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We have all heard at least one version of how the world came to be. Different cultures have different ideas of the beginning of time, carefully woven into a story and passed down from generation to generation. Each creation story, holding its own version of truth, has helped shape the lives, beliefs and cultures of people. So, whether you believe that it all began in the Garden of Eden, or with Obatala’s sand-filled shell, that is the power of a story; to shape, direct, and impact lives.
S.I Ohumu is a big believer in the idea that stories are important, and she is dedicated to telling these stories through different means. She took a little break from telling other people’s stories to tell us hers and it is every bit as compelling as I imagined.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is S.I Ohumu. I’m twenty-five, and from Benin City. I help tell stories about climate action, gender equity, and mental wellness, using text, audio, video, and digital media.
What was your childhood like?
I had an interesting childhood. From trudging through dense ecosystems in one of the famous Benin moats which were on the path to my primary school, to laughing my head off when my older brother in an attempt to retrieve his ball that had landed on top of a stack of bottle crates, fell and got a huge cut. His cry was annoying and I found that funny. I guess I’ve always had an interesting sense of humour.
It’ll be dishonest to not speak about being molested as a child by a family friend and neighbour. A lot of that experience influences the work I do, and this intense need to protect children. In all though, it was a good childhood. I was loved by my mother who was my first image of God, by my siblings and extended family. I grew up inside the living breathing museum that is Benin. I remember it with fondness.
You are right, that is an interesting childhood and I have many follow-up questions! First of all, what was your future ambition as a child and did you ever envision yourself becoming a producer?
I had a very good foundational education, and I have always loved to tell stories. I always knew I could tell stories, it started as writing, and moved to host radio shows for my secondary school, UPSS, then it moved to hosting the school’s weekly TV show, UPSS and CANP world, and serving as the editor for the magazine.
Oddly though, despite all of this experience, I never considered storytelling as a profession. Because I did well in school, I was taught to aspire to all the usual suspects: Medicine, Law, one time I even considered Pharmacy.
So, how did you get into this line of work?
There is a common mistake people make. Because I can be quite extroverted, there is the assumption that I am best utilized in an audience facing role. So from the time I was fifteen, I worked as a radio host first with AIT’s Raypower, and later with Silverbird’s Rhythm FM Benin. I was good at it, but I did not enjoy it.
So I began testing out other forms of storytelling. I contributed to a Pidgin blog, Zazu Gist, writing mostly about the ASUU strikes and giving social commentary. But, pidgin is a vocal language, it loses something when written. I tried my hand at digital media communications with The British Council, writing about technology for Tech Cabal, I even worked for a year with the governor of Edo State as programs and communication manager in the Office of Special Duties. It was in this role that I discovered that back-end people are responsible for the success of any product.
While with the Edo state government, I founded a social enterprise called Ubini. One of our initiatives is called #SpaceBenin. It’s a community of over 300 young artistically inclined people. We host events and activities to foster climate action, gender equity, and mental wellness.
All of these experiences helped me audit my motivations and passions. I knew I wanted to tell stories that had an impact. I also knew I did not want to be customer-facing. I do not want to be the voice you hear on the radio. I have no interest in being the face on your screen. I want to be the guy who does everything to make sure the person on the screen gives you the best show. I’m a back-end guy. Armed with this knowledge of self, I quit my job at the government house and took on a role that changed my life.
Yes! Let’s talk about Sex For Grades which is one of the most compelling documentaries to come out of Nigeria. Tell me about your experience producing this masterpiece.
Sex for Grades was my first proper experience on a production team. My friends Charlie and Chiara produced and directed the film. It was life-changing. Sexual harassment at universities is something I experienced from my first year at uni as a teenager till I graduated – several lecturers were inappropriate with me and my school friends despite being so. So working on the project was a real chance to help create change in an area I really cared about.
It was tough work. Mentally and physically strenuous. For weeks after filming wrapped I had nightmares. Thankfully, the team became family while filming and investigating so we all had ongoing support and were always safe. I enjoy hard work. I get into a deep work zone when I have my teeth in a project, and become all energy. Working on such a badass team, such a young team, with mostly women, was life-affirming. And for us to actually change things, help get a whole bill passed, omo!
Sex for Grades was proof of concept for me. Stories matter. Stories can change things.
Sex for grades made such a huge impact and even contributed to the passage of a bill. But not every story results in measurable change. How do you deal with the fact that some of the stories you tell have no immediate and obvious impact?
Every story might not make as huge an impact as Sex for Grades did, but every story does have an impact, an impact that is tangible and can be measured. They may not be immediate, but they happen.
I start every new project by listing the objectives. I love planning. Really. Half of my time is spent on concept notes, action plans, and checklists. Structure aids creativity. So, I must know the specific, measurable, achievable goals for each story. I’ll give you an example. I recently wrote a personal essay about grooming. I wrote it for very specific reasons. I wanted to tell a messy, true story with nuance because I did not think that story had been written before. More than anything else, I wanted women with similar experiences to know they are not alone. I wanted it to be well written, with accessible language. To be fair, honest, and engaging. I also wanted it to make as little noise as possible.
So I published it on my little known Medium blog and logged off Twitter. About a week later, I decided to do an audit. I do this for all of my projects. Did the story have the intended impact? Did women connect with it? Yes. I got DMs, and oddly, emails, saying they had similar experiences. One person emailed a video of her crying, I hope she’s doing well.
Was it well written? I think so. Someone set up a Zoom call and offered me a job after reading the essay. That was a very interesting compliment.
Was it fair? I struggle with that one.
I say all of this to say, every story has an impact. At least, everyone, I am involved in. If you think it through before creating and maintain a devotion to excellence in the process of making it. You will see an impact that you can measure. It may not change laws, but at the least, it may change hearts.
What is the most jarring thing you have ever produced?
It’s bad. I once wrote an essay titled ‘Performing Poverty.’ It was a personal essay on living as though I was poor for “the experience.” Such a terrible thing to do. It was and remains the worst thing I have ever done. I randomly remember in the middle of the day and am enveloped with guilt and shame. I am so sorry.
It was a terrible thing to write. And it is proof of the privilege that I have, one that I abused, that this terrible thing gifted me an invaluable life lesson.
We are all infinitely fallible. You can do incredibly bad things. I don’t care how progressive you think you are. You can, and probably will do bad. And what mistakes like this do is give you unbiased feedback of who you are. You should learn from them. Don’t waste your Ls.
These days, I tend to not be quite absolute with my thinking. No person is all bad, in the same way, no one is all good. Nobody, not one person, has a monopoly on wokeness. Whatever your ism is, however many they are, you remain fallible. You must try to find your faults and address them. I will try my best to not hurt people. And when I do, I will apologize, learn, and do better. I will extend this kind of honest feedback to others while holding space for them in hopes that they audit their behaviour and do better.
In the end, I asked the online magazine where it was published to take it down. Talking about this has been hard. It is my greatest hope that I can do more good than bad.
Do you think that as a female producer, you have unique experiences that differ from your male counterparts? If yes, tell me about it.
Female producer. I don’t think I have ever thought of myself as a female producer before. My lived experience for sure differs from those of people of other genders. My motivations, biases, the things I care about. For example, as a queer woman, inclusion matters to me. This means when I am picking stories, assembling guest lists, and people to interview, I actively consider inclusion. Are there any women on this list? Non-binary folk? Non-heterosexual? People from ethnic groups that are not the big three? Are different age groups represented? Differently-abled people?
I tend to think of it as being in a position of power. There is something incredibly powerful about seeing the world through eyes that have been othered. You see differently, and as a result, you tell stories differently.
As for harassment and pay gaps, that happens, and I deal with it. The work is a marathon, not a sprint. People can close doors, but not for long.
Your job requires you to interact with a lot of people. Do you consider yourself a people’s person? How do you handle interacting with all kinds of people?
People are useful. They are inquisitive, kind and interesting. They can also be mean, and do bad things. I don’t particularly like being around a lot of people. I have to, many times so I do. But I prefer to be alone. I like trees more than I like people.
There is a pragmatism that helps me, especially when working with all sorts. I work well with everyone because it is how to get the work done. I will however only become friends or even acquaintances with persons who I want around. People who are kind, empathetic, have a devotion to excellence.
Everyone else serves their purpose to me in the same way I serve mine to them. And when the situation becomes untenable, we exit.
I wonder if that sounds cold. It’s just that I have work to do. Work that matters. Women are still treated as subpar. Mental ill-health is still looked at with disdain, villages in Edo state are being flooded. There is work to do. Urgent work. There’s no time to fixate on people who do not advance the work. Fix problems and focus on impact.
Honourable mention to my lovely family and friends who I love and who love me.
What is the one thing you wish all Nigerians knew?
I wish Nigerians knew more about climate change and took action. The effects of climate change are already being felt across the regions of the country. Think of the farmer-herder clashes and you can draw a straight line between desertification and violence. There’s flooding in places like Lagos which results in millions of losses and damages. We’ve got coastal erosion.
These things are especially bad because we do not have the institutions, infrastructure, funds, or political will to mitigate and adapt to these terrible changes. If we stand a chance, we must lead the change ourselves because the Nigerian government, big business, and developed countries are mostly responsible for this mess, none of them will do the work if we do not hold them accountable. From the quality of the air you breathe to the water you drink, the temperature, volume of rainfall, job availability, food security, health, everything is at stake. Nigerians must broaden their knowledge base on climate action, and get to work. Urgently.
What a woman! I am intrigued, impressed, and inspired all at once by S.I. Ohumu. It is a good thing that she believes in stories, and better that she is committed to telling these stories. But perhaps the best thing is that she has allowed me to tell her own story – a story just as compelling and Impactful as the ones she has spent her life telling.