‘Calabar people are taking ownership and a more independent approach to Festival Poetry Calabar’ – Elizabeth Ita | PIN Literary Interviews

Elizabeth Ita is the Executive Secretary of Festival Poetry Calabar (FPC). Here, she talks to Semilore Kilaso about organizing FPC, mental health, poetry, Poets in Nigeria (PIN) and her personal endeavours.

Elizabeth Ita has a Bachelor’s degree in Radiography & Radiological Science, a PGD in Computed Tomography, as well as other certifications from institutions like the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Microsoft, WeAfriHug, Public Health England, amongst others. She is also a Digital Polymath, IBM certified Design thinking practitioner and freelance multi-disciplinary graphic designer. Her passion for creativity and constant learning is accompanied by the thrill of seeing things come to life either through her design, her craft or her zeal for volunteering.

PLI: It’s a great pleasure having you on this session of PIN Literary Interviews, Elizabeth Ita. Can you please tell us about yourself?

Elizabeth Ita: Thank you for this amazing opportunity. I am indeed very honoured. My name is Elizabeth Ita. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Radiography & Radiological Science as well as other certifications from institutions like the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Microsoft, WeAfriHug, Public Health England, International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), amongst others.

I am a Digital Polymath, IBM certified Design thinking practitioner, The Future Awards Africa 2020 Nominee in the Health & Wellness category, and also a freelance multi-disciplinary graphic designer who delivers creative and engaging solutions across brand identity, print and digital media.

I am also the Founder of Stilt Ng. Stilt Ng is a non-profit that runs on a peer-to-peer support model that employs telehealth systems with a focus on creating positive outlets for open conversations about mental health issues like depression, anxiety, grief, lack of acceptance, etc. Through education/awareness programs, peer support and advocacy, we try to erase the stigma of mental illness, affect positive change and increase public awareness of mental health issues in Nigeria.

In my spare time, I volunteer thoroughly and have been privileged to work with organisations like Character Scotland, ikapture Networks, ONE Nigeria, PSIFON org, Young People Connect, The Bridge Leadership Foundation, Live Your Dreams Africa, The Guru Foundation, Okares Sickle Cell Foundation, Efik Leadership Foundation, UNFPA; of course, Poets In Nigeria Initiative, amongst others.

In a nutshell, my passion for creativity and constant learning is accompanied by the thrill of seeing things come to life either through my design, my craft or my zeal for volunteering.

PLI: How long have you been the Secretary, Festival Poetry Calabar (FPC) Local Organizing Committee. Kindly share your experiences?

Elizabeth Ita: My first encounter with PIN & Festival Poetry Calabar was in October 2018, during the LOC inauguration. I was a volunteer for the festival at the time. The LOC Secretary then was Veralyn Chinenye. Afterwards, I became LOC Secretary in 2019, and my first festival as LOC Secretary was in December 2019.

It has been an amazing experience so far. I have always been a lover of literary goodness, and with my love for structure & organisation, I found that I fit in nicely into that role.

It has been a huge responsibility, but the most important thing I have learned, in my estimation, is to get things done. Any other quality becomes meaningless if we just settle for talk & can’t get things done. So far, Festival Poetry Calabar has been one of the most interesting projects I have had the pleasure of working on. I find it so interesting because of the impact it has had by fostering community and via its various themes over time; like – Poets in the digital age, the problem with silence, Bells of Depression: Walls & Windows and even the just concluded one;  Poets, Poetry and the Pandemic.

I also enjoyed working with the rest of the committee members & volunteers. It has been really fulfilling to be able to see a project from start to finish. I have learned a lot about teamwork, communication and the importance of making and sticking to a plan; and being flexible enough to adapt to change.

PLI: Due to the Covid-19 and its associated protocols, FPC was held physically and virtually in 2020. How was the event?

Elizabeth Ita: We started planning Festival Poetry Calabar 2020 as early as January. With the excitement of FPC 2019, we were looking forward to doubling that energy in 2020. But a lot of uncertainty came with the pandemic. No one knew exactly how or when it would end, and it put a hamper on our plans for a physical event. As time went on, we decided to work on a blend of the two – virtual & physical. It was so exciting and very stimulating as well.

PLI: The slogan of FPC is a “bigger and bolder festival” annually. How bold was last year’s festival as compared to the previous years?

Elizabeth Ita: For the festival in 2020, we had a wider reach even to an international audience and were enthralled with their performances & entries. It pushed us to do our best and ensure that our audience had a seamless habit-forming festival experience. We also had a wider pool of over 121 volunteers both offline & online from across various states in Nigeria. The Walk for Poetry had twice the energy of the previous year and saw many more people participate. The content was richer & more unique as well.

PLI: The 2020 Festival Poetry Calabar themed “Bells of Depression: Walls & Windows” featured Pamilerin Jacob, the author of Gospel of Depression. What brought about the theme of discussion?

Elizabeth Ita: The theme for the festival naturally alluded to the fact that we had to incorporate a book that fits nicely with it for the book chat feature. That is why Pamilerin Jacob was featured. He spoke so insightfully about his story and his passion for poetry as well as mental health & wellbeing. 

PLI: You’re the initiator of Stilt.Ng – a platform with a focus on mental health. How far has it been of positive influence to people in your immediate community?

Elizabeth Ita: A lot of people usually wonder what kind of word ‘Stilt’ is and what it means. ‘Stilt’ is an English word that means “one of a set of posts that support a building so that it is high above the ground or water”.

Stilt Ng is a non-profit that runs on a peer-to-peer support model with a focus on creating positive outlets for open conversations about mental health issues like depression, anxiety, grief, lack of acceptance, etc.

Our vision is to foster improved mental wellbeing of young Nigerians aged 13-30 through education/awareness programs, peer support and advocacy. We try to erase the stigma of mental illness, affect positive change and increase public awareness of mental health issues in Nigeria. We envision a safe space for Mental Well Being in Nigeria. In this space, we are a community that recognises mental health as an essential part of overall wellbeing. Reflecting our value for collaboration and our reputation as a good partner, we work with others to leverage our collective capabilities, believing that together, everyone achieves more.

We started in 2019, and since then, we have received a lot of recognition for our work. When we started, there was a lot of friction because of misconceptions a lot of people had about mental health. It was tough, but now, we have seen a lot of people more open and receptive to the idea of mental health, as well as building mental resilience. We have held secondary school outreaches and reached over 754 students. We have collaborated with a lot of youth-led organisations to push our message to a wider reach. We have also marked two World Mental Health days with an awareness walk. A plethora of online sessions on our virtual community as well as our content on social media and on our website also props our vision.

PLI: What advice would you give to poets/creatives struggling with depression and other mental health crises?

Elizabeth Ita: First, I would like them to know that they are not alone. While each person’s story is unique, we are far from alone in our struggles. Too often, fear of prejudice and judgment prevents people from reaching out, and this can have disastrous consequences. Stigma particularly also hampers people dealing with mental health problems from living their lives to the fullest.

Secondly, there is a lot of vulnerability we feel and express as creatives. In letting others in, we open the door to allow for a deep connection with the people that interact with our content who find comfort in the knowledge of shared pain. We all have the opportunity to give a voice to mental health in our own way, and we can find and express purpose even in our pain. Being specific to poetry, we can do this by reciting our latest poem at a local open mic event, sharing a tweet or post that will resonate with others experiencing mental health issues and altogether keeping the conversation going.

PLI: No doubt you are a very busy person volunteering with different organisations, graphic designing, stilt Ng and writing. What is your daily routine like?

Elizabeth Ita: My life can get pretty hectic sometimes. As a productivity buff, I usually review my daily routine over time in order to get the best results. I do this depending on my commitments per time. So for now, this is what it is.

I sometimes sleep as early as 10 pm and wake up as early as 3 am. I like to start my day with a meaningful chunk of work. It might be a design project for a client, setting up structures for a project, crafting & evaluating my to-do list for the day.

After about two hours, I join my family for devotion, do some chores, eat breakfast (if I have the time), jump in the shower, and get ready to leave for work by 7.30 pm — not always in this particular order.

Currently, I am working as a project manager with Cally Valley – an Export Activation Centre here in Calabar.

PLI: What Nigerian poet(s) do you love to read?

Elizabeth Ita: I love reading Sir Eriata Oribhabor’s poems. My personal favourite is titled: ‘If you hear sey I deh prison’. I am not particularly picky because I’m eclectic; I just love good poetry.

PLI: How has it been connecting with Poets in Nigeria Initiative (PIN) since 2015? How is the funding of FPC in a country where sponsors hardly support literary matters?

Elizabeth Ita: In all my experience working with various organisations over the years, there’s no experience that matches up to the familial sense of community PIN provides. Sir Eriata Oribhabor has been a father figure and a huge source of support to me. His contagious passion was what drove me to PIN & it is what has kept me here. I am forever grateful that my path crossed with PIN in 2018.

Funding hasn’t been so easy to come by, except through PIN, Sir Eriata and some other well-meaning individuals.

PLI: What in your opinion is the place of poetry as a genre of literature in Nigeria? What future? What opportunities for Poets?

Elizabeth Ita: Poetry is a very important genre of literature. It has its place. It has its voice. It has its rhythm. At the pace with which Poets in Nigeria is moving in regards to poetry promotion (through its plethora of creative expressive initiatives) and poetry for service, I know that this is just the beginning of very amazing things we will see with regards to poetry.

I also believe that poetry has a lot of prospects in Nigeria and that with PIN and other literary bodies passionately manning the forte, the possibilities are infinite. One thing PIN does is incentivise to encourage poets and promote poetry. Because of this, PIN needs all the support it can get. This is a subtle encouragement to you reading this to pay your support fee. You will find more details on the website.

There are many opportunities for poets. With the popularity of the internet, it has become even easier to find opportunities. If you’re a poet, seize this gift to milk all of the internet’s goodness.

PLI: After FPC2021, what next?.

Elizabeth Ita: I am proud to say that the Calabar people are taking ownership and a more independent approach organisation of the festival especially seeing that a new LOC was inaugurated at Festival Poetry Calabar 2021, with the Secretaries being Ifeanyi Agwazia and Blessing Osoku. The chairman of course remains Mr Bassey Asuquo. Their tenure will run from 2022-2024, so they have 3 festivals to plan for before passing on the baton.

To further solidify our plans, we have set up an FPC Stakeholders group with many amazing people who have been a part of the festival for three years or more to ensure that the festival continues to thrive.

I am proud of this amazing achievement and for consistency. It hasn’t been easy. Seeing as I now have transitioned to Executive Secretary, Festival Poetry, I am open to replicating the festival in any part of Nigeria for a start.

Don’t be a stranger, plug into this vision. You won’t regret it.

PLI: Your time with PIN Literary Interviews is highly appreciated. Kindly leave us with a few lines of any of your poems.

Elizabeth Ita: Thank you, Semilore for doing me the honour. It might come as a shock to many people, but I don’t write poems, and I just decided to try something on the spot.

I am a bird
A leased bird (Elizabeth)
I fly high; I fly far
With my head in the clouds
And living dreams in my heart

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