Fa’izah Muhammad is the winner of the 2023 UONGOZI essay competition organised by the Institute of Tanzania for young Africans between the ages of 18 and 25, tagged ‘2023 Youth Leadership Competition’. She defeated 1,150 participants from over 30 African countries. In this conversation with Edugist, she shares her thoughts and creative process on her winning essay entry. Excerpts:
Please share with Edugist, a little about yourself and your education background.
I am a 22-year-old from Niger state, Nigeria, but I was born in and schooled in Abuja until I got into university at age 16 years. I studied Common law at the University of Ilorin and graduated in December 2022 with a second class honours (upper division). Before that, I attended Great Heights Academy, an Islamic girls’ school in Abuja.
Congratulations on winning the 2023 UONGOZI essay competition. Can you tell us about your winning essay and the inspiration behind it?
Thank you. As you know, the competition required participants to give their answer to the question, “If you were an African leader, how would you promote intra-African trade to unlock agricultural potential in Africa?”
I’ve had a nerdy obsession with international policy and development for years now, so when I saw this topic, it felt like a culmination of all the reading and research I’ve done over the years. But I knew that all my preparation would be useless unless I could take my time and present my thoughts in a compelling piece.
My essay was titled ‘Campaign promises’ and the narrative style was inspired by the just concluded Nigerian election. This was the first election I ever voted in, and my draft was informed by the kind of idea-based discourse I wanted to see, and that I hope we will begin to demand from the candidates running for the highest seats in the land.
What was your writing process like for this particular essay? Do you have any strategies or techniques which help you write more effectively?
My procrastination rears its head forcefully when I try to write, so I’ve learnt to make it work for me. The first step of writing any essay for me is a mandatory period of creative procrastination. I read the essay topic and let it essentially marinate at the back of my mind, while making connections with the books and articles I read and the media I consume. For this essay, I remained at this stage for weeks.
When I felt confident that I understood the topic and what it required of me, I began to do more intentional research. At this point, I needed to find flaws in my reasoning so I began to consult journal articles and check myself with data. For example, “I think that a lack of access to funds for agricultural innovation is a huge factor affecting international food trade. Do the statistics confirm this position?”
When I finally felt ready to write, I put it all down in less than two hours, did a cursory check and then abandoned it for another week. After that, I edited it another four to five times; running it through a spellchecker often, editing as objectively and brutally as I could and then forcing myself to ignore it again for another few days until I lost my attachment to the story I had in my head.
I’d even change the font on the document so that I could read the essay with fresh eyes and see my mistakes. But ultimately, I think that the most effective writing strategy is to read widely, read a lot and practice writing as often as possible.
What role do you believe essay writing plays in African societies today, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Essayists have always introduced (even though usually in abstract ways that need to be translated to the public) ideas that shape society. And now that new ideas in essays are more accessible to readers than ever before, I envision a better future for African development space where policy suggestions reach the people who are in the right position to execute them, much quicker. For this, of course, Africa needs people who have bold ideas and know how to express them in a concrete format that others can interrogate and improve on.
What is the most challenging part of writing an essay, in your opinion, and how do you overcome these challenges?
For me, the most challenging part of writing an essay is when I have to get out of my head and just put the words down on paper. It is easy to convince yourself that you actually don’t have anything important to say when you do. This probably isn’t the most helpful tip since learning to conquer your inner critic is a personal journey, but the best way to overcome this, in my opinion, is to silence the critical voice in your head and just do the work you need to do.
What other essayists have inspired you over the course of your writing career, and how have they influenced your own writing style?
I take my inspiration from fiction writers. The first novel I remember picking up voluntarily as a child was ‘An African Night’s Entertainment’ by Cyprian Ekwensi at about 8 years old, followed by a battered copy of Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta at 9. As someone who has been reading everything I can get my hands on for as long as I can remember, storytelling is incredibly important to me.
Perhaps because I tend to write about topics that people find boring, I try to incorporate stories in my writing and so I take my style inspiration from my favourite fiction writers — Buchi Emecheta, Chimamanda Adichie, Markus Zusak, Sefi Atta, Chibundu Onuzo and countless others.
For how long have you been writing? Have you been a recipient of any writing fellowship or training?
When I was about 14 to 15 years old, my secondary school English teacher (and one of my biggest motivators to this day), Ms Kehinde, made my class write an essay a week for a whole academic session on the most random topics and even though I can hardly remember anything I wrote, I truly believe that I did my best work in that time. And that was the beginning for me. Outside of the drilling I got from her at that time, all my additional knowledge has been from research on the internet.
What are some common mistakes that you see essay writers making, and how can these mistakes be avoided?
One of the commonest mistakes I see, and one that I’m guilty of myself, is writing with no consideration for the reader. This can present itself as writing in high-level jargon, failing to properly structure an essay from one objectively logical thought to another, or falling into the bias of knowing too much and assuming that your audience shares the background knowledge that you’ve acquired from years of experience.
What are your thoughts about the publishing industry in Africa?
I don’t know very much about the publishing industry in Africa, so I’ll refrain from commenting on this.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I prefer to be indoors on most days, so my hobbies are very tame. When I’m not working (I’m currently a corps member serving at the National Human Rights Commission) or volunteering (I was in charge of street law and mass legal education at the Legal Aid Clinic in my University), I read a lot of books and articles and listen to a lot of podcasts. I also find myself getting into deep research rabbit holes on Wikipedia and YouTube in my free time.
In addition, I am looking into learning pottery because I’ve been fascinated with the life that Ladi Kwali lived, and learning French because I feel like I would enjoy the challenge. Those are very much solo activities though, so I try to socialise intentionally with my family, close friends and the members of my book club.
Has the structure of your home and family dynamics influenced your desire to go into writing?
Yes. My family is probably the most supportive family that anyone could have. My parents bought me my first books and applauded all my wins, from all the ‘Best in English’ awards in primary school to the first national essay competition I won, organised by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management in 2019. Deciding to write requires a certain audacity, and I know that I couldn’t have made even a quarter of the strides that I have, so far, if I didn’t know that I had the full backing of my family.
What advice do you have for aspiring essay writers who are looking to improve their craft and potentially enter essay contests themselves?
Write essays that you would want to read. Nobody would do anything more than skim if your writing does not display a mastery of the fundamentals; basic grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Good writing does not come from any kind of natural talent. It requires you to read what good writers read and write, dedicate time to practise, experiment with styles and research ways to communicate your thoughts in the most effective ways. Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it.
Your creativity can only shine through if you enjoy the process of doing research, playing around with styles and wrapping your ideas up in fun stories. Of course, it’s important to challenge yourself, but if a certain type of writing just doesn’t resonate with you? Let it go and find some other subject or genre that brings you joy.
Draw from a diverse group of friends. I have benefited from a large network of friends and acquaintances from whom I get guidance when I’m confused, motivation when I am unsure and sometimes, just access to opportunities. When you widen your network, you widen the pool of knowledge where you can draw linkages between the obscure ideas and seemingly unconnected subjects that come up in conversation, and that is invaluable for any writer.
What are some upcoming projects or essays that you are currently working on, and what can readers expect from your writing in the future?
I’ve slowed down a bit on those now, but I am still entering international writing competitions because I enjoy the challenge and the validation that comes after. But soon, I plan to try my hand at writing reviews of classic books from writers across Africa. There are so many gems hidden in those books, and I want to use the medium to pull all that beauty out so that we can all gush over them together.