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Applied Theatre for Community Development in Nigeria

Theatre for development is not theatre for pure entertainment but rather theatre for the people. It spurs people to take action on issues affecting their communities. As a theatre director and researcher based in Nigeria, I have collaborated with students from the University of Ibadan to identify issues in various Nigerian communities and explore viable means of solving them. Most recently, we worked with two communities—Igbo Oloyin and Abadina—to tackle issues of drug abuse, tribalism, and poor attitudes towards education among children and youths.

We followed what is called the seven-point processes of theatre for development with a slight modification to suit our specific circumstance. The process implies that theatre workers/agents of development should:

  1. Build a relationship with members of the community and motivate them to participate in the theatremaking process.
  2. Work with these individuals to study their situations and identify issues for in-depth analysis.
  3. Learn the indigenous forms of cultural expression of the area for development activity.
  4. Explore the issues through drama, mime, and songs.
  5. Organize a performance.
  6. Evaluate the whole experience and draw out the lessons learned.
A group of women and children.

The women of the first community discussing one or two things during the performance.

Beginnings and Challenges

The two projects were fashioned through an “outside in” or “mobility” approach, in which the students and I didn’t sleep and wake up with the villagers but visited the community. As a stranger in a typical Yoruba community, due process had to be followed. The first step was to pay a courtesy visit to the Baale (chief) of Igbo Oloyin and the chairman of Abadina. Due to my inability to communicate in Yoruba fluently in a professional manner, we brought an interpreter to Igbo Oloyin, Oyebode Damilare. I asked for permission to conduct research on what the issues in the community were, which was granted.

The following week, along with three students, I began to spend time in both communities in order to get into the nooks and crannies and identify issues of critical importance to the people. One major challenge we faced was getting the community members to speak openly about the issues. This was due to the fact that I was perceived as a stranger the first time I went to the community alone and they didn’t want to disclose personal issues to me. I tackled the problem by familiarizing myself with the individuals, including visiting the communities once or twice in a week just to interact with them without pushing any questions. I also introduced myself in the community’s native language and shared that my intentions were to help. After three weeks, the villagers became familiar with me and began opening up.

In the end, a few major problems were identified. In Igbo Oloyin there were drug abuse among young boys and low levels of primary school attendance, and in Abadina it was ethnic intolerance. I had no financial support from agencies in the state to build the productions, so I had to look for a way to fund the projects and transport the team from the university to the village. Thankfully, my family came to the rescue, though one day I hope the Nigerian government realizes the power of theatre for development when it comes to shifting mindsets and encouraging positive relationships among people, and decides to create an avenue of funding for these projects.

Theatre for development is not theatre for pure entertainment but rather theatre for the people. It spurs people to take action on issues affecting their communities.

Creating the Stories

Using the issues identified through conversations with the villagers, my team and I created two stories—largely through improvisation—specific to each community. The play for Igbo Oloyin was titled Ijanba Oogun Olooro, which translates to Dangers of Drug Abuse in English, while the play for Abadina was titled Unity in Diversity.

The idea with theatre for development is for the audience to see themselves in the characters and assess the characters’ behaviors as human beings in the communities. The rehearsals were engaging and interactive in nature—discussions were had about the significance of the characters in relation to the performance’s theatre for development aim. For example, during rehearsals for Ijanba Oogun Olooro, one of the cast members volunteered to teach everybody a song that encourages young children to face their studies and avoid peer pressure.

The productions included other songs, proverbs, and an interlude that would offer space for an explanation of the final scene—the highlight of each performance, when morals are shared. We also added in an omnipresent character—a narrator—at the end who would summarize the play and then address the audience and engage them in a political discussion.

Group pf primary students with author and team member

Kofoworola Owokotomo with primary students of the community and a team member.

The Performances

The Igbo Oloyin production, Ijanba Oogun Olooro, took place during school lunch hours and commenced with songs and drums to attract members of the community on top of the children and primary school teachers. The play centers around three friends who all live wayward lives in the village, drinking and smoking, not attending their classes, and believing the nonsense that education is a deceit. At the end of the day, they all start to behave in an irrational manner as a result of the addiction to drugs. A nurse then advises the audience on the dangers of drug abuse and the benefit of education in the lives of students. The players on stage freeze for a moment to make space for a discussion between the nurse and the audience about the issues at hand, and the play ends with the nurse singing a familiar song and encouraging the audience to sing with her.

The Abadina performance, Unity in Diversity, also began with songs and dances, this time specific to the three major ethnic groups of the country: Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa. The play, performed in English and Yoruba (the native language of the southern part of Nigeria), is about three market women from the three dominant ethnic groups whose shops are beside each other. This causes a major clash, which leads to verbal insults. Each woman constantly uses her ethnicity to justify her personal attributes while dismissing others as a result of their ethnicity. In the process of fights and quarrels, an old man—who doubles as the narrator—walks into the scene, after which everyone else freezes. He talks to the market women about the need for a unified Nigeria, which gives room for all irrespective of their social backgrounds, and ends his monologue by speaking directly to the community members, encouraging them to bring peace into the community by setting tribal sentiments aside. The play ends with a song, “One Nigeria,” sang by the women while hugging each other.

One of the most valuable aspects of the theatre for development is encouraging active participation from people whose voices are not normally heard in the community, or people who don’t participate in the political process.

The simple dramatic plays really moved the audiences. After Ijanba Oogun Olooro, some individuals shared their reflections. The headmistress encouraged the children to face their studies and strive to be better leaders of tomorrow, and she also advised them to avoid drugs and peer pressure. Two other woman talked about proper parental upbringing, advising parents to model good behavior and monitor their children’s behavior as well. One young boy talked about the truth of drug abuse that was displayed on stage, adding that it is a social menace that needs to stop, while another said that students should face their studies at all time. In general, the children learned about the dangers of drug abuse and that it’s important to avoid bad friends.

After Unity in Diversity, the community members were called on stage to discuss what they took away from the play and how they, as individuals, had a role to play in this issue. All from different ethnic groups, these individuals had the opportunity to share their grievances towards each other and find common ground to settle their differences. The women of the community knew the play was for them because the problems addressed were gotten from the interviews we conducted. A university worker talked about the issue of impatience and greed among human beings as the reason behind some of the fights that happen in the neighborhood, and she encouraged the audience to give people the space to be human, no matter who they are. A businesswoman talked about tribal sentiments and encouraged people to drop ethnic partiality and support artisans from all different tribes.

Author and Team Leaders

Kofoworola and her team members in the first community (Igbo Oloyin community).

Post-Performance

After the two performances, I interviewed some of the university students who worked with me because I wanted to know what their thoughts were on theatre for development and how the processes had impacted them. Taiwo Adepeju expressed her joy for participating in Igbo Oloyin community theatre outreach, as it adds value to people in rural communities. Ogundipe Priscilla appreciated the opportunity to offer something beyond entertainment. These students volunteered to participate in the project because they were interested in community-theatre processes and wanted to gain experience in the practice.

In general, when presenting plays that address problems in a community, there will be stumbling blocks. But I always thought back to the aim of the projects and their significance: they have the possibility of changing the lives of people forever. Collaboration with community members is key because they are an integral part of the project.

Theatre for development as a theatre practice is one of the most effective ways of solving problems through in society. Because it involves its audience both emotionally and intellectually, it can make theory logical and real for people, and, because of this, it is quite effective in educating people or sensitizing them about things they should or should not do. One of the most valuable aspects of the theatre for development is encouraging active participation from people whose voices are not normally heard in the community, or people who don’t participate in the political process. From the communities’ responses to Ijanba Oogun Olooro and Unity in Diversity, I understood that the average Nigerian can be a change maker if given the opportunity to express themselves. The average Nigerian wants a better life for themselves and will participate in community-building if they are given a chance to be part of active decision making.

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