This Nigerian stage play was among the highlights at the just concluded Ubumuntu Arts Festival, where it was staged on the closing night.
Chibok Girls tells the familiar story of the over 276 girls abducted from their school in the North-East Nigerian town of Chibok by Islamist militant group Boko Haram in 2014.
Some of the girls have since returned home after either escaping from, or being released by their captors, but a large number is still in captivity.
It is this story that the Nigerian cast for Chibok Girls brought to the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, which also drew performance troupes from fifteen other countries.
The play is written and directed by Wole Oguntokun, a successful Nigerian playwright, poet, stage and film director. Oguntokun is the artistic director of Renegade Theater, a leading theater troupe in Nigeria.
It features actors Kehinde Bankole, Leelee Byoma, Meg Otanwa, Rotimi Fakunle and Joshua Alabi alongside the Renegade Theatre Ensemble.
The production is largely based on actual accounts of some of the victims that managed to escape captivity, and who the Renegade Theater team extensively debriefed. Their stories are delivered in the form of monologues. The play also goes further to incorporate the views of people directly affected by the activities of Boko Haram, testimonies of parents of the abducted girls, and disclosures by aid and humanitarian workers.
Wole Oguntokun, who wrote and produced the play, and who accompanied the cast to Rwanda says:
“It’s very easy to close our eyes to violence happening in real time just a few hundred miles away to real people, while we pretend it has nothing to do with us.
However, one young girl violently taken from her bed and turned into a child bride or sex slave for some demented terrorist is a colossal issue, and there are hundreds, maybe thousands of girls in this situation now. The kidnaps didn’t start with Chibok.”
Oguntokun studied Law at university and holds two Masters’ degrees, in Law and in Humanitarian and refugees studies.
However the play seeks to shine a spotlight on a wide spectrum of social issues; forced abduction and marriage, murder, post traumatic stress disorder, corruption in Internally Displaced People’s camps, child soldiers, and the issue of child soldiers/child brides, among others.
Leelee Byoma was part of the cast for Chibok Girls that travelled to Kigali for the festival. An actor for TV, movies and stage, it was her first time in Rwanda:
“This is such an exciting period for me, and I think Kigali is very beautiful. Chibok Girls is a play that we first performed in 2015 and so it was such an honor to be invited to come do it at the Ubumuntu Arts Festival. I’m an actor and I worked with the director and producer of the play on the first performance. He was the one who was invited to bring his play here at the festival. He got in touch with me and a few other actors, we started rehearsing and here we are.”
The first time the play was staged in Lagos, three of the abducted girls that had managed to escape were part of the cast.
“They were right there on stage and it was overwhelming,” Byoma recounts.
“They can’t be everywhere to tell their stories and it just feels really special for me to be able to channel that information and be a voice for them. That’s what is really special for me about this play. The monologues we perform are true life accounts of the girls. We all know the facts; a certain number of girls were abducted but what the playwright did was get in touch with some of the girls who were abducted and managed to escape to give their real life accounts with all the little details to fill in the blanks for us.
Even while we knew the story, a lot of us were just overwhelmed and couldn’t really understand or grasp what happened. How do you abduct all those girls at the same time?
So the girls were able to fill in all these blanks for us and give us a proper account of what it was that happened. And that’s how this play was written.”
Just like Byoma, it was Meg Otanwa’s first time in Rwanda. The Nigerian actress explained that her first impression of Rwanda was the cleanliness and the views over the hills at night.
“It’s just so refreshing to meet other Africans because we are one. It’s unfortunate that most Africans don’t get to explore other African countries.
Like I said it’s my first time in Rwanda but it shouldn’t be because Nigeria is not far from here. I should come visit Rwanda and Rwandans should come visit Nigeria. We should draw closer and get to know ourselves and our cultures and our languages better. So I’m glad that I got this opportunity to come here, to meet with the beautiful people of Rwanda.”
Acting in Chibok Girls came as a deeply humbling experience for Otanwa, having met some of the girls in person back in Lagos:
“I got the rare opportunity to hear from them, straight from their mouths, looking in their eyes. So I feel honored to be able to go out there and tell their story. It’s a very heart wrenching story that takes you to a very deep place and you just begin to wonder; we’re all human beings, why do we do this to ourselves?
As a story teller and an actor this is all I can do –tell stories just to educate people, and that is what I hope to continue to do because I believe it’s my own way of contributing to humanity; that when you take this course of action, these are the likely repercussions.
When you begin to toe the line of hatred and extremism, negative things like these will be the side effects. So I’m really honored to be a part of the team that tells the story of the Chibok Girls.”
Otanwa however argues that a lot more still needs to be done to address the plight of the girls still in capitivity, sighting the famous #BringBackOurGirls twitter hash tag that raised the initial awareness about the plight of the girls.
“Today we are here in Rwanda, but we look forward to staging the play in other places to convey the story. We need to remind people that it’s not over because the girls are not all back so we need to continue to talk about it.
They are our sisters and they are people’s daughters. We’re all one at the end of the day. We all gathered here to partake in one form of information giving or the other. Nobody is here to do entertainment just for the fun of it. It’s all for the purpose of humanity.”
In the wider scheme of things, the play seeks to highlight the continued violations of many of the fundamental human rights of females in Nigeria, just like in any other part of the world. It also seeks to combat trafficking in human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation and to help start conversations as to the adequacy of the measures being taken to prevent violence especially towards young people.”