When my friend and mentor first urged me to sign up for the Ake Arts and Book Festival, I was hesitant. Although I pride myself on being an ardent reader and a writer (sometimes), I wasn’t sure I wanted to venture to a part of the country I’d never been to for a ‘festival’. Even though I had been told what the event would be like, I did not know what to expect. After debating with myself for weeks, I summoned enough courage and registered online. Then I worried about how to get to Abeokuta from Awka.
I got to Abeokuta on Wednesday – Abeokuta, home of the Olumo Rock I had read about in my textbook while in primary school – just in time to freshen up and watch the movie Ramata. Even with the travel fatigue I quite enjoyed the movie, its slow pace and the twist at the end. I will proudly say here that I sat beside a lady who I later found out is Nnedi Okorafor. How is that for an accomplishment, and on my first day at the festival?
Thursday was the opening ceremony. I was eager to see what the day would bring. I was not disappointed. Efe Paul Azino blew me, and I believe, the whole auditorium away with his poem. I could almost feel my blood boil as he rendered lines like “Pay no mind to the rumours/The stories are still alive/In books, in bits and bytes/In the conscience of the world dancing to rhythm of its delusion/This is for the tribe/This is for the last ones left, recipients of the torch, pouring sentences to keep the flame burning. . . ” Powerful!
Qudus’ dance performance prompted me to ask questions from the person beside me and I made my first friend, an aspiring writer and poet, Seye who served as my interpreter for the rest of the programme.
From the opening ceremony we went in for a panel discussion, Call and Response: African Writers Writing Back with Chris Abani, Taiye Selasi who almost always agreed with him, and EC Osondu who in turn almost always disagreed with Chris as they discussed the true meaning of home as a concept for writers in diaspora.
The Book Chat with Irenosen Okojie on her debut novel Butterfly Fish was the first of its kind I had ever attended. It was engaging and interesting and had me looking forward to the next book chat with Igoni Barret (Blackass) and Nnedi Okorafor (Lagoon). The book chats had me wondering at how the mind functions; at the depth of creativity and unconventional ‘weirdness’ of writers. I was star struck to see Igoni Barrett in the flesh and at such close quarters because he is a legend to me.
The documentary Nowhere to Run: Nigeria’s Environmental Crises had me angry, scared and ashamed all at the same time. Desertification from the North, deforestation and rising tides from the South West, pollution (oil spillage, gas flaring etc) from the South South, flooding and massive erosion from the South East; nature rising against us from all sides, where indeed do we run to? Are we even aware of the urgency and magnitude of these issues? These questions had me somber through the rest of the day. Through the Panel discussion, Reliable Narrators: Blogging Africa’s Books with Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed of Book Shy, and her adorable mannerism; Kinna Likimani of Kinna Reads, and her wonderful personality and Emmanuel Iduma of Saraba Magazine. The day didn’t get any brighter as I had to watch the festival film, The Man Who Mends Women, a film about a doctor and his role in the struggles of women in The Democratic Republic of Congo with sexual abuse as a result of war. It is not a movie you come out of smiling.
Friday turned out to be my favourite day of all. It began with Mona Eltahawy, Helon Habila, Maaza Mengiste, Vamba Sherif and Kolade Arogundade, as moderator, giving us an engaging discussion on Political Narratives in Africa: A Sting in the Tale. Each had strong opinions and stronger sense of humour, all with Mona making it clear as to which direction she as a female revolutionist would like the conversation to go.
The discussion continued at the book chat with Pius Adesanmi’s Naija No Dey Carry Last and Mona’s Headscarves and Hymens. Mona, ah Mona. That woman is not afraid of sharing her thoughts and doesn’t care about hurting people’s conservative sensibilities and although I didn’t agree with all she said, I kind of admire her fearless and I-don’t-give-a-hoot attitude (one of the things she and Pius agreed on was the need for one to remember and get angry).
During lunch break I hung out with folks from Writivism and The Naked Convos where there was a reading. It is worthy of note that I became a book richer for my effort. Yay.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his book Season of Crimson Blossoms had me reminiscing about growing up in Jos and my interaction with the Hausa speaking community. As he read an excerpt from the book, I couldn’t help but smile whenever he mentioned misinla or any other familiar Hausa words. Make I hear say I nor buy this book.
The panel discussion with Victor Ehikhamenor, Adeola Fayehun, Pius Adesanmi and Ayo Sogunro on Deadly Laughter: Satire and Public Consciousness in Africa was educating as well as entertaining after which an interview with Imanni Da Silva, a famous TV host from Angola who is transgender captured my attention for the rest of the evening.
The interview opened an avenue for discussion with the person sitting next to me, leading to the discovery of another budding poet – Ben. We hung out with other people sipping drinks and nibbling at small chops while we waited for the play Hear Word by Ifeoma Fafunwa to begin.
It may interest you to know that the Ake Festival was a place of many firsts for me; first journey to the West, first time of seeing Helon Habila in person (even though I couldn’t muster enough courage to initiate conversation. He was sitting right in front of me. Darn it Judith!), first time talking to great poets like Efe Paul Azino, first time staying up way past midnight with virtual strangers, talking about the relationship between scientists like us and literature and of course first time of witnessing a live play, in a proper theatre, with lights and all.
So. . . Hear Word. I was blown away. The issues illuminated through the monologues ranged from the sexual assault to physical abuse the Nigerian woman is subjected to. Some scenes made me want to shed tears (lodged a lump in my throat) while others made me want to holler and give a wiper. At the end of the play all I could say was wow. That play had a profound effect on my perception of the place of women in our society. I have hear word.
Saturday dawned bright and beautiful but with a sense of anticipation and grief. This was to be my last day at the festival. I wasn’t sure of many things. I wasn’t sure of which panel discussions to attend, I wasn’t sure I would be able to hold down the palm wine I knew would be coming that evening, I wasn’t sure of what to expect during the closing party, I wasn’t sure I wanted the festival to end. But sitting there listening to Toni Kan discuss This House is Not for Sale and The Secret History of Las Vegas with the authors E.C. Osondu and Chris Abani I was sure of one thing. I am not missing this festival next year for anything. . . by God’s grace sha. Chris Abani is one man I would like to see again. I can’t forget this statement he always makes: ‘I am only responsible for what I say and not what you hear.’
Dr. Maryam Ali Ali, Freedom Onuoha, Omitonade Ifawemimo, the Ifa Priestess and Xavier Moyet discussed on Religious Conflict in Nigeria: Understanding Providence. It was an engaging session in which religious fanaticism was analysed and condemned. It was also my first time of seeing an Ifa Priestess.
Next was the book chat with Helon Habila, (Oil on Water), and Nuvuyo Tshuma (Shadows) moderated by Maxim Uzoatu; a reading during lunch with Jalada and yet another book chat with Vamba Sherif and Maaza Mengiste.
The Poetry Panel came next where Efe Paul-Azino, Jumoke Verissimo, Inua Elams, Dami Ajayi, Titilope Sonuga and Chijioke Amu Nnadi rendered their poems on love and discussed issues like labels given to poets based on themes.
The highlight of my evening was the interview with the living legend, Prof. Niyi Osundare anchored by Kunle Ajibade (Jailed for Life), another living legend. With a smile that makes you to want smile back, he shared his experiences, read some of his poems to us and taught us a few things about life.
Then I went to get me some good poetry in the company of good Abeokuta palm wine. I listened to various poets. I particularly loved Efe Paul-Azino’s History, and Wana Udobang’s Catfish. Remi Raji was an excellent host. He entertained us with a poem for Niyi Osundare and the climax of the evening was Prof’s very long poem – the longest I have ever heard.
Then the party started.
If there is anything I got from this festival it is the fact that I need to read more, read more, read more and write more. There is a whole lot of the world waiting to be explored through verses and plots, lines and plays. Thanks to Lola Shoneyin for this amazing festival and everyone who made my Ake Experience worthwhile. On to next year. Ose!
(That’s me in the first picture with the yimu expression on my face. Sigh. I really don’t know what I was thinking. lol)