In March 2015, a Nigerian high school student named Adijat spent eight days in Chicago as a participant in the U.S. Department of State’s Pan-Africa Youth Leadership Program. Hosted locally by WorldChicago, the program promotes leadership, mutual understanding, and community service for teens from sub-Saharan Africa. Students reside with Chicago-area families throughout the exchange to experience everyday life in America.
During a free weekend, Adijat’s Chicago homestay host Elizabeth Latimer took her to the semi-finals of Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB). Organized by Young Chicago Authors (YCA), it’s the largest youth poetry festival in the world attracting over 1,000 students annually.
“My host mum brought up the idea and I eagerly accepted the offer because I have been to couple of poetry slams before here in Nigeria and I think a change in the sound and style will be great,” said Adijat, 16. “I instantly fell in love with the style of communication, the rap, the choreography, and passion. I felt so happy that I felt like going on stage myself and say something.”
Then poet Tymmarah Anderson took the stage. As part of the LTAB Slam Team from Oak Park River Forest High School, Tymmarah, 17, delivered a powerful poem drawing parallels between the struggles she sees at home with those taking place abroad — including Nigeria.
“Not only was I inspired by current events like the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, but I was also inspired by the current events and struggles in other countries that aren’t recognized,” says Tymmarah, a senior who has been writing poetry since her freshman year. After watching a documentary about Boko Haram in English class, she remembers, “I was in tears. I knew it was something that needed to be talked about. I also recognized it was something I could compare to my life in Chicago.”
“At first I felt bad because it’s something that affects the northern side of my country,” started Adijat, who lives in a town of about 150,000 in the south of Nigeria. “But seeing the way she delivered it, her knowledge about it, and the way she connects it to what happened in USA, I felt high and fulfilled that someone cares.”
For Tymmarah, Adijat’s presence gave her poem purpose.
“I believe in the universe in that it was setup to happen this way, and I was very grateful and overwhelmed to hear Adijat was moved by the poem. I think hearing the poem assured her that there are people outside of her home and city that care about what’s going on in Nigeria.”
“Her poem to me is like a reminder of what the victims are feeling in their heart,” Ajidat said. “Every day I see sadness and pain in the eyes of the victims, and sometimes I feel tired of listening to television where the only thing they talk about is pain and violence. Her poem is a great reminder.”
Their life is changing because of her powerful words.
As YCA describes it, LTAB brings young people together in ways that are unthinkable in most other settings. On this particular spring day, poetry transcended the 6,000-mile difference between Chicago and Nigeria to unite two kindred spirits. When Elizabeth saw Adijat’s reaction to the poem (“How does she know so much about what is going in my country? She was so passionate!”), she knew she had to get them in touch. She spent the week trying to find this student poet, and finally, on Adijat’s last day in Chicago, was able to reach Tymmarah.
Since then, the two students have exchanged emails. “I sent Adijat a letter sharing with her how grateful I was for her and that I was glad to be a part of that moment she had,” said Tymmarah. “She has such a genuine and sincere soul.” By email, Adijat told Tymmarah that, “even if she did not make it to the top in the slam, I believe that she is someone great and that somebody, their life is changing because of her powerful words.”
Words figure prominently in both of their futures. Adijat has since returned home to Nigeria, where she plans to start a library and a book club at her school using lessons learned from her exchange experience. Tymmarah will graduate this year with plans to study computer science. Though that doesn’t have much to do with poetry, she recognizes that “there are things I can take from my experiences at Oak Park’s Spoken Word Club and LTAB, such as these, that will linger with me forever.”
“When I reflect back about how all of this got started, I can’t believe that I almost opted not to take Adijat with me on that Sunday,” Elizabeth said. “I remember thinking that it might be too fast and confusing. I am so glad I went with my gut and brought her anyway!”
So are we.
– Maria Krasinski, WorldChicago
Watch Tymmarah perform her poem, “Terrorist” at the Louder Than A Bomb finals on March 28, 2015:
Learn more about youth poetry in Chicago at Louder Than A Bomb.
Learn more about hosting an exchange student on our Homestay Hosting page.