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Getting to the Bottom of the Story with Theatre for Development

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Subtitle: 
Citizenship DRC Case Study Series
Author: 
Oga Steve Abah
Jenks Zakari Okwori
Affiliation: 

The Theatre for Development Centre, Ahmadu Bello University

Publication Date

January 1, 2009

This 2-page case study shares information about The Theatre for Development Centre’s use of participatory theatre as a methodology for encouraging discussion among communities of the Niger Delta on the breakdown in accountability of local and state leaders. According to the document, most research on accountability in Nigeria has looked at the high-ranking actors such as the governors and oil company executives. This research, looked at problems through the eyes of the community members by transforming them into scriptwriters and actors.

The case study explains that large-scale oil production in Nigeria began in 1958. This abundance of resources is commonly considered more of a burden than a blessing for Nigeria. The ‘resource curse’ is attributed to the undermining of accountability at every level in the country. In spite of its oil wealth, the region has inadequate infrastructure and high unemployment rates, in part because pollution from the oil industry has diminished forest activities and fishing. Residents of the delta states have to drink, cook with, and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.

The process of winning community cooperation in the theatrical performances began the same way in each community, by following an old tradition. Researchers would visit a community elder with a bottle of schnapps, kola nuts and some money (perhaps 200 naira) under the nuts to "wedge" them in place. After the elders listened, they would often discuss how youth in the community simply do not listen any more. The researchers proposed that perhaps what was needed was new stories that the youth could relate to.

According to the case study, performance art is an especially effective tool for carrying out research designed to raise consciousness, foster local knowledge, and spark social action because it opens a space for dialogue. The Theatre for Development Centre sent facilitators to work with liaisons and participants in eight communities, who were trained over three days on how to create a 30-minute theatrical performance. Over the course of the three-day training, the participants explored the issues of accountability through the creation of the performance. Finally, the entire community was invited to watch, followed by a discussion that produced a community plan for action.

This method provided new insights into the nature of accountability in the Nigeria Delta, including how a lack of accountability in formal governance structures can fracture the trust and solidarity that protects communities from outside manipulation, and how these fractures sow conflict and violence in a vicious cycle that further impoverishes the community. While revealing these insights to researchers and practitioners, theatre is also a powerful tool for raising local consciousness and spurring positive action. The case study outlines that the research process is democratised by theatre in three ways.

  • It creates a space in which people can speak and bring issues forward for discussion.
  • It allows them to make suggestions about what is to be done.
  • It challenges power relations within the community, creating a space in which to question roles and hierarchies within the community.

The case study concludes that theatre for development is a methodology for understanding complex problems, but also leaves behind a tool for overcoming them. The performance identified gaps and established a basis for further dialogue, eventually leading to a congruence of concern between community members and possibly a common agenda. The will to act, however, can only be fostered in the long term through the social organising that invariably must occur before and after the final curtain call.

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