Susty Person of the Week – Austin Nwaeze
Austin Godson Nwaeze was born 26th August 1982. He attended State School 1, Churchill Road, Baptist High School, Moore House, and briefly as a part time student of University of Port Harcourt where he studied Management Science.
In his quest to encourage, revive and sustain reading habit among the children of the less privilege in his environment, he has tirelessly been using his meagre earnings as a school teacher, to buy assorted textbooks, and educational materials presently worth millions of naira. Using the brainchild of his innovative organization which he founded since 2008, The Garden City Library, Project Read Advocacy, has been affecting various lives within and around Port Harcourt.
For this, commendation and recognition has come from organizations such as New Partnership for Africa’s Development, Rainbow Book Club, Patriotic Forum of Nigeria, Purpose Driven Nation Builders, Quantum Business School, Radio Rivers, Garden City Radio amongst others. He has received several awards because of his social service and reading advocacy drive. His Project is featured in the UNESCO World Book Capital City brochure titled Port Harcourt by the Book pages 52 captioned “Literary Activities in the City”.
He has been a guest on Radio Rivers and Garden City Radio in a bid to share his passion for books and to advocate for a sustainable reading culture amongst members of the public
Austin was nominated to give the goodwill address to local and foreign guest at the “One Million Books for Rivers” organized by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) Rivers State 2013. He was nominated Youth Ambassador for Reading representing Rivers State in the Bring Back the Book Campaign of former President Goodluck Jonathan 2011 organized by RISE NETWORK. He was a volunteer for the UNESCO World Book Capital City and has received special recognition and books donation from the Project Director, Mrs. Koko Kalango.
In 2013 Garden City Library was given recognition to be a participant at the Rivers State Education Summit meant for stakeholders in the education sector. The organization has also received award from a foremost business School in Port Harcourt, Quantum Business School. He is a distinguished alumni of the School of Professional Mentors and Capacity Builders. He is the Team Leader of Purpose Driven Youths Forum which founded. He is the Coordinator of Young Readers Club, Book Lovers Club, Children Mobile Library, and Children Holiday Reading Clinic for preschoolers and teenagers. Other award nominations include, Patriotic Forum of Nigeria and Purpose Driven Nation Builders where he serves as a Youth Ambassador.
Mr. Austin Godson Nwaeze is currently serving with his beloved wife as UNESCO facilitators in a project tagged ‘Empowering Nigerian Women and Girls in Literacy’ in partnership with Rivers State Agency for Adult and Non-formal Education and National Mass Literacy Commission.
What exactly do you do?
I promote reading, education, literacy and self-development through direct introduction of books to families on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of reading to the child’s overall personality development, also stressing the importance of parents, siblings or family members reading to their children at their early formative years for quality education improvement and for sustainable reading culture in our society.
Literacy because it’s part of my makeup, mental aptitude, natural bent or predisposition. I love reading and writing from an early age and my primary and secondary school testimonials both read “very good in reading and writing”. I have this consummate passion to see people read books and from being a vocation, it has grown to become my vacation. Ralph Waldo Emerson the American Theologian and poet will say “the talent is the call’’ and as they say the rest is history.
How did you start?
I started by first discovering myself and my purpose. The purpose of life, they say, is to live a life of purpose. I agree completely with the statement of American theologian, Paul Tillech who wrote “There is a path and pattern in everyman’s life, a unique pattern all his own, which if he learns to live after, will help him create a great and glorious masterpiece out of himself”. To the glory of God, I have discovered my own path, my pattern, my vocation, my calling, my purpose, but it was the road less traveled especially among my people.
How have you stayed focus on this mission?
Besides the sense of self-discovery of my life’s mission, what has helped me stayed focus is the passion to attain the goals I have set for myself which is to see a reading society, a society where the publishing industry will flourish, where we will have a Nigerian Book of the Month Club and the recommended books will sale in their millions of copies. A former senior government official in the United States of America began the American Book of the Month Club and it became successful and it has recommended thousands of books that has positively affected the national consciousness of Americans because they read these books collectively.
The second reason why I have stayed focus is that God has always showed up during times when I was in the valley, I mean those low moments when I felt like throwing away the towel, he has directly and indirectly asked me to hold on and hold up, to keep on keeping on. He is the initiator of this vision, it is Him who works in us both to will and to do His good pleasures. So in a word, faith in God’s word concerning this vision has kept me strong.
What was life like growing up?
Very challenging and hectic. But I still managed to have a happy childhood because I imbibed a positive mental attitude at an early age. As a toddler, I moved with my mum from a secured place to the slum area of Borikiri Township where I had both primary and secondary education. Mind you, I am the last child of six siblings and I had a very rough parentage, mired in poverty. To be honest with you, I think parents should try to make the right personal choices for the emotional stability of their children.
I enjoyed school but never seemed to have enough quality of education, books or teachers I desired. I was insatiably curious in my quest to learn.
My English teacher once queried my class mates for complaining that I was never punished when I committed an infraction. As a child, I think I had a likeable personality. Revealing was what my teacher replied my classmates in JSS3, which gave me a little insight into the man I was turning out to be. She said “that you are of the same class with Austin does not mean you are of the same standard”. I consider my intellectual prowess and analytical thinking skills sharpened through self-development to be one of my best gifts from God. And from a spiritual stand point, our lives is a gift from God, and how we live it, is our gift to God. I also found out that being literate is one of the best gifts of life because without this gift, I would not have had any platform for self-expression. My family’s financial and social handicap notwithstanding, I managed to finish secondary school in year 2000, having first being sent to a vocational school. I was later transferred to Baptist High School and rounded up my SS3 at Ogba Comprehensive High School, where I served meritoriously as Deputy Senior Prefect.
I remember, while attending secondary school in Port Harcourt, I did odd jobs like road sweeping, security, bookbinding, part time and during summer breaks to help myself buy books. Then I discovered the library and a new chapter opened up in my life. My mind at this time was already accelerating to philosophical questions such as, who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? I knew I was unique and different but in what definite way, I did not know. Because I needed to get answers to my probing questions, I turned to devouring tomes of great books.
The first book that helped me to start fixing the puzzle of my selfhood together was the Bible. As a Baptist, born into the church meant you have to pass through the scripture from an early age in the Sunbeam Ministry. Those scriptural memorization drills helped a great deal to develop the young in mental work. Another book that helped me was a little unpopular book written by Glen Clark about the man called Sir Walter Russell. I was in JSS3 then, and was going through this period of identity crisis. The book titled ‘The Man Who Tapped the Secrets of the Universe’ opened up my higher thinking faculties. It elevated my perception about myself in relation to the universe. I remember the book inoculating me with these words of Sir Walter Russell “I have realized that the real essentials of greatness in men are not written in books, neither can they be found in the schools. They are written in the innermost being of everyman that intensely searches for perfection in creative achievements and are understandable to such men only. Genius is self-bestowed, mediocrity is self-inflicted.”
Today when I reflect on my life’s journey many years after encountering that pocket sized book, I see a lot of similarity between my present life and this biographical character. Even though I would very much want to use a university, not as an ego booster, but to hone further my skills, I long gave up the idea that a university degree will make me wiser. I realized that there is a difference between being a learner and being a student, and between being a specialist and being a generalist.
I have made my choice: to bestow genius upon myself, university degree or not, so I began the life of a learner full time.
Is your passion for reading hereditary?
I will consider myself to be an early starter, though quite unusually, I was not directly taught at home to read but guess I was inspired to develop interest and desire in reading through my Mother Goose rhymes in nursery school, most of which I still recollect vividly and do sing to my own children. My fondness for books may also have come naturally or hereditarily through my father who is a U.K trained scholar.
How have you managed a vision like this with caring for a family?
It has been challenging to say the least. It is obvious and you don’t need a soothsayer to realize that, a library even if it is a small one is capital intensive. Perhaps this could even be the reason many people, including schools, avoid setting one up. Books are expensive to purchase especially if they are new, original, foreign, hard bound or illustrative. A friend and school owner once told me that though she admires my work, ‘you cannot be poor and be trying to help the poor’. On the contrary, we think our thriving in this vision so far lies in our being poor and trying to help the poor. A genuine labour of love is never ignored by God especially when it is His assignment. By so doing, we have committed God to help us. My wife and I wonder how we meet our need but as they say, if you can really explain it then it is not a miracle, it is an occurrence. We got married in 2012 in what can be best described as a low budget marriage ceremony but which was rich in fun. We did not know we were much loved and admired for our project of reading with children until we saw the crowd, mostly of uninvited guests.
Are the people you created these services ready to read, especially in Rivers State?
The answer is a resounding yes but they need to be nurtured into it. Reading is a habit and habits take time to instill, or inculcate. Reading is a survival skill to meet our survival needs. It is our responsibility to make our people realize this and they are gradually realizing it. We have decided to catch them young and groom young readers. We therefore started the GCL Young Readers Club. We discovered that most parents don’t have the skill set to help their children develop into readers, with all the distractions of home videos and internet enabled phones. The idea initially was that she works for regular pay teaching (She holds a B.Ed. in English), while I do mobile library during the week, then on weekends, we both facilitate for the club. That also was a challenge, not on the part of the children, but on the part of the parents who raised all manner of objections to the proposal, either of the Home Library Service or of the club. The truth remains that while the project is very tasking and challenging in every sense, it is also enlightening and motivating. Resistance to our services from parents motivated us to go and research the more and now we have prepared a book that is set to redefine reading development in the state, and if adopted, in the entire nation.
Chimamanda Adichie in an interview in Guardian Newspaper of 2008, said “people walk up to me and say, ‘I love your works but I don’t read’, with no shame whatsoever. We are raising a generation of young people who don’t think reading is important. They say if you want to hide something valuable from a black man put in a book. The bookworms are the few who are fighting an uphill battle to make reading cool again”
In the future I look forward to doing a national survey on the most reading state and the least reading state in Nigeria. With the benefit of hindsight, Rivers State, especially Port Harcourt, is not faring well in this regard. Over the years, I have observed with dismay, the high rate of closure of bookshops, while on the other hand, there is mushroom growth of bars, sports betting centers and hotels in the city of Port Harcourt. The outward is a reflection of the inward.
With Goal 4 of the SDG obviously being your favorite, how can we make it work in Nigeria?
We can make the goal 4 work by starting where I am working on, early childhood. Goal 4 can be achieved by the Nigerian government standardizing Nursery education. The United States of America has a Program called Head Start that prepare children for reading readiness. Benjamin Franklin of blessed memory wrote that as the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined. And John Ruskin, a famous American Educationist said, “Education commences at the Mothers Knee and every word spoken to the hearing of little children tend towards the formation of character”.
The government should ensure that people should not fit the child to education but fit education to the child. And it begins at this most impressionable, formative stage of children’s lives. I see amateurs, unschooled and semi-literates handling the early education of these delicate ones. Our government should learn to solve problems from the bottom up approach not the fire brigade top bottom approach. All operators and teachers of nursery schools should at least have a minimum of diploma in early childhood education.
Secondly, as a matter of fact, from the primary to the secondary, library studies, reading hour, and vocational training must be incorporated. Since 2011, the National Council on Education has approved the recommendation of the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) which has recommended a group of 35 trade/entrepreneurships subjects. So far, how many schools have started to implement them? I think the schools are ashamed to teach handyman and marketable skills. Government should enforce those recommendations.
Thirdly, there should be a national reading day and a national mobile library day. 14th of April is America’s National Mobile Library Day. The current American candidate for the Republican Party, real estate tycoon, Donald Trump in his book ‘How to get Rich’ has this to say “once I’m home, I read books-usually biographies. Now and then I like to read about philosophers – particularly Socrates, who emphasized that you should follow the convictions of your conscience. I read as much as I can, but not as much as I would like, because there are many constraints on my time. I am grateful for the contribution Oprah Winfrey has made in regard to reading. In my book the America we deserve I wrote about the deplorable state of reading in this country. Since Oprah decided to do something about it, there has been a noticeable upswing in book sales, and writers are once again considered cool people rather than dinosaurs.”
If I have the resources, just like a former government official in America championed American Book of the Month Club, just like Oprah Winfrey’s Book of the Month Club, I will champion the movement of national reading revolution. With a luxurious bus full of volunteer readers, we would storm each state and campaign for a national reading habit. Why should you watch television in your office when you can read a book in your field that would sharpen your skill for higher productivity? Bookless homes, bookless offices litter our cities. Most companies don’t have Research and Development department only boardrooms. How do you feel when you work into a SANs office and there are no books? Or a bishop, or a proprietor of a college. What is an academic institution without a library stocked with books? Even teachers don’t buy or read books these days. They come to school with obsolete, and outdated information that has been crammed in their head to regurgitate verbatim what is written in their Ababio or P.N Okeke textbooks. No new knowledge, no research, no new ideas, no stimulus to make the students want to learn.
Fourthly, government should get some foreigners to help revamp our collapsed educational system. This Nigerianization policy in the education sector is not helping us. If it is not working, let us consult those that have the competence and requisite experience to make it work. They have being draining our brains, why don’t we bring them here and drain their brains too. Between 1919 to 1920 China brought the famous American educationist John Dewey to give lectures, and look at the tremendous impact it made on their society years afterwards. Let me share a word or two from his lecture on the philosophy of education. “Education and growth go hand in hand. Education means growth, except in the purely physical sense. Social progress is dependent upon educational progress.”
When would our leaders invite John Maxwell to Aso Rock to take them on a basic course on leadership 101? Or bring Anthony Robins to talk to our youths in the national stadium, or bring Peter Drucker to talk to our industrialist and manufactures. Until there is a direct exchange of knowledge there will be no exchange of value.
Finally, the government should look for the four Hebrew children in every school. The concept of the talented ten championed by a Negro historian W.E.B. Du Bios should be replicated. Frederic Douglas, a former slave was a typical example. He taught himself how to read and write, and rose to become a statesman. What about the Tuskegee institute founded by Booker T. Washington. He was such a person. The Ben Carson’s of Nigeria are wasting away in our schools and it is one out of ten thousand that end up actualizing their potentials. The Einstein’s of our schools are pining away. We call them unusual, strange, odd, maybe eccentric, but they are geniuses, prodigies, ingenious, precocious. Like Thomas Alvan Edison some have been sent out of school and branded dummy, uneducable, but they are our inventors, our industrialist. The government should launch a program in search of thinkers and separate them from the crowd. There are exceptionally gifted persons in every one thousand person and they are the saviours of the future. Give them special education and prepare them for future leadership. Is it coincidental that the three leading schools in the U.S, Harvard, Yale and Princeton has been producing their Presidents for the past years? Or is a coincidence that the largest library in the world is in close proximity to the capitol which is their senate? African especially Nigeria has a lot of catch up to do in terms of education.
Please shed light on your initiative and the challenges and success so far?
My challenges have been the driving force that keeps me going. I knew the enormity of what God called me into and I think if God gives you a job to do, that means He knows you can deliver the goods. At each step of the way, I have had course to say ‘God help me or I perish’ and he has been faithful to His promises. As a Christian, I share Gods perspective on issues. God said I have a light to shine and I should not hide my light so I am shining the light. But there has been pretenders who have tried to shine in a place that is not their sphere of influence but because they think there is financial gain in what we are doing. Now they have recoiled to their shell seeing that there is no hidden gain except the satisfaction of being used in a worthy course. Vision is a higher and nobler calling to life than ambition. Vision is about impact and whether we have plenty or small, we should learn to be content. Money is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. It may sound suicidal, but we don’t have more than N2000 in both accounts. The just shall live by faith has been our watchword. We believe this calling deserves our all and at Gods own time, he that waters shall himself or herself be watered. Family, friends and naysayers, have been puzzled how we have been doing this our crazy but passionate project without funding or grant. And we tell them He who gives vision also makes provision, though sometimes he does it incrementally. Read about Lily Wallace and Dewight Wallace of Readers Digest and you will see the power of unity in purpose. The challenges they faced, lack of funds, falling and raising, pressing on against the odds, is the same story that God is using Austin and Lucy Nwaeze to write so as to inspire other youths who find themselves in this unusual road to greatness.
To the glory of God we have recorded outstanding success with lives of those this project has impacted upon since 2011 when I knocked on the first door. Over 500 homes comprising average of 3 children have been enriched with bookmobile. From carrying books in a bag, to pushing a truck, to riding a bicycle, to a motorcycle, we now use a rickety rickshaw as our bookmobile. There has been a lot of transition. To keep overhead to the lowest minimum, we try to share rental with others and this is our fourth office in 6 years. Rents have been a perennial challenge considering the space our books alone now occupy. From the first kiddie’s books bought with 8000 borrowed from my mum, we now have over 5000 books for 2 year olds, teens and young adults which we give out daily to create a communal sense of shared reading experience. We would very much like to expand our services to other parts of the city and rural areas in the 23 local government areas of Rivers State and beyond to the South South states. That would require some reasonable amount of funding which we hope partners of this project should help us undertake. Investment in humans is the greatest investment, and none should be left behind. It has to be all embracing and all encompassing.
Some of our projects include, Book Drive, Bookmobile library for Homes, Schools and Communities, Sustainable Reading Culture with parents, Reading Teacher Assistance, Reading Clinic for Dyslexic School Children, Library and Reading Hour, Meet the Author, Library in Every school, Reading Room in my Street, School Reading Clubs, Adult and Non-formal Education and Alternative to College program to help those interested in vocations.
Apart from reading, what do you do for fun and how do you relax?
I am a lover of music and particularly gospel, soul and R & B. I also enjoy dancing, travelling, writing and speaking. To relax, I take long walk and meditate but now, I have a new hobby, playing with my children.
How can people contact you?
Through my mobile number 07064894882 and my gmail address, [email protected]