The recent issue of banditry all over the country is a clear sign that the human life in Nigeria suffers indignity. While musical instruments can be found in the hands of some (music), guns can be found in the hands of others (chaos). Should we continue to watch the psyche of young people destroyed by our negligence or should we nurture them proactively and constructively to grow into responsible adulthood? What life or story do we want to convey to the future generation? I have a story to tell.
The human life itself is a story and one good way we can tell this story – that is, one good way we can live – is to make it a piece of gratitude to God. The life of His Grace, Most Rev. Dr. Valerian Okeke is a life that symbolizes gratitude. And so, in appreciating him, one can appreciate the ideals of gratitude which he not only preaches but embodies. Archbishop Valerian Okeke Music Academy, AVOMA for short, is an eloquent story of gratitude. It is a group under the Archbishop Valerian Okeke Youth Foundation (AVOYF). The archbishop’s love for the youth is interesting as this is one of the many projects he has for the youths. But for now, the focus is on AVOMA and I do hope that I succeed in making an attempt to unravel the legacies in that Academy.
AVOMA started formally in the year 2013. The group is currently led by Rev. Fr. Stephen Ifeanyi who does not tire to find novel ways of engaging the pupils and students of the academy creatively, thereby widening their imaginations. The structure of the academy allows the students of the academy to also share some responsibilities in the administration, and so Ngwu Benedict is the General Prefect, while Chisom Enendu is the Administrative Secretary, amongst other departmental leaders. The academy at the moment has over 200 students and pupils.
It is interesting to note that this number does not overwhelm quality, it matches it instead. AVOMA has performed in many events including performance for His Excellency, Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion (2018); performance at Governor Willie Obiano’s residence at Aguleri (2019); Archbishop’s Christmas carols (annually), to mention but a few. It is particularly remarkable that the group on its own has organized yearly music festivals, Easter concerts and Bazaars at the Cathedral Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity, Onitsha. They remained undeterred by the Covid-19 pandemic as they organized a virtual concert in August, 2020, to entertain the world, thereby adding some colours to the universe, amidst the grisly gloom that the pandemic brought upon humanity.
Obviously these young ones – though several of them are neither from rich homes nor even the middle class families – are not the ones that would go out killing, and destroying people’s properties. What has government at all levels been doing about creativity development of young people all over the states in Nigeria? “Teach a child how he should live, and he will remember it all his life” (Proverbs 22:6). We may neglect the child, to our peril. AVOMA is a story I recommend for Nigerian political leaders as regards handling the youth; may they read and hopefully, find new understandings.
In the academy, the pupils and students study different types and styles of music like Western classical music (choral and orchestral), pop gospel, African folk music, Highlife, amongst other musical styles. Fr. Stephen Ifeanyi, the Director of the Academy, reveals in his words that “AVOMA strives to inspire and develop young people to achieve their full musical potentials and acquire skills so as to revolutionize the world of music”. He continues to explain that the vision the administrators have for AVOMA is “to encourage students to appreciate, value, and perform music so as to attain the highest standard of music education through innovative individual and group programs.”
In an increasingly conformist world where the trend for a number of young people is to lack discipline and morality in brazen manner, the academy intervenes with remarkable timeliness by standing on the principles of “holiness and discipline” as its motto. It is my hope that the Ministry of Culture, Anambra State, will come to appreciate what a group like AVOMA represents for the cultural development of Anambra State, and Nigeria at large.
We cannot fully comprehend the illumination that AVOMA brings if we fail to appreciate how it throws light on the areas we fail in respect to human development in Nigeria. AVOMA is “a work of art” and this art is built out of deep insight. It takes insight to appreciate this piece of art – this piece of gratitude – beyond seeing the group as a performing group. It is a bold statement of gratitude for the gift of life, and the students/pupils of the academy are groomed to live their life as a quality piece of gratitude to God in the ways they live in the society. It is in prioritizing that we show the extent of gratitude we want to express through our life and in our lifetime.
His Grace, Most Rev. Dr. Valerian Okeke has indeed prioritized well by investing in human development, in a quiet and graceful manner. This act does not seek praise or notice, it is simply, “doing the needful”. Without such structures in place, what will be the fate of the human person in Nigeria if we go on merely acquiring knowledge without being fully humanized? This question is not as simple as it appears. Indeed, if human beings in a society are not groomed properly and thoroughly, we stand a chance of awaiting the destruction of the society by those same persons who otherwise possess the potential of building the society.
Yes, Kukere has come to stay, Skelewu is here, Shoki is interesting, Shaku Shaku is still here, but we also need “music for the head” (music that will enhance our ability to engage in cognitively demanding tasks); that’s a good way to balance our experience of music and enrich our lives. The mind needs to be developed just as the legs and waist need to dance too. If young children grow with balanced experience of music, we can be sure to have better humanized and creative adults in future. Psalm 127 verses 3 and 4 states thus: “children are a gift from the Lord; they are a real blessing. The sons a man has when he is young are like arrows in a soldier’s hands. Happy is the man who has many such arrows”.
We need arrows in our hands and not shallowly developed individuals; we need to sharpen such arrows and not to make man obtuse. “Happy is the man who has many such arrows. He will never be defeated when he meets his enemies in the place of judgement” (psalm 127: 5). It is really out of gratitude that we should afford ourselves the opportunity to support projects like AVOMA in our different communities. These “arrows” will in future, build the society and not burn it down as we see in recent times. It is at this point that I will appreciate the contributions of Engineer Johnbosco Onunkwo who recently built a befitting house for the academy. This is a good way to prioritize and I pray that more of such investments into social entrepreneurial ventures will spread across Nigeria.
In conclusion, the AVOMA pupils and students still attend school, some of them hawk sachet water for their parents after school, while some stay in their parent’s shop. Indeed, they assist their parents in various regards, but they are being solidly prepared to live above their current situations, and this is not magic. They are not being magically uprooted from their circumstance to assume a new glamour. They are being raised gradually but surely to a brighter future and they are being raised in a manner that they understand the need to give back to the society. As they engage the Onitsha community from time to time with quality music and creative atmosphere, they are already giving back; building and not destroying. The same kids and youths who would have become criminals and we spend money in weapons are not just secured from joining bandits, but they are healing the world which had broken them in the first place. Above all, the AVOMA kids enjoy “the Grace” of the Archbishop and nothing beats that. Most Rev. Dr. Valerian Okeke is truly His Grace, personified! AVOMA is indeed a piece of gratitude to the Glory of God! Let us join in this beautiful “story of creation.”
–Gerald Eze is a teacher, folk music collector and performer