It was the indefatigable Jamaican reggae legend who persuasively said in his Redemption song: “Emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” There are conceivably more than a thousand meanings to construe from this quote, which Marley is said to have extrapolated from the speeches of another Jamaican Black liberation icon, Marcus Garvey.
This quote is evidence enough of the fact that the excursion of human magnitude begins in the mind. The mind once given the rigours of academic aptitude through books can catapult the human personality into the forefront of growth and development. As brilliantly reechoed by another great thinker, the human mind once stretched by a new idea never remains the same again. The greatness of the lives of numerous world personalities sum up the above quotations.
I am certain that many if not all readers of this article have heard of the prodigious Black Muslim leader of the 20th Century, Malcolm X. Malcolm’s story is intriguing in more ways than one. He is mostly celebrated as a character of “Black manhood,” a tag the actor Ossie Davies gave Malcolm in his tribute to the civil rights leader following his assassination.
Malcolm grew to be one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights struggle in America. He became a firm voice against the subjugation of Black people in the United States of America. Although killed in February 1965, Malcolm is still poignantly quoted by freedom movements all over the world. Yet looking at his early life, no one would have thought that Malcolm would grow up to be one of the sturdiest intellectual forces of the past century.
Like many people of his generation, racial segregation and oppression pushed him out of school in the very early years of his life. He was top of his class until his teacher told him in Grade 8 that as a Black man, he could not become a lawyer and that his best shot in life was in becoming a carpenter.
Following that, he left school and became a street hustler. He was convicted of robbery in 1946 and ended up spending 7 years in jail. Prison became a redemption for him. He read extensively while there and started debating. As he writes in his autobiography published in 1965:
“It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education. I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there. I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional. How would I sound writing in slang, the way 1 would say it, something such as, “Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad—”
He further confessed that “many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies. I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words.”
The other prominent trailblazer whose life has been greatly impacted by reading is Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and former contender for the American Republican Party’s nomination in the November 2016 elections. The fact that he became a neurosurgeon and even a contender for the Presidency of the United States emanates from his reading given his deprived social and economic background.
Why these two stories, some may ask? Here is my response. I purposefully included the life story of these two giant men in this article for very solid reasons. I want everyone reading this piece of writing to understand the positive impact reading can have on the intellectual and perhaps spiritual and economic wellbeing of any man, woman, child or even nations.
As a debate tutor and adjudicator who has matched shoulders with the top debaters in Africa and around the world and travelled widely, I have observed the huge difference between the level of reading we do as a people and the reading culture in other parts of the world.
I am not just saying this as a figment of my imagination. This opinion comes from a concerned African citizen who has been frustrated by the poor reading habits of some of my debaters and by extension the general populace as noted earlier in this article. One of my most treasured activities as a youth activist is to conduct debate trainings for young people. As a student who was sponsored at university level to represent The Gambia in many international debate tournaments, I founded Debate Gambia Association as a way of helping to train young people in critical thinking and advocacy. Whenever I am invited to trainings, my first questions are always: How many of you read the newspapers today? If I don’t ask that question, I frequently also ask how many people read at least a book in the past month? To my chagrin, the answers I get are always “no” as unbelievably as it seems. Nobody in my trainings ever answers that they have read books or that they ever read newspapers. This worries me greatly.
Firstly, it makes my task of training world class Gambian debaters and public speakers very difficult. It has been proven time and again that the best debaters are always the most widely read people. Last year, I became the first Gambian to serve in the chief adjudication panel of the Annual Pan-African Universities Debating Championship hosted by the University of Ghana. During the course of the tournament I had the opportunity to interact and discuss with Jamie, the ultimate champion of the championship. He is a Masters student at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. I wanted to know the secret behind his outstanding performance.
He told me many things, but the most important of them all was that he reads. His message to me was clear. You cannot give what you don’t have. And that you cannot be a good public speaker if you do not read.
The second reason I am engrossed in harnessing our reading culture is that we as young people and by extension a homeland can only prepare ourselves for the ardent task of nation building if we read as extensively as imaginable. I am convinced beyond reasonable doubt that we as human beings can only challenge our aptitudes if we embark on the journey of self-actualization through reading books.
Reading is the building wedge of prodigious nations. There are many benefits that accrue from reading. Scientific evidence has shown that reading enhances all aspects of the academic progress of human beings. Students who read are not only more likely to achieve higher results and aptitude, but are more disposed to have knowledge in more areas of life than those who do not read. Anne E. Cunningham confirms through her paper entitled “What Reading Does for the Mind” that reading, in general, makes you smarter, and it keeps you sharp as you age.
Consequently, for a student who aspires to rise beyond the tree of life through education, there isn’t a grander means to accomplish this than through reading. In addition to this, Cunningham further reveals that reading can boost your brain, reduce stress, give you greater tranquility, improved analytical thinking, increased vocabulary, improve memory and help you to priorities your goals.
As a writer, I have often been asked by many people how I am able to scribble well. This question fascinates me because in no way do I consider myself a good writer. But if in anyway, I always improve as a writer, it is precisely due to the fact that I am more read than the average Gambian. At least every week, I try to finish a book. So, through reading, I am able to discover writing patterns and new words from the best writers around the world.
My favourite books include the writings of Kwame Nkrumah. His autobiography is a constant reading for me. As a devout Muslim, my most preferred reading is the Quran. Other books in my bookshelf are the Iliad by Homer; Letters and Papers from Prison by Bonhoeffer; Phaedo by Plato; Divine Comedy by Dante; The Prince by Machiavelli; 1984 by George Orwell; Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Much criticism has been made of why Africa has not been able to get the right progress across all facets of human exertion. Looking at our current development aspirations as a continent, we still have not been able to unlock the chains of our potential. This to me is largely as a result of our poor reading culture.
All great leaders in history have been avowed readers. The founder of Nike Phil Knight is said to “so revere his library that in it you have to take off your shoes and bow.” John Coleman in an article published in 2012 entitled “Those Who Want to Lead, Read observes a systematic reading pattern in most great world leaders including Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman and Steve Jobs amongst others. Despite being one of the most renowned world leaders in history, Winston Churchill “won his Nobel Prize in literature, not peace,” he said.
As a young man who is worried about the reading culture in the country, I have made it a religious call to stimulate reading through my organization, Debate Gambia. I am personally pioneering this with ten young people. Every week we have classes where we discuss books and we hope this will inspire a change towards reading in the country. I know this is a small step, but as it has been rightly said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. With time we will be able to move this process further and expand it to welcome more young people on board.
Finally, I will not do justice to this article if I do not state one of the replies I often get when I tell people to read. In fact, just recently, a close friend gave me this very excuse. In one of my recent travels, I bought a book for a friend as a gift for our friendship. When I gave him the book, he told me “My brother thank you for the gift, but you know I am never going to read this book.” I asked him why and he retorted “I don’t have time.” I told him, well, I don’t have time either, but I create it to read books. This reminds me of the saying that “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Dedicating two hours to read every day is not going to stop you from your daily work or activity routines.
Sadly, I have discovered that those who cry about not having time to read, spend much more watching television or surfing the internet. Our generation is greatly blessed with resources that place information and knowledge at our feet. Unfortunately, many of us never make good use of this gift to make hay whilst the sun shines. We always create time for the things that are important to us, yet reading does not seem to be part of that. It is time to change that. It is only through reading that we can build a greater society with people who have the potential to compete the best from all over the world.