Students of Government Junior College Maroko and Ilado Community Junior Secondary School made their way to the ZODML Community Library yesterday to meet Ayodele Olofintuade, author of children's book Eno's Story, for October's Junior Secondary Reading Programme (JSRP). Shortlisted for 2011 Nigeria Prize for Literature, the book (her first published by Cassava Republic) treats a difficult subject - children being accused of witchcraft.
Olofintuade, aside from writing, works as an editor and also supports literacy and education through her regular book donations to a mobile library for children. At the beginning of the session the students seemed shy, but she was able to engage them by reading Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg. They were particularly animated at key parts of the story, such as the well-known verse "I meant what I said and I said what I meant/An elephant's faithful one-hundred percent!". The students were each asked to mention one thing they had discovered about the author through Internet research. Born in the 1970s in Ibadan, Oyo State into a family of "voracious readers" and storytellers, Olofintuade began writing at eight years old. She had always known that she would be a writer, and "never wanted to be anything else." She would spend summer holidays with her grandparents, and learnt to speak Yoruba fluently as a result of reading Ireke Onibudo and other Fagunwabooks to her grandfather. She took writing seriously while her first son was growing up, explaining that she "wanted him to read stories of [her] childhood, stories [she] enjoyed."
The students read different sections of Eno's Story aloud, while Olofintuade asked questions about the characters and the plot. The students sat around her, answering questions enthusiastically and laughing. Towards the end of the session, three students – Abochi Patience, Ibikunle Elizabeth and Kalu Gift – had their extensions of the end of Eno's Story (which they had worked on at school) selected as the top three from the group. The three students each read their continuations aloud for the audience, and the author was called upon to judge the strength and creativity of their efforts. Kalu Gift’s was selected as the best, while Abochi Patience and Ibikunle Elizabeth came second and third respectively. All three were given gifts of books as a reward for their hard work. After taking pictures with the winners, Olofintuade continued to answer the students' questions about Eno's Story and her writing in general. Eno's Story was inspired by a place in Eastern Nigeria where people were dying of HIV/AIDS. Because there was no healthcare, the people blamed the deaths on children, who were seen as the most powerless group of people in society. When asked about what obstacles she faced while writing the book, she noted that "putting [herself] in the head of a child and trying to understand their unique thoughts" was the biggest challenge. She shared that her surroundings are her inspiration for writing, and her older son is her greatest critic. A student asked about the advice she would give to aspiring writers. "Never stop writing. The more you write, the better you become," she asserted. She also encouraged them to read often, saying "if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader. Read more than you write, and it becomes easier."
Each student was presented with a take-home gift, which included Cyprian Ekwensi's The Drummer Boy, a ZODML-branded T-shirt, and writing materials. After this, Nkechi Nkechinyere, ZODML's Chief Librarian, took the students on a tour of the library. You can follow Ayodele Olofintuade on Twitter.