Annual Conference of OFNC

August 29, 2006

A great weekend at the annual meeting of the Overseas Fellowship of Nigerian Christians: This year was different from others in many respects. First, the guest speaker didn’t speak on Friday as usual. His first two sessions were on Saturday morning. Friday was exclusively devoted to registration, exuberant praise from the newly constituted, youthful worship band, and a welcome address from the national chairman.

Then, the age group from 18 to 30 had a session to themselves. Actually, they were given 30 minutes, but they extended it for as long as they liked. They’ve promised to be more active in the fellowship, urged parents to remind their children of the Fellowship, etc. Everyone was really pleased. The assembly prayed for them at our prayer meeting on Sunday and encouraged them further during the closing session on Monday. They appointed representatives for each branch, and Lancaster has two representatives. I spoke to them on the way back. We’ve agreed to work together in our nationally acclaimed programme to introduce students coming in from Nigeria. Most of the 18 to 30 group were either born in this country, or have spent at least half of their lifetime here. It’s not the same for people arriving for a postgraduate programme in the UK.

I found out what was happening by reading my Braille programme. That too was a first. They’ve promised to do even more next year and they’ve even said they’d talk to me as part of the preparation for the next conference. That wasn’t all. I found that my room had been specially chosen for proximity to the meeting venue. Only problem is that the building is also occupied by several guys who have decided that they don’t much want to sleep. I can’t do that, because I’m with the prayer team.

The theme of this year’s conference was “God’s workmanship” taken from Ephesians chapter 2 v10. This year, for the first time since I’ve been attending, the main speaker wasn’t Nigerian. He’s Dr Keith Jenkins, international co-ordinator of Servant of the Lord Ministries in Nottinghamshire. He reminds us that as God’s workmanship, we ought to be totally submissive to His will. To love God means to obey His commandments. Actually, it means to seek His will in everything, even whether you’re to have coffee or tea. And the greatest commandments are to love God with our hearts, souls, minds and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. It doesn’t just mean to love God, but to love Him with everything; similarly, not just to love our neighbours, but to love them as ourselves. They were very good talks, but I found that he only ever talked about one other person, Joseph Hedgecock. I don’t know much about Joseph Hedgecock, but he only ever mentioned Mr Hedgecock’s books, only ever ralked of him as a great teacher, etc. After four talks, I started to feel that that was a little too much.

I met one of my lecturers, professor Yemi Osinbajo. He taught me at the faculty of law, University of Lagos. Now, he’s the attorney general of Lagos state, a pastor at the Redemed Christian Church of God and an emerging authority on righteousness in government. He’s doing a great job in a state with seventy percent of the lawyers in the country. In 1999, when he took office, it had the most corrupt judicial system. It’s all different now. He reminded us of the command in Genesis to “be fruitful, multiply and dominate the earth”. How can we dominate if we’re not in government? He said that God had told him, within his first few days in office that he’s supposed to be salt. Salt is ineffective in its salt shaker. It needs to come out, to be in the food, and in the same way, Christians are to make a difference in their interaction with non-christians, and not just hide in Christian circles. It was good to know that he still remembered me after 18 years.

I also heard of six year old twins who have both passed their GCSE maths. I’m jealous, because I failed mine. When I meet them, I must ask if they’ll give me lessons. I wonder what Marzique thinks of that!

August 20, 2006

My three cousins

August 20, 2006

I stepped through my front door at 10 Am on Friday morning into my overheated house and was reminded again of my cousin’s visit, and how the Lancaster weather hadn’t impressed them. Well, it was colder than on previous weeks, so we’d kept the central heating on. Now, they were on the train, headed back to London. If I lived in Nigeria, or even in London, I’d see a lot more of my family; but not in Lancaster. My first complaint was that two days was not long enough for a visit.

There were three of them this time. The oldest was 21 and the youngest 13. The 13 year old was a boy, the eldest his sister, and the 20 year old, their first cousin. The eldest studies in the States, but the others are in Nigeria. Does that sound as complicated as working out the qualifiers after the second game of the World Cup group stages?

I’d envisioned that during their first independent trip to Lancaster, we’d visit the touristy places, Williamson’s Park, the Lake District, museums, Dalton Square, and so on. I soon found out that what we enjoyed most was just catching up. So we talked, as we went for a takeaway on Wednesday, or in the Uni the next day. I learned about home, their parents, their studies, their views on life etc, and they wanted to know about me, what kept me in Lancaster, when I’d be visiting next.

Then, they turned my house the right way up. I’d done some tidying in anticipation of their arrival, but they were obviously dissatisfied with my efforts. As a bachelor, I sometimes do not feel accountable to anyone to put all my books in the study or to eat proper meals at the right time. By the time they’d finished, I could walk round my bedroom without stepping on Braille books. And as for my fridge/freezer! The raw materials have been converted to cooked food, ready for eating. I kept saying to them, ‘you’re here to enjoy yourselves’ and they kept saying ‘we are enjoying’.

So, I switched off the central heating. The television was not blaring Sky channel 201, there was no animated conversation. As I went to get my prepared breakfast, the house somehow didn’t feel right.

I still feel that two days was not long enough, but I suppose there were other family members to visit. As for me, I’m glad I took the time off to really enjoy myself. If you want to see the transformed house and well stocked fridge/freezer, I’m charging an admission fee. Hurry!

Thanks to Ore, Damola and Toba

The Selfish Giant

August 12, 2006

The selfish giant is about children playing, like they should; it’s about building walls and breaking them down; it’s about the unexpected consequences of being good and kind and friendly; it’s about change, conversion and true love.

Yes, it does have a Christian message, which surprised me, as I didn’t think Oscar Wilde was a Christian. But I’m not the judge as to whether he is a Christian or not, and even if he’s not, I can’t prevent him from writing a story with a Christian message. Apparently, he wrote it for his children. It was the first time Whirlwind Theatre has produced a play with a specifically Christian message. It’s great. For about two years, they’ve been talking about writing and producing a play based on the life of David.

I can’t help reflecting though that this has been the most challenging project the company has undertaken so far. Maybe it has to do with the fact that most of the children haven’t heard the Christian message; this was clear from the questions they asked me. They wanted to know about the boy who appeared to the giant twice. The first time, his appearance was partly responsible for the giant’s change of heart, and the second time, it was to take the (by now) old giant away. Why didn’t the giant just die like other old people, why did this mysterious boy have to take him away?

But I think it was also more than that. For one thing, there was the largest number of children this year, 38. For another, the play was more demanding of their acting skills than the previous two I’d participated in. It was tough for me too, as I also had a full part this year, unlike on previous occasions.

Yesterday evening, the children were the rowdiest I’ve ever seen them. About an hour before the final performance, I went to see if I could help the struggling carers calm them. I went into their ‘holding area’, a huge room with dressing rooms leading off. For several minutes, I urged calm, but the children were too busy talking to pay me any heed. Oh They knew I was there, and they knew why. During the process, I took hold of two ringleaders, one on each hand. That way, I could know what they were doing, but I also hoped to prevent them rushing around the room and further igniting the other children. I noticed that one of them, an older boy was constantly wriggling about. I thought he was trying to escape, but when I asked, he said that all he was doing was looking around. Interesting, as I’d asked him to be still. As we were in the centre of the room, he was having to look backwards to catch the action, which despite my instructions, was obviously too good to be missed. So I asked if this was what he did when the director asked him to be still and quiet. He stood relatively still for about half a minute and when I asked him whether it had been too difficult, he refused to answer. So I asked him again and he said he’d been quiet, because I’d asked him to. Oh well, I suppose a quiet sullen boy is better than a rampaging one.

Eventually, after about 15 minutes, I managed to get relative quiet. I urged them to focus their boundless energy on concentrating and putting up the best show possible. I don’t know if they heard me. The adults were frustrated at the end of the day; but feedback from audience members who came up to me afterwards suggests that they enjoyed the show very much.

It wasn’t all about sullen boys though. The adults too had a great time. We’d had a week of rehearsals before the children joined us. On Wednesday, after the first performance, we decided to go out for a social. So, there I was, in Pizza Marguerita, listening to a conversation between Tony Carter (an excellent clarinettist and flutist who spends his time touring with Chriss Barber’s jazz band) and Steve )the musical director whose full time job is with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales) on the best baked beans. If you’re interested, they agreed that it’s Tescos, apparently richer than most brand names. Now I know. Afterwards, Tony wanted to hear live blues and jazz, so I took him to the John O’Gaunt (pardon the spelling as I’ve never seen the sign).

On the whole, most of the children were wonderful, great fun to be with. I can’t deny that I really enjoyed this year, and it’s always a pleasure to walk through town and have people whom I don’t recognize, reminding me that we did this or that play together. After the last performance, the company gathered to give prizes to the children. Apart from their certificates, (which all received) prizes were given to 11 children. Some got prizes for their acting skills, but others for improvements over the rehearsal period, for commitment and for good behaviour. Then there were the farewells, some tearful. I watched a girl take the addresses of her new friends. Just the day before, she’d been upset because her voice wasn’t holding out and she had an important solo to sing. But I saw her just before performance, and after 24 hours of tender ministrations by her mum, she was feeling much better and ready to sing in full voice.

Watching her reminded me that our project is only for three weeks, but the children would hopefully make lifelong friendships. That’s what the Selfish Giant is about, children playing beyond the restrictions that adults place on them. It was after all the adult who built the wall and eventually took it down to allow the children play. Oh, I’m all for discipline, but the wall should be a boundary to keep children safe and away from danger, not a fence to keep them away from enjoyment.

More on the Whirlwind Children

August 8, 2006

When you tell a group of people to be quiet, you’d naturally expect the end of all noise. If that group comprises 38 children, ages 6-12, what happens is that about the third time, you notice that the frenzied activity is now reduced to shuffling feet, fidgetting, whispers and the occasional loud voice by someone who either cannot whisper, cannot be bothered, or suddenly gets excited by something.

I should have expected this, but I’d forgotten. After all, this is my third straight year as pretend actor and pretend childcarer with Whirlwind. To be fair, these are no professional actors. Whirlwind doesn’t hold auditions for the children, and I’m sure that some parents use the three week programme as cheap childcare. And we do work them hard; 10 AM to 4.30 PM, Monday to Friday, during which time they don’t even get to see the sun. Break times, lunch, … it’s all indoors, running through the various rooms of the church.

But this is no holiday. In fact, it’s not your standard end of term school play. There are no school teachers involved, though sometimes, I wish there were. They’re working with professionals … real top names in their profession, who can talk about Stanislavsky one minute and produce stunning acting the very next. Please don’t ask me who Stanislavsky is, or whether I’ve spelt his name right. All I know about him is that he has a style of writing fairy tales, and that his name has been mentioned before. So, it was a special treat when one of them came up to me and said my acting has really improved, and that I have a stillness and a presence on stage. Of course I do, when compared to the children, … or maybe it’s the fright.

But going back to the team. The other two adult actors have appeared in several plays, some on telly. The director teaches in one of those top drama schools down south and the musical director works with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. The producer, who is also building the stage set and sorting the lighting and sound has carved marvels in the past, including a caravan and a boat in “Toad of Toad Hall”. This year, he’s made a huge giant’s chair, a wall, trees, two backdrops, each of which can be rotated to represent the various seasons. If I tell you more, you’ll know the story.

We expect great things of the children, and to be honest, I think they deliver. I can already see the difference, … but then, the first performance is on Wednesday.

Children are wonderful. I can still remember the first time I heard the director bellow “members of the company, please be quiet” and I realised that no child was taking any notice. Surely I was more obedient when I was six. Then it got worse, when one day the director ordered silence and just at that instant, as though she hadn’t heard, a six year old came up to me and asked if I was all right, and would have told me about her dolls at home, her pet cat and everything else if I hadn’t reluctantly but firmly told her that the director wants silence.

When we have time, we have a great chat, and in the first few days, (probably in the first fortnight) they haven’t worked out that although they’re on school holidays, there’s hard work expected. Even if they’re acting a play, it’s not all play time. Of course there are some who have been disruptive, and who make it difficult for us and for the other children. But I have seen how they’ve changed and have learned the value of the management policy of persistence. In some cases, what the children really need is some discipline, some boundaries, and they start to respond positively.

And in case you’re wondering, I did find out about my six year old friend’s doll, pet cat, baby sister, more toys, school friends, more toys, … etc during some break times. Notice it wasn’t all in one go, because favourite toys change over time. And now I understand why Jesus wants us to welcome little children.

Theatre for Children

August 3, 2006

Next week, Whirlwind Theatre company will be staging”The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde. I’ve been a part of Whirlwind for a while now. In the last three years, I’ve been performing with the company.

Whirlwind stages theatre for and by children. As part of their programme, they hold a three week workshop which results in their summer production. Two years ago, it was “Toad of Toad hall”, and last year, “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch”.

What have I learned: First that theatre is a fascinating but highly professional occupation. You should hear the experts talking. They have their own jargon too, when they discuss breathing techniques, warm up techniques, writing and acting styles, just like we used to discuss the theories of Hobbes, Hart, Kelsen etc in the law class, or Morgenthau Fukuyama or whoever it was in international relations.

I’ve also learned that acting is great discipline for children. This year, we have over 35 kids, and I have no doubt that the production will end like past years. In the past, I watched a crowd of rowdy kids in the first days transformed into a team of buddies by the end. It’s impressive; they learn to listen for cues, watch other actors, memorize their lines, be quiet and talk at the right times. It’s really hard work, sometimes you wonder about easier and quicker ways of drumming simple instructions into their heads. But the result is staggering for those who watch the progress.

The audience merely sees another successful production. I see a little more; I hear of kids from different backgrounds, their problems at home, etc. I see how they started out, and I watch them gradually change. Last year, the final performance was concluded by tearful farewells as tough 12 year old girls sobbed openly, knowing that they would be too old to come this year. Parents also constantly report changes in the behaviour of their children. The children enjoy coming and they’re generally more disciplined.

The couple who run Whirlwind are Christians, as are one or two others who help out. The board is also mainly Christian, but during production season, they rely on help from non-Christian actors and theatre people. We pray for the children and the non-christians who are involved. Who knows, maybe one day, someone might report the influence of Whirlwind in their decision to be a Christian. In the meantime, if you want to watch their first play with a Christian message, it’s on at King’s from Wednesday 9th to Friday 11th August, each performance starting from 6-30 PM. You might even recognize one of the giant’s gardeners.