Irish Times Africa Day writing competition winning entries

Read the work of winners Lara El-Kadi, Natasha Sutton and Oluwasegun Seriki

Irish Times Africa Day writing competition winners Oluwasegun Seriki and Lara El-Kadi receive their prizes at The Irish Times today. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan

Irish Times Africa Day writing competition winners Oluwasegun Seriki and Lara El-Kadi receive their prizes at The Irish Times today. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan

 

A humorous account of a Nigerian man’s job interview in Dublin; a reflection by an Egyptian girl on the Shannon and the Nile, the two rivers in her life; and a poem based on a visit to Malawi with Concern Worldwide by an All-Ireland debating champion are this year’s winners of the Irish Times Irish Aid Africa Day writing competition.

Lara El-Kadi, 10, a pupil at St Olaf’s National School in Dundrum who is originally from Egypt, is the 2018 primary school category winner. Arabella Adekoya was runner-up. Natasha Sutton, 17, a student at Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty, Co Cork, won the secondary school category. Oluwasegun Seriki won the adult category. Mary Ishabiyi was runner-up.

The winning entries were selected by Martin Doyle, Books Editor of The Irish Times, writer and spoken word artist Dagogo Hart and Karen Gillanders of Irish Aid. The winners each received a selection of books to the value of €50. The African-themed short story and poetry competition for writers of all ages marks Africa Day 2018 and is designed to showcase emerging talent, as well as established writers. This is the fourth year that the competition has taken place. Here are the winning entries.

Primary School category winner: Lara El-Kadi

Rivers
When I was on holiday I spent my time in Egypt with my cousins, aunties and uncles. We had dinner on a boat across the Nile river. At that time I thought of my family strolling on the bridge of the Shannon river.

A long, long time ago there use to live monks on the banks of the Shannon, building monasteries, and surprisingly in Egypt, Pharaohs used to live on the banks of the Nile! They collect food and water and all different types of things to keep them alive.

Nowadays, the rivers are lit up in colourful lights. Tourists from all around the world comes to see the beautiful sunset, sights and enjoy cruises with traditional seafood and drink at night.

The two rivers link with different towns and cities like the Nile goes through Cairo, Giza, Aswan and Luxor, and the Shannon goes through Athlone, Shannon and Limerick. The Shannon is only in Ireland but the Nile is in most of Africa, it is like the heart of Africa.

There are row boats nearly everywhere in the two rivers for people to go fishing. The two rivers give life to everyone in Ireland and Egypt. I would like to say to everyone please keep the rivers tidy. Two rivers, two countries, I have a heart for both.
Lara is originally from Egypt and has been living in Ireland for the last eight years. Lara lived in Athlone for seven years and moved to Dublin with her family last summer. Lara is passionate about arts, reading and writing, sports and making new friends. Lara is 10 years old and she is attending St Olaf’s National School in Dundrum. She will be in 5th class next year.

Secondary School category winner: Natasha Sutton

The sun glistens in the sky over rural Malawi. It is the middle of July.
A teenage girl walks five kilometres to school,
Her face gleaming with delight.

In Cork we leave our beds, prepared for our journey to a land so very far from our own.
Fourteen hours later, our plane prepares to touch the ground of Lilongwe. We take our first steps on the soil of Africa. The midst of the unknown.

The Warm Heart of Africa it was and remains,
The Lake so vibrant and pure.
The road a burnt orange colour. Goats line the way.
Bicycles drift to and froe.
Market Stalls nearby,
Oranges, sugarcane, Irish potatoes,
Chitenjes, nsima and mice.

The girl arrives at school,
Awaiting her day ahead,
Education a powerful weapon
Which she is so happy to possess.
Table and chairs there are few,
But an atmosphere second to none,
Kilo kilo kilo!
An excellent job well done!

Her eyes deep and blue,
The exact same colour as mine.
Her smile I cannot forget,
Her nature so loving and kind.

She tells me she would love to knit,
A lifelong skill she dreams to have.
She tells me she would like a schoolbag. The words linger to this day.
A schoolbag could change her perspective. A schoolbag could change her life.

Her dress was green and yellow,
Colours reminiscent of home,
Our home back in Ireland,
The Emerald Isle we adore.
As we are greeted with song and dance, A Malawian welcome true and true.
We can not help but remember our land and the musical tradition too.
Similarities there are many,
Differences there are few,
The warm kind nature of our people
Malawi and Ireland we are two.

A country so very small,
We travelled a district a day,
Lost in the heart of Africa,
A hidden gem to this day.

From Phalombe to Mangochi,
A journey we did take,
A special thought inside our heads,
A warm remembrance we don’t forget.

Much more alike then different
A friendship so very rare.
For a moment our paths had crossed
Under that summer Mangochi air.

I hope some day to meet you.
To see your face once more.
Perhaps that day we shall see you.
In rural Malawi once more.

Natasha is 17 years of age and a student at Sacred Heart Secondary School, Clonakilty, Co Cork. Natasha is passionate about development education and youth participation, in particular the SDG’s.Her entry was based on a field visit to Malawi in July 2017 with Concern Worldwide, after my team and I became Concern Debate All-Ireland Champions.

Adult Category winner: Oluwasegun Seriki

Getting the first Irish job: A reflective piece
It was a going to be a good day. Always a good day, when its raining in Dublin. However, not on the day I was going to interview for a job. Back home in Nigeria, this would have been a bad omen. Or maybe my enemies from Yobo village in Ogun state had incited the local goddess of rain to punish me for escaping. ‘Ah, Sure Look It’, I smirked in my fake Irish accent. I was finally going to get a job today, my first job in Ireland. Although, I trained as an engineer, finding a job in Ireland as a student is the hardest thing for a black student. Sorry, second hardest thing - when compared to finding a room in Dublin for less than 500EUR a month. I digress. Sporting a rock star smile and dapper looking clothes, I hurried in the rain to catch the Dublin bus number 16. If you have ever travelled on the Dublin bus 16, you would know that it is indeed a unique experience. From the tourist who keeps asking where the city centre is, to the anxious passenger who is scared of missing their flight, it is indeed a worthwhile experience. Do not forget the old ma’am on the bus, who would keep asking where you are “originally from”. Africa, duh! I contemplated getting myself a customised nameplate, with my country of origin hanging around my neck. Would make things much simpler, innit? Is that even an Irish word? Ah, forget I wrote that. Let’s get on with the story.

At last, I arrived the city centre stop and almost forgot to say the infamous “Thank You” to the bus driver. For months, I wondered why people in Dublin were so polite, thanking the drivers. But after spending three months, I just thanked them all the same. As the saying goes, when you get to Rome, you act like the Romans. I looked around the city centre and wondered if anyone knew who I was. I was going to get a job! I was going for an interview to be employed! Did they even know that? Phew! Nobody seemed to notice though, or maybe they didn’t care. I strolled along and typed the directions for my interview on Google Maps. In seven minutes, I reached my destination.

“Good morning. My name is Oluwasegun Seriki, and I am here to see Mr. Gerry (not real name)”, I said in my most pleasant tone to the receptionist.

“Please take a sit and he will come for you in a moment. What did you say your firstname is again?”, she replied me.

“O-L-U-WA-SE-GUN”, I mouthed off to her. I know it takes quite an effort to pronounce that. I wondered how she would feel if I gave her the full version. Oluwasegun was just a shortened version of my name. My full name is Oluwasegunfunmitan. Yeah, try pronouncing that yourself if you can.

“OL-WA-SHE-DUN?”, she asked again getting confused as she picked up the receiver to call the person I was to meet.

“SE-GUN”, I answered. “GUN as in a gun”, I explained further, trying hard not to use sign language to demonstrate that my name sounds like an AK-47 or something similar. “Just call me SE-RIKI”, I said to her, exasperated. The last name was less complicated and easier to pronounce.

“Hi Gerry, there is a man named SE-RIKLI in the reception, waiting to see you….”, she said into the receiver. I was not a bit worried and just smiled. You don’t want to give a bad impression at an interview you know. Maybe it was all part of the process. Maybe she wanted to test my ability to stay cool under pressure. I wasn’t falling for this. I was getting the job, even if she calls pronounces my name wrong a thousand times.

The interviewer showed up in few minutes and was delighted to see me. We took a poshly designed lift to an office on the 2nd floor, and I was ushered into a well-designed office. As I was offered a seat, I took few minutes to look around and try to absorb the environment. You never know where questions will come from these days. As someone who had worked in mid-level management roles previously, interviewing for an office assistant role was not a problem. At the end of the interview, I was asked if I was prepared to work weekends, which I declined. The interviewer asked why, and I said “Well, you see, I am a pianist in my church, so I have to be there on Saturdays and Sundays”.

Then came the question that blew the top. “This is a personal question and will not affect your interview…But I will like to ask….Are you protestant or Catholic?”

I froze internally, while smiling externally. A million sirens blew off in my mind, as I studied the man and I knew this was a defining question. I knew the question was not on the list, but was something beyond this man, beyond the company…beyond his generation.

“Errr…I am protestant”, I responded. I took a deep breath, as I watched a flash of expression cross his face. I didn’t know what that expression meant, but I saw his face change structure and I knew I was dead meat. He laughed and spoke up.

“By the way, I am Catholic but thanks all the same for coming, Seriki. I will get back to you via email when I make a selection”, he said in a voice void of emotion.

As I began my journey back home, I quickly opened my phone to check possible reasons why this could be. I know of the dark history of Muslim/Christian wars in Nigeria, and the ongoing scourge that this has caused within Northern Nigeria, but little did I know that there was a silent war going on in Ireland too. I began sweating slowly, knowing that the job was already lost. I knew what religious and faith-based sentiments cause within the society I used to live in, and I thought - it must be the same here. I clicked through my phone and opened a new tab..www.jobs.ie. I needed to start considering alternatives. I was convinced that the man definitely would not hire me. From what I read online, I began to fear as I read historical accounts, making me reach a conclusion that the job was already lost. Several prejudiced thoughts ran through my head, and I began wishing I had not answered the question at all.

Would he use that question as a determinant to make a hiring decision? I began a tirade of self-pity and denigration, listing several other reasons why he would not even hire me. I even began retrospection, looking back at previous work experience in Nigeria, where such bias could have led to my missing opportunities. If it happened there, it would happen now.

As I walked back home, I decided against taking the bus to give some time to think clearly and ease my disappointment (actually, this was also to save the €2.15 student fare back home). The indicator of a new email on my phone blinked, and as I saw the subject line “RE: Interview”, I decided against opening it. I wasn’t going to let this guy mess up my afternoon. I had received several emails like this previously, and it was the usual line:

“Dear Mr. Seriki,

Thank you for attending the interview for the role of …………….After careful consideration, we are sorry to inform you that we found other candidates who are well suited for the role. We wish you best of luck in your job search.

Kind regards,

Human Resources.”

I was not going to fall for it . The temptation to delete the message immediately was so strong, but I resisted and gave the benefit of a doubt. Maybe, just maybe…

“Dear Seriki,

Thank you for attending the interview. I am happy to inform you that you have been accepted for the role. Please bring a copy of your PPS number and …….”

I could not believe my eyes. How come? Did the man not consider that he would have an assistant who was protestant? How would he be able to work with me, knowing this? I went on to work with this man for more than a year, and we still have a great relationship till now.

This experience has shown me that despite the dark history among cultures, it is important for people to be able to move beyond the past and forge better paths for the future. This experience has not left me the same, and I hope to be able to return home and spread this message within the professional space in Nigeria. The message on non-discrimination on the basis of religion, gender or any other issue is much needed within recruitment in Nigeria, and Africa at large, and employers should be encouraged to adopt non-discriminatory laws within their HR policies.

Looking back, I appreciate how Ireland has gone beyond the nuances in its religious history and enacted laws that prevent non-discrimination on any grounds. I also love the mind-set of the people to engage with these laws, and move past personal prejudices for the greater good. There are important lessons to be learned from this for Africa and Africans, especially communities that still battle with such differences.
Oluwasegun Seriki is from Nigeria, and is undertaking a PhD at the College of Engineering and Built Environment at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. He is married to Tae, and lives in Co Longford. He loves writing and travelling, and aspires to become an engineering professor in the future

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