At the Kids Culture Conference 2019 organised by Dutch Culture (Amsterdam), the director of the Crown Troupe of Africa Segun Adefila held a keynote speech on the universality of childhood.
by Segun Adefila
Under the right condition, the arrival of a child is a thing of joy in most places. For most African marriages children are expected naturally after 9 months. Cursed, or perhaps unfortunate, is a couple unable to bring them up male and female. A child is welcomed with open arms. Now, that’s a daringly universal language. This perhaps may not be too disconnected from the fact that the arrival of a child suggests the opening of another new page of a blank book. As the child begins to grow, internal and external influences begin to come into being within and around the child. Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852), pedagogue and the father of kindergarten, asserts that “the environment is the garden while the children are the plants. The extent to which the plant in the garden blossoms is determined by the gardener”. Character formation and world views are getting shaped at this stage. The child begins to view, feel and sense the world and this begins with the immediate environment, culture and all.
“Oju merin ni n bimo, igba oju ni n wo” is a Yoruba saying that may be instructive here. It simply means, contextually, that ‘a child is the product of the fusion of four eyes but the child is nurtured or trained by two hundred eyes’. This is merely a metaphorical submission. Though birthed through the union of a father and a mother, the child is trained by society. This is because the traditional African child has multiple parental care. The child is merely a mirror. A reflection of what he or she sees. Children don’t know there are cultures outside of their own culture. It is the curiosity of the child that guides and connects the child with other cultures. Friedrich Fröbel again attests to this in this quote:“Children are like tiny flowers: They are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.”
In her speech accepting the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, the poet Wislawa Szymborska described some artists as ‘fortune’s darlings’, this being a select group of people who seek and find inspiration in the work they do. I believe I am one of those ‘fortune’s darlings’ because the challenges of doing what we do have never diminished our interest in doing what we do. I believe most of us here already know how children also help us to see some things more clearly through their prisms. In working with children, I consider it an added advantage to be guided by lores and norms of which I am a product. The most significant of these are African (Yoruba) proverbs, some of which I shall be sharing with you as we go on.
Children are special, they are unique but it is the universality of their being and by extension, our being, that comes in handy when working with them. Let us make taste a case study. From their first baby sounds, children – if not every one of them – love sweet taste. Their tongues naturally rebel against bitter or sour taste. Cakes and other confectionery serve for them better purposes than those bitter syrups and medicines they are forced to take during bouts of ailments. Other common traits of children are their quest for freedom, innocent selfishness and most importantly, the desire to play. I shall touch briefly on these three.
Freedom: though children and young adults prefer attention to neglect, the desire to be allowed to do as pleased is almost universal. This, if well managed, reveals a lot about their potentials. So caging a child cages the mind and by extension, the imagination of the child. Mind you, the child’s imagination knows no boundaries and what is life without imaginations? Sometimes allowing ourselves to be guided on a creative voyage through the imagination of children and young adults often yields more exciting experiences.
This view is canonized in a Yoruba saying: “Owo omode o to pepe, ti agbalagba o wo kengbe“, loosely meaning that “the rafter is beyond the reach of a child, just as the mouth of a gourd is too small for the hand of an adult”. Contextually, this means that though adults can do so many things children can not do, children can equally do some things that adults can not do. Children and young adults have loads to contribute to story development if given the opportunity. By trusting and allowing them to take the lead oftentimes leads to great amazing revelation. There are exceptions in some cases as experience has revealed because while some children are happy to be led, there are others who will not shy away from taking the lead. All it takes is binary trust connection: earn their trust and learn to trust them.
The second point is what I call innocent selfishness. Children tend to think and act more from what or how they feel. From their point of view. While these traits may be seen as selfish in adults, it is not always so with children. They just want their excitement. When we earn their trust by listening to their views, sharing with them and showing them more what we should be telling them, they tend to warm up to us. What I have learned from this is to sometimes let them have their way in order to make our creative voyage an easier but more robust and rewarding experience.
This desire to play comes in handy, especially when it is important to reach out to the child. Storytelling, games, dance, theatre, music, drawings and other forms of art help reach and teach the child. This is where culture plays its role to the hilt, for culture wellbeing is social wellbeing. Therefore culture curiosity, culture shock, culture adaptation or appropriation are possible experiences for the adventurous at heart. In working with children and young adults, it is not a bad idea to be guided by the culture that produced them. Now this may be problematic considering the global reality of culture hybridisation due to reasons like urbanisation, industrialisation, western education and geographic mobility of labour.
Some cultures are for reasons such as these, threatened by pop culture. But this will always be so, because it has always been so. There are no pure cultures anywhere in the world and instead of despairing over this, maybe it is an opportunity for us to learn and share and ultimately to celebrate the human culture. Therefore, doing what we do should not be taken for granted because the opportunities have never been equal. But it will not be a bad idea to make it equal, by making the arts available to all. Permit me to end my humble submission with a speech I found incisive.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister and Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Jacinda Ardern, says art should be for the many, not the few. Let me round off in her words but in doing so, I shall replace ‘country’ with ‘world’. She said: “I want to see a country where the creativity and joy that comes from the arts is available to the many, not reserved for a privileged few. I want to see a country where the arts flourish and breathe life into, well, everyday life. I want to see a country where the arts are available to us all and help us express ourselves as unique individuals, brought together in diverse communities.”
Thank you and God bless you. Ire Gbogbo.