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Sonia Aimiuwu : 'When I see our girls on Italian streets, I get challenged'

THE GUARDIAN Sunday, February 29, 2004 Sonia Aimiuwu's childhood dream was to be an actress and singer but her mother would have none of that even though she was the one that encouraged the blossoming of the dream. Instead, she insisted that her little daughter take to a 'responsible and respectable' cause in life by having her study Business Management.But no sooner than Sonia Aimiuwu jetted out of the country and found herself in Italy that she decided to live her dream. With no mother breathing down her shoulder and watching her every move, Sonia decided on her path in life. She enrolled at the
Academy of Music (Centro Jazz Di Torino) in Turin, Italy where between 1992-1997 she studied music. Within a short spell of time, she caught the imagination of the artistic community in Europe, as she became an instant theatre artiste, writer, dancer, choreographer and broadcaster, singer, producer as well as an activist.

She has had the privilege of working with such troupes as Teatro Dell' Angolo Di Turino, Alma Teatro and Teatro Argentina Di Roma, National Television RAI 1, 2 and 3. Beside her making name as one of the few black faces who had been able to hold their own in Italy, she has toured Sweden, Spain, Netherlands, Portugal, Germany and France among others plying her wares.

Her work with immigrants and minority groups has stood her out. She is not just a flagbearer for the women folk only, but among Nigerian immigrants, she is held up as a role model, a saviour and the unofficial Ambassador for Nigeria.

Her Alma Terra, a theatre group, is in the forefront of crusading for immigrants and minorities. They run among others what looks like a micro credit scheme to assist immigrants. She has also upped the stake by ensuring that issues concerning Africa are seen in a positive light and Africa voices heard.

She is the founder and president of Afro Festival Association and she is also involved with a youth organisation known as Youth Express Network (based in Strasbourg).

Sonia runs a radio programme, known as Afromania. Started in 2000, Afromania, which runs on Radio Flash of Turin 97.6FM, is a forum where issues affecting Africans are canvassed. It gives voice to Africans and government officials in Italy are engaged and made to explain their actions and policies as they affect immigrants and minorities group.

On a recent visit home, Sonia, spoke to ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA Being an artiste "I think I was born to be an artist.I was born with it. It is from childhood. I have been acting all my life.

That is what my mother used to say. She says, 'you have always been acting.' I used to sing as well. I was in the church choir from when I was a baby till I grew up.

You know this Esigie Cultural Group (it was one of the famous cultural troupes in Benin then)... My mother was a member. They used to organise lessons, and my mother used to send me to them. So I was always there then.

"I was in the drama group in school. And I had the opportunity to do something with this guy called Friday Agbontaen (aka I go die), a comedian with the former Radio Bendel (now EBS) and then also, my music teacher (Bro Preacher), who had a school in Benin.

He so much loved me that he allowed me into the school free of charge. "But my mother never wanted me to go further. For her, it was something you just have to do there and leave it there. I was learning to play the guitar but I couldn't go further because my brother was always laughing at me.

Then, my mother, she was very tough. She would say, 'throw that guitar away.' She would go to my church and tell them that she didn't want me to come to the choir again.

If I was singing in the choir she would come and pick me out of the choir, and so many things." Going to Europe In a way, her mother succeeded to have Sonia tow her way.

She got into a higher institution in Nigeria where she enrolled for Business Management, but two years into the programme, opportunity to travel to Europe came her way in 1992.

"My luck came when I got abroad ... O! My God! But it was tough." She had an Italian male friend way back then. She informed him that she would like to continue with her studies.

The news gladdened her friend's heart, and he assured her that something would be done about it. But the friend's enthusiasm started to wane when Sonia suggested the impossible: "Then I said to him, 'but isn't there an art school, a music school.' Then, he said, 'Sonia, what do you want to do?' I said I wanted to become an artiste and a singer as well. He just looked at me and said (she said it in Italian just the way her friend had said it to her then): 'All Italians who are here have been studying, and they have not been able to get anywhere, not to talk of you coming from Nigeria, from one village! You say you want to become an actress or singer Go away." In search of art school With her eye trained on becoming an artiste, Sonia was not the type to easily give up on her dream.

"I would tell people, and they will say, 'why do you have to think about that. Go and study some other thing?'. I went to the university and they were telling me you have to sit for about 47 exams. "But I said to myself, it's my mother who wanted that. Me, I don't want this. You mean I can't go to art school? They were telling me, 'Ah! Sonia, it is too difficult, you can't do that'.

Nobody wanted to assist me then." Living on the outskirts of Turin then, she learnt how to take the train. And armed with a little knowledge of Italian language, she took to the streets of Turin on a daily basis in search of an art school alone.

What she did then was to knock on any office that caught her fancy and voiced her request in passable Italian language to anyone who cared to listen to her. "Any office I just see I will burst in and say in Italian: 'look, I am from Nigeria, my name is Sonia. I want to act and sing!' They will look at me and they will say, 'no, here, we sell plates. O! Don't you see we sell plates here?' They will then write the address of the place I should go to and even describe it for me. "But I would just go to the next shop and say, 'look, I am from Nigeria, I am Sonia, I want to sing and dance!' They will just look at me and say: 'But we don't have a school here. We sell things.' Her break That was how she went about it until she chanced on the Music Academy (Centro Jazz Di Torino).

At the school, she regaled the fellow she met with what had become her famous introduction. This time around, the fellow, an Italian, caught on and asked her to sing something for him, which according to her, she did so well, falling back on her repertoire, her personal composition. Impressed with her performance, she was further sent to one of the teachers in the academy. Her encounter with the teacher was also interesting by her own account. This was how it went: "I went downstairs to see the teacher. When he saw me, he said to me, 'Pretty girl, who are you?' I said, 'I am Sonia, from Nigeria ...' And he then asked me what I could sing for him. "I sang one of the songs I composed. 'This is lovely', he said to me. 'Where did you get it?', he asked. I told him it was mine. 'Oh! Good', he said. 'Can you sing solfa?', he asked. 'Yes', I said and I did it for him. 'You can start with me,' he then said to me."

That was how Sonia, finally got her break. And so between 1992 and 1997, she studied under the tutelage of some of the best teachers, directors, composers and artistes in Italy.

She, however, remains grateful to her Italian male friend, whose generosity and kindness made it possible for her to pull through the academy because "it was very expensive." While studying, things happened for her so fast that she quickly came to the notice of everyone.

According to her, she was quite sharp, studious and talented in her ways. She was among the few students selected to take part in the jam sessions that the school held every night. During those sessions, she expressed her desire to get on stage (acting) to one of her friends, Elizabeth, who then told her of a women organisation that had just set up a theatre group.

Introduction to Theatre and social activism With Elizabeth's encouragement, Sonia sought out 'Alma Terra', and thus began her life-long relationship with the group that later opened up other vistas in life for her.

"That was how I met my organisation-Alma Terra. It was true that they just formed a new drama group. It was so nice. They didn't only do that but they also helped women.

On my own, I was already working with a charity group in trying to help women. The first thing I was doing with them was translation. They were not really having a lot of problems then. But they will like people to sit by them and translate things for them. They were having workshops too, and I started doing those with them." From Alma Terra, she got involved with such troupes as the National Youth Theatre and also the National Adult Theatre.

She recalled with relish how she got her first role as an artiste in her first production. It was William Shakespeare's 'Midnight Summer Dream.' It was her director, Gabriela in Alma Terra who encouraged her to go for the auditioning. At the auditioning, she introduced herself to the director and the following dialogue ensued: 'Okay, what do you know how to do?', said the director. 'I can sing, I can dance.' Then the director asked her to go on stage and prove herself. She climbed the stage and sang 'When I fall in love.' "He said: 'Okay, you are for the show'. That was how he took me and everything started. I couldn't believe my eyes. I could remember all I went through, my knocking on doors, my studies, but to tell you how Sonia became star... no, no, because it happened just like that.

People come to know you, directors, they want you to work with them, from radio and TV." For her, quick break into the world of art in Europe is something she still finds difficult to fathom. However, she believes that her talent have sold her out. "Yes, talent as well, I think. Even my directors, they tell me, 'Sonia, there is this quality that you have that is difficult to find in other artistes'. I don't know, but they know. They will say, 'when it comes to singing, you will sing. You have a lovely voice. When you move, you dance well. When you act, even with your accent, it is funny.' "You are good looking. People like you. Even the audience would come to you. I don't really know how true it is; all these things they say about me. They would describe you and say you are this, you are that.

There was a journalist in France who wrote that sometimes I was like a woman lion; lioness on stage! The guy was just writing and writing positive things about me in superlative terms. Then, my colleague would come to me and complain. 'Sonia, this is not fair! We are acting together but people will always focus on you. Are we not acting together?' I think it is also the star. The star is there as well. Talent? Yes, but I think there is something else as well." I can't turn my back on Nigerians With the stride she has made in her acting, singing, dancing, radio and TV programmes, there is no doubt that this Nigerian artiste has made it good for herself in a land where being black, being an immigrant and worst still, a Nigerian, stigmatises one. She easily admitted that, "I am okay with what I do. I don't have problems." If she is fine and okay with what she does, why does she risk all that and stick out her head for Nigerians, immigrants and minorities? "When you go out or you see your people on the TV and they say they just caught this girl today; she is from Nigeria, she is going to be deported. Or they've just caught some pimps; they are going to be deported, and they are from Nigeria; and I am from Nigeria; o! my God something should be done. You can't just sit there and say 'I am okay, let's forget about my people'.

It's like something is going to move within you. So with that I try to give a helping hand through the various organisations that I am involved with." For her, activism is a mission. "I believe it is an assignment that I have to do. I sometime say probably, I will not live long! ... It is in you. You have to work to help people. "I believe that what I am earning is not only for me, otherwise everything would not come off like that, just so easy. Now, for me it is easy, but it wasn't so easy. Sometime you get some contracts you don't even expect.

They will say, 'we have this budget.' They will give it to you. So, why should I have to keep all the things to myself." I live for others For Sonia, who says she draws strength from her inner being, there are occasions one has to contend with agonising and frustrating moments in her social crusading efforts, especially when friends and family members confront her with the hard facts of life.

Often she is hit with such words as: 'Sonia, you will get mad; you think you are the only one; you want to help this, help that; don't go and use your money and enjoy yourself and start thinking of marriage and getting children; you will get old and still be there.' Upon deeper reflection, she admitted that, "They are right sometimes. Yes, you get frustrated as well, anyway. Sometimes you really sit down to think. And say, do I have to continue like this, especially when you come back home and you see what is happening." Consequently, she said: "I am living for people. I am not living for myself. I don't have my own private life." Yet, despite the fact that she is overtly accommodating and goes all out to satisfy others, she confesses to that she is not good at keeping relationships.

I am almost a recluse "I know a lot of people but I can't cope with friends. I am not good at it. With a friend, I will just say hello. I can't talk for long. I am always alone. I don't go out. I want to be alone on my own. I just walk by the street. I go around seeking information about immigrants. That is my first target in life. "But I am open. I am very open. I don't like parties. All these official things-wearing lace (material) or what have you... no, no, no, I don't like that. So whenever Nigerians in Italy invite me to a function, I don't go because when I get there I don't feel comfortable.

I always give them something (monetary donations) and that is all. Maybe in churches they call me sometimes and say, 'Sonia give us a special number'. I will go there and give them a special number and they take me back home. That is all. "But when they are wedding... ah, no, no, I am not used to it. Once I tried it with my younger sister, who is in Italy. I went to visit her and she was talking about a wedding; 'Sister, you will come with me, when everybody sees you, they will bow.' I was like telling her, 'please, my love, I can't go'. But she insisted, so I accepted. Could you believe that all the time I was at the bar, while the party was upstairs because I was not able to climb up. Even half of the people were now with me. It was like I was discussing with them. I will chat with some guys and they will now go up and say, 'one babe dey here o!' And everybody was now coming downstairs." I'm not doing well in my music "As an artiste, you have a dream. You say you want to achieve this goal, and you pray, you work hard. You do whatever you can to get there. When you get there, it is always higher.

It is not because you want to show off. No, it is your brain, your mind, it is the environment; even the people, your audience, who are requesting for more. "Like in my music, I am not doing so well because for many years I have been trying to get a good producer for my type of sound (Afro-pop with highlife), but I haven't been able to get one. You need a direct contact. You know when some of the producers have some artistes they don't care about you. "I don't want to do a CD to just copy what others are doing as well. If I want to do something, I do it damn well. I wanted to become an actress, an actress in a responsible way; a singer in a responsible way, I won't just go on a local level to do my CD. I can't put that into the market. I did that to get a producer, which is very difficult." Visit to Nigeria "I last came to Nigeria five years ago. It's like I have been working. I just work. I don't go on vacation. And when I was getting bored, I said, okay, I have to do something.

I have to see Nigeria, just to renew myself: It was very lovely to be back home to meet loved ones. It was something very emotional for me to see the social conditions... It's really, really bad.

It's like you are happy on one side, and on the other side you feel somehow bad. Probably, if I was only an artiste or that I don't care about people, I wouldn't suffer any psychological trauma.

"I am an artiste and I am also an activist. You do a lot with helpless Nigerians over there and you see that things are changing, and when you get back home, it is like, oh, My God, all that you are doing over there is in vain. It is painful because you see that here is worse. People are starving, even children, they are exploited... And women too. They are being abused. I am tired. I said I want to go back. Not because I am not enjoying my stay but what I see when I go out. Babies begging for alms; the situation of things... people sleeping outside and what have you. I feel so bad. That moment, you say, let me give something to help but what can you do? You can't do more than give N100 or N200. "Then you ask yourself, why do things have to happen this way? When we have such a rich country! Everybody knows Nigeria to be a rich country, with many resources... but our leaders;I don't know what they do.

There is a very big gap between the rich and the poor. The rich people look down on the poor. I hate it. It's not good." Although her exposure to the realities of her people back home has raised some conflicts within her, she however, contends that coming home has been a learning process for her even as she informs that she intends to come up with a new strategy when she gets back to her base on how best to collaborate with some NGOs in the country on ways of tackling some of the problems frontally. Said Sonia, "My experience is a lesson. It is going to encourage me as well, work out new strategies, probably trying to get in contact with the NGOs here, that is the ones really working. I didn't do that before. I would now sit back and think properly to try to get in contact with the people, and try to discuss with them what they are doing, and then see what we could do together."

The government should help to get Nigerians off the streets of Europe "I want to plead with this government, I know it is not easy to lead a country, I can understand that. But notwithstanding, I believe, I don't only believe, God knows, God has given us all the resources, wealth is in this country. There is money in this country. Why can't the government look for a way out. I don't want everybody to be the same but just a balance between the low class and the rich.

Even here you don't talk about the middle, high, low classes. "I mean create more job opportunities, try to give free education as well.

Many families don't keep their children in schools again because it is too expensive. And when a child doesn't go to school, what future has that child? We should help in a way that children hawkers shouldn't be in the streets. Children hawkers wouldn't be in the street when there is free education.

The government can afford this. "They should create new things. I see imported things here and there. Before things are out in Italy, they are already in Nigeria. Why don't we focus on what we have? Can't we make the same jeans as from Europe, the same shoes as from Italy?" Nigerian youths should work to secure the future "They should plan for the future, they should work for the future and not for the moment. This is what I always tell them.

When you are working for the moment it is always 'I need money. In Benin City, Adesuwa built four flats; the other one seven flats, cars, whatever.' That's what is reigning. "Then, you are not planning for your future. You are planning for the moment. Then, you are ready to do anything, to even give one part of your liver. We shouldn't be carried away by what others have. Do you know how many of those girls who have flats over here had died of HIV/AIDS! And some are still in the hospitals? Young girls, pretty girls. The last one I was taking care of died three years ago. Her friends called me, 'Oh sister Sonia, she is dead. I think the family (of the girl) were too bad. They killed her'. I just laughed. It's not the family, but you don't have to go and tell them.

This is another issue that is going on: The issue of HIV/AIDS that is killing most of the girls over there." "I have written a script. Someday, I will bring it out. It is a real story. Maybe they will look at it and they will be crying. Let them cry but that is the reality. If you watch a film like that before you will go abroad you will think twice. It is not the government alone, artistes and filmmakers should show the real thing, the reality.

They should help the society to grow. They should emancipate people. They should go deeper into things." Nigerian home video filmmakers are part of the problem Sonia is also not happy with the Nigerian home video filmmakers. She sees their works as too superficial and not helping to treat social issues critically. "What the film makers here are doing, is giving us a bad image. I saw some films that they would go abroad, make their money, come back and become rich. That is not the fact. They have left out the real story. Why don't they do a research to see what is going on? Why not show the other part? It's very wrong.

They should know that prostitution does not involve only money. It involves HIV/AIDS, death, because most of them are being killed on the streets.

It involves exploitation. But that exploitation is so big, so huge that there are many things that go with it. Why not show those aspects of it as well? Let us see the way they really are over there. How things happen to them, how they are raped, how they will chain them as slaves, how they will use iron to burn their hands, how they die in hospitals.

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