By Anote Ajeluorou
When Associate Professor of Literature at Texas State University, U.S., Dr. Ogaga Iwofodo conceived the idea of organising Empowerment Creative Writing Workshop for secondary school students in Warri, Delta State, his aim was to stimulate the minds of the young participants towards expressing themselves creatively the way poetry and fiction allows. He had his own poetic epiphany that way back in the 1980s at Federal Government College, Warri. Today, he’s an award-winning poet, as a result.
So, he’d stated simply, as his objective, “ While a workshop may not match the amnesty programme through which the federal government has tried to palliate the youths of the Niger Delta, the hope is that it will emphasise and help inculcate an important skill for sublimating feelings of anger and frustration into an aesthetically and socially productive form of art.
“Through the habit of keen observation and deep reflection on their society in order to write about their experiences (personal or imagined), the participants will be encouraged to appreciate the value of self-expression by way of the cultivation of good writing skills, especially as such skills need not be limited to creative writing but can also lead to careers in journalism (print or electronic, including blogging) and in the public relations and technical communication departments of corporations”.
Vexed by inability of leaders in the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole to effect positive changes in the fortunes of his people, Ifowodo had sourced for a small grant from International Institute of Education, U.S., with support from Delta State Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education to hold the workshop. Now, Ifowodo is already exploring avenues of collaboration with other supporters of youth talent to take the workshop to other parts of Delta and beyond so as to spread its enriching knowledge.
But little did the Texas State University, U.S. don realise just how close he’d actually instinctively touched the core yearnings of these young ones. And as each student stood up to state why they’d volunteered to participate in the workshop at Morgan Smart Women and Youth Empowerment Resource Centre, Oki Street, Okere, Warri, it was apparent that Ifowodo’s mission couldn’t have been more timely.
The students said they enjoyed reading novels and books and wanted to also write and express themselves. In so doing would they better grasp their world, they each argued. Moreover, they wanted to be better writers and users of the language of communication – English – and no better opportunity existed than the one the workshop offered. On and on they expressed their individual enthusiasm for making a better start by equipping themselves for the exciting world of writing.
Ifowodo nodded and keenly felt the more the burden he’d put on himself. But the lawyer-turned-literary don and poet wasn’t only aware of the enormity of the task before him, he was ready to also discharge it admirably.
Not even the dampener of the usual inability of top government functionaries (this time the Hon. Commissioner for Higher Education, Prof. Hope Eghagha, himself a writer) to turn up for the workshop opening, an event that would have further stimulated and challenged the 20 selected students to aspire more, mattered after all. The students’ overall performance at the workshop was a study in youth thirst for knowledge that is ever so lacking in environments where education commissioners treat young people with disdain. Not even Eghagha’s counterpart in Basic and Secondary education section, Prof. Patrick Muoghare, showed up for the closing either. But the three female staff at Warri South Education office were uncommonly efficient in coordination that ensured a hitch-free 3-day event.
Two students came from each participating school, including Oghior Secondary School, Ekete Secondary School, Ogbe-Udu Secondary School, Urhobo College, Army Day Secondary School, Ugborikoko Secondary School and Federal Government College. Others were Hussey Boys Model College, Nana Girls Model College and Delta Secondary School.
STARTING with poetry, a genre he has won prizes, Ifowodo took the students through its rudiments and highlighted the importance of the language of communication – English in Nigeria – as a tool to master first before any meaningful writing could take place. With the simple rhyming poem:
Two and two
Are rather blue
Ifowodo unfolded before them elements of poetry and how the genre works. He used JP Clark’s ‘Ibadan’, Christopher Okogbo’s ‘Watermaid’ and Gabriel Okara’s ‘One Night at Victoria Beach’ as examples and teaching texts.
The students were greatly inspired as they discussed, argued, asked and answered questions freely. From poetry, the discussion moved to fiction the next day, with the short story as starter. As in poetry, Ifowodo explained elements of fiction with ample examples and they studied two texts – Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. They are two texts that deal with childhood and school experiences. The students found the texts exciting, as they deal with experiences within their age range.
Students were asked to write a short story about any memorable experience they remembered in their childhood, as workshop assignment. In about an hour they turned in stories that amazed workshop facilitator, Ifowodo. The stories were reviewed together, which the students did with keen interest; it showed their eagerness to learn.
On the third day, Friday, February 28, the participating students received certificates and three impactful books capable of transforming their raw talent into prodigious ones: The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenback, Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott and the classic, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Ifowodo had a roundtable with five of the English and Literature teachers, who exposed the rot in the school system to the facilitator’s amazement.
At the presentation, English and Literature teachers and some schools’ principals were in attendance, including Warri South Chief Inspector of Education, Mr. Mike E. Emeshili, who advised the students to take advantage of the workshop to horn their skills as writers. He also advised them against the use of pidgin, as it had “no place in our education system. You should impact your society with the training you’ve received here from the professor”.
While commenting on the performance of the students after the workshop and his over all impression, Ifowodo lamented, “My observation is that our students are being so poorly served. They are very eager, very keen to learn. But they haven’t had the best preparation. They are focused. In such a short time, they learnt so much and gave back so much. If back in their schools they have resources, they will do far better. But I’m encouraged. If they don’t let the spirit of the workshop die, they will go far.
“We all know that things are bad, and some governments like Delta State’s are trying to do something. Having good infrastructure, the atmosphere should give a sense of seriousness. But the software – books, teachers, revised curriculum that help solve 21st century problem – are lacking. Some students who came for creative writing workshop said they don’t have English teacher for two years. Some in secondary schools don’t know the alphabets; it’s so shocking you are agape. You don’t know where to start.
“But sporadic interventions like this alone cannot solve all the problems. Education is number one priority of any nation looking to advance. We’re in dire straits in the use of English language in Nigeria. Students literally transliterate from poorly understood spoken English or mother tongue to English. They don’t have a grasp of the basic elements of English language; it’s a sorry situation. We all have to be advocates in our communities to make things work!”