Silvanus Oyebisi firmly believes that the world has entrusted him with a mission: to guide the way towards enhancing Nigeria's reading culture.
Dissatisfied with the cliché that "if you want to hide something from an African, you put it in a book," he has tirelessly and skillfully worked to rekindle fading reading habits, resulting in a trio of remarkable solutions.
"I was already at 200 level when I began to have the feeling of non-fulfilment of my career choice. That my parents were learned didn't help. I thought I was better as a commercial student and had no business in sciences," he tells Prine Progress.
No matter how high he reached in his academics at the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology orLAUTECH, his instinct told him he would have done better out of sciences.
"So, I decided that I would start to help children and young adults how not to fall into the depth I plunged into", he recounts his vows.
So, Oyebisi had some friends who shared similar beliefs to help him realise it, a party of friends that would later become useful in no distant future.
"We did a lot of reaching outs and helped as many children as they were ready to be coached as we could. We imbibed the spirit of reading into them and recorded successes"
According to Oyebisi, he is still in contact with some of the then students, and they are now living their dreams.
NYSC was another window to impact
Oyebisi's mandatory national youth service in rural Abua-Odual Local Government Area in Rivers State presented another opportunity for impact.
Like most corps members, he had a lot of free time but used it in a way that would impact the people around him.
"During NYSC, after returning from the places of primary assignment. There is always enough time. So during that period, I was fortunate to read many books."
He read many books…" Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, Rich Dad, poor dad, and some other books," recounting his books.
"It was during that process that this thought came to my mind that if I had been reading like this and it is transforming my life, I could expand this initiative to a larger scale", he wonders.
He was curious to hone the reading habits of many of his peers by asking them the simple question 'Which book are you reading currently" on WhatsApp.
So, every week O and his friends would converge on a WhatsApp group for a book audit so as not to isolate themselves in their journey of self-discovery.
"We asked one another the central idea in the pieces we were reading and posed questions. We tasked each other to also share ideas and takeaways from the book they were digesting. It helped us a lot to put our feet on the right pedal."
Readers' pouch in the making
Since Oyebisi conceived the idea from its infancy, he couldn't have foreseen how far-reaching the initiative would become for both himself and those he touched.
In a short period, he christened the WhatsApp group "Readers' Pouch," a platform he envisioned as a catalyst to inspire avid readers to further indulge in their passion.
"I asked every group member to add their friends, too, and we started growing. We kicked off with a monthly book challenge, structured book review, assessment, examination and reward."
It appealed to Oyebisi that the WhatsApp group birthed a team of progressive readers who read and acted upon what they read.
If a dark room could be miserable, how much more a dark mind?
By 2017, when Oyebisi had already completed his National Youth Service Programme, Readers' Pouch had grown to more than 200 members scattered around the country.
But he wouldn't have taken Readers' Pouch a step further if he hadn't gotten a chance to be part of a youth branch of a church that visited a correctional facility in Ilorin, Kwara state, that same year.
At the facility, Oyebisi said he "saw a group of people who, even if they wanted to turn a new lead, the environment wasn't palatable enough to do so. It was clear that the sewing machines and other equipment therein had been looted, and I was completely baffled."
Oyebisi recounted that he wanted to scribble something down the evening upon returning from the correction facility, but there was no power to allow him to do so. Therefore, it came to his mind that if it were so difficult that he could not put anything down in the dark room, it would be harder for the inmates in the correctional facility to find self-development.
"I thought that if a dark room could be this miserable, how much more a dark mind? The question never left me. It gave birth to me thinking how I could liven the reading culture of inmates across correctional centres in Nigeria," he said.
Oyebisi decided that he would make inmates read to become empowered after they were set free.
How Readers' pouch work
For the prison project, Oyebisi's dream is to establish a mini library in all 240 correctional facilities in Nigeria. "We targeted to equip each library we visited by supplying them with books specially designed for the renewal of minds, entrepreneurship, self-discovery and self-awareness."
Oyebisi carefully chose those books because he believed that most prisoners were down and they needed something to lift them up. The books the organisation stocked on their bookshelf at the prisons were also meant to help the inmates keep up with development outside.
Because he had a flourishing WhatsApp group, he explored it and, alongside the members, drew action plans always to visit at least a correction facility once every three months.
Before they visit the facility, Readers' Pouch writes the head of the schools in the facilities, and they bring out the inmates when they arrive.
"We will start with a motivational talk centred around while they should read in their current state. Afterwards, we would respond to their questions and present the books we had brought to the Head of Schools right in their front, either inside a shelf or in a pack, depending on our pockets."
After a month of dropping those books, Readers Pouch would make a follow-up to enquire if the inmates were making use of the books. In most cases, the team would go along with long notes serving as borrower's registers and tasked the head of schools to help record the progress of the reading.
“Inside the long notes, we have sections like the books borrower, time of borrow and many more. We would go back to check in a month.”
So far, Readers' Pouch has visited the Maximum Correctional Facility, Mandaka, Ilorin, Kwara state, Oke Kura Minimum Prison also in Kwara state, Agodi Correctional Facility in Ibadan, Oyo state, Maximum Prison Ile Ife, Osun state and donated books.
At Maximum Correctional Facility, Mandala, Ilorin, Uyi said their team met with a former banker who said he had read the book Tittied Rich Dad, Poor Dad and admitted that he was in prison because he deviated from the teachings in the book.
"I was impressed when he said as soon as he's out, he would embrace his second chance at life by utilising the lessons from the books we brought."
The organisation hit a roadblock with its prison outreach when Covid-19 struck. "They had shown us where we were to place our shelf and where we would meet the inmates, but COVID-19 came, and correctional facilities were closed."
Also, Oyebisi added that since members were scattered around the country, it was difficult for the team to mobilise and flow at the same time, particularly since 2020.
Undeterred by the setback, Readers' Pouch remains steadfast in its mission. The organisation is gearing up for a resurgence in August, determined to reclaim its momentum. As part of its revival plan, Readers' Pouch is preparing to return triumphantly by visiting the Abolongo Correctional Centre in Oyo later this month.