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Kongi and his 1,084 children


Wole Soyinka and the children who came to celebrate his 84th birthday

It was fun and excitement last weekend in the forest of Ijegba in Ibara Housing Estate, Kenta, Idiaba, Abeokuta, as over 1,084 children from across the country encountered venerable writer and Africa’s first Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Professor Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka (Kongi).

Perched at the wooded end of a picturesque estate, the redbrick house of Soyinka was serene and welcoming this morning of July 14, 2018, when students from 21 states of the federation and some others mobilised from about 10 schools around Abeokuta, sat with him for an interactive session.

For the children, it was a rare opportunity to be hosted by the writer, who used the session to instil in them, good virtues. The children asked as many questions as they could, which Kongi answered, as a way of making them not only inquisitive, but to equally seek for knowledge.

“I enjoyed reading. I was considered very precocious as a child. Anything, any piece of paper anywhere, I always wanted to read it. And, of course, that meant reading books and so on. And we all come from some tradition that involves storytelling, epic narratives, etc. And elders used to tell us stories. We ourselves used to get together as children to tell stories and to repeat them. I realised along the way that I never liked to re-tell a story exactly as I heard it. I would always make up things. My siblings would say no, it didn’t go that way. I would say, ‘That’s how I want it to go’.

“That’s how creativity begins. It begins with act to material and you try to reinterpret that material — whether it’s materials of poetry, epic narratives, etc. It became a habit and I don’t really know when I decided to do literature because I wanted to be so many things.”

The day before, Friday, July 13, 2018, at the amphitheatre located in the forested neighbourhood of Soyinka’s Autonomous Residence of Ijegba (A.R.I), in a reality show kind of setting, the 84 finalists selected from over 300 entries collected nationwide, wrote analysis of three of Soyinka’s poems, Flowers for my Land, Children of this Land and Harvest of Hate, taken from three different collections: A shuttle in the crypt, Samarkand and the other markets I have known and Idanre & other poems.

The poems were based on this year’s theme, The Pursuit Of Truth: Lies and the National Psyche and they examined the destructive and destabilising effects of ‘lies’ (including, the trending reign of fake news) in national discourse and politics; in particular, its ‘violent’ effects on collective humanity.

The theme was inspired by Soyinka’s consistent interrogation of the prevalent incidents of “untruths” in the country as captured in his recent body works — the Interventions and the ‘Interinventions’ series.The special guest of honour was master Mercy Sobande, the 10-year old student of Federal College of Education Staff School, Abeokuta, who recently released his first book, Princess Sarah & other stories. He paid a visit to the finalists while in the reality-like essay writing competition, which was won by Brandon Obioma Onyemelukwe, a student of Dority International School, Aba, Abia State. Nzubechukwu Mbagwu of Federal Government College, Okigwe, Imo State came second, while Mmesomachi Okoronkwo also of Dority International School, Aba, Abia State.

After the essay writing in the amphitheatre site, the finalists were mentored on the importance of responsible citizenship, patriotism, education and importance of dreaming positively by a coterie of eminent dignitaries and leaders of thought including, Mr. Alistar Soyode, the founder of BENTv and a presidential aspirant; Mr. Dayo Adeneye (D1), the popular entertainment broadcaster and current Ogun State Commissioner of Information and Strategy; Professor Segun Ojewuyi, theatre director, culture scholar and Head of Directing at the Southern Illinois university, Carbondale Illinois USA, who is co-Executive Producer of the Open Door Series/WSICE ZMirage project; Dr Razinatu Mohammed, writer and Associate Professor of English and Literature at the University of Maiduguri.

But the icing on the cake were the international guests that also took part in all the events. These guests ensured that the project stayed committed to its global cause.The guests, Baretta Chullen and Susan Harrocks from the US, also spoke to the finalists on the importance of loving one’s country, and working towards its advancement, inspite of the odds that may currently look threatening to their (youths) future. “Nigeria is a great place to be speaking as a first timer in this country,” stated Chullen, continuing, “Nigerians have the warmest smiles I have ever seen.”

They were visible and very active in the various events, and took generous time out to interact with the student-participants, holding mentoring sessions and giving them a well rounded perspectives on the importance of education and responsible citizenship.Chullen, though a fresh graduate of the Southern Illinois University, is also an experienced actor and theatre producer.

Emphasising her African-American heritage, she said stepping into African soil for the first time, she felt highly inspired by the warmth of “my brothers and sisters” from the motherland. She wondered why many young Africans desire to take life-threatening and sometimes fatal risks to migrate to the West, when indeed they have a “beautiful land and warm people” in Africa. She thus advised the young ones to work hard to find space for their individual dreams “here on the continent”, but importantly to know that education is indeed, the only means to freedom and great future.

In one of the sessions, Harrocks, a very well experienced performing artist and veteran of the United States Military, told the young ones to take their education seriously as this is the passport to a greater future. She encouraged them to be patriotic, to love their nation and be ready to offer sacrifices to her, in spite of the odds that the nation and its political elites and their sometimes inconsiderate policies, may throw their direction. She said she decided to join the US military as a way of serving her country, America, despite the fact that the country has not been able to give her everything she desires.

In the evening, they had a session of free creative expressions under the event item: Do Your Own Thing. A special poetry writing and performance session held for the 84 finalists and the over 1,000 students drawn from schools in Ogun State, courtesy of the Ministry of Education. The workshop featured members of the Ogun State chapter of Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA led by the chairman, Dada Olanipekun.

For the climax, the ‘birthday boy’, Kongi, played host to the 1,084 students-guests (84 finalists plus 1,000 Ogun State students) at the newly upgraded 400-seater amphitheatre, which was launched four years ago, and has been playing host to the WSICE events every year. The birthday cake was cut at the venue with the folklorist, Edaoto, providing good music that whetted the appetite of the kids and guests present. Thereafter, Soyinka, accompanied by his wife, Mrs. Folake Soyinka – toured the facilities. It was after this that the Nobel laureate performed the rite of the inauguration of the bamboo and wood-themed houses by pouring libation.
WSICE 2018: The International Dimension, Gains

THE success of the 2018 edition is due largely to the huge number of human resources that participated in the various event items. Aside from the 84 student-finalists that, on Friday July 13, wrote the annual essay competition on the theme, The Pursuit of Truth: Lies & The National Psyche, the three-man delegation led by the Co-Executive Producer of the project, Professor Segun Ojewuyi, ensured this global dimension.

Theatre director and culture scholar, Ojewuyi, head of directing at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale USA, is the founder of the GlobalNewHaven, the partner organisation (with ZMirage Multimedia Company) in the founding of the Open Door Series/WSICE.

The two ladies ladies in Ojewuyi’s team, Harrocks and Chullen, equally have impressive credentials in the arts, especially the performing arts: Harrocks is the newly elected President of The Stage Company, having previously served as the VP of Productions. Harrocks is a member of the Unrehearsed Shakespeare Company of Chicago, as well as Stone Soup Shakespeare.

A founding member of Three Grace’s theatre, she has worked to bring classic productions to rural and underserved communities in the Midwest. Directing credits include, Godspell, The Hobbit, Arsenic and Old Lace, and ‘Night Mother. Previous acting credits include Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Kate in Taming of the Shrew, M in Crave, and most recently, Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest. She is a veteran of the United States military.

On her part, Chullen is a recent graduate from Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she earned a bachelor’s in Theatre and a Minor in Psychology.Chullen was always drawn to performance and acting even at a young age, but it wasn’t until high school that she was given her first opportunity to be on stage. She’s always known that performance would play a major role in shaping her life. Chullen’s first role was a Wood Nymph in SIUC’s 2016 production of Narnia. She then portrayed Fathia Nkrumah in the 2017 production of A Nightingale for Dr. Du Bois by Femi Osofisan, directed by Ojewuyi.

Later, she would return to Narnia but in an upgraded role as The Unicorn in the 2017 rerun. Chullen wishes only to live a happy life and knows that theatre world. This is her first travel outside the United States of America and it’s a privilege to be visiting Nigeria.The visibly elated guests also interacted with the various dignitaries that attended the events including, the entertainment-celebrity commissioner for Information and Strategy of Ogun, Otunba Dayo Adeneye (aka D1); the Deputy Governor Chief (Mrs) Yetunde Onanuga, who was guest of honour at the July 14 mentoring session held in the amphitheatre in the basement of Soyinka’s A.R.I home deep in the forest of Ijegba, and the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, whose life and illustrious career is the motivation behind the project.

On July 15, the guests also had opportunity to meet with the primal host of the event, the Governor of Ogun State, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, who expressed delight at hosting them in “our humble state of cultural splendour.”Before they departed Abeokuta, the visitors had opportunity to visit historical and heritage landmarks in the state, such as the famous Itoku Market (market of the popular adire textile cloth) and the world-famous Olumo Rocks Tourism site. Before Abeokuta, the guests had visited the National Theatre of Nigeria and the Afrikan Shrine in Lagos. After Abeokuta, they proceeded to Osun State, where they visited the famous Osun Osogbo shrine and as well paid courtesy visit to the Ooni Adewusi of Ile Ife, among other activities. The visitors are expected to jet out to Accra, Ghana this week, before returning to base in the US.

Open Door Series/Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange
SINCE inception, the Open Door Series/Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange has always emphasised the global dimension of its objectives. And this is simply premised on the fact that the force vitale behind the project, Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka, is a quintessential artist and cultural icon whose accomplishments transcend his place and continent of birth.A global citizen whose work and impact as an advocate for the greatness of humanity, Soyinka operates across spaces and boundaries, hence the character of the project designed to honour him.

The first edition in 2010, WSICE76, featured two theatrical productions that were presented. One was Preemptive, written by the US-based Professor Niyi Coker (Jnr) of the University of Missouri St. Louis; and Seven, by Racheal Hastings, then an undergraduate student of SIU, Carbondale, USA. Featuring in the cast are: Christopher Collins, Rachel Hastings, Tania Dawn Coambs, Basha Sharone Evans, Cortez Johnson and Racquel McKenzie.

In 2011, the WSICE77 edition presented Samm Art Williams’ Home as directed by Ojewuyi, and featured a mixed cast from the US, UK and Nigeria, with the renowned Nigerian dance artiste, Peter Badejo (OBE), then based in the United Kingdom, conducting a dance workshop.

The essay segment brought two international students: Olumayokun Ogunde and Ukachi Chibueze to participate join 75 other students here. The Advocacy segment saw Robert Fox, a professor of English at the SIU, Carbondale speaking on ‘From Tigritude to Transcedence: the Conscience and Conscientiousness of Wole Soyinka’.The second phase of the edition featured a Blues Tea Party held at the Africa Centre in London, and anchored by Stanley Amah, a Nigerian lawyer based in London. There was also a debate session that featured mostly Africa students selected from schools around the UK.

The First Lady of Ogun State, a constant and consistent supporter of the project, mentored the London students’ participants on the need to identify with motherland Africa. She urged the young ones to always insist on the parents to bring them back home regularly, so they do not forget their origin and heritage.Other past editions and their features were:WS78: Basha Evans, Brandy Austin, Larry Greene, Lauren Connor, Prof Robert Fox.WS80: The legendary Jamaican poet, Mutabaruka and the fiery American performance poet, Javon Johnson performed in Lagos and Abeokuta, and as well held workshops with young Nigerian poets and students.WS81 in 2014 presented the famous storyteller and African culture activist, Aunty Thea mentoring students in Abeokuta on the art of story telling.The theme for last year’s event was Intolerance: The Burden Of Our Moral And National Conscience. The essay competition featured 83 students, who tackled the theme in a reality television -like setting.

In this article:
Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka
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