“We’re here for a reason.” I’ve heard this assertion a number of times from different people and I agree that each of us is in the world for a reason.
“Sometimes we are lucky to discover the reason,” I think.
“We’re still lucky when we don’t discover it. The important thing is that we use our talents; that we share; give to others, to society,” I think.
I know that, “We are differently gifted so we give back in different ways according to our talents and circumstances.”

 As someone with the gift of writing in diverse genres, I try to use my writing to represent the views of those whose voices are hardly ever heard, and mine also. If we view the world from gender lens, we’ll see a concentration of the voiceless in women. If we use the class lens, we’ll see a concentration of them in the less-privileged, the poor and destitute. If we use the super-power lens and the global center lens, we’ll not hear the voices of many Africans and know their views, but we’ll hear what people say about them. The list of lens, view points, and perspectives can go on and on.


The elephant story:

I’ll refer to the well known story of the elephant and how people touched it from different angles. One person felt the leg and said that it was the trunk of a tree. Another one felt the massive body and said that it was a huge wall. One felt the tail and said that it was a huge rope. These people were differently talented so they approached the elephant from their own understanding, which influenced the way they gave things to the elephant. If we can view our society as that big elephant, then we can appreciate diverse perspectives and ways of approaching it and giving back. Whether we try to feel the elephant though the legs and perceive it as a trunk or feel the body of the elephant and perceive it as a mighty wall, the important thing is that we are feeling the elephant. We feel, feed, help, and uplift society through our own means.


Unrepentant feminist?

I write about the struggles of ordinary people and engage possible ways for overcoming. In the early nineties, I was called an “unrepentant feminist” in Theweek (Dec. 19,1994), a Nigerian magazine, because of what the writer, Ige, referred to as the “gender” writing that bothered some of the judges that evaluated my submission for ANA contest. The play, The Lion and the Iroko, is about the struggle of the people against their oppressors. I approached the elephant from my stand point as a woman in a society where women and the underprivileged did not have a lot of voice. And sure my voice was being muzzled, but also being uplifted. I responded with a poem that was inspired by my thinking about feminism. I portrayed Jesus as a feminist in the poem because of his defense of oppressed women but it was not published. The persona of the poem would have been a voice in defense of my play that was cited as too "gender conscious," just because the young mistress of a politician developed to become the leader of the movement against the powerful political party of her sugar daddy. I want to create realistic opportunities through my writing. I would like to write about the first woman president of Nigeria, America, and/or any other country where a woman has not yet reached that political pinnacle. Perhaps it would contribute to the expanding imagination of girls, women and men. 


Students and community:

My service to society is through my writing. I have face to face interaction with communities through poetry and story reading as well as theater. Sometimes I do a lot of reading and sometimes my energy is diverted to another activity such as play-making or research. My play-making involves writing a play, getting students who are interested to discuss and prepare it for presentation. Even though we aim at giving the community good entertainment, the focus on issues usually opens up conversation with the community. We usually give the audience the opportunity to make comments at the end of the play. When we cannot have face-to-face interaction with the audience, some still send us feedback. However, the most important discussion usually goes on after the theater experience as members of the audience synthesize their impressions of the play.  After our 2009 presentation of Scramble for Africa 2, some members of the audience gave us feedback by phone and email messages.  


Children’s play:

I like to work with young people and I believe that I have the knack for working with them. In Benin-City, I organized informal classes for children in my neighborhood. I made them focus on the goal of presenting songs, music, and dance to the public but we used the process to learn values and appreciate the diversity of cultures that the children come from. Children from diverse ethnic backgrounds taught us songs and dances from their culture areas. The community was supportive of this venture and contributed to our effort. St Albert’s church lent us their musical instruments and allowed the children to play them in our band. Parents donated costumes and food. The children donated their talents and play-time, but they also had fun. My greatest joy was when I asked the children to decide on what we should do with all the money made from our tour of the community. They said that we should donate the money to an orphanage or motherless babies’ home. Such feelings must have come from their appreciation of the value of giving back.

 A card made by 5yrs old Dubem  


It’s not funny:

Fired by the enthusiasm that I got from attending HIV/AIDS conference organized by African students at Cornell University in 1992, I came back to Nigeria and was invited to speak on the issue of HIV/AIDS to a community that knew little or nothing about it. It was not easy to pin posters at strategic places when people laughed at you for believing in “the fictional disease.”

Someone said, “Anyway, you imagine things and write about them.” He laughed at me.
“It’s not funny,” I said but I smiled while telling him how big-time-real it had become in some countries and why we should prevent it. I even gave him some fliers to distribute.

In 1993, I formed a life value train with the pastor of St. Albert’s church, Dr. Dundon, and Ms Nneka Alakija, a nurse at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital. As a priest, Dundon provided the religious, Alakija provided the medical, and I wove their input into play-making sessions where high school students used personal anecdotes, biological/medical facts, and moral instructions, to engage culture and change. We called it life-values train.

I later joined the Nigerian branch of an international organization that focuses on HIV/AIDS awareness. I became the Public Relations officer of the Nigerian Association of Women & AIDS. We organized conferences and spoke to market women. Later while living in Swaziland in the late nineties, I developed a number of scenarios on the problem of HIV and performed them in the larger Swazi community. I still remember how some HIV positive people commended our effort in creating awareness and giving young people positive messages. 


Play-making with communities:

Play-making has also been useful in my interaction with communities outside the universities and schools. I worked with a colleague, Dr. Austin Asagba, and some students, at organizing play-making sessions with inmates of Benin Prison. This involved the use of music, dance, and anecdotes to generate a creative space that encouraged the prisoners to express themselves artistically. One of the plays that they made was a critique of the prison system and how some guards exploited them. This play was performed for an audience that included the prison authorities.  Although many of the participants expressed themselves through song, dance, and jokes, the final scenario that brought their talents together was the exploitation in their prison facility.

The main theme that the prisoners focused on was change, so they suggested ways of effecting change in the play. The superintendent said that the play was an eye-opener for him. We believed that the communities knew their problem and could understand it more through a creative activity that brought in diverse voices in the place. We were more of facilitators than directors.

At Uselu-Park, we made plays with a different community. They were depressed but they did not identify their main problem as lack of money. The problem that they identified as the most pressing and which became the focus of our play was the environment. They were concerned about the way that some people littered the environment with cans and dirt.


Swazi example:

From my little stand point in Nigeria, I spoke of Africa as one, so it was quite a surprise for me to live in Swaziland and be confronted with a culture that was a lot different from what I was used to in Nigeria, but also similar in some ways. I devoted the first three months of my stay there to learn about the culture. I spent most of my time in the “special collection” part of the library that gave me access to rare papers and old notes on the history and culture of Swaziland. By the time I “emerged” after three months with new knowledge, I felt a bit more comfortable in my new setting. I still continued to explore by giving my students projects that took us to the communities. From interaction with the people, we made plays on different problems such as domestic violence, rape, and child abuse that we presented to the public. From then, people would stop me to tell me about new incidents to use in my writing.

The youths of Ithaca:

In Ithaca, I was talking a walk at the park when I met some teenage boys. I looked young like them so they were interested in chatting and asking me questions that I replied. When it was my turn to ask them questions, I began with their seeming idleness, even though I too appeared to be idle at the park.

“Why are you not in school?” I said.
“I don’t like school.”
“Nothing there interests me.”
“Nothing?” I said.
“Don’t you have music and drama in your school?” I knew that they had music and drama.

The three of them spoke about their dislike of the kind of music and the plays that they did not identify with.
“Then, make your own plays,” I said.
“We can’t do that.”
“Yes you can,” I said.

 They wanted to know more about me, so I invited them to my office and spelt my name for them. They were skeptical about my being a professor.
“For real?”
“Yes, for real,” I said.
“We’ll sure check you out.”

I was a bit surprised two days’ later when they turned up at my office. We sat in the Hoyt Foller room and I introduced them to people who came in for coffee or something. I think that they felt a bit awkward or intimidated by the environment. The professors of Africana Center got involved. First, the Director, Professor Edmondson, sponsored a tour of Cornell and a lunch. The young people brought more boys and girls. Other professor got involved. They included Micere Mugo, Don Ohadike, N’Dri Assie-Lumumba, Salah Hassan, Abdul Nanji and others. We had workshops on Saturdays with the young people. They were interested in how we became successful “in spite of being African.” That became the point of our conversation and ways of working hard and overcoming obstacles.


Festival at Villa Serbelloni:

Living at Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, as a Rockefeller writer-in-residence, I was just expected to write, but I also explored the expansive environment of the villa that sits on a peninsula by Lake Como. I did not speak the language beyond sharing greetings and did not expect that my suggestion that I organize a festival would be welcome. Many people chipped in to make the festival happen. They told me about the ancient festival that commemorated the birth of John the Baptist so I named the celebration, “Festival on the Eve of St. John.”  The Franti Chapel (with a kind of mini catacomb on is basement) was opened and I got a number of artists to perform at the festival on the 23rd of June, 1998. This included a pianist, a saxophonist, a soloist, a professor who read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wyves Tale of Bathe in old English, and my poetic rendition accompanied by the saxophonist. The conversation that followed was very entertaining and people were happy that I was able to bring the artists in their midst together to share and have fun.  

View my introduction to the event.


Blame it on the bad guy:

Serving, sharing and communicating with communities do have its own difficulties and hitches. It can crop up in the process of arranging permissions, meetings, and other technicalities. It can come from the unfolding content.A didifficult question did pose a challenge to our workshop in Ithaca. The question  was posed by one of the Ithaca youths. It happened on the first session of our weekly workshops. The youths were mostly African Americans. The professors were mostly from the African continent. I did not anticipate this hitch, but it happened. A young woman asked the difficult question.

“Is it true that your people sold our forefathers as slaves?” She said. Her eyes were on me. I was their “big sister” who brought them to Cornell.
I hesitated. I thought, “If I said ‘yes,’ they may walk out on me.”
“If I said ‘no,’ I would be telling a big lie,” I thought.

 "Yes,” I said. This reply coincided with the “yes” from another professor. That was Assie-Lumumba from Ivory Coast. All eyes, including my eyes, shifted towards her.
“Do you all know Clarence Thomas or have you heard about him?” she said. 
This was in 1992 when many African Americans had come out against Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court because they perceived him as someone who did not represent their interest. All the workshop participants showed knowledge of him in different ways.
Some nodded.
Some said, “Yeah.”
“What has it got to do with anything?” One of them said. Let’s call him GG (Great guy).

N’Dri continued. “There are bad people in every part of the world. They can be black, white, or any color. It doesn’t matter. There are black people who betray black people everywhere. There are black people who are against black people in America. There are black people who are against black people in Africa.” N’Dri paused.

I took over. “There are people who will do anything including hurting their brothers and sisters just to benefit themselves.”
“You got it.” The young woman that posed the question said this.
Some of the young people began to nod in understanding. A few still maintained blank faces.

“If you didn’t sell us, we would not have been here,” GG said.

Don Ohadike came in here. “The people that the wicked Africans sold are our people. Back home in Africa, some old folks still tell stories about children who became orphans because their parents were kidnapped in the farm and sold. People lost their children, brothers, sisters. Villages lost their people and became too weak to defend themselves.”
“The bad Africans have continued to betray other Africans in africa and everywhere, even in the United States.”

What’s all this for?

Community engagement has its pitfalls but it is a very rewarding experience. The joy of connecting with people, the learning, giving, taking, and sheer fun of the experience cannot be qualified. It is great! These experiences show me that people like to support community. Sometimes, they just need someone to initiate it, and it will grow on the wings and shoulders of the community. The parents in my Benin neighborhood that contributed costumes and food, the church that gave musical instruments, Cornell professors that helped me to open up informal learning opportunity for youths of Ithaca, the Serbelloni people that facilitated the Italian festival, people that told me stories in Swaziland, are great examples of how communities help me to realize my dream of sharing with communities. People are generally community oriented because of our basis humanity.


Community work also depends on opportunity. Sometimes, I’m invited to speak on issues that people want to address. The topics have included gender, globalization, race, Africa, and Nigeria.  I may not be an expert on some of these topics, but I usually take up the challenge. My goal is usually to share my knowledge and use it as a way to engage the community in conversation, so I usually invite contribution from the audience. Some recent engagements include speeches on the following issues:

Nigeria. Wichita, KS, 2009 (excerpt from my speech).

Racism at the 1936 Olympics. Wichita, 2008 (excerpt from my speech).

War and place. Waterville ME, 2007. 

 Perception of Africa in the West. Kalamazoo, MI, 2006. PPS

Globalization. Ithaca NY, 2007. 

International and Cross-Cultural Dialogue. Wichita, KS, 2004.

Women and globalization. Farmington, ME, 2002.

Nigeria. Wichita KS, 2004.

Race. Portland ME, 2002.

Family Togetherness. Wichita KS, 2006. 

For more details see, “Speaking Engagements” in Curriculum Vitae

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Page title: Community service
Last update: November 12, 2009
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