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Lesedi: John Obot is intensely earnest, and he’s bookish, to say the least. John has a voice that draws you in closer. And right now, he’s feeling afraid and nervous.
John: Yes, I am. But, uh, that’s what would characterize what I’m about to do as courageous. If there’s no fear, if there’s no anxiety, then, uh, there’s no courage.
Lesedi: John needs courage because he wants to see his name etched in history books. And not just any book. He’s set his sights on the Guinness Book of World Records. I’m feeling very excited. I’m feeling motivated. I’m feeling, um, hopeful. So it’s also, um, something humbling to know that, um, in a couple of days, I’m going to be attracting worldwide attention.
Lesedi: Almost 5 million people will view his world record attempt on social media and over 20, 000 will come watch him in person. That creates a lot of pressure. But John’s mom, Bernadette, has complete faith in him.
Bernadette: I’m not afraid. He’s going to make it. I bless him.
Lesedi: To cross the finish line, John’s going to need a lot more than his mom’s support.
That’s why he’s assembled a team of seven health professionals to monitor him around the clock. You see, John’s world record attempt will test him physically and psychologically. It’s going to push him way beyond his limits. I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe and this is Radio Workshop.
Today, we’re in Nigeria, often called the giant of Africa, a country of over 200 million people, the largest on the continent, but we’re not taking you to one of its sprawling cities like Lagos or Kano. We’re in a smaller, quieter place, Uyo, a city of barely one and a half million people known for its heavy rains, palm trees and lush greenery.
John live: In less than 30 minutes from now.
Lesedi: 30 minutes before the start of his record attempt, John takes the stage.
John live: We are going to begin the actual record attempt. I would say thank you for coming. Thank you for coming.
Lesedi: Around 50 people are here in a conference room at the Watbridge Hotel. Timekeepers, photographers, camera operators and witnesses are running around. They’re documenting this event and will submit it as evidence to Guinness judges. It will include sworn statements and live recordings and most importantly, timekeeping.
Eventually, the lights and camera are ready. The hall falls silent as John picks up his first book. This one won’t leave his side throughout the event. He signals the timekeeper. The timer starts. John begins his Guinness World Record attempt, the longest marathon for reading out loud, starting with the section of the Bible.
John live: The book of Israel, from the King James Version of the Holy Bible. Chapter 1.
Lesedi: At this point, you may be asking yourself, why does John need a medical team? He’s just reading, right? Well, the current record for continuously reading out loud stands at 124 hours. John’s shooting for 145 hours. I’ll do the math for you. That’s over six days of reading.
When he finishes reading a selection from one book, he’ll reach into his bookshelf to pick another book. And then another. Like Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie. And Animal Farm by George Orwell. He’ll do this over and over again, and all of this without any sleep.
John live: Civil War Child, a true blood-chilling story of how an African child survived the Nigerian Civil War.
Lesedi: Staying awake for that long can really do a number on you physically. So John taught himself a breathing technique.
John: You sit comfortably with your back straight, with your legs flat on the ground, and your palms on your lap.
You can close your eyes to avoid, um, distraction. So now take a deep breath.
And then exhale.
Lesedi: But breathing won’t be enough. Severe sleep deprivation can trigger hallucinations. Radio workshop reporter Mo Isu asked John about how he’s going to cope if that happens.
Mo: Do you have contingency plans for what happens if you start to hallucinate?
John: Yes. Uh, contingency plans for hallucinations. He just to tell myself that it’s an hallucination. It’s happening in my head.
John live: Her hair was long, fluffy and curly, like the hair of a newborn African child.
Lesedi: On stage, John’s reading at a podium. There’s also a table and a comfortable chair. There’s a large bookshelf containing 41 books, most of them by Nigerian authors.
And on the wall behind John, there’s a huge banner with live-sized pictures of him in a library. And of course there’s a timer, a big 21 inch screen, which right now reads 2 hours and 49 minutes. John still has over 142 hours to go and our reporter Mo Isu had his doubts.
Mo: Let me tell you my biggest skepticism.
Won’t you get bored, you’re going to be reading for six days. You’re going to get bored. Aren’t you concerned about this? Have you thought about this?
John: Yes, I’ve thought about it, but knowing that I have an audience that is paying attention to my reading it’s enough not to make me get bored and moreover, I’ll be Interacting with the book.
So as I’m interacting with the book, I am in I’m living in the world of the book
John live: At the end of the lecture, the entire class rose up to give him a standing ovation, confessing that not even the course lecturer could have done a better job…
Lesedi: Guinness rules permit a five minute break for every hour of reading. John can accumulate those breaks if he reads for longer, but that’s it. Five minutes, every hour. To rest, eat, go to the bathroom. That’s also when doctors will check his pulse, respiration and blood pressure. They’ll routinely draw blood to test his overall health. And amidst all of this, John will record short voice notes for us.
John diary tape: Here he is at 3am after 12 hours of reading. Um, feeling extremely sleepy and, uh, light headed, but I know maybe it’s just because, uh, that was a night shift and so it was expected. Maybe when I begin to see daylight, it’s going to, uh, come up. So, that’s 145 minus 12. I’m proud.
Lesedi: Once his five minutes are up, John puts on his reading glasses, a new prescription that will help him cope with eye strain.
Then it’s back to the books.
John live: She had a gap in the upper front teeth. She was quite dream in figure with an average waistline.
Udeme: It’s all about promoting, reading it all about telling people that reading is important. Otherwise, he would not have sacrificed himself.
Lesedi: That’s John’s friend, Dr. Udeme Nana. He’s the founder of the Uyo Book Club.
That’s where he met John, and they struck up a friendship over their shared love of reading. They’re both educators. Udeme teaches communication at the State Polytechnic. John teaches religious studies at a high school. Udeme says they’ve both found their students are not reading enough.
Udeme: I discovered some 10 years back, uh, it really dawned on me that that culture was dying, especially among the youths.
Mo: I’m also wondering about the phrasing you’ve used. It kind of insinuates that there was a time when there was a reading culture, like there has been a…
Udeme: Of course! There was a time when every local government headquarters had a library filled with books. But today, most of those facilities are completely dilapidated and no longer in use. That’s a clear sign that there was a time that people embraced reading.
Lesedi: According to some Nigerian academics, the culture of reading from books may be dying, but young people could be reading from a screen and reading outside of libraries and schools. In fact, Nigeria has one of the highest levels of literacy on the continent, so it’s a little hard to know how accurate John and Udeme’s assessment is.
Still, John insists there’s a need to improve Nigeria’s reading culture.
John: I just found that a lot of the young persons were not interested in reading. They just read when they have an exam or any other reason to read and not for the purpose of to have an idea of what’s going on in the world, how to better themselves, self-development. It’s a problem that’s affecting every aspect of our life as a society. There is a direct relationship between not reading and poverty.
John live: What going back home meant was to go and start a new life without a family, without friends, without his economic base. Owen realized the enormity of this decision.
Lesedi: John is 30 hours in and still going strong.
John live: He was now looking at a future across the Atlantic.
Lesedi: John’s father was a journalist and his mother a teacher. They both compelled him to read. And not just read, he had to prove he was taking in what he read.
John: My dad would finish his news report and he would give it to you to read. When you finish reading you tell him how you feel about it. And so, even at that very tender age, I should be around 7, 8 years old. Reading was something, uh, fun to me.
Lesedi: But John admits he sometimes hated reading. When he’d hear his friends playing outside, he felt stuck with his books inside.
John: I felt like I’m caged. It’s like a prison sentence, kind of. Moreover, you’ll be hearing other children playing outside. They are making the noise, kick the ball for me and all of that. And so, and you are not allowed to go out.
Lesedi: But throughout his life, John has felt books opened up a whole new world for him. He learned financial literacy from Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad. He was reminded of his father’s upbringing, reading Aniete Usin’s Village Boy.
Books encouraged John to pursue a life of freedom. It gave him a reason to travel, to ask questions, to become a teacher.
John live: Needless to say that there was commotion and wild stampede in the bush.
Lesedi: John is now 46 hours into his attempt. Elbows on the podium, hands are supporting his head. He’s chewing gum to keep his jaws loose, but he’s ready for a break.
He looks up and gestures to his team. If you lean in, you can hear his whispers caught on mic.
John live: Two hours, many, two hours, many, many. How many minutes from remain?
Lesedi: John takes a sip from his water bottle. Adjusts his glasses and returns to the book in front of him. But he’s about to get a much longer break than he bargained for. In fact, his world record dreams are about to come crashing down.
John live: Nsuka Street was bereft of vehicular traffic as spectators stronged the adjoining street to have a glimpse of some typical traditional masquerade.
Lesedi: He’s minutes away from reaching 48 hours, but something is wrong.
John: My team drew my attention to the fact that the actual clock that we had behind me was not in sync with the timer clock.
Lesedi: Yes. Two clocks were out of sync, an official clock and an unofficial clock. John tried to signal what was wrong, but in the confusion, the timekeeper stopped the official clock and so, to the judges, that’s it. John is disqualified. His world record attempt is over. Ironically, all this happens while John reads. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
John: I naturally have these shock absorbers. I don’t, I don’t usually fret about things because I know that what will be will be. Uh, so at that point it was my fault.
Lesedi: And so now what? After months of preparation and a whole 48 hours of reading, John needs to figure out his next move. He meets with his team to go over their options. Should he keep going and ignore the glitch? Maybe he should restart the timer from the beginning. Or is it better to just give up?
Lesedi: John’s not the first Nigerian to attempt a world record. The entire country has been gripped by a kind of mania for breaking records. For months. And some of the attempts are just outlandish. Like most skips in 30 seconds. The longest non-stop singing marathon. And cutting a papaya with a sword.
Mark: If you see a record attempt that you think looks ridiculous or looks very, very easy, just, just try it. Just, you know, because they are not as easy as they appear.
Lesedi: Mark McKinley is the Director of Central Records for Guinness World Records in London. This year, they received a flood of applications from Nigeria. Almost 2, 000. That’s nearly four times more than all of Africa combined. And one record in particular seems to have sparked the trend in Nigeria.
Mark: I can now announce that with a time of 93 hours and 11 minutes, Hilda Baci is the new holder for the Guinness World Records title for longest cooking marathon.
Congratulations, you are officially amazing.
Lesedi: Hilda Baci, the 27-year-old chef from Lagos, inspired Nigerians to break records, including John. But there might be something else that makes Nigeria fertile ground for world record attempts. A younger population who are active on social media, and over 60 percent of Nigeria is under 24.
Mark: When you’re young and you know, you’re, you’re looking out at the world, it’s a huge, big, scary place. But having the opportunity to build a legacy, here’s my certificate to say that I did this, it’s acknowledgement, it’s, you know, approval, it’s being able to say, I was there and I did this.
Lesedi: Back at the hotel in Uyo, John is taking a long shower. He’s going to eat a meal. His doctors will run a full battery of tests. It’s been four hours since he stopped reading. But he’s going to try again. He logs into the Guinness website and registers a brand-new application. He gets the green light. But what this means is he has to start over from the very beginning.
All of his hours are wiped clean and the timer is back at zero.
John live: Chapter one out of the village on to Kanan…
Lesedi: But this time John is reading like a man possessed. He’s more determined than ever to break the record code.
John live: Not my lovely son. No, my lovely son. The rage of lecturers was unable to, when he came back on holidays, they were, they companions, chapter five, the van day that the vande, Dr. Jean knew that she, the, the, the mere attempt was enough. This is one of the last books in this attempt to throw off.
Lesedi: John makes it past two days, then three days, then four, without sleep. From the outside, it looks like he’s going strong. It’s glitch free. But on the inside, John was battling hallucinations. While reading, he’d see the words come to life.
John: If I say, uh, something like, uh, and the boy started running after the ball. When I mention the boy, a little boy would jump out of the page, and then he would be running, and then the ball, too, I would see a ball bounce out of the page and into the audience.
Lesedi: The visual hallucinations would last up to 20 minutes at a time. His doctor tells him they’re triggered by fatigue and excessive eye strain.
John: I wasn’t feeling like the people in the room were real, the furniture and all I was seeing. I was just feeling that somehow somebody would, this was a lucid dream.
Lesedi: John’s fiancée, Dorothy, sat next to him. During his five-minute breaks, she’d place chilled cucumbers on his eyes and rub ice cubes on his forehead, but nothing helped.
Dorothy: I really want him to succeed because it will bring honor to us, the family, and to Nigeria as a whole.
John: I heard, uh, sounds in my head. Um, I heard people talking to me that were not in the room. And their voices sounded very vivid as if they were talking directly to me. At some point, I lost complete touch with reality. I was hearing voices. I was, you know, seeing patterns, images, shapes, and then, you know, things that were not actually there.
Lesedi: Even John’s plan to talk himself out of the hallucinations was not enough. He’s now stumbling while reading.
John live: She was going through the same, she was going through a very torrid time.
Lesedi: On day five, doctors tell him to call off the attempt. They’re prepared to sedate him and to force him to rest. John is about to throw in the towel, but that’s when a team member comes up to him.
They tell him they overheard someone on his team say they knew he wouldn’t be successful. They never believed he could do it. John felt ridiculed, then challenged, and then from nowhere. He experienced a fresh burst of energy.
John: I stepped back into the room. I told my team that I’m going to continue that even dying while uh, making the attempt would also be an attempt in itself would be a record in itself.
And so I came to the conclusion that I would, I would rather die attempting the record than to call it off. So that’s how I felt at that moment.
John live: Who was to tell where the story of a life was taking place. John surprises everyone. His doctors, his skeptics, he hits a major milestone. He breaks the previous record of 124 hours.
But that’s not enough, he has to keep going. John set himself a target of 145 hours, hoping it would put the record out of reach. But that’s 21 hours away. In the meantime, the news that he’s close starts to spread across town.
Spectator: So I’m here to witness because it’s such a great feat to behold.
Spectator 2: He’s a very good friend to me. Of course, he’s the one that pushed me to discover the importance of the reading. I’m not highly educated like he is.
Spectator 3: I didn’t even know that he was going to that extent.
John live: Our perception is an incredibly large degree of what we are and are not capable of.
Lesedi: He picks up The obstacle is the way by Ryan Holiday, a book subtitled The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
John live: The obstacle more than the goal, which will inevitably, which will inevitably triumph. For instance….
Lesedi: The book’s 224 pages are as light as a feather. The lines roll off of John’s tongue. John reads and reads and reads.
John live: What was possible for an artist before Caravaggio and after he stunned us with his dark masterpieces with two different
Lesedi: And finally just after 2pm on day six while reading Echoes of the Traditional Society by Akbandem James. The timer hits 145 hours.
John live: Kind of a fearful respect. In fact, they had no option than to be loyal. They were often scared of the next move.
Crowd and John: We did it! We did it!
Lesedi: Incredibly, John actually remains inside and continues reading for a few more hours. While outside people fill the street.
Lesedi: A marching band plays, there are singers, dancers join in, Uyo, the sleepy coastal city, comes alive. John finally puts down his book and joins the celebrations, even though his body was in so much pain from standing and sitting all that time. When he got home, he slept for 36 hours.
Lesedi: Guinness World Records will need time to look through all of John’s evidence before they’ll award Emi’s record. But John is wasting no time. He’s touring book clubs, speaking at events, appearing on radio and TV. He’s planning to start a creative writing academy and a foundation to revive reading. He’s also very excited about his next project.
John: I’m going to be writing my own book, detailing, describing the experience. Titled: A Journey Through Hell. How I Endured Six Days Marathon Reading to Gain a Guinness World Record.
Lesedi: This Radio Workshop story was reported in Nigeria by our youth reporter, Mo Isu. Our senior producer, Dhashen Moodley, produced this episode with Nduka Ojinmo, Naomi Grewan, and Samantha Broun. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Jo Jackson is our managing producer. Music by Qhamani Sambu at Edible Audio in Cape Town.
Sound engineering by Jo Jackson, Naomi Grewan, and Mike Rahfaldt. Special thanks to Rob Byers and also XL106.9FM, Uyo’s Urban Lifestyle Music and Talk Radio Station for their support in making the story. Find out more about what we do and support our work on radioworkshop. org.