‘We are a people of storytellers’

Eugenia Abu on Nigeria’s literary success story

Eugenia Abu, for 17 years a news anchor on national television, is one of Nigeria’s most recognisable faces. She now divides her time between writing books – poetry, fiction and non-fiction – and teaching and mentoring.. In the Blink of an Eye is the collection of essays that won her the ANA/NDCC Flora Nwapa prize in 2008. Her collection of poems, Don’t look at me like that, also garnered much acclaim. Eugenia Abu recently visited NAI to talk about literature and share her views on her long career in the mass media.

On top of writing books, teaching and mentoring, you also have weekly columns in two national newspapers. How do you find the time?
‘I wish I had the answer to this myself, finding time is difficult. I think it is passion that drives it. You know, when you love your work you do it without thinking about it.   I tend to get a lot of work done in the night. I dedicate two nights a week to writing until very late and I get a lot of work done then. The other one is timing and balance ... I just concluded the children’s writing workshop a day before I set out on this trip. It is called The Treasured Writers, for children aged 7-14 years, and it happens one week every summer.’

Talking about your literary boot-camp for children, in the age of text messaging and social media, are young people in Nigeria still interested in traditional forms of reading and writing?
‘Young people are not reading as much as they used to, I agree with that. But when I teach, I teach 7-14 year-olds. It’s important to catch them young when they are like a sponge – whatever you tell them they are interested. I tell them that it is important to read books because you need to be able to read well in order to write well. They are also very imaginative and they write the most brilliant sentences and are so inspiring. So, together, we learn from each other during the summer workshops, I enjoy it very much.’

Nigeria has produced a number of top international writers in recent years. Are there elements in Nigerian culture that make your country such fertile ground for literary talent?
‘I think it can be attributed to the energy of Nigeria, the culture and the communities. The culture in my place (Abuja) is totally different from the culture in another person’s place. But there are also things that bind us together as a people: our food, the way we eat it, the way we visit people who have had children, our community spirit, our dances, our traditional festivals. We also have oral tradition – a lot of stories about animals, for example, which our grandfathers and grandmothers told us by moonlight. That is not lost. These stories are still being told to our children. We are a people of storytellers.’

You also have a passion for mentorship, something you have described as a fast-track to building human capacity in Africa. Could you say something about your philosophy regarding mentorship?
‘In Nigeria there is a tradition that when you move away to live in another city or to get married, they give you a cousin to come with you to learn from you. The young cousin goes to school but lives with you and learns from you: how to receive guests, not to be rude – it is a whole new school. At Christmas, Easter she goes home to her family. This is a traditional form of mentorship. But also in modern society I find that a lot of young graduates need also, apart from what they learn in university, to learn from life, from work. So I take on quite a lot of young people, maybe about eight a year. They spend two to three months with me and learn to organise an office space, to work in a multicultural environment, to deal with office hierarchy and to manage someone who is your boss. I encourage them to read, I buy them books and pay for IT training and leadership courses.‘

Who do you turn to yourself when you need guidance?
‘What I find is that I reenergise through my family. And as young girl I adored my father, I thought he was the most educated, best-looking man in the entire world. My father was an educationist and had a big library, which gave me the opportunity to read a lot as a very young girl. My mom also was a very special woman, who was constantly giving. She was a nurse. I found that she was able to connect with a lot of people and give back to society. My own immediate family now is very supportive and without them it would have been very hard for me to achieve a lot of the things I have done.’   

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