Friday, 22nd October 2021
In the sleepy back neighbourhood of Poor in Makurdi, at the RCM Primary School, there was a lot of excitement. The teachers, pupils, and invited pupils from NKST Primary School, Yaikyor and Promise of God International, Poor waited with bated breath for the arrival of Benue State’s First Lady and Founder, Eunice Spring of Life Foundation (ESLF) H.E Dr Eunice Ortom, who was the key reader at the 6th ESLF Annual Literacy Project. The setting for the reading was under the shade of a big tree just in front of the administrative block. There were a few mats on which the children would sit, some seats for dignitaries facing them, and then other seats under a canopy for additional guests and teachers. The picture was reminiscent of a village square scene or that all-familiar background for Tales by Moonlight, the popular NTA programme that most children watched in those days. The main components of the literacy project for 2021, done in collaboration with the Benue Investment and Property Company (BIPC), was a spelling bee, a read aloud and the presentation of a cash award to Joy Abahi Amuh, the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) best graduating student of Benue State origin (2020).
I was previously involved in the ESLF literacy project, with my book Alom, Kpev and the Revenge Plan read at the 2019 edition. For this edition, I had come in on the invitation of the Programmes Manager, Mr Tine Agernor, and we had been running around, doing the runs to ensure everywhere was set. The previous day, I had been involved in another event for the Association of Nigerian Authors and SEVHAGE, honouring Dr Charles Iornumbe and Sam Ogabidu. That was done and I was really looking forward to this new day. I was also glad that I would be seeing the First Lady as I had not seen her since 2019, when she had been a significant presence at our Benue Book and Arts Festival, which SEVHAGE collaborated with ESLF to do, to critical acclaim. She gave us great support then and has continued to be a major patron of the arts in the state, but back to the event…
After a while, there was a rush as people went towards the entrance. The air was just right with the children buzzing with their excitement as the anchor for the event, Mr. Shima Ajikwa, a senior aide to the First Lady kept them entertained. The sounds of children singing and dancing soon filled the air as the First Lady, Dr. Ortom flanked by Barrister Alex Adum, the Group Managing Director of BIPC, arrived without much official company. She danced along to the drums and singing of the children, alongside a few dignitaries. She looked beautiful in her red-rimmed glasses, simple traditional outfit and brown-tinted braided hairdo. She sat down, and soon, the event was in full swing. We all sang the national anthem and laughed a bit at the familiar mispronunciation of some parts, which must have echoed familiar memories for the adults. Next was the rendition of the Benue State anthem, which caught me off-guard. I had no idea we had an anthem!
The headmaster of RCM, Poor, Barrister Anyila Tyolumun gave his welcome speech. He thanked the First Lady and ESLF, for promoting literacy and especially for putting their school on the map by choosing it as the venue for the read-aloud.
It was time for the first aspect, the spelling bee. I was the chief judge, alongside Caleb Anber and Nguher Hilda Igboko, both of ESLF. We had contestants from the host school, from NKST Yaikyor and from Promise of God International, Poor. I had been told to make things snappy since the event was timed. I gave my greetings in a rush and somehow forgot to particularly mention the First Lady in my greetings, a proper faux pas. [PLEASE NOTE, if you don’t already, at any function of this kind, no matter how pressed you are or anxious, it is essential to properly acknowledge key dignitaries and top government functionaries]. Well, we had fun, and I somehow felt like I was on the set of Akeelah and the Bee, that famous movie on spelling bees featuring Keke Palmer, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. In the end, RCM Poor won the competition, notwithstanding the brilliant efforts of the other contestants. It was a fun exercise that had everyone applauding.
The ESLF Programmes Manager, Tine Agernor gave a short speech and introduced the key reader, H.E Dr. Eunice Ortom. She took her place at the front of the pupils, gave an overview of the event, then spoke about the benefits of reading aloud, including developing listening skills and creating a bond between the reader and listeners. She sat down and read from the children short story, ‘The Inheritance’ by James Atoba. She gave her reading life through various voice inflexions and tried to show actions where necessary, as dictated in the book. When she was done, she moderated a question and answer session too, which engaged the pupils. It was a good one, well done and well received to generous ovation.
The BIPC GMD, Barrister Alex Adum took the floor to give his speech which emphasised some of the achievements of the BIPC and how the current event was the beginning of more projects with the ESLF. Alongside the First Lady and other dignitaries, he presented a cheque of five hundred thousand naira to Joy Abahi Amuh, who was accompanied by her parents, principal and students of her alma mater. Several people took time to get into pictures with them too, and we had loads of snapshots. When it was time for the spelling bee judges and participants to take pictures with the First Lady, I was ‘chanced’ a bit but smiled broadly for the picture. There were a few more pictures and presentation of some gifts to RCM Poor including school items and whiteboards, exercise books and a pledge to continue the facilitation of the renovation, furnishing, and perimeter fencing of the school.
We were soon done and there was the usual buzz of people trying to put in a word or two to the First Lady and other dignitaries before they left. Food was also served, creating a frenzy with some of the youth in the community who had not been actively present at the event, coming to grab a bite. We put our things together and made a few stops before arriving at the ESLF headquarters for debriefing and even more pictures. Shortly after, I had to catch a vehicle back to Abuja where I was billed as a guest reader in a special reading of my short story collection, The Bottom of another Tale for The Everyday Chapter Abuja.
Well done to the ESLF team for everything. They continue to be a champion for health, agriculture, education and literacy in the state. Well done to the team for an entertaining and motivating event. It sure was time well spent and a memory to remember. I am sure several people can’t wait for next year! Oh well, till then, you can follow up on ESLF events through their website at www.eslffoundation.org.ng.
Su’ur Su’eddie Vershima Agema is a multiple award-winning writer, former chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter) and CEO at SEVHAGE Literary Movement and SEVHAGE Publishers. He can be reached at email@example.com. [Photos in this article are courtesy of ESLF and S. Su’eddie Vershima Agema]