by Dami Ajayi
Every second week of November, art and book lovers converge in the sedate city of Abeokuta, 100 kilometers North East from Lagos, for a week-long cultural immersion. But this was not so four years ago. Before 2013, Lagos and Port Harcourt were epicenters for book festivals often run on a low budget or, sometimes, on goodwill of book lovers, friends and families.
Enter Lola Shoneyin, a poet popular for her first novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. These days, the bespectacled lady is perhaps better known as convener of famous Ake Arts and Book Festival.
I have attended all four editions of Ake Arts and Book Festival. Thrice, I was invited. At the first edition, I was an enthusiastic member of the audience who had driven furiously from the theatre of a Lagos boutique hospital to the Cultural Center at Kuto to catch the play adapted from Lola Shoneyin’s novel. In 2014, I came on account of my recently published collection of poems. In 2015, I was also invited to the poetry panel as well as the Poetry and Palmwine session anchored by Remi Raji.
I didn’t imagine I will be invited for the 2016 edition . I had began a small and undisciplined thrift in the hope of raking enough money to lodge in the official hotel for the Ake guests for the sheer pleasure of breakfast full of intellectual prattle and ataxic poolside nights.
It was a pleasant surprise when a mail came from their office asking if I would like to moderate a book chat panel featuring two first-time male novelists, Jowhor Ile and Odafe Atogun, authors of And After Many Daysand Taduno’s Song respectively.
So I said yes. And I took a stretch of my annual leave and arrived in Abeokuta early enough to partake in every day of that weeklong art jamboree. The festival itself has a routine, typically beginning with arrival of guests, first in trickles and spiking the night before the opening ceremony usually on Thursday.
The early comers were usually the organizers, volunteers and facilitators at Master Classes. By Wednesday, the festival begins with school visits. Authors are randomly paired and taken to different secondary schools to interact with students and teachers alike.
I was fortunate to have been gone to Baptist Girls Academy alongside the German graphic novelist Sebastian Loerscher and Zimbabwean novelist Noviolet Bulawayo. We had not prepared anything to tell the students and in the creaking bus taking us down, I said to myself that I would tell them not to do drugs.
The students had prepared for us. They did a beautiful dance choreography, drama skits, poetry recitation and asked a heap of thoughtful questions that made me think seriously of Nigeria’s future.
Hunger usually creeps in quick enough. And festival guests quickly became classically conditioned to the Green Room, which isn’t coloured green, but it still is a fitting metaphor for where we salute our gut.
The most interesting panel discussion was called Legs Open, Eyes Closed moderated by Kolade Arogundade with panelists Kiru Taye, Toni Kan, Nana Darkoa and Chinelo Okparanta, who was particularly brilliant if not acerbic. Noteworthy was her articulation of the current state of the narrative of sex and the African bedroom as patriarchal. She said, “Shame is the power you give to people to wield over you. When I write about sex I take that power back.”
The Kadaria Ahmed moderated book chat with Teju Cole, most recently author of Known and Strange Things and Helon Habila, author of Chibok Girls, was the most attended event. The concert hall was pouringout with crowd listening with rapt attention, the articulate thoughts of both authors and the fine interlocutory techniques Kadaria Ahmed employed made for good sport.
The interview session that packed as much attendants was that of this year’s Ake headliner, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan prolific author and activist very much interested in the health of African languages. How fitting it was that before Nigerian prose stylist Okey Ndibe began interviewing him about his prison experience and exile from home, a cast of Ake guests read different translations of his short story Upright Revolution published in Jalada Magazine and translated into at least 30 languages.
Writer, poet and Yoruba exponent, Kola Tubosun also auditioned the first Yoruba translation of this story at this event. You need to have seen how wide the acclaimed Kenyan author’s smile was. A Gikuyu man who perhaps understood in addition to Gikuyu, the English and Swahili versions, his interest was in the different textures of the story in other African languages as opposed to meaning. To my mind and perhaps other attendees, that story, Upright Revolution, had been successfully decolonized, at least it’s author’s mind.
Then there were star-studded performances at the Poetry and Palmwine event opened by the fastest rising poet, Chika Jones. Ogaga Ifowodo and Michael Kelleher read from their books, A Good Mourning and Museum Hours respectively. Dike Chukwumerije and Lebo Mashile performed strong pieces but it was Titilope Sonuga who stole the night away.
Then the night sauntered into the exhibition room which had transformed into a club with thumping music, strobe lights and dancing bodies hoisting cocktails and shoveling finger foods into their mouths. The party receded deep into the night because dance, too, is a kind of literature that doesn’t require a center stage, microphones or due process.