Beneficiaries of the British Council’s interventions in Nigeria’s arts, cultural and social landscapes give inspiring testimonies, AKEEM LASISI writes
For many Lagosians and their jolly good neighbours, the past few weeks have been significant in their hope to get nostalgia become a reality as far as theatre is concerned. As the film and music sections of the country’s entertainment industry boom, theatre freaks also remember with a fever the good old days, when live drama was a robust part of the treat. But such people got a reassuring dose of this between February 27 and March 4, courtesy of the 2018 edition of the Lagos Theatre Festival founded by the British Council.
It not only inspired the festival, it also, as usual, worked with various organisations and individuals, including the Lagos State Government and the Committee for Relevant Arts, to organise it. As it has regularly done for poetry, prose and other areas of literature, it spurred on playwrights, producers, directors and actors to showcase their works while also charting the way for bigger future exploits. In all, 110 plays were staged on Lagos Island and across the mainland, with some 47 production companies engaged.
When the British Council introduced the Lagos Theatre Festival in 2013, the idea was to build capacity in the Nigerian theatre sector by sorting the lack of performance spaces through the use of non-conventional spaces like open spaces, cars parks, restaurants, etc, and turning them into a stage – not by remodelling them to look like conventional theatres, but by adapting the performances to them, the way they are.
Four festivals and five years after, the project has become a landmark event in Nigeria’s annual art calendar and it has become the vehicle through which many artists have achieved their dreams of performing to an appreciative audience and going on to build solid careers in the field.
While actors, producers, playwrights and even the Lagos State Government, through the Commissioner for Tourism, Culture and Arts, Steve Ayorinde, have variously commended the council, beneficiaries of the capacity part of the project are particularly elated. Among those who took part in a festival management workshop that the British Council organised to usher in the programme is Emmanuel Atuk of the Kaduna State Festival of Arts and Culture. He says, “The training left me better informed and more endowed, I gained better perspectives on festival management, I made better networks that will be helpful. The training made me more determined to succeed at festival management. Putting the knowledge acquired here to use, I will definitely step down this training in Kaduna State.”
Targeting young artists
On the whole, the British Council arts programme aims to support artistic, enterprise, digital and management skills development for young artists and creative entrepreneurs to enhance their capacity to connect, share and exchange with each other and with their contemporaries in the United Kingdom. As a result, it supports the strengthening of formal and informal networks and communities of young artists and creatives to give them a stronger voice for and in their communities.
Last week in Abuja, it held what it called the Story Making West Africa Workshopfor the production of mother tongue-based multilingual books. The programme, held in conjunction with the African Storybook Initiative, produced over 20 new manuscripts on which writers and illustrators collaborated.
Among other recent initiatives, the British Council delivered a UK/Nigeria 2015-2016 programme to build audiences for arts and culture and strengthen relationships. One of the 30 projects featured in the UK/NG Season programme is Go Woman Go, a visual arts installation project that consisted of one major outdoor sculpture and a ceramic installations, supplemented by a programme of practical workshops at the Nike Art Centre and House 33 in Abuja.
A beneficiary of the project, Doofan Kwaghol, says, “Through the workshop, I learnt how to make tie-dye, batik, adire eleko and how to package these products for sale. In the school where I teach art, I have been able to teach people how to make tie and dye.”
The British Council’s work in education seeks to connect students, teachers and academics in Nigeria and the UK and provides access to international education knowledge, expertise and study opportunities. According to the organisation, its work in education is to encourage educational, scientific and cultural cooperation and exchange between Nigeria and the UK as it sees the exchange of expertise and talent as being integral to enhancing mutual understanding and creating sustainable opportunities for people in both countries.
Understandably, the British Council is quite involved in the teaching and development of the use of English. To improve learning outcomes through improving the classroom medium of instruction, it works with government institutions to deliver English language proficiency and training to primary and secondary school English teachers.
In one of its projects, it ran a Researcher Connect workshop in Lagos and the training was open to researchers from across Nigeria and applications were received from public and private universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and research institutes.
Among the group of 25 interdisciplinary researchers selected to attend the training in Lagos, delivered by a certified trainer from the UK, Maryam Gbajumo-Sheriff of the University of Lagos and Eughene Ohu of the Lagos Business School describe it as highly impactful.
While the British Council also organises exams that help people gain access to educational and professional opportunities in the UK, the story of one of the beneficiaries of its interventions in education and examinations is touching. This is Chioma Ogbu, who suffers from cerebral palsy, a neurological condition which often affects movement and coordination. Consequently, Ogbu has dyslexia which causes problems in reading, writing and spelling. She dropped out of secondary school in her second year but was determined to succeed and taught herself through to graduation.
Ogbu gained an opportunity to study Media and Communications in the UK at a university with additional learning support for people living with disabilities with hopes to become a journalist. To be offered admission she needed to pass the International English Language Testing System test with a good score.
She visited the British Council office in Abuja and requested special arrangements to be made for her to take the IELTS test in November 2016. These included support such as the use of a word processor on the writing tasks, extra time as well as special invigilation. The council met the requirements and, two weeks later, her English test results were released and she excelled; passing all components as required by the university.
To her, it is more than a wonderful experience. She says, “The provision of a computer, the assistance and added time was really helpful. Others wouldn’t do that. I work in a relatively small organisation with Interests in steel trading, oil & gas and solid mineral. My current qualifications are B.sc in Management & accounting.”
As part of its support for entrepreneurs, the British Council created the Enterprise Challenge, an online competition that provides a platform for young, brilliant entrepreneurial minds in Nigeria to further develop their skills, businesses and bring their innovative ideas to the fore for possible future development. The winners received a financial grant worth N2m, while each benefitted from continued support from the initiative’s partners which included a fully-funded scholarship to attend a five-day entrepreneurship foundation course at the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in South Africa.
“The Enterprise Challenge has been an incredible journey; mentally tough in so many ways but also incredibly stimulating and enjoyable,” says Sophia Ike-Onu, founder, The5kshop. She adds, “Meeting Sir Richard Branson was so surreal! Moments before he walked into the room, I was a bit anxious but the minute he came in and we got chatting, it really felt like talking to an old friend. It was impressive how well he understood my business as he casually shared intelligent advice and tips.”
Keturah Ovio, founder Qeturah Dot Com, also speaks of a memorable experience from the programme, especially based on his encounter with Branson.
Widening social impact
As the British Council seeks to consolidate its work in the arts, education and enterprise, it also takes widening social impact crucial. It supports communities and civil society organisations to work together in partnerships and coalitions and to work constructively and co-operatively with government and other state institutions. It works with institutions and individuals to promote gender equality, for instance.
One of its projects in this light is Active Citizens, a social leadership training programme that promotes intercultural dialogue and community-led social development. There is also the Premier Skills, a partnership between it and the Premier League, which uses football as a tool to engage and develop the skills of young people. It is focused on face-to-face training for coaches and referees, using highly skilled trainers from the English Premier League and its clubs. The participants are then supported in developing their own community-focused football projects
In Nigeria, over 200 coaches/referees and 1,500 students have been trained. with skills in community football development, child protection advocacy, human rights awareness, dangers of drug abuse and the dangers of violent sexual crimes against women and girls. One of the beneficiaries, Emmanuel Okere, notes that Premier Skills is a unique training opportunity that has helped her improve her coaching skills and my community.
The fact is that from the arts to education – including the programmes that protect and celebrate the girl child, like celebrating the May 27 Children’s Day with pupils across the country – and other vital areas such as governance and security, the impact of the British Council, as the United Kingdom’s foremost socio-cultural institution is otherwise called, has been real. Year after year, the British Council reinforces the UK-Nigeria friendship, enhances capacity building, deepens organisational fulfilment with projects and programmes held or supported and delivered in both countries.
For one, many stakeholders in Nigeria have seen in the British Council a model in governmental institutions established and run to engender development in specific areas of life. True to the philosophy behind its establishment in 1934, it represents British interest – but without being overbearing in its process and implementation of its objectives. It enjoys a good measure of independence even as it remains thorough in process. When Nigerian artists thus call for an endowment fund or the establishment of an institution that will oversee such, they usually have one of the type of the jolly good British Council in mind.