by Amatesiro Dore
I met Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue in 2009 and I struggled with his name at first sight. He had died in 1975, I knew he was dead but didn’t know he had died before my birth. I had imagined he lived in 196 Awolowo Road Ikoyi. I was wrong. I thought his memorial library was a conscious legacy, like Alfred Nobel, I was wrong. Then I met Ifeoma, she spoke about Zaccheus and I thought it impolite to ask about her father’s height.
The white storey building, with its tree-shaded parking lot and grey gate, was easy to miss. I was driving through Awolowo Road when I sighted “Public Library” in white paint on a square and black sign post. I had passed before the letters registered meaning and I made a mental note to check it out. I had been searching for books listed on the All-TIME 100 best English-language novels. Finding them in Nigeria was like discovering a well in the Sahara. I had searched the bookshops of Ikoyi, Lagos and Victoria Islands, the booksellers under Cele and Ojuelegba bridges, libraries of friends and families, and had found five in a space of four years. Before I met Zaccheus, I had read twenty-five novels on the TIME 100 list, most of which came from London or American bookshops.
Weeks passed before I drove inside the grey gate of the Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Library (ZODML). The building looked residential and it had tinted windows covering the balcony. It had an arch at the front door; twice, it hit my head when I tried entering from the side. I walked in and felt silence in the air-conditioned atmosphere. I saw rows and rows of shelves of books, and reading furniture surrounded by white walls. I sniffed the pages of desired novels, caressed their spines and prayed heaven delayed until I read them all. I saw Anna Karenina and the monstrosity of its pages shocked me, I didn’t know Ben Hur was a book, and they had Atonement, the novel. A House for Mr Biswas was in Section N and 1984 in Section O. Lord of the Rings, complete series and unabridged, stared at me. And I saw Love in the Time of Cholera. I opened Catch-22 and I read her famous first words: “It was love at first sight.”
At the time the shelves didn’t carry most of the novels on the TIME 100. Still, I saw lots of books to read before death — they felt like a thousand and one books and I needed one hundred years of solitude to read them all. I began to notice other things: the computers with free internet, the movie rental section filled with the best of Hollywood, reference and academic materials, non-fiction classics and poetry collections; adults studying for professional exams, kids reading children literature, teens returning books, and a world separated from the busy Awolowo Road. I forgot about Zaccheus, my attention was focused on the books in his library.
After three years of borrowing books, I met Ifeoma, Zaccheus’ daughter. The library was recommending a list of 100 novels. I was attracted. Bespectacled eyes like her father’s, slim body frame that reduced her age by two decades, a soft spoken voice laced with authority acquired from three decades of legal practise, dainty fingers with a wedding band, eager smiles without makeup, and a gentle gaze studied me; Mrs Ifeoma Lillian Esiri. I had booked an appointment with her to discuss Zaccheus and why 196 Awolowo Road hosted a library when it could yield millions of naira from commercial activities.
Zaccheus was born in the year of the amalgamation, in Ifite-Dunu farming and trading community, on Tuesday 7th of July. His mother had ten mouths to feed and his father’s death stopped his education after St. Stevens Primary School. According to Ifeoma, he worked as a police officer under the British colonial administration and studied in the evenings; he enrolled for the United Kingdom Universities Matriculation Examinations and got admitted into the London School of Economics and Political Science. I pondered about the untold stories of his early years that followed Zaccheus to the grave. He lived in an age where memoirs were not fashionable, in a time where the past was an unspoken secret and bits of academic success were shared with children and nothing more.
In a brief chat with Ifeoma about the ZODML, Zaccheus’ sixty one years of living were distilled striking headlines which came together like one of those novels everyone accepts is great but which few people ever read. Zaccheus studied Economics at the LSE and was admitted into the English Bar before he returned to Nigeria. He was the first Company Secretary of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Bank, African Continental. He was the Chairman of the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation, a government conglomerate, before the Nigerian Civil War. He was the first Commissioner of Finance, East Central State under the administration of Ukpabi Asika, after which he was appointed Commissioner of Agriculture. In 1975, a brain tumour appeared and the book lover was survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons.
On the twentieth anniversary of Zaccheus’ death, his surviving women decided to do something for Papa’s remembrance. I imagined Mama and Zaccheus’ girls, Dorothy Ngozi and Ifeoma Lillian, discussing a legacy for their father; I was right. Ifeoma had copied Zaccheus: she read law at the LSE, Bachelors and Masters Degrees, and sits on the board of Stanbic-IBTC Bank. Mrs. Dorothy Ngozi Oyekwe opted for Medicine and trained as a Doctor at the Universities of Lagos and London. The troika of Zaccheus women agreed on a library — Papa had loved books. The library was registered in 1998 and began operating in 2000.
Over the years, ZODML has become known in five local government primary schools in Ikoyi, where it funds and operates libraries for pupils from low income families. It began a mobile library of about two thousand books in Ikoyi Prisons in 2012. An online library has been launched, few books have been uploaded and more open materials are been sourced for online readers. The library has provided twenty computers for Ireti Junior High School, Lagos, and Ifeoma spoke of plans for other government secondary schools.
I asked why? Why dream away cash on books and libraries? She smiled and confessed to a satisfaction beyond charity; a mission to recruit new readers and the joy of pursuing her passion. I’m certain Ifeoma is no Mother Theresa, she has an obvious agenda to turn people into bookworms. I saw it in her eyes — that selfishness of readers, that desire to groom literary appreciation in others — and I imagined Zaccheus doing the same.
The ZODML Must-Read-Novels were selected from thirty international lists of acclaimed novels. The ranking system was based on number of appearances on lists such as the 2005 All-TIME 100 English-language Novels, the 2009 UK Guardian 1000 Novels, the 2003 Observer 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, and the 2004 Penguin bucket list of 100 Classics. 1984 by George Orwell topped the ZODML Must-Read-Novels list. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun (both published in Nigeria under the Farafina imprint) and Ben Okri’s Famished Road were among the novels on the special shelf. The ZODML 100 Novels are displayed on a separate cabinet and available to members of the library on the road.
To see the full list of ZODML’s Must-Read-Novels, visit their website here.