
Some of the Jamaican ladies who were in UK back then for studies hooked up with Nigerian men and were happy to migrate to Africa. Was there any sort of social face-off with Nigerian ladies, that Jamaican ladies were snatching their men? …and did Jamaican men equally frown at the movement of their educated female healthcare workers to Nigeria?
You would have to ask the Jamaican and Nigerian ladies as I was not even born then (laughing). On the contrary, I must say there is something about the Nigerian men that many non-Nigerian women find very attractive – their quest to excel educationally and professionally, their ambition and aim for the best wherever they find themselves, the importance they attach to family. When you read the stories you will see that these women fell in love and sometimes, against the advice of their families, took a leap of faith and followed their hearts to Nigeria.
It is also noticed that the number of Jamaicans coming to Nigeria either as wives or for greener pasture in the post-independence has reduced currently. What could be the cause?
I am not sure Nigeria would have qualified as greener pastures when compared to the UK, Canada or the US to which many others went. I would say many of the males came more from a sense of wanting to reconnect with their ancestral land. Most of them bought into the Back to Africa movement of Marcus Garvey which made it of interest for the African diaspora to want to return here. For the women, it was love that brought them here. Indeed, the number of foreigners getting married to Nigerians and coming to Nigeria has reduced. Rather, today Nigerians are looking for opportunities to migrate to greener pastures like Canada, Europe and the UK. So, the tide has certainly changed mainly due to economic hardship.
Jamaica as a small country has gifted the world Reggae Music enshrined in the UNESCO listing and you; partly Nigerian/Jamaican has also attracted UNESCO World Book Capital recognition to Nigeria…
The inscription of Jamaican reggae on UNESCO’s intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2018 testifies to the influence this genre of music has had internationally. Bob Marley, the reggae icon, used his songs to speak for the marginalised, to challenge injustice, to promotepan Africanism and to foster unity. In 1978, at a time of political tension in Jamaica, Manleyorganised his One Love Peace concert where he got the leaders of Jamaica’s political parties, Edward Seaga and Michael Manley, to shake hands, in a show of peace and solidarity.That was a historic moment. It led to Bob Marley receiving the United Nations Peace Medal.
The UNESCO World Book Capital tenure of Port Harcourt, managed by your Rainbow books club was a huge success that attracted global interest. How has this impacted Nigeria reading culture?
I want to believe Port Harcourt’s recognition as World Book Capital did several things including draw national attention to the important of reading to development. It placed Nigeria on the world map for a positive cause. It put Port Harcourt in the limelight not for militancy as it was most known for then, but for education. It encouraged the city of Port Harcourt in the various programmes and projects it had embarked on to encourage readership and scholarship.
The book festival we hosted in Port Harcourt set a standard and provided a template for other book festivals. This feat boosted business in the book chain industry, highlighted writing talent whether through the publications we produced by upcoming writers or through the Africa 39 project that selected 39 prominent African writers under the age of 40 and celebrated them on the world stage. That is some of what we know. A greater part of the impact we may not know at this time because this type of work is a seed that bears fruits over generations.
How many books has Rainbow books published?
We have published a dozen books.Some, like Nigerian Literature; A Coat of many Colours and African Literature: A Coat of Many Colourseach profile 50 writers. They give you information of Nigeria and Africa’s most important writers, respectively. Books like 100 Years Around Nigeria and 100 Years Around Port Harcourt, are the product of writing exercises we organised with secondary school students across Rivers State and Nigeria, respectively. They encourage and expose writing talent. We also have Rainbow Stories for Kids and Rainbow Stories for Teens, a product of our national creative writing competition. Again, these reward talent. Our books inform, educate, and entertain.
Books were expected to become extinct because of digital age but have not yet become extinct. Why do you think so?
The digital age will not make books extinct but make them popular in digital format.
What is the future of the publishing industry looking at this century of digital book publishing?
Like every other industry, publishing hasto evolve to stay relevant. As the world is going digital so is the publishing industry.
What is the difference between books published now and books published before the advent of digitalization, especially ones published by Heinemann and others?
Today, publishing is democratized. A lot of people are self-publishing and many self-published books are successful. This means the established publishers need to re-think the way they do business and move with the times.
Do you think globalization has affected books published in the old, such as ‘Thing Fall Apart” by Achebe that tells more about Africa? Do we expect similar books that still tell about Africa?
With globalization and digitalization, I think books about Africa would be in even more demand. The world is connected like never before, people are curious about other peoples and one of the best ways to learn about others is through their literature. Again, globalisation connects the African diaspora. With movements that encourage self-assertion on the part of minorities, there in increased awareness and subsequent demand for literature from Africa or about Africa.
What next do we expect from Rainbow?
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