Spotlight: Philister Sidigu, ‘A Ditch in Madagali’ playwright

Fehinty African Theatre Ensemble (FATE) will debut the world premiere of A Ditch in Madagali by Philister Sidigu this May. Inspired by a true story, A Ditch in Madagali follows the lives of two women trying to survive the attacks of Boko Haram in their northern Nigerian village. It is a harrowing story of grief, resistance, and a mother’s unwavering love and commitment to her daughter’s well being.

We sat down with Madagali playwright Philister Sidigu, who is also the FATE Playwright in Residence, to discuss why she needed to write this story.

FATE Playwright in Residence Philister Sidigu.

What inspired you to write this play?

A Ditch in Madagali was commissioned by Fehinty African Theatre Ensemble (FATE). It started with a conversation I had with Dr. Adesida, she called me out of the blue to tell me she was listening to the radio and heard one of the most inspiring stories she had ever heard about the depths a mother would go through to protect her daughter. Being that I had written Wrecked as my first feature play with FATE and it spoke to the struggles and determination of Sudan’s Lost Girls and Boys, she felt that I would be able to write this play. After listening to the interview of Zainabeu Hamayaji, I understood immediately why this story had to be told. So often we hear about terror from a global perspective and we remove ourselves from it because of the distance, but we can all relate to a mother’s love for her child. I was inspired by the mothers in my life, especially my mother, and their commitment to caring for their kids. I saw Mama Fatima as a representation of the love so many women give in a world that can be so cruel to these women. I also was inspired to bring life to these women, to see them as more than just victims, and share the journey so many of these women face when their villages are attacked by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Philister Sidigu and FATE Artistic Director Dr. Teju Adesida during a rehearsal of Sidigu’s Wrecked, 2017. Image: Obisoulstar.

What did your process for writing this play look like?

I initially started out with a lot of research. I was lucky enough to be able to interview women who had a connection to the region in Nigeria where unfortunately Boko Haram attacks have happened. I then started to imagine the lives of people in that region. I was especially interested in women and girls. What are their day to day tasks? How do they live? How do they communicate with each other? In doing so, I was able to start building the relationship between Mama Fatima and Fatima. As many will notice, there’s a lot of love between the two of them even though they sometimes struggle to understand each other. In terms of writing the actual play, it is a process done mostly in solitude. I am a writer who tries to hide from distractions and/or influences. I try to embody my characters and the decisions they are making. The best part is that I was able to go back and ask questions throughout this process. To consult with women from that region to get a better understanding of what rang true and what didn’t.

This NPR story broke in the fall of 2017. How do you think media coverage of Boko Haram has changed since the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, spurring #BringBackOurGirls?

I think the media oversimplifies most of the news from other countries. We often get a very one-sided perspective of what is going on and have to dissect that. I notice this even as a Kenyan-American watching Kenyan news in America and talking to family members living in Kenya. Beyond any type of biased reporting, the media is constantly looking for the next breaking news item and so we don’t get as much in-depth reporting. Honestly, this happens even with news in our cities; just look at the way news is reported depending on the neighborhood or individuals being highlighted. The Chibok school girls is a perfect example of that. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign became a social media sensation but there was little focus on the girls after they were found. So many of their lives have been shattered yet they are resilient in sharing their experiences and living their lives. It’s interesting because in telling people about this play, many assumed that Boko Haram was no longer attacking villages and schools because they had not heard about it in the news. That is not the case, these attacks still continue to happen today in Northern Nigeria and we need to understand that just because we don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Chicago’s 2014 #BringBackOurGirls rally.
Image: Philister Sidigu.

The story of Zainabeu Hamayaji, on whom you based the character Mama Fatima, tells quite the dramatic tale without needing much embellishment: themes of terror, heartbreak, love, and resilience. Why do you think there hasn’t been a play written about this story until now?

I honestly don’t know. I think Boko Haram is a difficult topic in general. I for one struggled with how to present Mama Fatima. I felt I hadn’t treated her well, and yet, realized it was the world that hadn’t treated her well. It is hard to tell the complexities of one’s world in a few hours, but as writers that is our job: to share, question, and reflect. The sharing has to be complex and honest and the questioning has to be constant. What would I do in this situation? How would I treat those around me? Would my morals change? In war, people make these choices and that’s what makes these stories so difficult. In a way they force us to question ourselves and our humanity. Sometimes this reflection comes from seeing ourselves in a certain character or situation.

“It is hard to tell the complexities of one’s world in a few hours, but as writers that is our job: to share, question, and reflect.”

I would also add that I am honored to be telling this story with FATE. There is something to be said about the importance of community theaters, about immigrants sharing their stories, and a cast and crew of mostly Africans. It’s the reason I was so honored to have my first feature play, Wrecked, produced by FATE. This play feels almost like a coming home of sorts and it makes me feel safe in a way that I don’t know I would feel at any theater company. 

What do you want this show to inspire in others?

I hope it inspires people to ask questions and to continue to seek answers about not just the Chibok girls but about the struggles of women around the world. To do research long after it is no longer breaking news. So often we hear about wars, terrorist attacks, and even migration but we don’t take the time to research and understand why these tragedies are happening. We don’t learn enough about other terrorist groups like Boko Haram until it is too late. I’ve always believed that by continuing to learn about others we are also learning about ourselves. I want people to leave the play wanting to learn more about women like Zainabeu Hamayaji—her life, her aspirations, and her journey.

Is there anything else about the story, play, or your writing that you’d like people to know?

I would just add that as I said before this is a difficult topic. As someone who advocates self-care, I would just like to add a trigger warning for sexual violence, physical violence, terrorism, and grief. It is always my intention to be honest about the lives of my characters while keeping the safety of my audience in mind.

A Ditch in Madagali will premiere May 10-26th, 2019 at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Avenue.

Tickets can be purchased here.

One thought on “Spotlight: Philister Sidigu, ‘A Ditch in Madagali’ playwright

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s