BY OMIKO AWA
SOLA Alamutu, the brain behind Children And The Environment (CATE), a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation that has contributed to creating awareness on environmental degradation, is resolute that her dream of a better environment will be achieved one day.
The co-author of CATE Saves The Ikopi Rainforest, which won the 2004 ANA Prize for Children’s Literature, believes that for her projects to have desired effects, children must be at the front.
“I don’t think adults are showing responsibility and maturity and that’s the truth. I have always felt more comfortable around children ever since I was a child myself and as an adult, I have always worked with them. I see children as sponges, able to absorb what they are taught and once they have an understanding of an issue or it makes sense to them, they put it into practice. So, with my interaction with them for many years, I believe I am able to explain environmental issues better than I would to an adult. I also get better responses from them than the adults,” she says with a frown.
Alamutu, whose interest in the environment started from her childhood days, when her parents used to keep gardens in their compounds, says, “this makes me believe that children can be taught environmental issues.
As a child, my mother was very particular about what we understood as environment, which is basically looking after your surroundings; and in school, Nature Studies was my favourite subject. I loved the assignments we were given. We were asked to bring tadpole and study it. We lived in Ikoyi, so, we had water running through the gutters and you could actually see tadpoles. Ikoyi, then, was very environmentally friendly; there were trees everywhere and some people had gardens in their houses. There was a garden in our house; we grew up cultivating it, living with nature and eating from it.
So, I know and believe that if I teach children safe environment, they would grow to preserve and have value for the environment.”
Could this have led to writing of CATE Saves the Ikopi Rainforest?
“No, I never knew I was going to write a book. But I did know, I had a story to tell. I actually wanted to start publishing children’s writing. Children are always telling me stories and I felt they should write them for me to publish.”
She adds, “because of my busy schedules, I spoke to Peju Dawodu, my younger sister’s friend, who had written something for children, to come up with a book on the environment. She liked the idea and set off to do it, but her only challenge was she knew very little about the environment, so, I started explaining it to her and as well got documentaries and magazines for her.”
According to Alamutu, “one day, she got stuck, so, I wrote a few lines. She was impressed and I went back home and wrote a bit more — that was how we both ended up writing the book.”
THE environmental activist, has in the past six years staged the Green Festival as part of the yearly Lagos Book and Art Festival organised by the Committee For Relevant Art (CORA), in which she takes children from different schools across Lagos through a series of programmes such as mentoring, creative art, environment and health awareness, reading and others including the Green Spelling Bee Competition.
Speaking on the recent edition in November last year, she explained, “Yes, the theme of the programme was I Vote To Read: The Book As The Voice Of The People. We explained the importance of voting in the political process and why the. Chilldren have to read. We basically went through what voting is, and majority of them came up with the meaning of voting as taking a decision, which meant we had actually taken a decision to read. And to assist the children to carry out that decision, we gave each child a book; one book a day for the three-day event — so, we actually gave out three books.”
Why give books when Nigerian children are perceived not to be interested in reading?
“N-o-o-o!” Alamutu screams. “I totally disagree with that. Children appear never to be interested in reading because they don’t get books to read; their parents don’t give them books to read! I have asked some parents to get books for their children and they would reply, they (children) would not read them while the books have not been bought less the children not reading them. Parents often say all their children want to do is watch TV and movies, but the fact remains that parents, themselves, do not read; if they do, the children would emulate them. You can’t be a reader, giving your children books and along the line, your children wouldn’t read… it’s not possible! For children would always emulate what they see their parents do, if you read and give your children books they will surely read,” she says. “Most of the children do not have access to funding or books.
She reminds that at the Green Festival, we are not just encouraging them to read, but to also write. We want them to emulate Ibukun Oluwa Adisa, an 11 year-old Ibadan-based author, who also spoke to them during at the last LABAF. Ibukun wrote her first book at the age of eight. So, we are encouraging reading and writing, especially as it concerns the environment.”
Alamutu, who runs a reading club in Surulere, says, “I find out their passion — soccer, fashion, comics and others — and look for books on such areas for them. The important thing is make them read. The advantage of this, is that after they have found out what interest them in the books, they would want to read other materials, too. I also make them read books different from their passion. It’s like ‘read by barter’; I give them books of their passion, they read books on other subjects for aunty (me) — with this you see them pick interest in reading.”
TO encourage children's reading habit, Alamutu, last year, organised the Green Spelling Bee Competition for students in both secondary and primary schools at the last LABAF. “The competition was centred on words that concern the environment --- that was why it was ‘Green’ and, it is different from other Spelling Bee Competitions,” she says.
On the objective, the child mentor says, “the whole idea was to make children practise the spelling of English words. I am not too much into getting children work up about competition or contest, to me that does not tell if you can spell or not. They were supposed to listen to the words, the pronunciations and then spell; they were not words, they could have crammed and it’s very likely that contestants who were not able to spell some of the words would go home to learn them.”
The outcome of the competition told Alamutu that some of the teachers needed to be taught how to pronounce English words. “I think there is something wrong with the teachers; if the children were properly taught to pronounce the words they would have performed better. There is a correlation between pronunciations and spelling, it is very important that those who look after our children know how to pronounce English words properly, and also, be able to spell them. The truth is, if some of these children should contest with those that claimed to be their teachers or parents, you will be surprised to see how embarrassed some of them would be. And I won’t be surprise if the children fare better."
Alamutu advises parents to belt up and help themselves by reading. “In fact, I discovered that the adult population read less than the children. People say Nigerians don’t read, it’s wrong! The holders of such opinion should put it in this form, ‘Nigerian adults don’t read.’ The adults are not showing good examples to the children; they spend most of their time watching television programmes and films, making the children to emulate them. They should take to reading, show good examples, then you will see the children read; for we can’t complain when we are not leading them aright. It is surprising to discover that most teachers read only books recommended by the school; ask them questions on general books, they don’t know. They make excuses such as they do not have time, but they watch TV, go to parties and do other things they consider important. I urge parents to read, so that, the children can be encouraged.”
LAST December, Alamutu participated in the Christmas Charity Fair and as head of all Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO), she said there are over 300,000 charity organisations in the country.
Speaking on the organisations, Alamutu notes, “that we are 300,000 or a million does not mean everyone is genuine. There are people coming into charity organisations for the wrong reasons. However, some of us network in synergy to be more effective, without which some of the NGOs would not be able to make the right impact on their own.”
She continues, “I have worked with Keeping It Clean Foundation to clean streets the inhabitants thought could never be cleaned in Ogudu, Mafoluku and other places; these are things that make life healther for the children. With Nigeria having millions of people as citizens, so are the problems and as you know, government cannot solve all; so we are urging more people to form NGOs and, also, for individual to support us to reach out, touch lives and give hope to those in hopeless situations.”
Dedicated to the vision of educating Nigerian children on the beauty of having a green environment, the author-activist says she has turned down goood job offers to focus on her passion. “Some people say they would lobby for me to be a Minister; I said no, I already have my own ministry. I’m a ‘Green Minister’; I educate people on environmental health, especially children and young people, and I can see the results from the calls I receive from their parents.”
“I left a very well paying job in the hospitality industry for charity. Though, while I was still in salaried job, I set up the NGO, investing some of my time, especially during the holiday into it, and after leaving work I gave it my full time.
“When I first started, my family did not support me because I was leaving my well paid job, where I was supervising and carrying out staff training for major hotels across the country to the unknown, but all that changed when my first book won the 2004 ANA Prize for Children’s Literature. With the prize, people began to believe I have a reason for charting the path I have chosen. I have since written two others and hope to continue and as well encourage others to write, so that our children can be educated.”