Celebrating 50 years of Joop Berkhout in Nigeria

He came to Nigeria in his 30s. He stayed on for scholarship and publishing sakes and became known as the ‘publisher of publishers’. The Chairman, Safari Books Ltd., Chief Joop Berkhout is 50 years in Nigeria. Intellectuals gathered to celebrate his golden feat at the Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies (CIAPS) in Lagos. EVELYN OSAGIE reports.

It was a day of reminiscences and tributes. A day Nigeria’s highbrow thronged the Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies (CIAPS) in Lagos to celebrate Chief Joop Berkhout,  chairman of Safari Books Ltd.

Tagged: Encounter with Joop Berkhout, the high-profile event was attended by many dignitaries. Many praised his passion for Nigeria, the education and publishing sectors.

To the wife of the late Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Mrs Bianca Odumegwu-Ojukwu, he was her “husband’s surety during her traditional ‘’wine carrying” ceremony.

Latter Rain Church founder Pastor Tunde Bakare, called him a “grand old man who you can count on his words”.

 

The event’s convener, Prof Anthony Kila, said Berkhout’s attainment of  the milestone of 50 years in Nigeria’s publishing sector was a feat worth celebrating. The event was part of a series of events themed: The Creatives, initiated by the Centre, in contributing to building a society that appreciates and celebrates its creative minds.

He said: “As “The Creatives”, we have a story to tell. I feel we are here today to be part of history. There is no better way to start than with the person we are starting with today – Chief Berkhout. Here is someone who started publishing in Nigeria 50 years ago, who has shaped the idea of writing and writers.

“He is someone, who has set a standard. He also someone who has done what many people cannot do, which is to move very fluidly from one company to the other (Evans, Spectrum Books to Safari Books), and to be consistent. He stayed when others left. He is the doyen of publishing in Nigeria, a chief of Ife, the Okun Borode of of Ile-Ife, the great mentor, welcome Chief Joop Berkhout.”

Born in Amsterdam, Berkhout, 86, is a naturalised Nigerian, who has been christened the “doyen in the publishing world “, because he gave Nigeria’s publishing a new direction.

He has headed Evans, Spectrum and now Safari Books. He was the founding Managing Director of Evans Brothers in 1967, established Spectrum Books Ltd. in 1978 and retired in 2008, and now chairs Safari Books Ltd.

Having spent 50 years in Nigeria’s publishing sector, giving his best to the development of scholarship and the book industry, Berkhout has remained an inspiration to many. Berkhout, who has many publications to his credit, has trained several publishers who are doing well in the industry.

Spectrum Books Executive Chairman, Chief Soladayo Ogunniyi, is one. The event, according to Ogunniyi, was apt. He stressed that the celebrator was also well-deserving of the accolades. He recalled that Berkhout mentored and guided him not only into publishing the first book on social sciences in Nigeria, but into the world of publishing as well.

He said: “Out of the 50 years that Berkhout has spent in Nigeria, 45 years out of it, we were together. I was teaching Social Studies at the Government College, Ibadan when, as a publisher, he encouraged me to write. I wrote the first Social Studies textbook and it became successful. The first salary I earned was bigger than my annual salary.

“He is a workaholic, he has proved to me that the stronger you are, the more energy you put in your work, the longer you live. This is the most interesting man to work with. He trains you to be yourself and for the future, he trains you to work hard. He is a man to learn from.”

Berkhout has since received several awards for his contributions to the promotion of the  publishing and educational sectors, including a national honour, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) and the Silverbird Lifetime Achievement Award.

Reminiscences and tributes

With this in mind, it was no surprise that guests, made up of his close friends and well-wishers, spoke fondly of him. It was, indeed, a day of reckoning for the “doyen of publishing”. He was there with his son, Mr George Berkhout, Safari Books Executive Director.

Berkhout, the celebrator, was all smiles, but maintained a business stance, as he fielded questions from guests and  seasoned journalist Bode Modupe who steered the conversations.

Berkhout seemed excited to share from his many nuggets of wisdom, which young bright the minds would find particularly useful. His modest personality and confidence paved way for the smooth conversation that followed.

Expectedly, Berkhout spoke about how  many things have changed from the Nigeria he came into in the 60s. He was particular about the educational system and reading culture,  lamenting the decline in general knowledge and standards. He blamed the downward trend in the education sector on the failure of leadership and commitment of educators and students He called for more support for the publishing and education sectors.

He said: “When I came here in 1966, Nigeria was a country known for reading and writing. The primary students in my days were employable, they knew the sum, they could write, read, but now the primary school students are illiterates; even the secondary school students are illiterates.”

Praising Berkhout’s efforts and commitment to scholarship, guests named him a “pacesetter”, “rich reservoir of knowledge”, “successful and savvy businessman”, and “motivator, mentor”.

According to Chief Anyaoku, Nigeria owes it to Berkhout to recognise his contributions to intellectualism, urging leaders to do more in encouraging reading and writing.

“My tribute to Chief Berkhout is to affirm and stress his huge contributions to the intellectual life of our country. I realised how very knowledgeable Berkhout is in the affairs of this country The name Joop Berkhout came up after my memoir was published by Evans Brothers, while I was in England. When I returned, we had a common friend, Pius Okigbo, and it was at his burial in Anambra that I realised how very knowledgeable Berkhout is in the affairs of this country, and his deep interest in education. We’ve read many books published by Safari Book,” Chief Anyaoku: said.

While commending Berkhout’s passion for Nigeria, Pastor Bakare observed that unlike most natural-born Nigerians, Nigeria was actually “born inside Berkhout and this has made his passion glow more that many born Nigerians”.

He said: “The first time I set my eyes on him was in my home. He came to review Accidental Public Servant with my brother and Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El Rufai. I missed narrowly your 85th birthday. It is a joy to be here, to see you going on and waxing strong after 50 years of what could be a frustrating work environment. You have a made a different.

“When Chief called me last night, but again, he said, “bring along your manuscript”. I said, “I am not bringing you any manuscript when you are celebrating your golden Jubilee of pioneering publishing.

“Like many said, being born in a country does not make you love that country. A nation that is not married by our sons and daughters will be raped by outsiders. Thank you for being a Nigerian by choice.”

Mrs Odumegwu-Ojukwu noted : “So many young people today read because of him.” She praised Berkhout’s commitment, recalling that her late husband referred to him as a “detribalised Nigerians”.

“My own experience: I was in the living room with my husband when one of the aides brought a piece of paper to inform him that a guest was there to see him…That was my first introduction to Berkhout, who I was to find out, became through our 21 years, a very devouted friend. As a matter of fact, he was there at my wedding. At my traditional “wine carrying” ceremony, he was my husband’s surety, a mixture of best man and father. So, if anything was to happen to me, he was to be held responsible.

“When my husband was sick, he visited him in the hospital four good times. He would sit there for hours. When my father died, he was there with us every step of the way. He flew in, spent three days or more with us. Also, when my mother died, he was engaged but still managed to find time to come down to Enugu to commiserate with me and stayed throughout the ceremony.

“I appreciate so many things and the fact that whenever I worked into my husband’s study, there were so many things in the study that point to the relationship he had with you. I remember you always tried to ask him about what you called the book. All the time, you would ask. And my husband would say to me, if Joop doesn’t publish my book, it would probably never be published because I won’t write it. I would just like to say, you have displayed very rare type of commitment not just to him but to Nigeria. Thank you for choosing to stay with us; for being with us through thick and thin.”

The A-list guests included Senator Olabiyi Durojaiye; Minister of Solid Minerals Development, represented by former Ekiti State, Commissioner for the Environment, Dr. Eniola Ajayi; The News, PM News  Executive Editor, Mr Kunle Ajibade; founder, Chrisland Schools, Dr Winifred Adefolahan Awosika; Prof Charles Aworh; Chief Gladys Ani and  Mr Chudi Offodile.

Others were MUSON Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mr Gboyega Banjo, a former Executive Director of Spectrum Books; Dr Awosika; Prof Hauwa Imam; Elder Nathaniel Okoro, and Dr Umar Farouk.

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