I arrive Abeokuta on a clear Thursday Afternoon.
I left Lagos in a bit of a funk. A friend and poet headed for Abeokuta had asked me to pick her up. Thinking that I was late I had asked my driver to race down to GRA Ikeja. Two minutes from pick up I call and she says: “Can, you give me 10 minutes?”
I cut the line and ask him to drive to my partner’s house where I preview a documentary we just shot for an insurance company. The night before, I had found footage of Nigeria’s Independence Day. I had edited it out and emailed it to the studio. I liked what they had done with it. They had segued it seamlessly into the old narrative. She wishes me a safe trip and I discharge my driver, take the wheels and head out for the express way.
Allen Roundabout is blocked but not badly so and I am on the Ibadan express way at 12.20 pm, ten minutes after I left my partner’s.
The day is bright, the sky is blue, there is no rumour of rain in the air. I slot in Frank Edward’s CD, cue track 2 on repeat and step on the gas pedal.
The air conditioner is on full blast. Music is playing and I am thanking God for an opportunity to take time off work for two full days. And a book festival looks like the perfect place to be, teeming as they are with perennially thirsty writers eager to convert the book festival into a booze festival.
The previous weekend, had seen so many of us at the Lagos Book and Arts Festival,(LABAF) which in its 15th year, is the longest running book festival in Nigeria. It had been fun and Ake held promises.
Teju Cole was expected. So was Ikhide Ikheloa and Pius Adesanmi, who sent me an email to say we hadn’t seen each other since 1997 even though we have kept in touch via email and facebook.
I was looking forward to seeing Nigerian Caine Prize winners, Tope Folarin and Rotimi Babatunde as well as the Ugandan, Monica Arac Da Nyeko and one of the most well known of Caine prize laureates, Binyavanga Wainana, someone with whom I have had some wild nights crawling Lagos pubs and drinking the night bright at Lagos beaches. It was going to be fun.
But there was apprehension lurking someplace at the back of my mind. I am famously paranoid. I lock doors ten times in the course of the night. I go back to check whether the gas cylinder is off two minutes after I leave the kitchen. I never sit with my back to the door and I pour my drink away if someone calls me away from my table. Crazy? Yes. Guilty as charged.
But this time it is not for nothing.
Two years ago, on a trip to the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife for a reading alongside fellow Cassava Republic writers, Sade Adeniran and Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani, the bus we are travelling in runs into what looks like a police road block.
A man in what seems like a police uniform approaches us but on closer look, the uniform looks dated, like something from the colonial era and the man himself is carrying, not an AK47, but something funny, not standard police issue.
I am trapped at the back with two others but I can see him and if I had a camera pointed I would have caught his face, clearly. He points the gun at our driver and asks him to come down. His accent tells us he is from the north, maybe a Fulani cattle-rarer moonlighting as an armed robber.
Just then we see that there are cars and buses on the other side of the road. The occupants and passengers have been robbed. Bags and boxes are open, their contents flying in the wind.
Our driver dares death; he engages gear and begins to reverse. The man raises the gun and pulls the trigger.
My clock tells me it is 1.13pm, two minutes later, when our car has gone about 500 meters and our driver has turned it around and we have all spilled out.
The gun jammed. What were the odds? If that gun had gone off, it would have killed the driver instantly.
It is 12.46pm when I stop at the Sagamu over-pass and pull over like Kcee in front of a Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) van. There are four officers inside. They are sleeping but one rouses as I approach.
“Good afternoon, Officer. Is that the turn to Abeokuta?” I ask and he nods then points.
I thank him, stretch and get back in my car. I make the turn and realise that, even though I have been to Abeokuta four times in the past year, there is an FRSC office just by my left then as I get on the over pass, I find a huge Nestle facility rearing up at me like something from Xanadu.
Is it the shock of discovery or my notoriously dodgy sense of place that makes me miss the turn that leads to Abeokuta even though there is sign announcing Ake Book Festival? I do not know, but I drive round the round-about and then head down the express. That miss has cost me two minutes and so it is that I arrive in Abeokuta sixteen minutes later at about 1.02pm.
On my four previous visits, I have never gone past the Governor’s office except once when hunger drove us into town after a meeting but I must have been too hungry to take in the sights. Now, I drive past an NNPC mega station, past Moshood Abiola Stadium and then spot the Cultural Center. I drive to the wrong gate, realise my mistake and drive another 100 meters.
There is a sign saying Ake Book festival, another informing me that Beta Malt is a sponsor and sundry others. I drive in through the gate and down the paved road to what is a travesty of a roundabout then make a left. The car park announces itself without fuss and I find a spot.
Rotimi Babatunde, playwright and Caine prize winner is taking a cigarette break. We greet and he says without prompting “Victor is up there.”
I look and my friend, Victor Ehikhamenor, the painter, photographer and humorist is chatting with two ladies, one dark and one light skinned but what catches my attention are his bright red trousers and hat. He is wearing white formal long sleeved shirts. I wonder what fever Abeokuta has infected him with.
When I reach them, the young women turn out to be the novelist, Chibundu Onuzo and her friend, Ore. We shake hands and hug and someone arranges us into a pose for a shot just as Ikhide Ikheloa joins us. That picture would appear on facebook hours later. History was being made and written in a hurry but the thought does not escape me that whoever we may be running from now knows where to find us.
Victor and I walk inside but I am barred by the guards.
“E no get Yellow tag,” the guy with what looks like a 6 and half pack says to the young female volunteer while I wonder to myself; I don’t even have a blue tag.
“This is Toni Kan. He is a famous writer and one of our guests,” she tells him but he looks suitably unimpressed. Maybe she could have tried something like: “He is a famous engineer, he manufactures dumb bells.”
Jessica, another volunteer, who has attended two of my creative writing workshops appears and saves the day. The guards know her or they like her, I am not sure which but she somehow spirits me upstairs and just in time for lunch.
There is a crowd of writers, female and male, pretty and not so. They are bent over or lounging, eating or sipping frothy drinks. There is laughter and backslapping, animated conversations and camaraderie. The food is free, the drinks too. What else would a writer ask for?
Teju Cole sits in a corner with Eghosa Imasuen. Teju is wearing green Ankara top and bottom with red and black sneakers. It is not kosher but who is to say so. Teju Cole wrote the amazing Open City. He is a famous writer. He can bloody well wear what he wants.
There are almost as many white faces as there are black but it is good, for once, to be at a book festival where the white person is the “token white writer” on a panel. I look around me, a handshake and a hug here, a kiss and a peck there; here are friends and fans, rivals and reviewers who have panned your writing or called you names you do not wish to remember. But today is not a day for remembering wrongs. There is joy and love and something intoxicating in the air.
I join the queue. I get my food. I sit beside my friend Victor and we dig in.
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, writer and columnist for Metropole magazine is here. He is my young friend and constant tormentor. We hand him our camera and ask him to take pictures as we eat. We are his tormentors today and there is nothing he can do about it. We are Abacha!
When I am done and making the rounds, a pretty light skinned young lady accosts me.
“Oga Toni, good afternoon,” she says and I eye her with suspicion.
She is standing beside Ikhide Ikheloa and Eghosa Imasuen. Women call you Oga or Uncle only when they want to keep you at bay, an old friend once told me. What is her scam? I am not sure.
“Ukamaka Olisakwe,” she says noting my confusion.
“Wow, you are so tall,” I tell her and we hug. A facebook friend, her pictures didn’t convey her height nor her comeliness.
Minutes later, a friend says to me “That babe is so fine, it is wrong for her to be married.”
Ukamaka is one of the people I will remember fondly from Ake. She had poise and carriage and her comportment exuded good manners and good breeding.
There are people trying to catch my eye, people waving and my brain is flipping through pages of memory, trying to remember, where did we meet? Lagos, Abuja, Kenya, London, Frankfurt, Italy, SA, the US. Where? Memory is a trickster so you play along, you wave and smile and evade your eyes.
“We met in Kenya,” she says when she gets to where you sit, hunched over the way your mum always said would give you a hunch back.
I rise to my feet and we hug. She is dark and her head is clean shaven.
“Muthoni,” I say mistaking her for Muthoni Garland, convener of the Story Moja Hay Book Festival in Nairobi. She had invited me to Nairobi via my publishers in 2009.
“Sitawa” she says and I am mortified.
We chit chat then she returns to her seat. There is a pretty lady sitting beside her. She has long locks and longer legs that seem to go on forever. I am eager to meet her but something stays me. A day later I will discover that her name is Aita Ighodaro, UK based, Oxford educated ex-model turned novelist.
We head downstairs to the art exhibition venue where I am introduced by Oris, to nurse turned writer, Christie Watson aka Mama Moyo, author of Tiny Songbirds Far Away.
We chat for a while and then I take in the works. I am impressed mostly by my friend, Victor Ehikhamenor’s works but then Jerry Buhari’s corrugated sheets and padlock installation. I have been a huge admirer. He taught my late older brother at ABU, Zaria.
It is dark when we head out of the Cultural Centre and go back to the hotel, a pretty young lady has missed the bus and has added colour to our car.
Back at the hotel, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo has commandeered my room and bed and I am left sleeping on the couch. I make a mental note to make him pay.
I wake up the next day with something that feels like a headache but I do not nurse it. I have work to do; a speech for a client. I do my research, do some writing and then head out to the Cultural Centre for the day’s event.
Friday is a full day. There are book chats and panel discussions. I miss some and catch some but the one with Teju Cole and Chibundu Onuzo is particularly engaging. Wana Udobang, the moderator is on point and in control. I enjoy the banter between Chibundu and Teju over the meaning and place of space/place in literature. Teju, laughing, informs the audience that he is a family friend of Chibundu’s. There is something absorbing about seeing two usually serious people having light-hearted fun.
I also attend the session with my friend, Kaine Agary, who has driven down with her son and is itching to go back. I sit in front and listen, drawn into the conversation more and more. With her are Aita Ighodaro, Ifeanyi Ajaegbo and Badoe.
I realise that I have missed lunch and begin a frantic search. Diana, a friend’s sister and volunteer comes to my rescue. Fed and restored, I shoot the breeze until it is time for the presentation of the stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’. The play is written by Rotimi Babatunde and Directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr.
The hall is packed, almost, with everyone from students to celebrities like Funmi Iyanda and Ade Bantu. Wole Soyinka is also there as well as the King of Owu.
I am sitting with blogger and romance writer, Myne Whitman who is flying under the radar as Nkem Akinsoto. We have exchanged emails and messages on facebook for years but that night I could see us becoming friends.
The play is amazing. There are famous faces and names amongst the cast members. Uzor Osimkpa of Tinsel, Najite Dede, Sola Awojobi-Oniga from Fuji House of Commotion but there are surprises.
Adesuwa Etomi who plays multiple roles is a delight to watch. She dances, prances, pouts and swoons onstage. Ms. Osimkpa who plays Bolanle, the educated 4th wife who inadvertently exposes the secrets, is engaging but the true delights are Martins Iwuagwu as Baba Segi and Priye George as Mama Segi.
Big and plus sized, these two actors inhabit their roles, becoming one with the characters they have been asked to portray. Iwuagwu is spot on as the cuckold, Baba Segi. He is fun loving, loquacious and easily ruffled while Priye, who is making her second stage appearance is easily adaptable switching seamlessly from a corpulent, married mother of one to a sensual and sexual animal with a thing for a female tomato seller.
Where the book provided mystery, the play provides explication and clarity but it is a tad bit too long and the famous hospital/self-pleasing scene will need editing and toning down.
That said, Rotimi Babatunde’s adaptation deserves kudos for remaining faithful to the text while completely re-interpreting it. Femi Elufowoju Jr’s decision to play it as one long, One Act play with no scene changes helped propel the action and pace while dance and music directors, Uche Onah and Oyebade Dosunmu helped bring the spectacle alive.
The choice of teacher was a bit off for me, though. He seemed too young for one who was already famous when Baba Segi first came to see him.
We spend the rest of the night at a place called Halmod, a bar inside the stadium. There are pimps and prostitutes, dancers and quasi-vauldville acts.
Before settling at this dive, we had stopped over first at a place right in front of a loud bar called Dunkin’ Supper. Someone had stolen the type face for Dunkin’ Donuts and transplanted it to Abeokuta but it was obvious the reference was lost on many of its patron but it wasn’t their fault; Dunkin Donuts is not an all night bar with loud music and skimpily clad girls.
Our party is not a very large one; Victor Ehikhamenor, Binyavanga Wainana, the two Ayos, Olofintuade and Morocco Clarke, Oris, and Yemi then the novelist, A. Igoni Barrett and Femke.
The poet Dami Ajayi, Blogger Pearl Osibu and Rotimi Babatunde are at another table.
There are three skinny male dancers dancing for money but not seeming to. When they have us in thrall, they move their shtick to our table and dance until we part with currency notes.
We do not leave until midnight and only after we have caused considerable damage.
Speech done, I get ready to shower. There hasn’t been water but it has just been restored. The good man, I asked Oris to have a bath first. I am shaved and getting into the shower when the tap goes dry. Again.
I am late for my panel but the organizers have, thankfully, moved it forward. It has Aita Ighodaro, Mamle Kabu, Monica Arac and myself with Ayodele Morocco Clark moderating.
So, I go round inviting people with the simple – Are you ready for Sex? Our topic is “Body of Mine -Sex and Sexuality in African Fiction.” It seems many people are ready for sex because our panel it is full even though it takes place outside under the Achebe tent which is usually hot.
Wole Soyinka’s conversation with four young people, two ladies and two gentlemen is, however, the high point of the day for me.
The Nobel laureate is funny, rivetingly so and engaging in the conversation that is moderated by his son, Olaokun.
He takes questions on everything from sexual chemistry to liquor and inspiration, Ogun worship and his hair care. He is a delight to hear as he throws back a question to his interviewers: “Did you ever hear of someone who was inspired by drinking orange juice?”
Later on, I meet an amazing woman whom I had never heard of until about 8 days ago when a mutual facebook friend mentioned her on her page. Intrigued by the effusive encomiums, I checked out her page. There wasn’t much to see so I dropped it but her name had stuck.
Two days after the facebook mention, I open a copy of Leadership newspaper and behold, she has a column which I have never noticed before.
Then two days after I arrived the Ake festival, I am heading to my car when someone says “Can, you give Ayisha a ride?”
I turn and I am standing face to face with the facebook do-gooder/Leadership columnist and lawyer turned activist, Ayisha Osori, in the flesh.
“I have a friend, Ier, I will introduce you both,” I tell her as we ride to the Green Legacy Resort hotel where most of us were staying. Owned by former head of state and President, Olusegun Obasanjo, it shares the same sprawling swath of land as the proposed Presidential Library.
New and still virtually under construction, many of us wondered aloud what would become of this hotel when its sculptor dies, would it become like PB Shelley wrote, a “colossal wreck, boundless and bare” where the “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ayisha’s friend Caroline Sage who works with the World Bank is at turns affectionate and not-so towards me. Ayisha and I make fun of her all evening at the Barbecue party where many of the writers crowd the dance floor. I watch and laugh as Teju Cole, Tolu Ogunlesi, Molara Wood, Victor Ehikhamenor, Jahman Anikulapo, Richard Ali, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Oris Aigbokhaebolo, Efe Zino, Ikhide Ikheloa, Mamle Kabu, Chuma Nwokolo, Ugoma Adegoke of LifeHouse, Doreen Baingana, Movie Director, Charles Novia and a very reluctant Monica Arac De Nyeko show their dexterity on the dance floor.
We wear the night thin. There is still one day to go but the crowd is thinning and many people are leaving the next morning. Memories are coalescing into nostalgia and you can feel the encroaching realization that the amazing week has come to an end.
I have attended Book Festivals across continents from Kenya to the UK and Frankfurt and the US but none, and I mean none has impressed me like the Ake Book Festival. Lola Shoneyin and her team took care of the most-minute details.
I know Lola and I know she is a brilliant and lovely person but I didn’t reckon with her organizational skills. I had offered help once or twice: “if you need help, I am available. You know we run events.”
She didn’t take me up on the offer but I wish she had. I would have been able to say I had a hand in planning the amazing Ake Book festival 2013.
But as it is, I will make do with the boast, “Lola Shoneyin is my friend” and yes, indeed she is.
I can’t wait for 2014.