Apart from being the brain behind ‘Aunty Talatu Read Campaign,’ Teresa Oyibo Ameh, is also a writer with eight children books to her credit. The civil servant and proud member of Trustee Novel Nigeria Writers Summit, in this interview with Stellamaries Amuwa, puts her vigour behind the Nigerian child, amongst other things.
What inspired you to start writing for children?
Writing, for me, came from a passion of trying to let other children into my story world. It started with storytelling sessions which I decided to put into writing and it has been successful for me because I am a mother to a growing child, and from there, the need to reach out arose.
I began reading to children at the State House Clinic in 2005. And even though I couldn’t continue at the time because of a very busy schedule, it was an eye opener. It was like therapy seeing the children so excited even as they battled one ailment or another. We would dance, share stories, read books until they had to go back. I just felt that healing wasn’t always all about giving the children drugs, but that we needed to reach out to them.
When I wanted to give out books, I went to two orphanages in Gwarimpa, Heritage and Victorian homes and set up libraries there. That move gave room for Aunty Talatu Reads. Once I started, I just kept on writing for children and after my eighth book, ‘The Torn Petal,’ which is about the girl in the north-east and what she was going through, I just felt like I cannot be writing about such issues and not be a part of the girl child movement. Soon afterwards, I found myself getting more involved in the girl child because I believe we need to do something about them, they are so vulnerable and so easily distracted, so let’s get them help.
I felt, even when still in school, these girls can make one or two naira on their own, so I launched out to make that happen. I started with the nomadic school, LEA in Dutse Alhaji where we introduced learning how to string beads and I got somebody to teach the girls. It’s amazing because within a few weeks, they became so good and eager to learn so that what I thought would be small became so big. I also got offers from people who wanted to teach any group of girls many other crafts including dancing, graphics, photography, and so on.
Aunty Talatu has become a brand synonymous with reading for children, has it been worthwhile?
I don’t think I would have done anything better than what I am doing today. Even though I am a civil servant that is my job. You know, when you talk of people having mansions and skyscrapers, I think my mansions are in the smile, the satisfaction and the hugs I get from them. One of the children in the primary school said she was going to make a set of beads for me and those are things that you go back home and you know they are worthwhile. If at the end of the day somebody says because of this project I am where I am today, that is the ultimate satisfaction. Writing for children, I have found myself involved in the formative life of children, I can do one or two things for them and encourage the reading culture and then I have taken the Victorian Home as my pilot project where I set up my second library, giving some of them scholarship after winning one or two competitions like the spelling bee and we still continue. I can say I am really a satisfied person today, happy because of the lives I am touching in a very little but significant way.
What do you hope to achieve with this?
I believe I cannot go to all the corners of the world but I can touch as many people as possible. In the near future I will have girls that will say: “because of Aunty Talatu, I am where I am today.” I always talk to them and say ‘when you make these beads, sell them, buy more beads, when you get to secondary school, you can use it to buy your books and you know, when girls have little money to buy one or two things, you find them resisting enticing talks like come into my room and I’ll give you N1000 to buy a top for yourself or to buy your undies. They can make it themselves and there’s so much pride and joy and it’s amazing that at their age, very little children in primary school, they are so eager and excited. So I hope that in the near future, I will reach out to as many girls as possible, especially within our zone here, and let them know that you can be independent.
Are northern women where they ought to be today?
I don’t think so because our culture is limiting, you are not to be heard. I’ve tried to write about some of my women, and then I just found out they don’t want to be exposed and they’re doing so well. I think we need more role models in the North to come out and talk to our girls because I even have stories that I would not want out. This is largely because our environment, So we want more women to come out because they are doing so well. Tell the girl child that you can get there. We have Mrs Amina Mohammed in the United Nations now. The girl child should know that she can aspire to get there, we shouldn’t limit ourselves because of our cultural and traditional trapping.
Where did Aunty Talatu originate from?
I have a book, ‘Lessons From Aunty Talatu,’ and because some children didn’t know what to call me, they decided to call me Aunty Talatu. The first one happened at the airport, the boy saw me, he recognised me and kept saying, “that is Aunty Talatu.” He couldn’t remember my real name. Somehow, my friends too began to call me Aunty Talatu and the name just stuck.
What is your advice to the girl child?
Remove all sorts of limitation, let the sky be your starting point. Do whatever you can do, nothing learnt is wasted. Do whatever you can do to empower yourself and be confident. Confidence is also key because without confidence, the child becomes vulnerable and cannot even speak up for him or herself.
We are trying to build a Nigeria they would be proud of. Also, don’t give up yet though there are so many challenges we are facing as a country, just don’t give up yet. One other thing, unity. It does not matter where you come from, but you come from a region because you were born there or your parents happen to come from there, your religion does not matter, maybe you’re from the north or a Christian because of your parents, where you were born, in the south or wherever, but remember, first things first, you are Nigerian and be proud of that.
How do you balance work and family?
I put in my best at work, I am a very thorough person when it comes to work. Some times when I am at work, workshop or seminars, the speaker may say something I would love to put down in a book but before I get down to it, I forget some part of it. Then for my son, he studies outside the shores of this country. I find time to talk on phone at least once a week so I don’t disturb him that much. But every morning, he wakes me up with text messages.
What is your beauty routine?
I eat good food. Right now, I’m on a kind of diet, I do my exercises regularly. I do so many things for myself because I don’t have a driver or a cook, so I like to do all those things so that I don’t become lazy.
What is fashion and style to you?
Fashion is something good, something that suits me, something I can carry well. You see, I’m very tall and I know I always stand out because of my height. So I try as much as possible to tone down what I wear. The colours should not be too loud. I wear sandals a lot, I love good bags, good designer perfumes. My ‘fashion weakness’ is perfumes.
Where is your best tourist location in Nigeria?
Unfortunately, I’ve not explored that because I used to love travelling but these days we’re so scared. I was even telling somebody that I wanted to go to Lagos by road and I was discouraged. We’re so scared because of the security issues, it’s either you’re scared of being kidnapped or you’re scared of being robbed, the roads are so bad and so many things. I’ve travelled within Nigeria extensively and I don’t really have a particular tourist location, maybe I should work on that. Surprisingly, I’ve been to Maiduguri twice this year and I love it. In my life time, I think I’ve been to Maiduguri three times and it is a place that used to be the home of peace. I think it’s so serene. I’ve not been to Jos, but I think Jos too can be a good tourist place.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Gospel, it calms me. You know the life of a writer is chaotic, you are thinking of this, you are thinking of that and sometimes you just want to calm down so you don’t go insane. And because I have my hands everywhere I don’t even know how I cope. So some moments, I want that calming, soothing, not the loud, gospel music and then I dance to it, in my house though.
What’s your best meal?
It used to be rice but I’ve gone off rice now. I love okpa. In my place, we cook it a lot and maybe because I schooled in University of Nigeria Nsukka, it is an okpa environment.
Tell us a little about your family?
I’m a northern woman from Akpanya in Igalamela – Odolu local government area of Kogi State. I’m a single mother with a son who means the world to me and has continuously made me proud. I am a daughter to my parents too. My dad is late and my mum is alive. We used to be five, now we’re four, two boys and two girls. That’s the much I can say.