MINNA, NIGERIA: When Abdulrazaq Salihu, 18, started learning to write poems in mid-2020, his sister, Fatima, introduced him to the Hill-top Creative Arts Foundation, of which she is a member.
The nonprofit foundation is trying to institutionalise art administration in Nigeria and shore up reading and writing culture by prioritising teen authorship, especially targeting teens hungry for reading and writing.
After joining the foundation in December 2020, Salihu started attending sessions in early 2021 every Saturday. He and other eager teenagers would gather at the foundation's headquarters, known as the Art Center in Minna, Niger State, to receive mentorship on different genres of literature.
The first thing he learned on his first day was confidence. The cent
re's founder, Baba Muhammad Dzukogi, placed him on the hot seat, asking him questions on different fields outside of literature.
"I learned to be a vast reader," Salihu told Prime Progress. "Life happens in different folds; we are encouraged to read virtually everything at the Art Centre. Not limited to the genre we specialise in, we must read to stand out."
Like a harmonious ritual, their weekly gatherings would end in a sacred act—each person reading a piece they had written while they take turns to critique and analyse each piece. Salihu learned the art of receiving constructive critique within this literary sanctuary and pledged to improve.
"I learned to be adventurous," he said.
By January 2022, Salihu had authored two books - Hiccups (a collection of short stories) and Constellations (a poetry collection). The books would later win the foundation's Nigerian Prize For Teen Authors award.
Declining reading culture
Nigeria has experienced a glorious literary history with prominent authors like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and a host of others establishing themselves beyond the African bubble and helping to raise younger talents to follow suit.
But that glory has slightly faded with the passing of the Achebe and Soyinka generations, with not so many young talents rising to fill the gap.
The glory decline can be traced to several factors: poverty, deficient budgetary allocation to the education sector resulting in poorly equipped libraries and low-quality teaching, and lack of incentives to outstanding scholars.
These factors effectively reduce reading culture and deplete the number of literary sanctuaries for developing young talents.
The World Culture Score Index statistics show that Nigeria ranks among the countries with the lowest reading culture. At the same time, the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education says 38% of Nigerians are non-literate, as four in 10 primary school children cannot read for comprehension.
Days of little beginnings
Fifty-year-old Dzukogi is a teacher, writer, and poet who spent years as an art administrator, curating art programmes for the Annual Schools Carnival of Arts and Festival of Songs (ASCAFS) in 1995, the Nigerian Writers Series (2011), the Minna Literary Series (2013), the MBA International Literary Colloquium (2011), and the National Teen Authorship Scheme (2011).
And having authored and published several works, including The Midnight Lamp in (poetry) 1996, These Last Tears (poetry) in 1997, and Mystery Stones (children's story) in 1999, as a young man, Dzukogi understood the challenges aspiring writers face, which informed his decision to found the Hill-top Creative Arts Foundation in 2004 and later registered it officially as a nonprofit in 2016.
"In our time, in college, only adults were writers, but seeing secondary school boys and girls in Minna showing brilliance in writing, I thought I should create an identifiable home for them to take writing seriously. The Art Center was an experimental place to see if the teenagers could become masters at a young age," said Dzukogi.
The foundation started with the publication of 'Images of Life', a poetry collection of Dzukogi's son, Saddiq. This collection became the springboard to Saddiq's literary career. He is now an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, United States, where he teaches poetry like his father.
Outside the regular meetings where writers critique each other, the foundation organises competitions for the children to hone their talents. Such internal competitions act as breeding grounds for good writings that, when pushed out, often do well in local and global competitions.
In 2005, the foundation published Halima Aliyu's 'One Little Trick, One Painful Death' and Zainab Manko's 'Penalty of an Orphan.' Single author members like these are attached to mentors who work with them until their work becomes fit for publishing.
"What our members do today across the country is to prove themselves as potential world beaters [in literature] of tomorrow," Dzukogi boasted.
"We have two national prizes that celebrate members who have excelled for the year with an award of N50,000 to six of them. We also created two journals where we accept reviews from established and young writers to enable our members to learn more. Similarly, our LitVo journal of interviews is a platform for our mentees to learn and grasp art from older writers and themselves."
The foundation also dips into secondary school for talents through the Hadiza Ibrahim Aliyu Schools Festival, hosted every January. The festival gathers some of Nigeria's best secondary school writing talents to Minna.
At this year's festival, Anna Jacobs, 16, from Himma International College, Minna, claimed first prize for the on-the-spot short story writing category.
"It was nice, to be very honest. Scary but nice. I didn't think I'd get first place, but I did. My entire experience is worth its weight in gold," Jacobs said.
For 16-year-old Yahuza Usman, another winner from Al-Mishkat Academy in Jalingo, Taraba State: "When I heard my name filling the walls of the hall, I deeply felt speechless as the joy I had was unprecedented in my life. Upon receiving the trophy, I smiled. Yes, I smiled. Knowing that the trophy has given me the inspiration to be ready to overcome any hurdle or barricade that may come my way in life. The feeling is appealingly inexpressive."
But there have been challenges.
Dzukogi said some parents refuse to release their wards to attend mentorship sessions because they feel it "distracts the children from paying attention to their academics." And lack of institutionalised funding for most of its programmes has limited how far it can go and expand to other states.
But even as these issues persist, Dzukogi said his dream of bringing "the world to come to Minna" through the pen of young writers is fulfilled, and the successes of some of the foundation's proteges like Salihu are proof.
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.