‘While Growing Up, I Wanted To Be Everything’

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Isabella Akinseye, a 29-year-old award-winning essayist, writer, on-air-personality and host of a new arts and culture TV show ‘Africana Literati’, grew up aspiring to be everything her little mind could dream of. In this interview with Mary Ekah, she talks about her several endeavours and how she gave up a corporate communications job with a multibillion-naira company to focus on a calling, which hardly pays her bills

You just started a TV show ‘Africana Literati’, what is the inspiration behind it?
Africana Literati is an art; book and magazine TV show, aimed at reviving the reading culture with a focus on celebrating our own stories and culture. It is aimed at the family, so everyone can enjoy it including the parents. It is educative and at the same time entertaining. We have very few art shows out there. Abroad, arts and culture are a big deal, but here in Nigeria, it is politics, music, sports, reality and fashion. Africana Literati is making reading and learning cool. On each episode, culture critic, Dr. Wilfred Okiche reviews a book by an African author and budding OAP, Harri Obi handles the vox pop segment.

We have a back to school segment where I personally teach spelling, pronunciations and African slangs because I am also a teacher by profession and my background is Education with specialty in English and drama and it has always been a passion to be able to make learning fun.
The 13-episode series, with each episode running for half an hour, include profiles of African literary greats, top five countdowns, African proverbs and giveaways to nurture budding writing talent. The show airs every Saturday at 11am on Africa Magic Family Dstv channel 154 with a repeat on Thursdays at 2pm.

What informed your interest in TV show?
Before this time, I have written, edited and actually presented programmes on TV. I started my TV career reviewing books on a weekly segment ‘Bookaholic with Bella’ on Silverbird Television in 2009 where we interview authors as well as reviewed books and magazines. Furthermore, I worked with a publishing company at some point. I worked with Farafina books and that gave me the opportunity to really get to understand literature and also to expose myself to different works by African authors and that experience is something that stayed with me. Producing is something new to me but before this time I have done Radio, TV and I have an online magazine, ‘Nolly Silver Screen’. I think I have deeply involved myself in media and I think this is an opportunity to take an idea, flesh it out and bring it to life. I also do a part time teaching at a higher school presently.

I used to teach English Literature in a secondary school but now I teach part time History, Sociology and Society and Politics at a sixth form college that is in between secondary and university students. And I have really learned a lot from my students because teaching is no longer knowledge-based but child-centered, that means the students need to be engaged, they need to contribute and thanks to the intent, so that if you don’t do your research properly, the students can embarrass you because they are going to ask you questions. So sometimes when I get questions that I don’t know, I honestly tell my students that right now I do not have that answer and that I will look it up and get back to them. I feel free to share my experience and that makes it easy because I really personalise the teaching.

How old are you?
I am 29 years old. I am proud of my age. That is not a big deal. And people say I look younger than my age but I take that as a compliment. Naturally, people expect you to have a family, a husband and all that. At that point, I think it is very important that you ask yourself the question: “Who am I?

That is a question that you are going to answer for the rest of your life. And whether you are married or not married, you are still that woman. Yes, you might change but essentially, women should press the soft buttons, and ask yourself this very important question because even if you are married, the man is still going to continue to watch the Arsenal games, he is still going to continue meeting his business friends and also doing other things, so why don’t we allow ourselves to dream.

Why must our lives start and end when we marry and start having kids? The next thing I will say is to find mentors because I have learned so much from the mentors I have in my life – they inspire me and give me the commission to dream big. And when you get mentored, you also should be a mentor to others, don’t just be a reservoir and take everything in without giving back. It is an ecosystem, a circle of life and so we have play our own part because other have played their parts.

What is your educational background like?
I did my nursery and primary school education in Nigeria. I did a stint in the United States, I went for a year and half when my parents went for Bible school. I came back to Nigeria and did my secondary school and then went to the UK again to do my A levels. It was funny because I never wanted to go to the UK because I had written JAMB and other entry exams into the higher institution and was expecting to get into one of the prestigious universities in Nigeria but as fate will have it, I ended up in the UK. The first time I tried to get into the university, a lot of universities turned me down despite my result because my choice of universities were very competitive and I had to sit at home for one year to get a very good result and went to study Education with specialty in English and Drama at the University of Cambridge.

Again I had to come back home and stayed for another one year because I had issues with my visa and while it was being resolved, I stayed again for a year during which I worked with Farafina Books where I started writing for newspapers. So I feel that one year was not a waste. If not anything, it provided clarity. And so I went back to the UK and completed my education and came back home. I did my youth service with Nestle and also worked there afterwards for a couple of years.

There, I worked in the corporate communication department, which allowed me to write as well and also engage with the media. And I enjoyed that but a part of me always wanted to do journalism and so I did a lot of freelancing. At that period also I was doing freelance presenter job. And eventually I asked myself what really I wanted to do. At that point I left Nestle. I gave up my corporate communications job at Nestle Nigeria PLC to focus on my company, Yellow Tamarind Productions. And along the line also, I started teaching part time while still presenting my TV and Radio programmes and of course I was also writing. Presently, I am doing a Masters programme online with University of Leicester and I hope to be done with it soon having completed the first year at the moment.

Where do you see yourself in a few years?
I want to be married by the grace of God, I want to have kids, I want to have a TV station, because the kind of content I do mixes education with entertainment, it’s ‘edutainment’. It is something I want families to be able to sit down and watch. I grew up watching family shows like ‘Speak Out’, ‘Kiddies Vision’, ‘Tales by Moonlight’ and so on and I learned so much watching these shows. These are the kind of contents I want to show, the contents that leave you with a little more knowledge, leave you empowered and with your brain having more ideas.

For me, this is an opportunity to change the narrative around me. I don’t want a situation where parents tell children to go and switch off the TV and read their book but rather I want a situation where they would encourage their children to watch TV because the contents are much more educative. This is medium that can be used for educational purposes and I intend to explore it. I also have interest in acting and hopefully I may be involved in one movie or the other soon.

As a writer and journalist, set up a publication, get journalists involved and build structure and foundation where others carry on because I am not going to do these forever and so I need to train new hands and give opportunity to new people so that they can carry on that vision. Then I want to have a creative school that teaches creative writing, performing art and so on. That would really be lovable to have. I don’t know how it is really going to happen but let’s keep watching! The Isabella Akinseye’s brand will be stringer and very identifiable for what it stands for. Let the will of God be done and let Nigeria be a better country and let me be part of that change and transformation.

Where are your parents based?
My parents live in Nigeria and they have been in great support of my dreams. It is not very easy when your child wakes up one morning and tells you that I don’t want to do that multinational job any more, I want to go into the wilderness and start a teaching job or start writing. Every parent will be asking what if it does not work? But my parents were not like that. It was prayers and letting me know that no matter what, they got my back and I think that everything I am today couldn’t have been possible without God and my family, especially my late grandfather, Professor Victor Mordi who was the bedrock in my life. He supported every dream of mine, he allowed me to think, he allowed me to become my own person. We celebrated his life when he passed on this year. And I look back and say, you can’t tell my story without mentioning my family, especially my late grandfather, Mordi. They played huge role in my life.