By E. E. Sule

I would like to share my thoughts about nurturing writers with the teenage writers here, but also with the adults here who, by choice, by inclination, by official responsibility, are custodians of the teenagers. Custodians of the teenagers by way of offering guides and counsels, by way of programmatically nurturing the young minds towards achieving their dreams, by way of giving formal teaching in schools and other places of learning, by way of providing the incentives, the facilities, and the conducive environment for the imparting and acquisition of knowledge, formal and informal. In talking to the teenagers, I am also talking to their parents, to their teachers, to officials of education ministry, and to politicians who must take an interest in the growth and development of the tender minds.

Talking about teenagers is talking about the future. It is precisely the idea of the future that occupied my mind as I thought of writing this address. It is, indeed, the regrettable notion that ours is a country that thinks not, invests not, deliberately destroys, the future that I focused my thoughts on, the crucial question constantly repeating itself: how do you nurture the next generation of writers in a country that thinks not of tomorrow? When, in Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, the teenager Kela pursues his ambition with zeal and fervour, a natural thing for teenagers to do, Aunty Rachael with whom he lives, cautions him: “Kela, my son, you must be careful. Never ever show them you are brilliant… and always remember, our land is a land of pygmies. We are like crabs in a basket; we pull down whoever dares to stand up for what is right. Always remember that” (183).

Realistically, Aunty Rachael’s advice is what I could have extended to the teenage writers here; I could have come here to tell these bright young minds: how dare you dream of becoming writers in Nigeria, a country that hardly knows the values of writing, that always nearly criminalises writing, a country whose writers – great as they come (Wole Soyinka, Zaynab Alkali, Abubakar Gimba) – are neglected at home and praised abroad, a country that therefore has practically no structures for developing writers?

Discouraging as the situation is, let us characteristically depart from it, since we are writers, toilers of/in imagination. Let us revel in our imagination, from where we can launch an alternative world. The greatest weapon of a writer living and working in Nigeria, a country so adverse to her trade, is imagination. Imagination is what the political elite, who have so terribly plagued and plundered this country, lack. Imagination is what their stolen and accumulated wealth cannot buy. This lack of imagination terribly denies them the vision of tomorrow. The greatest disease defining most politicians, most policy makers and implementers in Nigeria, is that they can neither see nor understand the future.

So, let us imagine a society of teenage authorship, a society that tends the gifted and the talented, a society where Kela doesn’t need to be afraid of pursuing his ambition. Teenage authorship must be understood as a manifestation of talents. There is no writer who is not talented. There is no writer who did not show the talent to write in her childhood, in her teenage. It therefore follows that teenage authorship is a talent-manifesting, talent-recognising and talent-producing process that ensures writers are identified early, given a special guide and set on the right path towards becoming great writers of their time. This is what a group of persons, led by B M Dzukogi, a notable poet and essayist, have dedicated their lives to over a period of years now.

This is what is institutionalised in the Hilltop Arts Foundation and partly in Niger State Books and Other Intellectual Resource Development Agency. It is noteworthy in this regards that Niger State remains the only state in Nigeria that has systematised and institutionalised teen authorship, something that all Nigerlites should be very proud of, something that should attract enormous supports from government and institutions in Niger State.

Niger State, in particular the city of Minna, is the indisputable Mecca of creative arts and artists in northern Nigeria. Writers from all parts of the north are drawn to its magical narrative and space, home to Abubakar Imam, famous for Magana Jari Ce, home to the great Abubakar Gimba who, more than anyone else, aestheticises the artistic soul of the state. But by far the three most instrumental organs in asserting the distinctness of Minna as a literary city is the Niger State branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Annual Schools Carnival of Arts and Festival of Songs (ASCAFS), and Hilltop Arts Foundation. These three organs attracted people from all parts of Nigeria to the city of Minna for literary events since the 1980s, making Minna the most vibrant and eventful city, after Ibadan and Lagos, as far as the creative arts is concerned.

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Of the three organs, Hilltop Arts Foundation remains unique, the most dynamic, the most engaging, with a futuristic perspective unmatched, I guess, by any organisation in Africa. Its uniqueness lays in its special focus on tending brilliant young minds, on practically coaching them in writing, and on further taking the big step of ensuring that their works are published. Hilltop Arts Foundation therefore achieves the blend of theory and practice, policy making and implementation, coaching one to write and having one’s writing published. There can be no better place, better deal, for any artistically talented young mind. Which is why we must applaud the efforts of the founder of the Foundation, B M Dzukogi and his collaborators, such as Awwal Sakiwa, Aunt Munirat, Musa Yunusa, Saddiq Dzukogi, Halima Aliyu, Almamum Mallam, Aminu S. Muhammad, David Ishaya Osu, and a lot of others.

And yet we must acknowledge in deep appreciation financial contributions from individuals and institutions without whose interventions there would not have been the harvest of published texts that today constitute a huge pride for not only the Foundation but also the entire State. I am aware that since 2004 when the Foundation saw to the publishing of Saddiq Dzukogi’s Image of Life, there have been other published works, namely Mustapha Gimba’s Memoirs of a Broken Heart, Anas Dubani’s Whisper in the Shadow, Peter Kwange’s Deflowered, Priscilla Adesina’s The After Party, Fidelis Obaseki’s Chronicles, and Victor Ugwu’s Rhythms. You will notice that these young authors, by their names, hail from different parts of Nigeria – a testimony to the national spread and all-inclusive talent development programme of the Hilltop Arts Foundation.

Laudable as the project of the Hilltop Arts Foundation is, it remains the only one of its kind that I know in a country as huge as Nigeria. I don’t find this surprising at all. In point of fact, I can imagine the difficulties Dzukogi and his team have faced in their endeavour to assist these youngsters achieve their dreams. In my view, the fate of the child in Nigeria is one that is bleak. Whenever I think of the fate of the child in Nigeria what immediately comes to my mind is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, that bitter satire published in 1729 in which Swifts mocks the heartless attitude of the rich towards the poor and especially the fate of children in colonial Ireland. Swift suggests that rather than wasting the lives of children, their impoverished parents should sell them, in their infancy, to the rich and powerful in the society who will certainly get better nutrients from eating the flesh of the babies. If you think I exaggerate by drawing a correlation between the fate of children in Ireland in the 16th century and of children in Nigeria today, then you need to visit health centres in rural areas to see how children perish from malaria; you need to practically acquaint yourself with child mortality in this country (forget official statistics); you need to check out the incredible level of rot in our public primary and secondary schools; what about the unending streams of children in the streets, uncared for?

I would like to bring to your notice, in case you don’t know, that somewhere in a thick rural area, on a footpath to a farm, there is a girl, a boy, highly talented in arts and creativity; that somewhere under a tree, the best “classroom” the child has to learn in a rural public school, there is a girl, a boy, gifted beyond reciting rhymes, a great writer missed. What percent, let us bother ourselves with this disturbing question, of gifted children even in the city of Minna alone is Hilltop Arts Foundation able to cater for? In the city of Minna alone, we need tens of Hilltop Arts Foundation because just in the next street there are gifted children desperately in need of the kind of nurturing the Foundation gives.

I am strongly of the view that local government authorities, state government authorities in Niger State, and in all states of Nigeria, should as a matter of urgency look critically at the Hilltop Arts Foundation model with the view of replicating it across our societies. Consider the possibility of having an Arts Centre in every post-primary school. Consider the feasibility of making artistic creativity, in its practical form, an integral part of students’ learning in secondary schools and tertiary institutions. Seize this opportunity to deflect the sickening notion that artistic creativity is opposed to scientific knowledge, and only students with scientific knowledge are useful to societies. To the best of my understanding, artistic creativity is pivotal to scientific knowledge as every scientific inventor is a creative genius who often starts, at the pre-primary and primary levels, with a display of artistic ingenuity. When you give a child cardboard papers and ask her to use it to create something, you are testing her artistic and scientific creativity. A scientific inventor is what she is because of the great gift of artistry in her. Arts Centres in all primary and post-primary schools will help in producing future artists and scientists, in developing the best minds who will give our society the right direction.

I firmly believe that the present generation of adults has woefully failed our society, shamefully incapable of giving the society a direction. The adults can only redeem their failure by providing platforms, such as the one being provided by the Hilltop Arts Foundation, to the young ones to enable them develop their artistic and scientific imagination – oh yes, IMAGINATION: the will to put talent into use and critically envision a new dawn, will it into being, and take pragmatic steps to build it.  The crucial point in nurturing future writers, therefore, is to secure a good future where creativity and conscience will replace the current spate of violence and corruption in our society.

Being a keynote address presented at the Nigerian Festival of Teen Authors (NIFESTEENA), 21-23 April 2017

Sule is a writer & professor of African Literature and Cultural Studies, Department of English, IBB University, Lapai, Niger State.