Thursday 26 January 2023

Changing 'Narratives' at the Borno Book and Arts Festival

Book Chat with Isa Umar Tela

by Adetayo Adetokun

The Borno Book and Arts Festival is the State's first arts and creativity festival, celebrating arts, culture, storytelling, and creativity. The festival featured panel discussions, workshops, poetry and local musical performances, art exhibitions, cultural displays, and book drives. 

The inaugural theme, ‘Narratives’, aimed to spark discussions about issues that promote positive stories of Borno State, its people, creativity, culture, and literature while challenging negative narratives such as extremism. The event also focused on creating a safe space for creatives, professionals, and thinkers to dialogue about changing the narratives in education, arts, technology, entrepreneurship, politics, culture, media, health, development, and many others.

This event was particularly important to us because it sought to address the problem of education for communities in Borno State, which has been invaded by terrorists for over a decade. Terrorism in this region has majorly targeted the education of children and young adults. At Shades of Us Storytelling Initiative for African People (‘Shades of Us’), we know that terrorism adversely affects education, and we. We are committed to narratives that promote education in line with the sustainable development goals.

We attended this event as media partners covering the panel sessions and interviewing some participants on what this fantastic program means to them and how education can be advanced in Northeast Nigeria. This program presented us with eye-opening panel sessions that let us into the world of education, writing, and reading culture of people living in Borno State. 

We attended the Book Chat with Isa Umar Tela. He is the author of several indigenous books in Kanuri and Hausa languages. He is a passionate writer who wants to convey his information to everyone, irrespective of their educational background.

Isa Umar Tela, an avid writer from Borno state, had this book chat with Abba Kyari Abacha. He took us on a journey of what it feels like to be a writer in modern-day literature whose works are in local languages. He stated some of the problems he has faced in his seemingly unconventional art, including the fact that most people want to avoid buying books written in local languages. They prefer to borrow them for reference rather than own a copy. “It is difficult as a local writer to access markets, funds, and support that other writers have access to because your art does not look promising.”

Despite his current challenges, he pledged to continue to write amazing books. He hopes that someday books in science and arithmetic will be made available in local languages – such as Kanuri – so that people with no formal education can also learn.

In the second panel session, we gained insight into what terrorism-induced trauma looks like and what can be done to help children and adults suffering from the insurgency in the past decade in North East Nigeria.

This mental health-focused panel session had Adama Mohammed, an Art Therapist; Owoicho Ajayi, a Clinical Psychologist; and Miatta Abdulai, a Child Protection Officer at United Nations Children Fund. It was hosted by Dr. Abdulhakeem Ngulde, a Resident Psychiatrist. 

Adama Mohammed explained what it is like to be an Art Therapist. She uses art, specifically paintings and drawings, to help young children suffering from trauma-related mental illnesses find support and relief by channeling their anger into creating beautiful memories through drawing and painting. She has worked with several organizations to help children from displaced communities rediscover their voices. Although many believe her work is not concrete enough, she has had tremendous success with these children. It needs to be more substantial.

Miatta Abdulai emphasized her experience as a Child Protection Officer. She has been on this mission for the past twenty-five years, spanning multiple continents. Her work in Borno State now focuses on rehabilitating children involved in terrorist activities. She ensures that no stone is left unturned when it comes to children and helps these young survivors by providing them with opportunities to learn a trade or attend school: steps to prevent them from returning to terrorism or other heinous crimes.

This mental health-focused panel session had Adama Mohammed, an Art Therapist; Owoicho Ajayi, a Clinical Psychologist; and Miatta Abdulai, a Child Protection Officer at United Nations Children Fund. It was hosted by Dr. Abdulhakeem Ngulde, a Resident Psychiatrist. 

Owoicho Ajayi shared his clinical psychology experience. He made it clear that nothing should be hidden or ignored regarding mental health because even the tiny details have ruined people's mental health in the past. He stressed the issue of stigma and how it has harmed the mental health sector because most people are unwilling to seek help even when they are fully aware of their conditions.

Dr. Ngulde rounded up the session by giving tips on improving your mental health by incubating a positive mindset, staying away from drugs, networking, seeking help, and choosing a healthy lifestyle.

Another interesting session was ‘Writing the Correct Narratives’ with Abdulhamid Al-Gazali, Mohammed Usman, and Ismail Auwal. In this session hosted by Mohammed Abdullahi, Mohammed Usman gave an insight into why most media houses focus on writing sensational stories. “The impact of writing bad stories for clicks has a lasting effect on our community.” Journalists and broadcasters need to do better in changing these narratives. 

Ismail Awual enlightened readers on the dangers of being more reactionary to the news peddled by media houses and how it fosters and encourages outrageous headlines from these organizations. He explained the need to dissect every piece of information we get other than just passing it on, thereby creating a bad image of our society.

Cross-section of panelists at the ‘Writing the Correct Narratives’ session

Abdelhamid Ali Gazali spoke against journalists and media houses whose primary focus is the profit they can make from trending stories rather than the impact they would create. He rounded up the session by saying, “It is very easy for a media house to report stories of terrorism, especially when they are not taking a side. We must stand up and speak against the menace of Boko Haram.”

We loved the final session of the second day: ‘Women and Youths In Politics’ with Professor Patricia Donli, Professor Ibrahim Umara, and Taminu Tahir. The session was hosted by Usman Shariff Jidda. It was an insight into what women and young people can do to regain power in Northeast Nigeria.

Professor Patricia Donli gave us statistics on women in power across Nigeria. She mentioned that since 1957, the percentage of women in politics has not been up to 20 percent. Women and young people are being sidelined because of cultural and ethical beliefs that these people should sit down while the men lead. She urged young people to form a coalition as women have done over the years and take the power that belongs to them in the political space.

According to Professor Ibrahim Umara, “Women are more than men in every society, and I believe women are good governors. Professor Ibrahim Umara states We must allow women to lead because they have what it takes.” He explained that Nigeria has a very young population. “I believe power should be given to the youth because they make up a greater percentage of the population and have proven to be very effective. Young people are grossly underrepresented across the nation, and it is about time they seek to take up positions.”

Tamanu Tahir admonished young people not to feel entitled to power and opportunities because they are young. “We must fight to present ourselves as qualified and wholesome individuals so that the government and everyone involved in politics can take us very seriously.”

Cross-section of panelists at the 'Women and Youth in Politics' session.

The final panel session at the festival was ‘Mining the Gold in Creative Crafts, Talents and Skills’ with Musa Sule Maina and Abdulbakar Gambo. It was hosted by Khadija Joda.

Abubakar Gambo emphasized, "we have this assumption that school gives us all the information we need. It's not enough to just go to school. You have to use your cognitive reasoning to find solutions. We need to look inwards as young people as to why we do the things we claim we love. Once you find why you're passionate about these causes, you're most likely to excel at it.” 

Musa Sule Maina highlighted the role of criticism for people who are interested in arts. “When you claim you love arts, and you want to do something creative, people will always want to criticize you closely. However, everyone is a masterpiece and a talent. When you see something that makes you driven, that is your talent which you must stick to and continue to improve on no matter the critic's response to what you do.”

Cross-section of panelists ‘Mining the Gold in Creative Crafts, Talents and Skills’ session

The session was rounded up by the host, who shared her story on how she transitioned from a career in engineering into tech and the barriers and obstacles she has had to face as a woman in Northern Nigeria.

A recurring theme at the festival was the power of a coalition of young people. This event was curated by young people who saw the need to change the narrative of their community and the State at large. As Africans, most of our leaders only work when it suits them, but it takes the extra effort of young people to ensure that we do more for ourselves and our community. We also learned the problems and issues these communities face, despite the fact that the insurgency isn’t as bad as it used to be. 

A documentary showed us how people have struggled to make a living and get an education through the years as a displaced community. It gave us deep insight into the work that still needs to be done to reinstate Borno State to its original state of peace and tranquillity and improve the State to greater heights. 

Finally, this festival was an opportunity for us to share in conversations around mental health, women, and gender-based issues that are still ongoing in these communities. 

We will continue to seek ways to support these communities and ensure that in the next few years, they get the quality of life they truly deserve as Africans living in a displaced community. 

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