By Anote Ajeluorou, Shaibu Hussein and Florence Utor
Once upon a time, children artistes in various spheres abound in Nigeria and exhibited the sheer innocence of their crafts to the delight of all. But that is now history. The future, it seems, no longer belongs to the children, as no discernible outlet is available for them to blossom in any chosen art form. How did the creative firmament become bereft of children? What happened to the famed children prodigies in the land? As Nigeria celebrates Children’s Day this Sunday, The Guardian went to town to find answers to the eclipse of creative muse among young Nigerians
ONE of the children artistes that ruled Nigeria’s cultural scene in the 1990s is Ikike Ufford, the prodigious xylophone performer, from Calabar. Now an adult and lecturer in dance and ethno-musicology at the Theatre Arts Department, University of Calabar, Ufford has come full circle in a career that started at three.
He looks back to those days with great fondness and satisfaction and is grateful for the opportunity his music-loving and music-making family afforded him from that early period when most children would play away their lives. Ufford found music-making his own form of play and he kept onto it religiously, with the result that he was able to take on the nation at large.
Recounting his exploits in the early days, Ufford said he started performing with his family of musicians when he was three, a traditional musical group known till date as Ikon Afrikanna, a group still being maintained and led by his father in Calabar.
Ufford’s moment of fame came in 1988 at the National Festival of Arts in Lagos, when, with his family’s Ikon Afrikanna, he was to show his uncommon dexterity on national stage and the skill of a child-artiste was stamped on the soul of a nation.
He became the toast, and no national function held without him displaying his prodigious talent to thrill important dignitaries, including the then military heads of government.
It was such euphoric moment for children generally and Ufford in particular that a talent nurtured in some remote parts in Cross River State took the nation by a frenzy all its own.
As Ufford recalls, “I was opportune to meet with other drummers at the time. It was an important point in my life; it was great because as a performer, I felt accomplished doing what I was doing then. It was especially fulfilling performing for heads of government”.
NOW, he is not just teaching undergraduates the skills that made him famous, he also has a small children’s troupe under the supervision of his father’s Ikon Afrikanna group through which he is imparting skills to children just as he got from his parents, arguing that gifted child artistes should be encouraged to excel.
“I’m in academic, an environment that is restricted. Children that are gifted should not be hidden; they should be allowed to expose their natural talent; they should be allowed to express the natural gifts they have and given the foundation in which to excel.
“The excuse that such talents would derail them from school is not tenable. Rather, they should be given proper guidance and direction by their parents, just like me,” he counseled.
Ufford is, however, not happy that Nigeria is not producing child artistes of note anymore. He is saddened that while a few child artistes abounded in the late 1980s to the 1990s, the same cannot be said at the dawn of the new millennium with its online, hi-tech attraction.
Ufford retorts, “I feel bad because that was the age when I became known. I was born into a family of performers. Parents should allow their children to experiment from that early age. If children started at that early age, chances are that they will bubble in school if they are controlled and guided well”.
Clearly, the 1990s were the golden years of child prodigies in the country; they were also the years when military rule was in vogue. Twelve years now of democratic rule is yet to throw up any child prodigy of note. Was the military era then more favourable to cultural and artistic expression?
Ufford is uncertain how to attribute it although he gives a pass mark to the military with their high taste for entertainment and merry-making in which period too, he says, troupes were better encouraged.
“I don’t want to attribute the dearth of child artistes to democratic dispensation or politics, but during the military, cultural performances and troupes got more enhanced and received more recognition. There was more recognition for troupes, especially children’s troupes.”
A difference he spots is that while it was difficult for artistes to travel outside to perform during the military era, it isn’t so now for those who have the contacts to go abroad to perform.
He is, however, quick to add that Cross River State, where he is based, has been very responsive to cultural matters, whether from child troupes or adult ones, as they variously receive patronage from the state government.
Although not particularly thrilled that governments generally have not fared much in providing enhanced environment for artistes of various hues to excel, Ufford is optimistic that more could and would be done to enhance the profile of the Nigerian artist so he can truly represent the nation as its true ambassador to the world.
ALSO, another child-prodigy, Treasure Obasi, perhaps the only one in recent memory, and winner at Zuma International Film Festival 2010, played the lead role, Sharon, in the movie, Champion of Our Times.
On her feat in a contest with the like of Clarion Chukwura, 12 years old little Obasi states, “I was very happy. I was excited because I was earlier nominated for the AMAA awards 2010 but I didn’t win. I cried. I wasn’t feeling too happy and mum said my time would come. I hoped and believed and I believed in God.
“So when Uncle Chidi called me and told me about the Zuma awards, I was very excited and I truly believed that my time had come. Then we came to this office (in the Surulere area of Lagos) and we were given the plaque. I understand that they are still going to send the certificate with my name on it. I have not shown my classmates the plaque but I have told my best friends and they have been so happy for me”.
Obasi narrates how she got into movies before her recent accomplishment thus: “I got onto the set of the movie, Champion of Our Time through an audition and through the director of my debut movie Save the Tears for Tomorrow. Before the main audition, I was given my main speech, which was very long and frightening at first. I had not done anything like that before. I had to go and learn it and on that day I said it without my script.
“I featured in Save the Tears for Tomorrow and it was quite good by the grace of God and when Uncle Chidi Nwokeabia (co-producer of Champion of Our Times) said he needed someone to play the part of Sharon, I was recommended and they called my mum and we came and they just threw some questions at me. I answered them quite well and that was it. I took the long speech they gave me home, I worked with my mum and brother on it and it worked out. So that was how I got into the set”.
Little Obasi has a Nigeria dream of her own in her heart and what she expects from other children like her. “My dream Nigeria will be a place where every single person in the world would love to be,” she states.
“My dream Nigeria is a place where poverty, illiteracy, political instability, agricultural discouragement, and so on will never be heard of let alone experience. My dream Nigeria is the Promised Land, just to sum it all up.
“I will tell them to be outspoken. I will tell them not to be shy. They should also be bold and confident and they should respect their elders.”
A Groomer of children artistes and organiser of children’s reality TV show, Kids Alone, Mrs. Temitope Duker, sees the absence of child prodigies in the artistic firmament as low appreciation of the outcome of children’s talents as artistes, and says children artistes were yet to receive the sort of cult followership that should command commercial success to encourage producers. And what has happened over time, especially in Nigeria’s Nollywood, where attempts were made at the inception of the home video industry to feature children in films, is that the success of such films, whether in English and Yoruba languages, has raised doubts about continuing with using children in commanding roles.
Although she is dogged, passionate and committed to raising child artistes, Duker does not see so bright a future for them, especially in view of poor corporate support to sustain programmes and projects children’s programmes like Kids Alone. The fourth edition of Kids Alone is due to start in a few months but Duker is shopping hard for a title sponsor in spite of various children’s product makers in the country. She attributes their reluctance to support children’s programmes to various factors.
First, she argues that children’s programmes are very sensitive because of the age grade required and that companies are wary not to create needless controversies around their products.
With a reality show like hers where children are camped for a few days, it becomes even more challenging. Also, the time-belt for children’s programmes on Nigeria’s TV is hugely unfavourable and a clear disincentive for corporate sponsors to jump in the fray.
With a time-belt of barely three hours a day in our 12 hours waking moment, Duker notes the disadvantage such timing is for sponsors as the viewing audience is not guaranteed to warrant exposure for products and services.
In other words, children would hardly be back from school, usually 4 or 5pm, before their time-belt is over at 7pm, at which time parents would not want their children to be glued onto TV. This, according to her, creates serious disincentive for children’s programmes to continue to survive no matter how great is the idea behind it.
Then, there is the issue of poor power supply in the country and its relationship with programme viewership. Duker states that these are challenges for title sponsors, who are not always sure the programmes achieve enough visibility for their products and services.
The future for child actors, she says, is bleak. Not even Africa Movie Academy and Awards (AMAA), which boasts of young adults instead of child actors for inability of the film industry to throw up child actors for celebration.
THE same goes for Ita Hozaife, organiser of a recreative progarmme for children during summer breaks called Act 1 Summer kids Camp. She argues, “If Justin Timberlake and Usher Raymond were Nigerians, both famous American entertainers who started their phenomenal careers before they knew what a shaving stick was, my guess is they would never have been discovered.
This could be accredited to three things: the gross neglect of a target audience by the entertainment industry, which seems to be guilty of the “children should not be seen nor heard.” Opinion: an entertainment industry, which is still light years away from structure and stability; and parents who would rather their kids be entertained by foreign child-stars than nurturing and allowing their kids to be the stars.
“Like any other part of the world, we have our fair share of young talents; I’ve seen them at school talent shows perform like professionals. But the school talent show is where it ends. They don’t get to live out their dreams like Justine Bieber. We haven’t given the ‘OK’ or created a platform for them to do so.
“With a population of over 160 million (24 per cent is said to be under the age of 18), I am surprise and sad we still can't boast of an indigenous TV channel dedicated to kids and teens; we're fine with Disney and Nickelodeon (or too lazy to create our own). It’s time to create a platform that would not only showcase and celebrate the young and talented but also engage, inspire and empower them. We owe it to them”.
ALSO, groomer of child artists in the visual field, Mr. Biodun Omolayo sees parents as the problem why child artists are scarce on the scene. He says, “My answer might be strange to you because I’m not the kind of person who believes that the government has to do something for you. They have their own responsibilities as well like making sure electricity and other amenities are put in place.
“Government officials are human beings too and they need people to assist them with creative ideas because some of them are actually bereft of ideas and if they see that what you are doing is positive, they may even come to you for help. That is why you see them calling the likes of Richard Mofe-Damijo, Oke Bakkasi and many others as commissioners in their cabinets, because these ones have made a mark in their chosen careers so the government is even using them to launder the image of the states they serve.
“I will rather blame the parents for the children not being successful at their talents because the parents are the first contact and the first government that a child knows; they should put everything in place in terms of nurturing children to achieve their full potential.
“If, for instance, they notice a particular interest in their child say, in football and they are not footballers, let them look for a footballer or a professional in that field and allow the child to spend time with that person to learn from him. If the child sees that someone is interested and responsible for growing that talent, he will want to do as well as his mentor. But if the parents discourage the child because their knowledge of his interest is limited or they have not even seen someone who is making it in that field, they will kill his dream and he will not go far.
“When parents notice talents in their children let them encourage the child and begin to train him or her on how to manage that creativity because being creative is not enough. You must learn to turn that creativity into business because that becomes the product and then you must learn how to maintain your customers by giving them the best products and customer service. When you have done this, you won’t have to blame the government for not supporting.
“Your parents may have a hold on you when you are young but a time comes when you are all grown up and must take decisions on your own and when that time comes, it will be wrong for you to continue blaming the government or your parents because you are also part of the society you blame. This is the same attitude the people in government have. They blame past governments but let them do what they can do instead of wasting time talking about the problems we already know.
“No time is too late to start living your dreams. The only thing is, if you need training, education or a mentor, do so and see what you can do.
“For instance, my first degree was not in Fine Arts but at a point I decided to take my own destiny into my hands and I went ahead to arts and thought of how I was going to turn it into business and that is what I’m doing up till now without regret; we can’t wait for government for everything”.