Funmi Ilori once had a dream about creating the biggest library in Africa. Now she drives vans packed with books to poor areas of Lagos to help children discover a love of reading.
“Readers are what?” she asks about 15 youngsters, sitting on little plastic stools in a classroom in a small converted lorry.
“Leaders!” they shout back in unison.
One of Ilori’s iRead Mobile Library vans recently stopped at the Bethel primary school in the working class district of Ifako, in the heart of megacity Lagos.
Inside the school compound, slides and seesaws rust in the humid air. The head teacher, Ruth Aderibigbe, said her 200 or so pupils only have textbooks at their disposal.
“Books cost a lot of money,” she said.
When iRead turned up at the school two years ago with its wide selection of books, from toddlers’ colouring books to children’s novels, plus a few for adults, she welcomed it in with open arms.
“The children involved in the programme now speak and spell better in English,” she said.
Inside the van, a young boy aged about 10 held a copy of “Half of a Yellow Sun”, the international bestseller by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The book has clearly been well-read: its spine barely held the pages.
Adichie last week became embroiled in controversy after a French journalist asked her during a visit to Paris whether there were any bookshops in Nigeria.
“I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question,” she responded, going on to rue what she said was France’s racist and colonial view of Africa.
Ilori is aware of the row and understands why the question would offend. But she sees a wider problem and has dedicated herself to trying to resolve it.
“Public libraries are functional in Nigeria, well, at least in Lagos. But not many people maximise the use of them,” she said.
“We need to catch new readers from a young age. In rural communities, there are children that have never held a book.