By Anote Ajeluorou
Nigeria’s foremost culture centre Terra Kulture has opened a new frontier in developing theatre in the country. Two Fridays ago it took theatre to the grassroots and away from highbrow Victoria Island and Ikoyi. It was not for nothing that Terra Kulture boss Mrs. Bolanle Austen-Peters was awarded Theatre Personality of the Year 2015 by Lagos State chapter of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) a week ago. She earned the accolade after successfully thrilling theatre-goers with the magic of Saro the Musical in two consecutive years.
Her new project is to take theatre to local communities and showcase it in public spaces, particularly secondary schools, and preach messages of awareness on social problems. Bishop Howells Memorial Grammar School, Bariga, was the first stop of this open space theatre. Directed by dance expert Gbenga Yusuf, Batonga highlights the plights of young people who are given away to supposedly rich uncles or aunts for employment or education. However, they consequently fall victims to all forms of unscrupulous machinations of these co-called helpers.
Abike (Mary Oluwo), 14, is one of Olu’s only daughters. But Olu (Femi Omoregha), a carpenter, is too poor to cater for his children’s education and upkeep. Tachel (Dolapo Phillips) is the village ‘agent’ who recruitment children for Auntie (Bola Atotiyebi), a rich Lagos lady, who promises to give Abike a job through which she can get education in the city. Olu happily agrees, and sees the bright future he is not able to give Abike, with the kind help of this benefactor. But this is all a ploy. But Auntie does not have the intention to send any of the wards she receives to any school. In fact, she needs hands to help out in her food and sundry businesses. These young ones are her slave workers. She drives them crazy to earn her handsome income while she continues as high society lady whom everyone respects.
It is to this nasty slave labour that poor Abike arrives in the city and her young world collapses, with her dream of getting employment scuttled. She is trapped; she does not know her way and cannot even escape, with the rigour of the work she has to do. She wakes up at 5am and works till late night. They hawk their madam’s wares from dawn till dusk. She and her colleagues-in-suffering have very little to eat for all the hard work they do. They get beaten with the slightest error they commit. In fact, they get beaten for performing their tasks. Her first baptism into her new home is instructive, as her slave mistress is unrelenting in hauling her around to drum her rules into her small head.
After six months Olu is worried that his daughter has not sent word or received any payment for the work her Abike is supposed to be doing in the city. He invites Mrs.???’s local recruit to explain things to him. But she has no explanation either. She is indebted to Auntie and is in quandary on what to do. She attempts to make light of the situation and seeks to ingratiate herself on Olu, but he rebuffs her and insists on having his daughter back. In frustration, Olu sets out to Lagos to find his daughter, with Auntie’s local recruit.
Meanwhile, Abike has been going through a different kind of hell. She goes out to hawk her boss’ wares, but she is unable to sell off everything early to return home. She dares not return with unsold wares else she would be lynched by her boss. She keeps late and so falls into the hands of notorious Lagos area boys, who help themselves to her wares and, of course, rape her as well. Faced with her dilemma, Abike then runs away and becomes a street urchin. When her father arrives to claim her, Auntie cannot account for her; Abike has been gone for weeks, and she can’t be bothered about her whereabouts. The local recruit is arrested while Auntie isn’t, which is strange.
Mr. Olu combs through the streets of Lagos to find her daughter. It proves aimless, but he persists and eventually finds her and takes Abike home. Abike has a second chance to restart her disrupted life again. She settles back in school, gets some of her fellow colleagues at the slave camp to start educating other would-be victims and parents of the danger of sending their children and wards to unknown persons in faraway places who offer, most of the time, unsolicited help in the form of employment or education. It’s all a mirage designed to scuttle otherwise blossoming futures.
Poverty is at the heart of the malaise of young slave labour that compels parents to send their children to unknown destinations and uncertain future that ultimately ruins them. Batinga is a timely intervention, as it sounds a note of warning. It warns parents not to mortgage their children’s future in the name of a better life in the hands of strangers. It is their responsibility to educate their children; they should not shirk it less they regret it, as Olu doess.
Great technical effort was made to perform Batonga in the school hall. It was a challenge but it was pulled off with aplomb. The dance choreography wowed the students to no end and they applauded the sheer theatrics of the performance while the message was being passed. They were so excited and it showed. The narrator (Olufunmi Olajoyegbe) initially had difficulty projecting with the microphone; when she dropped it she became more audible. Although there was little time to publicise the show, the school hall was filled with students. Given the number of schools in that complex, better publicity would have made the hall too small for attendees.
Corporate bodies looking to do sensible corporate social responsibility, Batonga offers such unique window of opportunity. Although Ford Foundation is partnering with Terra Kulture, a lot of funds is still needed, according to the centre’s General Manager Mr. Joseph Omoibom, who appealled for more support so as to take the gospel of ending slave labour of young people to as many schools and neighbourhoods as possible. Already requests have started coming, as some schools in Maryland, Ikeja, neighbourhood have requested for the play to be taken to them.
This is a good way to start, Omoibom stated excitedly, shortly after the Bariga performance. He added that the cast and crew needed to be encouraged, as the current production was held with a shoestring budget, as the performers’ passion and commitment was what carried it through. Although a not-for-profit initiative, Omioibom said the performers needed to be rewarded for their effort.