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How One Nigerian Theatre Project Turned Students into Climate Activists

The reality of climate change can no longer be ignored as its devastating effects are being felt worldwide. In Nigeria, the northern region’s desertification has caused herders to migrate to the Middlebelt and southern regions, resulting in violent clashes between pastoralists and farmers that have claimed many lives and left others permanently injured. This has caused immense hardship for the Nigerian people, as it has led to food insecurity and exacerbated food inflation, which is now threatening to leave a significant portion of the population malnourished and starving.

The issue of climate change has become a matter of great existential concern, and it is imperative that governments honor their commitments and agreements in this regard. It is equally important to involve and educate the younger generation about the dangers of climate change and engage them in the fight against it. By putting pressure on governments worldwide, we can work together to combat the environmental destruction caused by climate change, secure a brighter future for all, and ensure that our planet remains a safe and healthy place to live. One of those measures is to advocate for an end to the deforestation that has been prevalent in Nigeria the past twenty years, which has occasioned flooding in most parts of the country, especially in Lagos, Benue and in Delta, leading to the death, displacement of people, and destruction of properties. This was also what spurred us at Shanty  Theatre to focus a performance on the challenges of deforestation.

Toward this end, Shanty Theatre, in collaboration with Anwai Primary School, recently launched a climate change campaign aimed at students of Dennis Osadebey University, Asaba. It was a creative process that sought not only to educate the students about what climate change is and its devastating effects on their lives and future but also to empower them with the right knowledge so that they would be part of the global advocacy led by young activists such as Greta Thunberg. With this knowledge, they can put more pressure on the government of Nigeria and governments all over the world, which have the power to instigate lasting change in the fight to rescue our planet from the devastation of climate change.

A group of students dance on stage.

Students of Anwai Primary School. Photo by Precious Ekuvero.

Working with the youngsters and teachers of Anwai Primary School was both tasking and interesting as we guided the children in creating a stage performance. The first part of the process was to decipher how to effectively and efficiently communicate this all-important message while still maintaining the entertainment value of in the performance. We settled on creating a play that had trees as some of the characters, although humans played the roles. The trees advocated for their own survival from the encroachment of humans, a choice that highlighted their immense contribution to the ecosystem of the Earth and its preservation.

The performance, titled Tree Talk, is a short dance drama that tells the story of how the trees, which have been at the receiving end of humans’ deforestation drive in the name of industrialization and civilization, decided to revolt against humans in order to save both themselves and the planet. The revolt, however, was quickly squashed by the superior human technology of the bulldozer. This caused a huge flood that wiped out a whole community of humans.

The project was a collaborative creative process that involved both the teachers and students chipping in with their own ideas on the plot of the play and how the performance should be. The students responded impressively to the opportunity to be part of the creative process, contributing great ideas that shaped the overall concept of the performance. Making them part of the creative process helped bring out the latent ingenuity in them and heightened their enthusiasm towards the objectives of the performance.

The creative process for Tree Talk involved an extensive teaching process about climate change for the students who previously had no idea about what climate change is and how it affects them.

Creating and staging the intersection of dance and acting brought to the fore the critical role trees play on our planet. Trees function as indispensable allies in the fight against climate change by regulating the climate, preserving biodiversity, and providing valuable ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, that is, absorbing carbon dioxide, storing carbon in their biomass to help mitigate climate change. Trees also reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, regulate local and global temperatures, moderate extreme weather events, enhance the resilience of ecosystems to climate change impacts, and support carbon cycling and storage in soil. Trees play a critical role in maintaining the health and stability of the planet. Protecting and restoring forests, as well as promoting sustainable land management practices, are essential strategies for mitigating climate change and building a more resilient and sustainable future for all.

The creative process for Tree Talk involved an extensive teaching process about climate change for the students who previously had no idea about what climate change is and how it affects them. Also, they were taught how to use the performing arts to communicate social and environmental issues. The rehearsal sessions were an interesting collaborative process between members of the team of Shanty  Theatre, the students, and the teachers of Anwai Primary School. The students were not only talented but were willing learners, which made the process quite easy for us, especially the choreography.

Being in a school setting helped the teaching and rehearsal process. One of the classrooms in the school was turned into our rehearsal room. The teachers, who we had given different topics on climate change to research, took turns teaching the students what they’ve learned. These topics included what climate change is, the causes of climate change, the effect of climate change on the Earth, how it affects us directly and indirectly, and what we should do to turn the tide on climate change and help save our planet.

It was an opportunity to use the medium of the theatre to communicate, educate, and recruit climate activists, who, having understood the imminent danger the world is in through the performance the students put up, would take bold steps to become advocates
 

After the teaching sessions, which were quite engaging, with the students asking a lot of questions, we dived into the rehearsal proper. Teaching them basic impersonation skills was quite easy, as they were naturals. We, however, added our professional touch to their acting skills, teaching them dance movements, stage movements, interpersonal stage relationships, non-verbal communication skills, and character interpretation. This set the tone for us to rehearse the dance drama performance.

The energy and synergy displayed during the rehearsal was carried into the performance proper, as the students displayed a near flawless understanding of their roles, showcasing their acting and dance skill to communicate the central theme of the dangers of climate change and deforestation to both the environment and people living in it. The stage performance, which took place at the Nuel Ojei Hall, Dennis Osadebey University, Anwai, Asaba, was attended by students of the university and members of different faculties in the university. The performance was both humorous and poignant, eliciting cheers of approval from the audience who enjoyed the performance and embraced the lessons it communicated to them. It was an opportunity to use the medium of the theatre to communicate, educate, and recruit climate activists, who, having understood the imminent danger the world is in through the performance the students put up, would take bold steps to become advocates of environmental friendly policies and investment from both government and private organizations around the world.

The head teacher of Anwai Primary School, Mrs. Somtochukwu Adigwu, was elated to watch her students as they performed. After the performance, she was full of praise about what the students were able to achieve and the worthiness of being part of the very important and urgent drive to raise awareness about climate change and how it affects us as humans. She remarked that the students are now climate champions, and she will do all she can to help them sustain the drive as young environmental activists.

They’ve also found out that their voices cannot be ignored, irrespective of how young they are, when they use theatrical performance to communicate.
 

The teachers of the school, who were also pleasantly surprised at how adept their students were during the performance, also praised them for putting up such a show that is both educative and entertaining. They commented on their relative lack of knowledge of the effect of climate change and were thrilled to have been educated extensively as part of the performance process that has shown light into the dangers ahead if the right steps are not taken to combat climate change.

The last lap of our collaboration with Anwai Primary School was to establish a dramatic and literary club that would help the students have a platform to hone their skills in theatrical performance and increase their interest in literary art. This club would be headed by the English Language teacher, Ms. Sophia Awele. This dramatic and literary club was important for the children who had realized the immense power of the arts to speak about important issues that affect them, to raise awareness, and to call for the amelioration of these issues. They’ve also found out that their voices cannot be ignored, irrespective of how young they are, when they use theatrical performance to communicate.

A group of primary school students pose for a picture outside.

Students of Anwai Primary School performing Tree Talk at Nuel Ojei Hall, Dennis Osadebey University, Asaba. Costumes and makeup by Anita Amoma, Set design by Dennis Obire. Photo by Precious Ekuvero.

Using their experience from the creative process that birthed Tree Talk the students affirmed their readiness to develop other performances that deal with issues that affects them, thereby building a catalogue of performances that other students coming after them would learn from. This will further enhance their creativity and performance skills. Shanty Theatre promised to come back in quarterly to teach them more theatrical skills and serve as a technical support to the newly formed dramatic and literary club.

Also, a climate change activist squad was formed, comprised of both students and teachers of Anwai Primary School. The head teacher, who formed it, is the head of the squad. They have the sole objective of championing and advocating for sustainable and renewable energy as an alternative energy source to the government, organizations, and even individuals. We all have a role to play to save our planet from the impending disaster that the continuous burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes—which release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—will surely bring upon the earth.

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