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When Soyinka’s Wards Set Foot On ‘Sambisa’ Forest

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Layout 1 1-2The yearly Vision of the Child (VOTC) art contest, an aspect of Lagos Black Heritage Festival (LBHF 2015), set an impossible task for itself when it announced last November that the theme for the 2015 edition would be ‘The Road to Sambisa’, where the dreaded enclave of Islamic insurgents in Nigeria’s North-East took the abducted over 200 Chibok schoolgirls whose whereabouts are still unknown 11 months after. It was thought, for instance, ‘how would the children get a grasp of Sambisa and be able to articulate it in their artistic vision?’

But trust the maverick professor of Comparative Literature and Lagos State Government for which he is consultant on the festival, Prof. Wole Soyinka, who, it seems, has not overcome the precociousness of his Ake years. Of course, the children would merely take imaginative, creative flight or visit to Sambisa, which, for many months, soldiers could not venture into and so blew chances of rescuing the ill-fated girls. But the contestants would only be one in solidarity with their fellow compatriots in dire straits. However, the festival secretariat had a plan to offer a slice of Sambisa to the children if only within the safe confines of the sprawling city of Lagos. And it proved magical, at least to most of the schoolchildren from different parts of Lagos for whom the idea of a forest may be vague and, perhaps seen only on television or on occasional trips outside the city.

The Lekki Conservation Foundation along Lekki-Epe Expressway seemed about the only undisturbed forest that could approximate Sambisa or any other forest for that matter. And by 9am last Saturday, March 7, the children had been gathered at the front yard of the conservation ready for a ‘Sambisa’ treat.

At the heart of the conservation in an open clearing designed as a recreational facility, some three kilometres’ walk from the courtyard, the children shared their ‘terror’ experience of having walked through a forest for the first time and how they visualized what their mates in Chibok might have felt when they were dragged through it.

One after another, five of the pupils confessed to a gathering of parents, teachers, colleagues, contest jury made up of Tola Wewe, Nike Ekundayo, Nike Arigbabu, Folu Agio and Lagos State Commissioner for Tourism and Inter-Governmental Affairs, Mr. Holloway Disu: “After going through the forest I can imagine what Chibok girls went through; I will read a story that captures that experience”; “We all travelled through the same Sambisa forest in Lagos here! My story is about how those Boko Haram kidnapped those girls”; “I’m painting how the girls were kidnapped”; “Today, I had the most terrifying experience of my life going through the forest; we now have a clue what the Chibok girls went through”; “Going through the forest, I now know what the girls went through and my work will show and urge government to do something urgent to bring them home to their parents”.

Indeed, the students had had a taste of Sambisa in Lagos, as the conservation forest brimmed with many animals in the wild in their natural habitat. There were peacocks, monkeys jumping about and birds twittering in the courtyard and snakes on trees as the students made their way through the wooden rail that snaked through the bowels of the jungle.

Disu said he was happy how the students interpreted the theme by the way they expressed their experience of going through the forest. He disclosed that Soyinka had actually intended that the 60 artists slept overnight in the conservation forest to better appreciate the experience of the Chibok schoolgirls in the hands of their evil captors.

But inability to procure enough camp beds bedeviled that plan, “because the experience would have been fuller if you had slept here overnight”, to which the children cried in amazement, even as they were eager to walk through the canopy some five-storey high.



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