ON THE SPOT I (ISSUE 8)
In this exhaustive interview, Chief Gladys Russel, a retired civil servant, a mass communicator, poet and playwright, talks about her personality, career, writings, publications and achievements.
- Chief Gladys Russel is a retired civil servant, poet, playwright and unique personality ever disposed to promoting the art in general with special interest in the craft of poetry. Does this introduction of you fit? Could you please, expatiate (in further detail) for the benefit of our esteemed readers?
A woman of many parts. That statement best describes our personality for today. For she exudes a uniqueness of character that has been derived from a lifetime loaded with myriad experiences and challenges. For these must have molded and fashioned her into the woman that she is. Chief Mrs. Gladys Williams Russel is a mother and grandmother, a mass communicator, playwright, poet, artist, activist and philanthropist. A general promoter of creativity and the arts, she spent her entire working life as a professional mass media staff in the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture. Today, as a pensioner, she is Team Leader of a non-governmental organization, Afrikare Support Programme and is supporting a care centre for young Nigerians.
- When did you retire and what would you consider as the high point of your career in service of government? In your estimation, could you comment on its reverse? (if any)
I retired from the Federal Civil Service on April 16, 2004 when I attained the mandatory retirement age of 60. At the time, I felt that I still had much to give in service to the nation but the retirement conditions had to be complied with.
Any regrets? Not really. I was and am still very grateful to God for putting me in a profession where I could use my innate talents and initiative in the Civil Service as an Information Officer /public sector media operative. It was a very satisfying experience for me throughout. I truly enjoyed myself, and I thank God for that opportunity.
When we speak about high points in one’s lifetime, we must realize that there must be many landmarks. Life is always like a staircase and as one strives upwards, many achievements become high points at the time. At age 25, around 1989, I was appointed editor of FUTURE, which was a children’s newspaper. It was a big challenge for a young civil servant. Down the years, I have served as editor and Group Editor for many in-house publications designed for both local and foreign audiences. They include Nigeria Handbook, The Economic Newsletter, the Nigeria Trade Journal, the Food Information Project, the Nigeria Newsletter, and the Nigeria Pictorial. They were landmark opportunities and because of this I was opportune to travel widely both locally and internationally.
In 1993, I led the team of four writers that researched for the production of the First Lady, Mrs. Maryam Babangida’s book, NIGERIA FIRST LADIES –INSIDE STATE HOUSE. The exercise afforded me opportunity to speak and reach out to every Nigerian Head of State and their spouses at the time.
From a professional standpoint, I would say that the highest level of my career was when as Head of Media Relations and subsequently Head of Public Relations, I gained the free hand to package and execute behaviour change campaign programmes to address various national challenges at the time.
- Civil Service, then and now, what moments to share taking cognizance of service for nation in relation to service for self? What lessons? What message?
Dedication to duty has its rewards. Change and the entrenchment of the positive values of life, demand that all must come together to establish and maintain a society that is free from greed, self-centeredness and corruption. There is no shortcut about this. A campaign to fight corruption, to redeem Nigeria’s negative image or to promote economic growth will not succeed unless the target audiences accept and imbibe the tenets being promoted. Service to the national is therefore inter-related with service for the self.
- You are a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (FNIPR) and spent your entire working life as a mass communicator in the Federal Civil Service. What is your take on professionalism and political interference in the Ministry of Information?
Apart from being a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) and an Associate of the Advertising Practitioners Association of Nigeria, I served on the Governing Boards of both the NIPR and the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), for many years between 1996 and 2004. I also represented government at meetings of the Federation of African Public Relations Associations (FAPRA).
These boards have a commitment to promote excellence and professionalism in the sector. They initiate regulations and establish operational controls for practitioners. I think the concept of government interference should be non-existent as each council member, including the government representative, has one vote.
As for interference by government generally, I hold the view that government has an obligation to protect the interests and safety of the nation and its people. There should be some norms for operational controls in the same way that the Consumers Protection Agency, NAFDAC, FRSC, SON, NAPTIP, CBN and similar public service organs serve to protect the wellbeing of Nigerians and consumers.
Also, we must realize that mass communication, which includes advertising and public relations, is an instrument for controlling the minds of the people. It should not be left totally in the hands of groups who have their own agendas to promote or market.
- You are a distinguished Author of many books. Please share with us some of your publications and what you think writing could do for society. What hindrances?
In essence, my works tend to emphasize on issues to do with life and its challenges. They are about gender, poverty, discrimination, cultural impositions and other predominant conditions related to existence – elitism, and power structures, the disparities in society, the search for solutions to the factors that affect negatively and hope that resolution will come sooner than later. Most creative persons actually focus on such factors in their works.
My published personal works include the following:
- Africa Woman – The Poetic Perspective (1997)
- A Middling Plain- Poetic Reflections on the Times (1999)
- A Guide to Body and Beauty Care (Published by Spectrum) (2002)
- Selfcare The Natural Way – You Have a Chemist in Your Kitchen (2004)
- Two Plays -‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Miracle Man'(2004)
- Bronze Silhouette –The World from my Thatch (2012)
- The Laws of Life and the Challenges of Our Times (2012)
I am currently concluding manuscripts for a book series dedicated to the various perspectives of public sector mass communication and behaviour change campaigning in third world environments. I feel that I can handle this quite capably because I actually lived the life and had the experience.
I have also compiled material for what I would like to call The Poor Man’s Cookbook. I am also exploring the possibility of collaborating with interested parties for the production of an African operatic production of some of my religious drama series.
- Why writing?
I originally began creative writing in response to the need to keep myself occupied. However, as a professional mass communicator, I had always been involved in prolific writing and the production of publicity materials to do with promoting government and its programmes.
An important element in creative writing, or any form of creative activity for that matter, is the ability to delve into the inner reaches of one’s mind – to meditate, to plan and to structure. This demands a certain degree of solitude. The audience sees only the finished work. But it may have taken the artist months or years of mind searching and decision making to bring out this final product.
That is why we must salute the great minds of our times as they employ creative gifts for the upliftment of the human race – men such as Professors Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Jerry Agada, Femi Osofisan, Wale Okediran, Odia Ofeimum, and Kole Omotosho to mention but a few.
An important development is that writers now come from various professions and walks of life – medical doctors, ministers, police commissioners, oil experts, politicians, chief executives, teachers, and even children.
- BRONZE SILHOUTTE (The World from my Thatch) is one of your books. Could you tell us about this book? Did it get the attention of public as expected?
In simple terms, BRONZE SILHOUETTE – THE WORLD FROM MY THATCH is protest poetry that examines global challenges from the eye-view of the African woman who is figuratively surveying the world from her thatch hut. There is not much that she can do, but she puts on record the discrimination, poverty, corruption, political thievery and thuggery, and all other handicaps that challenge our earth presently. She speaks about dis-empowerment of the young generation who are supposed to be leaders of tomorrow. She draws attention to the suffering in third world countries; of crises, terrorism and militancy and their impact on the weaker populations, the women and children. She hopes against hope that the world would pay greater attention to the needs of the more vulnerable members of society, because what touches one touches all. It’s a cry from the heart. It is about praying that our tomorrows will be better.
Somehow, the collection did not get the expected public attention, because of the challenges that go with creative writing and authoring in our environment. But ANA ABUJA has recognized my contributions to literature and creativity and has given me many awards down the years. A breakdown of some of their awards is given below:
1997: Award for distinguished contributions towards the promotion of literary excellence.
1998: Certificate of Merit for sustainable contributions to the encouragement of the ideals of a humane and egalitarian society.
1999: Appointed Trustee of the Association.
2006: Special Merit Award for contributions to creativity.
2016: Award for contributions to literature (Presented by Professor Jerry Agada).
In 2003 an NGO also gave me a Highest Gender Award for excellence in making the Nigerian woman proud. I have also been recognized by many other organs including the NIPR, and religious groups. In 1998 the NIPR gave me the Presidential Award for contributions towards the upliftment of the PR profession. In 1999, I was also awarded Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations.
- Your book, AFRICA WOMAN – The Poetic Perspective was unveiled in Abuja with the then First Lady, Mrs. Maryam Abacha (represented by Mrs. Julie Useni) wife of the then Minister of Federal Capital City, Abuja) as chairman of the event. What’s the key message of the book? Do you still have copies?
I would say that the public presentation in 1997, of AFRICA WOMAN- The Poetic Perspective, was a major key-point of my life. Although the work was a social commentary on the life of the woman in Africa, the occasion provided opportunity for the execution of a number of other programmes. The Gong Theatre which I had initiated as a Drama/creative group in the Federal Capital City, presented a series of sketches on the basic theme.
My daughter, Mrs. Omoligho Udenta and I mounted an art exhibition at the Centre for Women Development. The Association of Nigeria Authors –Abuja Chapter made their presence felt by counseling and assisting in executing the planned project. On the whole, the monumental success of the project stemmed from the collaborative commitment of many individuals and organizations.
My Minister, Dr. Walter Ofonagoro gave us his full support; he could have queried me for diverted attention in line with civil service rules. Instead, his wife, Mrs. S. Ofonagoro, honoured us with her presence. The Culture arm of the ministry provided advice and props for the art exhibition. The main hall of the National Women Development Centre was given free of charge by the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs. As you noted, the then First Lady, Mrs. Maryam Abacha, was represented by Mrs. Julie Useni, the wife of the Honourable Minister of the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, who himself was represented by his Minister of State, Dr. Ikejiani Clarke. President Muhammadu Buhari, who was then in charge of the Petroleum Trust Fund, sent a representative and gave us a tidy donation even though he did not even know who I was. NTA, FRCN and Voice of Nigeria gave us free adverts and interviews.
There was such overwhelming willingness to promote our cause. I was subsequently nominated to represent Nigeria at the Gerald Manley Hopkins International Summer School Festival in Ireland and to read excerpts from the work in Britain.
In retrospect now, I believe that the event has gone down in history as being the first public unveiling of a poetic collection by a female author in the Federal Capital City of Abuja.
- Is your NGO. AFRIKARE SUPPORT PROGRAMME (ASP) still active?
Yes. The family NGO, AFRIKARE SUPPORT PROGRAMME is still active as we are currently working on the provision of affordable educational facilities for young children in Kubwa area. We have established a crèche/pre-primary service, RUSS-WILL ACADEMY in Gbazango and charge subsidized fees. Books and uniforms are also subsidized.
In the past, we have collaborated with international and local organizations on programmes to do with HIV/AIDS, youth empowerment, poverty alleviation, women’s rights, political participation in the electoral process, and child welfare.
You were instrumental to the formation of Gong Theatre (a drama group) in mid – 90s.
Where is the Gong Theatre? Where is the place of theater in today’s Nigeria?
I had initiated the GONG THEATRE in 1997 as a creative outlet for civil servants who were the main residents of the FCT following the mandatory relocation exercise in 1996. Although it was located in my ministry, members came from the various ministries. It aimed to promote socio-political awareness through creative activity. To this end, we interacted, structured and presented sketches to motivate and entertain Abuja residents. The Gong Theatre successfully raised funds for philanthropic organizations including the Nigerian Autistic Society and the Daughters of Abraham in 1997/1998. It also presented The STORY OF CHRISTMAS, a drama musical piece written by me and presented at the National Centre for Women Development in 1997. It was also staged at the Abuja Centre for Arts and Culture in 1998.
The success of the Gong Theatre was made possible only because of the interest, moral support and financial assistance from the chief executives of the Federal Ministry of Information at the time. We appreciated the support of Honourable Ministers – Dr. Walter Ofonagoro, Chief Ikeobasi Mokelu, and Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu; and permanent secretaries – Mr. Patrick Etta, and DR. R.O. Adewoye.
With the subsequent excision of Culture from the Federal Ministry of Information around 1999, and with my retirement from the civil service in 2004, the Gong Theater suffered a natural death.
With regard to the place of theatre today, I would say that although the movie industry had virtually degraded the value of the theatre, I see increasing interest in the development of the later as a genre in itself. The two serve distinct purposes, achieve different objectives and utilize varying approaches. With increasing interest in the job of authoring and public presentation of works, there is a positive growth in theatre presentation now.
- As a playwright and author of “TWO PLAYS – The Bridge and The Miracle Man”, would you please give an insight. Was this play ever staged and when? Do you have copies available?
‘TWO PLAYS – The Bridge and The Miracle Man’ are more or less religious/spiritual plays. The Bridge addresses man’s life on earth and the realization that one must give an account of his deeds to God at the end. It is a philosophical presentation based on the epic classical, The Summoning of Everyman. The second play, The Miracle Man is about the life of Christ, seen from the perspective of an area boy in Lagos. They were presented several times in Lagos, and once at the National Theatre around 1994. The Bridge was presented at an ANA –Abuja AGM around 1998. I have a box load of copies available for distribution but I must confess that the printer did not handle the production well. I am looking forward to being able to reproduce the work.
- As a former Chairman, Abuja Branch of the association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), please share with us your experience serving this association of writers.
As a past Chairperson of the Association of Nigerian Authors – Abuja Chapter, I would say from experience that leading that group of very intelligent and innovative persons is an honour, a privilege and a challenge indeed. In an environment where the popular saying is ‘If you want to hide something from the people, put it inside a book,’ writers/authors must work very hard to keep themselves focused on the value of what they are doing and the challenge of having an audience that is more or less unappreciative of their worth. ANA –ABUJA must continue to look to itself for spreading its word. I believe that a lot is being done in that direction now.
- When did you begin to see the benefit or otherwise of marriage of politics and writing?
The ANA Executive Committee and I began to see the benefits of a marriage between writing and politics as far back as 1997 shortly after the relocation of the Federal Capital to Abuja. Indeed, that was why I contested for the ANA-ABUJA Chairmanship at the time. And that was also a reason why the ANA-ABUJA Executive Committee at the time, launched a series of creative activities in schools in the FCT. They sought to promote unity, knowledge, and peaceful co-existence through encouraging healthy competition in area such as poetry, story writing, drama and the holding of workshops for young Nigerians.
- ANA in your days and ANA of today, any word?
ANA today is a potent, vibrant, and permanently mobile organization. In my days, in the 1990s, we were just beginning to find our feet as a relevant part of the move towards democratic existence. Authors came mostly from institutions of higher learning and were mainly lecturers in Literature, English and the Arts. Today, they come from all works of life. That is the beauty of growth.
- You gave out lots of book gifts to ANA Abuja while I was the Chairman. Do you consider giving out books as worth it?
Donating books for distribution to persons who otherwise would not have had access to reading them achieves multiple purposes. It promotes growth of the reading habit. It encourages public interest in the acquisition of published contemporary works. It also reduces the stock of unsold publications piling up in authors’ rooms. Also, from the economic point of view, it promotes the industry by expanding reach and business opportunities. I think it’s a worthwhile activity that benefits the writer, the reading public and the business generally.
- You are retired but not tired. Am I right?
I have tried my hand at a number of programmes. First my family and I initiated an NGO, AFRIKARE SUPPORT PROGRAMME shortly after my retirement in 2004. The initiative worked with both local and international organizations on matters to do with the poor and dis-empowered elements in society. We were funded by NACA under the World Health Programme for the control of HIV/AIDS in 2004. We have variously collaborated with the Federal Ministries of Health and of Women Affairs and Child Development on matters do with women and child rights. We are registered with the ICPC and have collaborated with them on anticorruption campaigns.
From 2004 to 2014, AFRIKARE executed its own campaign programmes to do with youth empowerment, women’s election rights, and child abuse.
- What message for younger ones stepping into your shoes and that of other experienced voices?
Young writers must be tenacious and committed in their desire to influence and affect their world. The biggest joy for a good writer, I believe, lies in his innate self-satisfaction and self-esteem. Success and acclaim do not come easily. But if ANA continues, as it is doing now, to create opportunity for growth and development of the profession as an industry and a brand, the sky would be the limit for upcoming writers because they would have a good platform to take off from.
- If you have the powers of turning back the hand of things, what exactly would you love to do?
I would want to revisit the 1970s and 80s when as a budding artist, I was unable to express myself with the freedom that is characteristic of today’s creative world. I would want to be fully myself, free to be what I wanted to be. In my youthful years, the woman of character was regarded as anathema. As such, it was impossible to achieve one’s greatest potential because of the stigma. Women were to be seen, not heard. They were to stay in the kitchen, not hold responsible positions at work. But now things have changed, thank God.
- How is life in Nigeria as a retiree? Do you find time to travel outside Abuja? When last did you travel and where? In your estimation, are you fulfilled?
I feel fulfilled and achieved because I have had a satisfying and challenging life throughout. It may not have been perfect because life always has its ups and downs. But the ability to cope with every day as it comes is a peculiar gift from God. I have that, and I am fully confident of my faith in my Creator.
I do so many things to keep myself occupied. I paint, write, and generally create. As a media professional, I had travelled extensively in and out of the country. But now, as an aging retiree I do not travel as regularly. My last trip out of Abuja was in November 2016 when my family went to Lagos to attend an art exhibition mounted by my daughter, Omoligho Udenta, who is a lecturer at Yaba College of Technology.
- Please leave us with few impacting lines on marble from any of your poems.
My most published poem is titled HOPE. It’s taken from the AFRICA Woman collection.
It never dies for only a foolish mind
would think that the trials of today
will last forever, never end.
It never should die
for in its eternal ray
lies continuity and faith in a force
that’s never all bad or cruel.
That’s all man has
For all’s beyond his will and control
but for that absolute faith and trust
to lift him from one day into the next.