The Chairman of Safari Books Limited who lived in Nigeria for 54 long years has opened up about his life.
Chief Joop Berkhout
Chairman, Safari Books Limited, Chief Joop Berkhout, OON, a 90-year-old Dutchman, who has lived in Nigeria for 54 years, shares his life experiences in Holland and Nigeria with SIMON UTEBOR
You are a Dutchman who has lived in Ibadan, Oyo State for 54 years, how was your upbringing?
I was born on Monday, March 31, 1930 in Amsterdam, Holland. I am the last child of my parents who were devout Catholics. When I was four years old, my parents relocated from Amsterdam to IJmuiden. The relocation became inevitable due to my father’s dwindling hotel business and the great depression of the 1930s that significantly affected what was left of the business in Amsterdam.
I was educated at St. Lucia Primary School, Haarlem from 1937 to 1943 and proceeded to St. Jeroen Secondary School, also in Haarlem, for my secondary education from 1943 to 1948. The latter part of my primary education and the early parts of my secondary education coincided with the Second World War (September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945). Although the war did not get to our door in Holland until I was 10 years old, it had adverse effects on my family. Holland shares borders with Germany, one of the leading sides in the second war, and at a certain stage, German forces occupied Dutch territory.
As a child then, what was your experience?
I remember that to avoid being hit, my mother instructed us that anytime we heard the sound of a plane, we were to take cover in the kitchen and lie on the floor until the coast was clear. Due to incessant impacts, some of the window frames of our house were shattered and we had to bind them together while also blackening them to avoid being targeted and bombed. Hunger and privation set in on us during the war. Since people could not go to work to earn income, economic activities became very minimal and goods were sold at a high price. As a result, meals had to be rationed between members of my family. I could recollect my siblings and I back then holding our buckets, waiting to collect our portion of soup.
Few occasional respites came from humanitarian agencies that flew planes across our territory. As they flew across, they would drop loaves of bread and every one of us would scamper to get as many as possible and keep them secure, only to be brought out for gradual consumption.
Did the war affect your higher education?
I was a war victim. I finished my secondary education. I didn’t go for higher education. I started working. Many of the young generation left the Netherlands, they went to Africa, Australia and some other countries. Some of my families lived in Australia, some lived in Zimbabwe, some lived in South Africa and I decided to go to Tanzania. From Tanzania, I went to Zambia and from Zambia, I came to Nigeria.
How many African countries have you been to?
I have visited many African countries. I like visiting and I love Africa. I worked in Tanzania, I worked in Kenya and I worked in Zambia. I worked in Malawi before I came here (Nigeria).
In those places you worked in Africa, what did you observe?
The world is one place. First I worked for a bookshop. With the news of my achievements in book selling in Tanzania, Oxford University Press where I did my initial training, contacted me about the possibility of being their manager in Lusaka, Zambia. I accepted their offer and left Tanzania for Zambia. My time in Tanzania was historic as I gave birth to three of my children in that country. I served as the Manager of Oxford University Press, Zambia from 1964 to 1966 before I got a letter of transfer to Nigeria as Manager.
On the evening of the day I got a letter of transfer to Nigeria from Oxford, another letter came from Evans Brothers Publishers offering me a contract job as the pioneer General Manager of their company in Nigeria. Evans was headquartered in the UK but they had a booming interest in Nigeria and needed someone who could help them consolidate and expand their market in Nigeria. When I got home, I discussed the letters with my wife and we opted for Evans Brothers’ offer that had more incentives. I then joined Evans in Nigeria in 1966. After 10 years of working with Evans, I was promoted to be the Marketing Director of Evans UK. That meant I was to relocate to the UK. I did initially but because I didn’t fancy the working environment there, I decided to resign and come back to Nigeria to co-found Spectrum Books Limited in 1978. From a humble beginning, I piloted the affairs of Spectrums Book Limited to making it a major force in the publishing industry today.
In 2008, at the age of 78 and after 30 years in charge, I felt the need to retire, so I sold Spectrum Books Limited with Soladayo Ogunniyi, whom I brought into the world of publishing during my Evans days. My intention was to enjoy retirement life but only two weeks into retirement, it felt uneasy. I therefore reactivated Safari Books Limited which I had registered in August 1991. Twelve years after the reactivation of Safari Books, I am still in charge of its operations which include book publishing, books/journal supply and sale of e-resources to tertiary institutions.
How do you perceive Nigeria having lived here for 54 years?
Nigeria is a country with milk and honey, a country with enormous possibilities and a great future. Although I must say in 1966 when I came here, everything was working, and of course we only had 40 million people. Now we are suffering from population explosion and we have about 200 million people and I believe we don’t know what to do with it.
You said Nigeria is a country that flows with milk and honey, yet we have a serious unemployment problem, how do you reconcile it with your statement?
It is because the country is suffering from overpopulation. In terms of work, if you have 10 people qualified and you can employ only two, you have a problem. In a company, if you employ more people that you need, you have a problem.
What would be your advice in this regard?
Now a lot of young people are starting business of their own; Internet and telecommunications have made young people to come out but in the crisis which we are in now, we don’t have enough doctors. This is not only happening in Nigeria, all over the world, we don’t have enough doctors to deal with coronavirus. They have recalled all retired doctors in the United Kingdom. Life is problematic in itself. As for me, for everybody, your life is in your own hands. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t enjoy their jobs, not only in Nigeria, it is happening in many countries in the world. Lots of people work because they need money but they don’t enjoy what they are doing. I always tell people, if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it for long, do something with your life. People must enjoy what they are doing.
You have been in Nigeria for many years; apart from overpopulation, what other issues have you observed here?
I think the standard of education is not at the same level as it used to be in 1966. Education is an international thing; you can’t isolate your education to Nigeria alone. Anywhere in the world, universities have staff members from all over the world. All the universities – Oxford, Cambridge or King’s College in London, where my son is a professor, the staff and students are from all over the world. The teaching staff in Ibadan comprised people from England, Holland, and so on. If you localise things, you put yourself in the box and restrict yourself. Look at the medical education, many of the Nigerian professors in the medical world are successful in the UK and the US. But here, education is restricted, the medicine is not available and there is no electricity. The medical director in Ibadan said he runs the hospital with 75 generators; you can’t do any surgery at the moment in any hospital because the power supply can go at any moment; it is an issue. The schools have become a bit too localised. If you now appoint a person based on their religion, colour or ethnicity, you are asking for trouble.
In Nigeria we have the federal character system; don’t you think that is normal?
I don’t believe in federal character system. You must get the best for the job. Where a person comes from does not matter, what matters is does the person qualify for the job, does he have the relevant experience. But here they say, where do you come from, and it is not about the qualifications and experience.
Do you think it is one of the problems affecting the country?
Yes, it could be because people are being appointed to certain jobs, especially in the civil service who should not be appointed because they are not qualified and educated for the job. You can’t say they come from my hometown, then they must be appointed; take the best available. There must be competition and the best should get the job irrespective of where they come from.
You talk about overpopulation, if you were to advise the government, what would your advice be about the population issue in the country?
They are to make the best use of the population. In China and India (for India, it was done at the state level) years ago, they reduced number of children per family to two. They controlled that but here, some ethnic groups won’t allow it because they think a child is a blessing. But when you create a child, you must understand that the child is your responsibility until they are at least 20 years old. A lot of parents are not good parents because they are all working, so the children are being brought up by illiterate nannies and illiterate home helps. Sometimes people come home around 10pm and they leave the house again by 4am the following day, and they never see their children perhaps until weekend. But on weekends, they may go to a party or funeral, so the family values have collapsed or they have no time to look after their children. To me, those parents should not have children. If you have a child, you should be fully responsible. When I came here, we did not have this problem but now everybody wants to work. My wife never worked, she looked after the children. We did not have any home help to look after the children. As a parent, you are responsible to educate the children.
Speaking of population growth, countries like China and India with a lot more people, for instance, are doing better despite their large populations, why is Nigeria’s case different?
They are big countries with big industries and large exports. If you have a big population, and you must have big infrastructure, lands, openings, education, universities, etc., you have no problem. But if you have a large population and there is no market for this population, you have a problem. Every parent is responsible for the creation of a child and all they think about is that it is God’s gift. It has nothing to do with God, it is your own making to have that child.
You have brought out the issue of religion. How do you see the religious practices in Nigeria?
It could be dangerous. Not all, but all these new religions. Religion has become a business. Everybody is a pastor; there are more pastors in this country than anywhere in the world. Pastors who are not even educated are preaching and making a lot of money. Religion is now a money-making affair.
What is your advice?
It is beyond me, I can’t advise. Karl Marx said “religion is opium for the people”. And to a certain extent, that is true. Life is very easy as far as I am concerned and it is all in your own hands. If something goes wrong, don’t blame anybody, you look at yourself first and what you have done. You may be responsible. Like if you drive a car and you have an accident, you can find out it is you (that should be blamed) or the person who hit you. But you always try to blame somebody else or society, but you should look at what have you done. But to me, life is wonderful. A lot of people look forward to turning 60, 65 and so on. I am 90 and I stay in my office every day or travel with my family. But the most damaging thing or killing thing is if you get up in the morning and don’t know what to do for the day.
What is your faith?
I haven’t got any faith. I am an unbeliever. I used to have faith, I was a Catholic. I was born into a Catholic family. My leaving Catholicism was beyond me. It was my parents who were Catholics and they baptised me and they brought me over to Catholic. When you grow older, you look at things differently, you look for their opinions but I don’t think faith or religion will help anybody.
But some people will tell you that there is a need to serve God, the Supreme Being?
Well, that is part of faith; it all depends on what you believe in. If you are dead, you are dead. You came from nowhere and you go nowhere.
Are you saying that when people die, that is the end?
I think so.
Many people believe that when people die, they either go to hell or heaven, what do you think about that?
Oh, it does not exist, forget about it. You better don’t believe it. In my opinion, hell or heaven does not exist. You need to find out. When you find out, you should know better.
The Bible and the Qur’an teach so…
Things are changing. Things in the old days are not anymore applicable today. The world is changing.
In your mini biography, one of your ambitions was to become a Pope, how did that change?
I was brought up by the Catholic and I thought it would be… I am an ambitious person. So when I was young, I thought if I became a priest, that would be nice. I wanted to become a priest and then go on to become a Pope as a young boy. I tried it for a couple of months but realised I just would never become a Pope. However, I got discouraged from pursuing that course after I was told that there was once a Pope of Dutch origin in the 13th century who was assassinated only after three months into his papacy. With that information, I formed an opinion that there was a conspiracy against Dutch from being popes. So I abandoned the ambition. Now I am a publisher.
How is book publishing in this country?
Oh, tremendous! People need books, people need to be educated, people need to read and the world is changing. Every day, something new is coming up. Look at the Internet. Today, there is coronavirus, the whole world is very exciting, far more exciting than ever before.
Coronavirus has hit most parts of the world, what is your reaction to the pandemic?
It is a tragedy and if we are not careful, it could be as worse as the Spanish flu in 1918 when 15 million people died and one of the persons that died was my elder brother. He was four years old when he died. So if we don’t control it and get a bit prepared now, it will be a serious health problem. There is a problem now in Europe; there are problems in the US, problems in South Africa and many countries. So we should be very careful. People should follow precautions as advised by health professionals like washing their hands, but some people are not particularly hygienic and if you are not hygienic, it portends a greater danger.
How do you perceive education generally?
It is the most important sector in any society. You must educate. Education is a lifelong experience. I learn something every day. If I retire in the evening and I haven’t done any reading that day, I have wasted my time. I read at least two books a month. You must read to acquire skills and knowledge. As an individual, you can’t know everything but you must continue to learn; the world is changing every day. Everything is changing so you must keep up to date. I try every day at my age of 90 to keep up to date with the latest developments. I can sit down and say I am 90, what am I doing with this or that? But no, I am still relatively in good health. I enjoy what I am doing, I enjoy Nigeria, I enjoy going around. To me, life is a very personal thing and whether you make or don’t make it is all in your own hands.
When did you marry and how did you meet your wife?
I married in Holland. My wife has passed on. She died of cancer. I have four children, three are in the UK and one is in Nigeria. The one in Nigeria is working as an architect in Lagos. My eldest son is 59, my second child is 57 and one is 55. My eldest son is a professor, my daughter is a teacher and the other boy works for himself.
How do you feel about your decision to come to Nigeria?
I am very pleased that I was able to come to Nigeria and I am very pleased that I am still here.
Are you worried about the security challenges in Nigeria?
Of course, I am worried. Everybody should be worried. You have to be careful while going out. In the old days, you could drive all over Nigeria, even during the civil war. It was not as dangerous as it is now. The North is very dangerous. I was in Kaduna few weeks ago for a book launch. I flew into Kaduna airport, met with the government and felt safe. But this has to do with unemployment, poverty, among others. There is something I find curious. Some people said coronavirus would not get to Nigeria because we pray. Religion to me could be damaging and very negative to the reality because if you are over religious, you lose your reason of thinking.
What is the secret of your longevity?
I enjoy what I am doing. I can’t do anything I don’t like. Whatever I do, I put my best in it. You can only succeed in life through enjoying it (what you do) and making your contribution. It is all in your hands, don’t blame anybody else, but yourself.
What food do you enjoy most?
I don’t eat much anymore. I don’t like spicy food. I like edikaikong soup; it is not spicy. I like Lebanese and French foods. Food is no more an issue for me. I just eat because one has to eat but when I go to parties, I enjoy good meals but small portions.
What kind of music do you enjoy?
I enjoy classical music. I like Fela Anikulakpo-Kuti music and others. I also like church music; Catholic Church music.
You have been staying in Ibadan for a long time, how would you describe your stay there?
Ibadan was nice, clean and peaceful when we came in. When we came with my young children here, you could drive day and night without any issue. Ibadan was an interesting place because every November, we would hold an interesting party. Many people came to Ibadan to celebrate. To be honest, I enjoyed Nigeria of that time: everything was near perfect, if not perfect. There was stable electricity and if there was going to be an outage, there was an announcement on the radio and in the newspapers to that effect with a date and time of restoration.
At my house, we got fresh milk daily from a farm at Apata in Ibadan. The standard of education was also very good and comparable to what obtained elsewhere. My children were schooled at the All Saints School and International School, both in Ibadan. Nobody bothered to build high-rise fences because cases of burglary and theft were minimal. I went everywhere mostly alone in the car and had no cause to worry. But then, Nigeria at that time had just about 40 million people.