‘It was a mental battle and you could go crazy’
‘Aside the hallucinations, I experienced things I never expected; at a point, I started seeing flames coming out of the book’
‘Guinness World Records gives you a massive media exposure to promote reading’
By Godwin Okondo
IN their bold quest to promote a healthy culture of reading and literacy among Nigerians, two individuals, who dared to break the Guinness World Records for Marathon reading, shared their inspiring stories at the Lagos Book and Arts Festival (LABAF 2023), which ended on Sunday, November 19, 2023 at Freedom Park, Lagos Island. The panel session, which had ‘The Guinness World Records and the Reading Culture in Nigeria’ as theme, featured a former Guinness World Record attempt for the longest Marathon reading aloud for 120 hours, Mr. Bayode Treasures-Olawunmi, and the current Guinness World Records holder for the longest Marathon reading aloud for 145 hours, Mr. John Obot. They were in conversation with the CEO of Purple Shelves, Amarachukwu Chimeka.
Treasures-Olawunmi gained recognition for his remarkable feat of breaking the Guinness World Records for the longest Marathon reading aloud in 2018 by reading for 120 hours non-stop. That feat meant he surpassed the previous record held by Nepali teacher, Deepak Sharma Bajagain, who set the record by reading for 113 hours and 15 minutes in 2008. Treasures-Olawumi’s dedication to promoting reading culture has inspired others, as seen in the accounts of individuals like Obot and his attempt to break similar records for the greater good of encouraging literacy. With 145-hour mark, Obot surpassed Treasures-Olawunmi’s record of 120 hours and becomes the current holder of Guinness World Records for longest reader.
From facing hallucinations to overcoming unforeseen challenges, these literary enthusiasts revealed the motivation behind their efforts and the transformative impact their selfless endeavours have had on literacy in their communities. Their stories unfold as testaments to the power of books, determination, and the innovative use of global platforms to champion the cause of reading culture and literacy.
Obot spoke about the inspiration to break the Guinness World Records and the acclaim and celebrity status it has brought him. Promoting literacy and encouraging people to read more, he said, were his major aim, saying he was glad he achieved them through the Guinness World Records platform.
Guinness World Records session featuring Bayode Treasures-Olawunmi (left); moderator, Amarachukwu Chimeka and John Obot during ‘The Guinness World Records and the Reading Culture in Nigeria’
According to Obot, “I’ve always been passionate about reading. I was born into a reading family; my dad was a journalist and my mom was a teacher, now retired. Each time they came back to the house, my dad would ask me to pick a book from the shelf to read, after which I would explain what I had read to him.
“This year when Hilda Baci broke the record for longest cooking marathon, something just struck me that I could use the platform to promote reading. I saw the global recognition that came with that, and seeing that reading culture doesn’t receive that kind of awareness, I thought I could use the Guinness World Records platform to promote what I’m passionate about. When I went in search of reading records, that was when I found Bayode’s profile and I watched his videos and documentaries on YouTube to keep myself motivated.
“The Guinness World Records provides an international platform to showcase your achievement, which can also be inspiring for others, and putting up a challenge for people. It also gives you a massive media exposure to promote reading. When I finished my events, I was featured in many radio and television stations in Lagos last month; I was featured on Arise TV. I saw Bayode on Channels TV and different television platforms. It also provides a platform to be innovative in literary activities.
“When planning a Guinness World Records attempt, you think of so many things, like how to make the attempt interesting. During my record, we had reading spaces where people who came around could read, book exhibitions and we had authors reading to the people who weren’t in the room where I was attempting to break the record.”
Treasures-Olawunmi also shared his motivation to break the Guinness World Records for the longest Marathon reading in 2018. He first commended Obot for daring the feat and triumphing, “because people don’t understand what you went through. In 2018, when I embarked on that particular quest, the motivation was to make reading popular again. I picked up reading as a habit when I was in the university. I was in a meeting with two friends; one a journalist, the other a theatre arts practitioner, and I, a business person; and we were having a discussion on how to make money and ways to do things. Then they told me there was an advert on Facebook where someone was offering to teach people how to do ‘yahoo-yahoo’ (fraud), and they were advertising this. They saw me reading every time and they asked me: ‘who has books helped?’ That very night, I shed tears, because I discovered that value had been discarded in our country.”
Treasures-Olawunmi desired that reading could really ‘help’ people, young people particularly. It was why he made a pitch to GTBank (now GTCO) for sponsorship. But the bank didn’t understand Treasures-Olawumi’s vision for seeking to break the Guinness World Records for longest reading, as they were focused on the mercantilist bottom-line that’s currently the bane of the Nigerian society. For Treasures-Olawumi, if you could pay a musician millions just to sing, an activity that’s end in itself, why couldn’t you pay a reader such millions, whose work is a means to multiple ends?
“Instead of complaining, I thought of what I could do about (changing my friends attitude to life),” Treasures-Olawunmi said. “Prior to this conversation, Kaffy (the dancer) had broken a record on dancing. So, I thought about Guinness World Records, because for you to make something go loud, you must do something loud. I wanted it to be know that when someone asks: ‘what record is he going for’, people will say he is reading. Getting to that point was a tough battle, as I moved from place to place trying to get resources. Before I could get GTBank to be involved, I had read for four days straight, and streamed it to GTBank alone, just to show them that I could do it.
“I went to their office to discuss the event, and people were waiting for me at the door. We talked about the motivation and what I hoped to achieve. Then someone came and asked me how much I think they should pay me, and I told them they should pay me any amount they can pay Davido (the music star) for a show. If they paid me that much, the money will be in my account, but it’s not about the money they give me; it’s about the noise they will make about the money. And when children hear that someone read and got N100 million, for instance, do you know how many children and youths will take to reading? Do you know how many people will go back to their libraries to pick up books to read? GTBank didn’t get it.
“The intention was to promote reading via that quest and, in the course of the quest, I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t even know it would go that far, to the extent that CNN interviewed me over the phone. The intention was achieved and reading spiked in the country, and what I did also inspired Obot to do something.
Chair of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) and festival organiser, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo (left); President, Network of Book Clubs and Reading Promoters in Nigeria, Mr. Richard Mammah; Bayode Treasures-Olawunmi; CORA board Chairman, Mr. Kayode Aderinokun; Amarachukwu Chimeka; John Obot and university don and winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2023, Dr. Obari Gomba
“The church I attend have a lot of megastars, and in the course of my 2018 quest, they didn’t come. So, in 2021 I went to them and told them that all I needed was for them to put it on their Instagram pages or just show their faces, because you need influencers to make it go viral, but they didn’t come.
“When Hilda was cooking, and a friend called and asked me to go there, so I could trend again. I was mad at him. I said I had achieved my goal and had moved on. Moreso, going there for people to see and interview me was downgrading the value of what I had achieved, and I would not do that. On the final day, I decided to go there to see if they were doing things correctly, because it’s one thing to labour for days and in the end not achieve your goals. And lo and behold, I saw my people (my church megastar members) singing there. These are people I went to beg, people who had millions of followers on social media and they didn’t come or share my reading on their pages, but they sang for Hilda Baci. For me though the goal was achieved, and through that quest reading became popular.”
Treasures-Olawunmi also spoke about the preparations he made before he embarked on the task of reading aloud for 120 hours, as well as the harrowing experiences he faced while it lasted: “I had no reference. My mind broke when I went online to research what to do. I was reading the medical consequences and I learnt that if you don’t sleep for a long time, you will hallucinate, lose your memory for a while, and so many discouraging things, but I can be very optimistic. Do you read for three days in practice? The more you do that, the more you damage your tongue. I have a broken tooth, so the more I read, the more that tooth cut my tongue, and my tongue was sore for those five days. Obot was standing while reading, but I sat all through, and at a point, the letters (on the page) were dancing, and I had to start tracing with my finger, so I didn’t lose concentration.
“For two days, looking up was scary for me because anything I saw looked as if it was dancing. I had to shut my eyes and relax. I landed in the hospital because I was hallucinating, and I was conveyed by an ambulance from the library to Eko Hotel, because by blood sugar and BP had spiked. There was nothing I could do to get ready except having mental stability, because our war was against time. It was a mental battle and you could go crazy.
“One thing that kept me going was my son. At a point, I couldn’t say a word; I just went blank. I had read for 29 hours. GTBank, my team and the Lagos State Government were begging me to stop, because they were afraid that I might die. Before I left home, I told my children I was going to read for a particular number of hours and I told them not to give up on their goals. I had to finish, so I could have the mind to push my children to achieve their own goals.”
Obot also had his own share of harrowing experiences while attempting the record: “I would classify it as a suicide attempt, but I was blessed to have Bayode, who broke the record in 2018, because there was nothing you can find online about this record. So, it was a major blessing to have clips of Bayode’s interviews on Channels TV and other platforms. The media is very conservative of their time and wouldn’t let him talk in detail, but I could get the picture of what he was saying, and those around me were the ones who assisted me in planning the activity.
“I had a few persons who discouraged me; they painted a scary picture of what I was trying to do. One is a medical doctor who told me the longest I could go without sleeping is 11 days before you reach the tipping point and you’re already a dead person, and even at six days, you’re already close to the grave. This was a very scary prospect for me, but like Bayode said, sometimes I can be foolishly optimistic. So, I asked my doctor friends to tell me what to do, and they told me to prepare my brain mentally by taking B-Complex vitamins, and I needed to take them everyday before the attempt. I was also given lenses to wear and it was very useful.
“A lot of people were telling me I could do it, but they didn’t understand the full spectrum of what they were telling me to do. I could see through it and I was afraid, but I didn’t want to transmit that fear to my team. But when I’m alone, I would begin to question myself. The attempt was a nightmare. Aside the hallucinations, I experienced things I never expected. The pages were scrolling, and at a point, I started seeing flames coming out of the book, and anything I pronounced jumped out of the book and did exactly what I was reading out.”
For Obot it really got scary; everyone, including a medical team advised he gave up the attempt, as they feared imminent meltdown was inevitable if he continued to exact himself. But Obot was set on his goal of breasting the tape, and wouldn’t contemplate stopping midway.
“I had a visit from the Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Akon Eyakenyi, and they were blaring sirens, and from the moment she left until I finished the attempt, I could not stop hearing the sound of the siren,” according to Obot. “When I was reading, I stood all through it, because the moment I sat down and read a line, I felt sleepy, so I was just pacing and asking myself why I was attempting this. It wasn’t easy and a whole lot of things happened, and on the fourth day, I broke down. I had a 15-minute break that morning and a medical team assessed me and said I wasn’t fit to continue, and advised that I discontinue the attempt. I felt as though I was in a dream and I was going to wake up later; they told me it was something related to neurosis.
“A psychiatrist came from Eket, which is the only psychiatric centre in Akwa Ibom and checked me. I asked my team lead to draft a press release to say that we were going to discontinue the attempt. The psychiatrist went downstairs and came up again and said that on the staircase, someone said she knew that I wouldn’t finish the attempt from the beginning, because someone skinny like me isn’t strong enough to finish the attempt. I then asked my team lead not to draft the press release, and insisted I was going to continue reading. That was when I learnt that whenever there’s a little push in your mind, you can scale mountains, because that statement spurred me to a new level. And when I started, it was as if I was starting afresh. I didn’t feel the fatigue or hallucinations anymore. I just wanted to shame that person, and thank God it happened.”
Bayode Treasures-Olwaunmi (left); Amarachukwu Chimeka and John Obot PHOTOS: GODWIN OKONDO
Obot said he also had to make changes to his list of selected books at the last minute, which put him at a disadvantage: “I actually set out to read 40 books that were primarily published by Nigerian authors, as a way of using the platform to encourage Nigerian authors. So, I selected a wide range of locally published books. On the day of the attempt, a team from the National Library of Nigeria came and declared that almost 70 per cent of the books I had selected did not have valid International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN). So, I had to hurriedly replace them. I had to read books I had not read before and that also put me at a disadvantage. I had also planned how I was going to read and make it entertaining. I also experienced problems with tiny prints and it put a strain on my eyes. I had to select and remove them, and requested new books. So, my reading list was greatly altered.”
Treasures-Olawunmi also spoke about his choice of books, saying, “I selected published books with ISBN. Another thing was that I used a library for the attempt. So, I had enough books and my team was going after large prints; though there were only a few, we had to make do with what we had. Because I had the books beforehand and I had read some of them, I already knew where to emphasize or slow down, and that worked for me in a way.
“When you take a break, you have to come back to adjust your reading again and find your sitting position, and at the time I stopped for a break I was doing 9 to 13 hours, because observing a break wasn’t really working for me. It is hard, but if I could scale through the first one, we could do the second one, and we did. To be great and extraordinary, you must do great and extraordinary things, and go out of your way. It’s not about being brilliant or intelligent; it’s about going out of your way to do what others dare not do. Anyone can do it, but can you subject yourself to such rigor? That’s the point. My brain was starved of the required rest and I still forget things till today.”
So how has the record-breaking attempt helped to sustain literacy? For Obot, “The attempt has two prongs. The first is the Guinness World Records, and the second is the promotion of reading culture. I am a strong advocate of the categorization of the Guinness World Records. Someone could get a record just for walking some distance while balancing a football on his head and get a certificate. It’s a record but what impact does it make on the society? I believe I am a product of what Bayode did, and that’s how I got the inspiration. I’ve also seen a thriving reading ecosystem in Lagos, and it’s not like that in Uyo. Immediately after my attempt, one thing that showed it was successful was the increase in the number of people that wanted to join the Uyo Book Club. We had a spike in numbers and people were lining up to register for the book club.
“When I announced that I would be at Abak to inaugurate the Abak Book Club, it was like a carnival. Aside from people coming to see me, it became a ground for authors to sell their books, and there were discussions around reading, and these conversations had started during the attempt. We now have young persons writing books in Uyo, no matter how poorly written they may be, and it shows that something has started.”
Treasures-Olawunmi commended Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) for its consistency over the years, noting that “If we can be consistent in doing this, in the next 10 to 20 years, I believe we would have authors who are exporting their books. We are contributing our own quota to the progress of the literary sector in Nigeria. I have contributed, and I’m still contributing by being here, and I want to admonish you all to keep striving and working for this industry. This is very tough, and it was tough for hip-hop too in those days; it was a struggle to get sponsors and promotions. But today they’re very attractive. Very soon, we will be very attractive to the world if we continue to be innovative.”
Obot was also appreciative of what LABAF is doing, saying, “I want to thank the organisers of LABAF and I’m looking forward to having something like this in Akwa Ibom, where we can sit together to talk about books and literacy. We are open for collaborations, particularly Uyo Book Club.”