Story by: Daniella Mancini
Pictures by: Sam Trull
It’s approaching dawn on Friday 5th June and my mind floats peacefully through a dream filled sea. Thoughts of the past few forest trekking, monkey feeding, bush researching days filled my mind as I lulled gently further into a restful sleep. Suddenly, amidst the bananas and mangabeys that have thus invaded my subconscious, the dulcet tune of Mozart’s 5th Symphony begins to resonate through the trees. That’s strange. I’m used to the sweet ticking of crickets and the mild hum of sand flies; I didn’t know there was a natural classical overtone in the wild too; my dreams must be playing tricks on me. The tune gets louder and louder and within just a few minutes the sound is inescapable….damn. It’s my alarm. I forgot. It’s 5am and time to drag my weary head out of bed to travel to Calabar for World Environment Day. This had better be worth it.
I should introduce myself for this all to make sense. My name is Daniella and I am a 19 year old British student staying here in Nigeria for two months as a volunteer for Cercopan. As someone who’s never been involved in conservation work before, I was advised by Rhoko’s manager, Richard, that World Environment Day would be a fantastic way to go and see firsthand just what conservation really means to the Nigerian people, particularly the Nigerian youth, of today. Eager to find out how Cercopan’s work reaches out to society, I was thrilled to accept the invitation. If only we didn’t have to leave so early. Like I said, I really hope this is worth it.
Three hours pass and before I know it we arrive at the cultural centre in Calabar where the day’s events were to take place. Still rather bleary eyed, I stumble out of the truck into a giant car park where, before I could even say ‘environmental awareness’, my tiredness was knocked out of me with the quickest of blows. Out in front of the truck was wave after wave of colour, hoards of children had grouped en masse dressed in the most fantastically imaginative costumes ready for a parade. The rhythmic pulse of a drum beat echoed around us and children danced like they had no other purpose in the world but to dance. They danced as though the rhythm of the drum had taken over their very soul, a dance that came from deep within and told the most extraordinary story. Culture, history and pride entwined and mingled into one unified expression, it was a breathtaking scene.
Then the carnival began. Line after line of dancing troupes paraded around the streets of Calabar waving banners promoting the plight of Cercopan and the importance of being environmentally aware. The streets came to an absolute standstill as the masses of eager school children rhythmically processed around town. Above the drum of the instruments, poignant chants and messages could be heard. The air was electric, the atmosphere engulfing. You couldn’t help but be sucked into the excitement of it all. Heck, I even had a little dance and a chant myself. The procession lasted for the best part of an hour under the relentless heat of the Nigerian afternoon sun yet not even that could dampen the spirit of these passionate youths. As the sun rose higher, the children merely danced and cheered harder stopping only for a quick “snap, please” and then dancing off as I fumbled around rather pathetically with my camera. The whole parade really was the most exhilarating of scenes.
When the parade had ended we returned to the cultural centre where the children were to march back into the car park group by group and give a final performance in front of a panel of judges. I then realised that the schools were competing for the coveted, “Best in carnival” prize. One by one the schools marched back into the car park putting on theatrical and sometimes very traditional shows, body popping their way to the finish line and their reward – a much needed drink of water. Never in my life have I seen such impassioned young people, the sheer pride they had at representing their school was nothing short of inspirational and I was left in awe at their absolute determination. Coming second place was not an option; they were in it for the win. But more than that, these children were proud to be a part of World Environment Day. They were proud to spread the word of something they clearly felt was massively important. And it worked. The general public came out en masse to see what the parade was about and as such, Cercopan were able to deliver hundreds of information leaflets to those who may otherwise have been unreachable.
After a small break the children were ushered into a large hall where a panel of Nigerian high rankers in the environmentalist world gave speeches educating the young people even further on the topic of environmental conservation. The children sat through each speech intently, understanding the absolute importance of, not only being educated in the importance of wildlife preservation themselves, but relaying that information to their elders and neighbours back home. It seemed Cercopan truly was spreading its conservational branches right into the very heart of society in the hope that this generation will be the catalyst of sustained change and development for the future.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more electrifying, Cercopan’s Acting Operations Manager, Jerry Akparawa announced it was time to declare the winners of the prizes: Best banner, Cleanest school and, the highly anticipated, Best in Carnival. Whilst I’m normally a bit of a sceptic on such things (a cynic, I’ve found, is a very British thing to be) there was no doubt in my mind that the awards Jerry had organised were perhaps what enthralled the children most. Even if I had tried I couldn’t have anticipated the reception the awards ceremony would achieve. Counting down in the normal fashion from 3rd to 1st, a number of awardees handed out the prizes, each time arousing the most fantastically euphoric roar of joy from the winning participants. As each winning school was announced the entire hall would erupt into a frenzy, the children jumped up and danced, the runners up offering equally hearty congratulatory cheers and dances in return. It was the most incredible sight. I realised at that moment that, so long as Cercopan and other conservation charities continue to target young people, there will be long and sustained change in the future. The young people I met during World Environment Day left me in no doubt that the mindfully active young Nigerians of today are receptive and ready to make changes and it is for this reason that the work Cercopan is doing with them right now, is undeniably essential.
Special mention absolutely must go to Cercopan’s Acting Operations Manager, Jerry Akparawa. The sheer scale of event he achieved this year on such a low budget was astounding and the impact that it will have made is colossal. Whilst events like World Environment Day must, I’m sure, be impossibly difficult to organise, he achieved an indisputable success. One which I’m sure will be the first stepping stone on a long journey of change for the young Nigerians of today.
So, after all my moaning in the morning, was it worth it? More than anything I’ve ever been involved in before. I was touched, moved, inspired and overwhelmed by what I saw on World Environment Day, not least at the thought that such a small charity as Cercopan could have achieved such giant things. Whilst it is true that no man can move an island, it also remains that when a group of people think big despite all the odds, the outcome can be more than anyone would have ever dreamed possible. It struck me on World Environment day that, if Cercopan did not exist, environmental conservation education in Cross River State would be drastically different.
It leaves me with nothing other than to say that World Environment Day was an incredulous success. The more charities like Cercopan reach out to the very core of communities as was done during this event, the more likely things are to change. If any potential volunteer is wondering whether to come out to Calabar and do some work with Cercopan I can’t encourage you enough. The work that this charity does is invaluable and, particularly after seeing Cercopan’s might in full force on World Environment Day, I am proud to be here now myself.