Professor Oga Steve Abah
Department of Theatre & Performing Arts
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria
SPEAKING TOGETHER AND ACTING TOGETHER IN TIME OF CRISIS
In a time like we are in currently in the world, the theme for this yearâ€™s World Theatre Day, â€˜Building Sustainable Communities â€™, is well chosen. Whether we like it or not, we are forever building communities of interests, of issues and of action. Such issues range from politics, social, through to domestic and international matters. Whichever one of these one chooses to look at, I am personally always intrigued by the methodology adopted to execute the agenda. Secondly, the process of execution always involves a community â€“ those who initiated and want to take the issue forward and those who oppose the agenda. It is, therefore, nearly impossible to build community without encountering conflicts.
When I watch politicians from different political parties slug it on the campaign trail to win elections, I always say to colleagues and friends that their agendas are the same and it is woven around improving the lives of citizens. But the packaging of the rhetoric is designed to discredit opponents and adulate oneâ€™s party. The theatrics of electioneering is intrinsically a performance of surfacing the lack of amenities in villages and communities across Nigeria. It is also a promissory performance for better livelihoods. The promise of tomorrow is cast in a unifying image of aspirants and voters dancing together in the villages where the politicians take their campaigns. The snippet of the promise is demonstrated in the sachets of salt, bags of semovita for women and motor bikes for young men (who behind the act of largesse are recruited as thugs!) Very soon, however, the ululations and the songs become silent; the dances fade and the proximity and hobnobbing between politicians and voters come to an end. They all stop because the politicians have achieved their aim, and they do not need the people until another four years. This is when you know that the commons built during the campaign period was temporary and perhaps an illusion.
But, the issues and problems that the songs and dances evoked and laid at the feet of politicians for action persist. I believe that part of the problem lies in the methodology employed. Politicians and authority figures would prefer to mystify than clarify. They are happier to create illusion than confront reality. As we celebrate World Theatre Day this year, how may we create enduring communities? What methodology may we adopt to build a commons that would speak together and act together? Ladies and Gentlemen, we do not need to look far because the very practice and profession we are celebrating is one undoubtable tool for building communities.
I have spent the last 42 years trying to understand, to teach and to encounter theatre in communities in different parts of this country. One of the genres of theatre that I have used, is Theatre for Development (TFD). It is a practice that started in Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Nigeria 46 years ago. The staff and students of the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts here have made use of TFD eloquently to address community issues within the University, and in communities outside the ivory tower. The issues have ranged from social issue such as alcoholism, substance abuse, to health, and broadly, community development. For those who may not be familiar with Theatre for Development, it is the theatre practice in which both community members and facilitators/animateurs who may be outsiders, work together to research, analyze, and prioritize community issues. The burning issues are turned into drama and performed by community for themselves. They use theatre as a voice, as a platform and as a template for planning possibly futures. This approach has also been at the centre of the practice of the Nigerian Popular Theatre Alliance (NPTA) for the past 32 years. I can say that in all of these years, I have seen communities bond, discuss their issues and work towards a common strategy to solve them.
May I ask, what is so critical in 2021 that our community building needs to address as we celebrate World Theatre Day? I suggest two issues in the life of Nigerians. One is the COVID-19 pandemic. The second is the security situation in the country today. Ladies and Gentlemen, these two issues have divided Nigeria in many parts and according to many interests. My comment on the corona virus pandemic is that I see two communities of people who are enlightened about the virus. On the other spectrum are those who do not know and live either in doubt or in ignorant bliss. We can introduce a third group. This is the group of animateurs who may stand astride the gulf between the people in power and the people in distress. Their roles would be to engage in collaborative work with community members to enlighten, to build group consciousness, to advocate and to act on the new insights arising from the enlightenment exercises. In the language of Theatre for Development, this is conscientization (knowledge, awareness and action). Our job is in two fronts: the community space and cyberspace. At the community space we need to engage with stakeholders on inter-personal level to dissect issues and perform at the village arena. The cyberspace inhabits the three spheres of the urban, rural and the firmament (!) Our theatre from the community can speak on television, on radio and on social media platforms. In the hands of a creative tech expert, we can engage in cyber-skitting. Just as we develop skits in the villages a Theatre for Development workshop, it is possible to create our communities is space and perform community out there! The frontiers of engagement in TFD, in theatre making and in performance is no longer limited to terrestrial environment.
Take a look at this COVID-19 scenario of performance by the Nigerian Popular Theatre Alliance performed by pupils in Kudan Local Government, Kaduna State:
â€¢ Mama Umar is busy cleaning her sitting room when a knock is heard on the door. She peeps and it is her husband. She goes into a panic! Her husband has been in Lagos where the corona infection had been high.
â€¢ The husband holds out a polythene bag of gifts he brought for her. Mama Umar is walking backwards instead of going forward to receive the gift. The husband asks what the matter was, she responds that he should first stop by the gate house and take a shower before entering the main house!
â€¢ Husband is furious and threatens divorce if the wife insists on what she is saying. The wife tells him of the number of infections since he had been away. The husband is alarmed. But he maintains that he remains husband and owner of the house. When wife tells him more of the sad stories and informs him of the precautions that could save life, he complies with these words of equanimity: â€œCorona the mighty that separates husband and wife!â€
The issue of power in this drama gives way to good sense in aid of survival. This piece of drama was put together as part of the risk communication drama, supported by the MacArthur Foundation. It was distributed widely on social media during the lockdown period. This piece was concerned with the survival of community through the promotion of enlightenment.
What the world needs most on the occasion of this celebration, and even beyond, are peace and good health. This is possible if theatre practitioners all over the world agree to be brokers for peace and good health. Let me say that now the theatreâ€™s work for an enduring community begins. We must begin to perform life for now and the future.
Oga Steve Abah is a Professor of Theatre for Development and participatory approaches at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, where he has taught since 1979. He is currently the in the same University. He was the Head of the Department of English and Drama from April 1993 to January 1996; Director, Institute for Development Research (IDR) 2006-2010; Director, Directorate of University Advancement 2012-2014. His specialities are in Theatre for Development and Participatory Development Approaches. Culture and communication have therefore been central to his career and practice. He has written and published over numerous articles in his areas of specialization. The interest for Oga Abah is the interplay between the classroom and the field, between theory and practice, and it is in this interrogativeapproaches that he has made his mark as a scholar, trainer and field worker. Two of his seminal publications that have shaped participatory research in Nigeria are â€˜Methodological conversations in researching citizenship: Drama and participatory learning and action in encountering citizensâ€™ and â€˜Vignettes of Communities in Action: an exploration of participatory methodologies in promoting community development in Nigeriaâ€™. He has published a book, Performing Life: The Practice of Theatre for Development in Nigeria.
Professor Abah has been involved in NGO activities since 1980 and is a member of several organizations, which include: The Nigerian Popular Theatre Alliance (for which he is Executive Director), Nigerian Participatory Action Research Network (Founding Member and Premier Chairperson) and Second Chance Organisation of Nigeria (Programme Advisor). He is a founding member of the Association of African Theatre for Development Practitioners. He is also a member of several learned and professional academic organizations such as the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists (SONTA) for which he is a Fellow, International Drama/Theatre in Education Association (IDEA) and African Studies Association (ASA). He is a Fellow of the Chicago Humanities Institute, University of Chicago, U.S.A. He was a Fulbright scholar-in-residence at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, USA.
He has served as a Resource Person for the Presidency on Community Theatre and as a member of the World Bank-UNICEF-UNDP Committee on Poverty Alleviation; and consulted for DFID and the MacArthur Foundation. He is currently the Nigerian Lead Researcher on the collaborative research on â€˜Citizenship, Participation and Accountabilityâ€™ project between the DRC, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex and the Theatre for Development Centre (TFDC), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Professor Abah also coordinated the Ford Foundation-sponsored project â€˜Changing Games: Democracy and Good Governanceâ€™ which ran between 1999and 2002 in various parts of the country. He also has experience in health communication,and coordinated a MacArthur foundation sponsored anti-AIDS campaign in various parts of Northern Nigeria from 1994-1999. He is currently leading a project on â€˜Adolescent Health and Educationâ€™ using TFD as both research and communication tool.
In the past couple of years, he has been experimenting with, and applying the change forecast technique to development and organizational planning. Overall, Professor Abah is an action researcher with specializations in:
ïƒ¼ Theatre for Development (TFD)/ Community Development
ïƒ¼ Participatory Learning and Action (PLA)
ïƒ¼ Development Communication
Prof. Abah whose work is known and respected internationally has resourced and conducted over 50 workshops in a number of countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, India, Jamaica, Mauritius, Mexico, Ethiopia, Germany, Ghana, South Africa , St. Vincent and the Grenadines, USA, UK, Zimbabwe and at home in Nigeria. He has taught in the United States and the United Kingdom.