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Reengineering Education in the Adagbabiri Community Through Theatre for Development

The importance of education in the development of a nation cannot be overstated, and the lack of educational access leaves citizens without the knowledge, skills, and expertise needed to adequately contribute to their personal development and that of their communities and nation. In Nigeria, there are about twenty million children who do not attend school. They do not have access to quality education. While some of these children are forced into child labor to support their families, some are left roaming the streets because their parents cannot afford school materials, even where primary and post-primary education are free.

It was against this backdrop that the Shanty Theatre took the initiative to highlight the need for accessible education in Adagbabiri Community of Bayelsa State, one of the most educationally deprived states in Nigeria. Shanty Theatre, based in Asaba, Delta State, is a theatre group of young theatre practitioners co-founded by Eseovwe Emakunu and Dennis Obire. We started Shanty Theatre November 2021, and its major objective is to use the theatre to engender social development in places where it is lacking by working with these communities. The Adagbabiri Community caught our attention when Eseovwe Emakunu went there with some of his former students from the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Africa, Toru-Orua, Bayelsa State, to hold a performance in honor of the Amadaowei of Adagbabiri Community.

Shanty Theatre was poised to contribute to the social development of Adagbabiri with a performance generated through a collaborative creative and educational process.

When our theatre group embarked on our journey to Adagbabiri, which is the first community a visitor from Delta State encounters when visiting Bayelsa State, we knew from our prior research and data collection that lack of educational advancement has been a debilitating issue there, especially for the young adults and children. This has also contributed to the lack of developmental stride in the community of nearly fifteen thousand people, as there is no access to healthcare, infrastructure, adequate educational facilities, and other basic amenities that should enhance the quality of life of the people. Although there are public schools in the community, about half of the young adults prefer other ventures like farming or fishing. Unfortunately, their mostly illiterate parents have not encouraged them to take education seriously; they require their children to help them sell their produce and other wares to make ends meet because they do not have the money to hire farmhands and salespersons.

The theatre for development model can drive social change by really engaging the people of various communities and proffering solutions to their challenges that plague them. Theatre for development is a type of community-based or interactive theatre practice that aims to promote civic dialogue and engagement. It can be a kind of participatory theatre that encourages improvisation and allows audience members to take roles in the performance, or it can be fully scripted and staged, with the audience simply observing. Many productions are a blend of the two.

We therefore decided to use this model to drive home the benefits and necessity of education to the people of Adagbabiri. This choice is aligned with Goal Four among the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which is “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.Shanty Theatre was poised to contribute to the social development of Adagbabiri with a performance generated through a collaborative creative and educational process that would involve both the Shanty Theatre and the people of the Adagbabiri Community.

Performers gather outside in rows with the Amadaowei and look at the camera together.

The Amadaowei of Adagbabiri Community and his chief with actors, dancers, and some members of Shanty Theatre. Photo By Precious Okuvero.

Familiarizing ourselves with the community leaders and settling in was one of the first steps we took. Our first visit was mainly for data gathering, and it gave us our first in-road and a leverage to connect more with the people of Adagbabiri. To gather data, we met with the ruler of the community, Amadaowei of Adagbabiri Community, King Alaowei Brodrick Okee. He assured us of his commitment to our course, a course he called a burden because of how the community is deprived of education. The community only has three schools: two primary schools and one secondary school. One of the primary schools is privately owned, but they all lack basic educational amenities. It is common to see school-age children roaming about the community during school hours. We were determined to play our part to entrench the importance of education in the minds of the people, first, and also to create more awareness about the lack of enough schools and the need to get the community’s out-of-school children into the classrooms.

We quickly met with the principals and heads of the schools in the community. They welcomed us with open hands and assured us of their support, as what we were coming to do would impact their work positively. Each of the schools called an emergency assembly of students for us to address them. We spoke with the students about our mission and how we would need them to help us, especially in the creative process and the show itself. We agreed on daily rehearsals, which would run for five days and culminate in a performance of drama, dance, and poetry/spoken word recitation, all with the theme of “the importance of education to nation-building.”

Five actors sit in a semicircle of chairs while a sixth stands behind the actor at the center of the formation.

Actors Performing The Oil Bill by Shanty Theatre. Directed by Ibu Genesis. Costume and makeup design by Kemefasu Thelma. Photo by Precious Okuvero.

King Alaowei had indicated that the community Civic Centre would be the venue for the performance, and the town crier had, in the evening of our first day, gone round the community to announce to everyone that there would be both rehearsals and a performance for the community the whole week.

Excitedly, the children—both students and non-students, but all of school age—trooped to the community Civic Centre for the rehearsals. Our team of dance, drama, and poetry experts grouped the participants according to their interests and set out to work.

We were working with talented but raw young people. Spoken word rehearsals focused on creative writing, confidence building, and ability to both enunciate and articulate; and the drama rehearsals worked to create a drama sequence while building the confidence and the impersonation and stage movement skills of the actors and actresses. For the dance rehearsals, the dance movements that are in the repertoire of the community were used to create a story that centered the outcomes of an educated people. The story showed the necessity for a well educated population so that the community will not be exploited.

We spent ample time during the rehearsal period educating the participants about the importance of education and how education has impacted the world positively.

Rehearsals, to us, are continuous performances, as we work with the assumption that we are already in front of an audience performing the theatrical piece. This keeps us extremely focused on giving our best during the rehearsal process; because of the short time we would be spending with the participants, we needed to prepare them to perform from day one. This worked so well, with the help of our team guiding and channeling their creative ingenuity.

For us, getting our message across to them was very important, so we spent ample time during the rehearsal period teaching the participants about the importance of education and how education has impacted the world positively. We always held a thirty-minute teaching session before and after each day’s rehearsals. These were dedicated to not only teaching them about the importance of education, but also to help shape a career path for them, as we believe in their future and the impact they are capable of making as they grow. Before rehearsals, we held seminar lectures where the co-founders spoke on these topics. The post-rehearsal sessions usually used drama as the pedagogical medium.

After all the rigorous and exciting rehearsals, the day of the performance came with so much anticipation of impact. Our cast and performers were focused on communicating the importance of education to their community. The hall was unsurprisingly filled up. The entrance of King Alaowei Brodrick Okee with his entourage set things rolling for the day. After a brief introductory speech by the spokesman of the Amadaowei, the performance began with the first spoken word/poetry recital titled “Dredge the Swamp” by Kelvin Amawei, a student of the only secondary school in the community. It was a moving recital, delivered with emotions, fluency, and precision that received an applause and a cash gift from the Amadaowei to Kelvin.

Two men sit side by side at a small table at the front of a packed audience.

The Amadaowei of Adagbabiri Community and a chief of the community watching the performance. Photo by Precious Okuvero.

The dance theatre performance was next. It was a mixture of both exhilarating dance movement and mime. It told a story of how literacy can open doors of opportunities so that the learned can make an impact in the world. The dance movements were the Indigenous traditional dance movements that are known to the people, with the trademark wiggling of the waist and vigorous, rhythmic movement of the shoulders and hands in time with the drumming and songs from the orchestra. Using the stage, the makeshift orchestra pit, and the wings as the dancing and miming areas, the twenty dancers were able to put on a performance that both communicated the message of the paramount place education should take in the policy of the community and entertained the audience.

Following immediately after the dance theatre piece was another spoken word/poetry recitation titled “A Journey to Development,” which emphasized the role education plays in the development of a community and ultimately a nation. It was recited by Angel Opuama, a secondary school student. Then, there was a contemporary dance performance by a group of young teenagers based in the community.

A troupe of dancers in formation mid-performance smile.

Dancers performing at the Adagbabiri Civic Center. Choreographed by Oyateide Peremobowei. Produced by Shanty Theatre. Costume and makeup design by Kemefasu Thelma. Photo by Precious Okuvero.

The last performance of the day was a play that used a poor theatre model, which actually signified the poor state of education in the community. The play told a story that showed how the lack of literate representatives from Adagbabiri in a government-established community that caters to oil producing communities like Adagbabiri can rob them of funds that they should be receiving to develop their community. The performance was both sobering and piercing as the youngsters put their acting skills to good effect, driving a melancholic effect into the audience as they watched their community be cheated out of the government funding that they are entitled to according to the Petroleum Industrial Act.

While we thought the climax of the day’s events was going to be the performances we put up, the reactions and feedback we got, especially from the Amadaowei, King Alaowei Brodrick Okee, was definitely a high point for us. The Amadaowei promised to lobby the government to build another primary and secondary school in the community, as the ones they have are not adequate to cater for all the school-age children. He also said he would open a scholarship fund that will be given to the best students to fund their tertiary education. He acknowledged the fact that education is indeed a cardinal part of any developed place. Therefore, he urged the people of the community to join him in a drive to increase school enrollment among the school-age children in the community. He also made a proposal to our team to make his community a permanent feature in our community theatre endeavor, as he would love to host us every year. He ended by giving the performers cash gifts.

They not only learned how to perform, but they also now see themselves as changemakers.

The children who were part of the performance were very excited, seeing the impact they made in their community. They not only learned how to perform, but they also now see themselves as changemakers because they were able to imprint the importance of education in their hearts of the people of their communities, who themselves were receptive of the messages and commended the performance.

Adagbabiri was an experience for our team, the Shanty Theatre, and we all were excited about what we were able to accomplish. For us, change-making is all we aim for, and we are motivated to do more as we help communities take decisions that engender growth and development. Theatre for development is a very potent medium and tool to drive change in any field of human interaction. It has become a very important theatrical medium in today’s world to engender development, socially, politically, and even medically. The global space needs this art form to drive the change and development that communities desperately need.

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