By Adeleke Adeeko
All that is left of the first ever Kaduna Book and Arts Festival, July 5-8, 2017, are memories. I recollect in the following piece selections of my interpretation of what transpired there.
We should begin with banal observations about who was there. Writers, artists, and commentators came from all around Nigeria and Ghana. I saw Wana Udobanga. Carmen McCain chaired two sessions. I heard Mariam Awaisu, in her flawless American accent, joined her voice to Fatima Zahra Umar’s as they both rebuke, with unflappable sincerity and absolute confidence, masculinist repressions in the North. I have no doubt that Kadaria Ahmed, who I saw with my own eyes and to whom I walked up to introduce myself, was happy about the way these women spoke out clearly. (In the remarks he gave to close the proceedings, I heard Nasir el-Rufai, the state governor, speak to the effect that he thought Kadaria Ahmed was the only radical voice at the Bookfest. While he seemed to be glad that this is not the case, the governor forgot to include Hadiza El-Rufai, his wife, among the radicals, although that woman read in public to the hearing and enjoyment of us all, in the presence of his excellency, clearly erotic excerpts from the manuscript of her novel in progress!) Yes, at a book festival in Kaduna, a governor’s spouse read out in public sexually explicit passages from a work of fiction she herself has written. And heavens did not fall.
Did I forget to say that Toni Kan was there too? So were Richard Ali and Odafe Atogun. I witnessed Samira Sanusi’s pensive voice and calm choice of words compliment the carefully calibrated rhetorical maneuvers of Professor Zaynab Alkali, the venerable pioneer novelist. Yes, Zaynab Alkali was there. Seeing her in flesh and blood gave me a particular personal pleasure. I listened to E.E. Sule, savvy as usual, correcting without pontificating. I found surprising the measured restraint of Leila Aboulela, the Sudanese novelist, in her words about feminism and the status of women within Islamic societies. I conversed briefly with the painter, Jerry Buhari, whose spare lines and understated colors tugged at my heart. (If I were rich enough, I would have bought that market scene painting. The strokes of blue spoke to me. He actually gave a me condensed version of the historical context of the image while we waited in line to get into the book bazaar.) The Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, did not make it down to Kaduna because his emirate was still mourning the passing of Maitama Sule. I met Temmie Giwa-Tubosun and Kola Tubosun who introduced me to Lola Shoneyin, the queen-mind of the gathering, and Olaokun Soyinka, her spouse. The highpoint, for me, is the panel on Hausa rubuta on which sat three women—one critic (Carmen McCain) and two novelists (Hafsat Abdulwahid and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, who, the audience learned, is a sister of the late General Murtala Muhammed, one time Nigeria’s leader)—and just one man whose name I can’t quite recollect. Although I speak no Hausa, I enjoyed listening to the cadence, inflections, and the revealing para-linguistic gestures. Audience responses to Balaraba Ramat Yakubu confirmed my estimation of her as a feisty, take no prisoner, personality. There is a glow about her presence and self carriage.
I ought to speak briefly about the two nights of performances. The evening of poetry was filled with spoken word performances from both nationally known and emerging voices around Kaduna, Jos, Zaria, and other centers of culture in northern Nigeria. (Throughout the festival, I did not hear any speaker or writer introduced as coming from Sokoto. Of course, scholars, peace workers, and activists came from Maiduguri, the center of Boko Haram insurgency. It was noticeable as well that no Shi’a voice spoke at the festival. It looked to me like thoughts regarding anti-Shi’a violence is unspeakable in the city of Kaduna. Segun Adeniyi tried to ventriloquize them but to no effect.) Don’t Shi’a write poetry? It was also surprising to not hear any Sufist take on life in northern Nigeria, given the long history of that line of thinking in the West African Sahel, and in spite of all the protestations in defense of the sanctity of the culture of Islam. (Well, as noted above, Sokoto was not well represented. Neither was Kano, another historical center of Sufi learning.) If I am asked, why are you talking about the absent and not about those who were there, I will have no answer other than to say that the excluded often makes more sense than the present.
The poetry performances were good. They covered religion, a lot about proper love, including heartbreaks, carnality, intimacy, and so on, and so forth. But, I was not moved that much by the poems. A lot in the readings sounds too much like American style slam. Speaking in terms of aesthetics, little about the performances was, in my ears, Northern Nigerian, the phrase that rolled out intermittently out of many speakers’ mouths, and the entity in whose defense many writers claimed to be acting. Jeremiah Gyang’s performance on the last night was more pleasing. Gorgeously groomed men and women, mainly youngish, lined up to get into the hall an hour before the place was ready. No couple held hands. It was clear, however, that a lot is not married. Is this not a shariah state I asked myself? Oh, yes, it is. But we are on Ahmadu Bello Way and not in Rigasa! In the halls and hallways men and women sat side by side, and sometimes flesh pressed upon another flesh. Some women covered their body—I believe I saw one person in full hijab—while many appeared like they could be going to a social gathering in Lagos or Enugu. The audience knows most of Gyang’s songs by heart and chanted along with gusto. I saw women in Islamic head covering clapping and singing loudly Gyang’s non-religious hits. Why did anybody consider free, joyful, expression sinful, I asked myself as I scanned the concert hall on my way out to my hotel room.
Now to the substantive part of the Bookfest as I saw it. In summary, the deep issues at play are: how do we do we think and act with (and within) contemporary socio-cultural formations that are converging mainly around cities? to what extent should people (be authorized to) exercise freedoms? do rights belong to individuals or to communities? should the sources of the grounds of pleasure, desire, and search for knowledge derive exclusively from the dicta of religion? Yes, this was not just a book fair. It was also a cultural and intellectual gathering. The critical points noted above recurred frequently in the discussions, whether about the difficulties of book production, or women’s comportment in Islam, or writing in Hausa language, and even within book centered dialogues. To many at the gathering, according to my mind’s discerning, the following words spoken earlier this year by the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, beloved by many of the speakers, condense the central wishes of the class of people that likes to gather in the name of books: “‘Don’t build mosques, educate our daughters.’”
The condition of the Northern Woman distills the dominant socio-cultural concerns. For example, the two books discussed about the scourge of sickle cell anemia in northern Nigeria are both written by women, Samira Sanusi (memoir) and Mariam Awaisu (fiction), one fierce, the other quiet, both invoking interpretations of pertinent Islamic tenets in their adamant call for the deployment of science for the fight against the disease. To both women, family, especially the father, is important. And they were applauded for saying so. To both of them pre-marital genetic counseling, contrary to the teachings of many Islamic scholars, does not contradict the will of God. The discussions show that male, Islamic scholars’ orthodoxies regarding the will of God in relation to sickle cell anemia totally neglects the afflictions suffered by the repeatedly pregnant, and repeatedly sorrowful, mother who carries the child born to die. That willful blindness renders women permanently unfree. The Northern woman’s plight epitomizes the discussions of the constraints of freedom under Islamic law when the discussion shifted to the hijab. The same is the case in the panel about how to recreate the society after the devastation of an Islamist insurgency. When a conciliatory voice asserts that the hijab has been an Islamic institution for fourteen centuries, rebuttals came quickly from two women. When another conciliatory voice asked muslim men to rise up to free muslim women, another woman spoke back forthrightly that women should not be infantilized or patronized in that fashion. When another voice spoke combatively about spousal abuse by men under the guise of religion, all attempts to refute her failed woefully. One of the older female writers in Hausa language backed up the younger woman. The same younger woman, a lawyer, who at the age of 21divorced her abusive spouse against family counsel, asserted boldly that men’s dominant implementation of marriage regulations, allegedly in line with Islamic tenets, leaves hordes of women broken physically. At that moment, I thought the men in the packed hall will stand up and leave. None did, and my heart did a skelewu step. Except for one person, I noticed that these tough speaking women all appeared in different interpretations of modesty in women’s dressing, apparently in defiance of their non-muslim colleagues outside of the the north who maligns Islam recklessly: “I cover my body so that my intellect will be the focus of attention,” one speaker said. Of course, this manner of separating the body and the mind involves a more complex analysis. But that discussion will be for another day. For the present, all that should be noted is that the Northern (Nigerian) Woman desires freedom just like the Southern (Nigerian) Woman. Indeed, when another Northern Woman spoke up against idealizing that figure as exclusively virtuous and Islamic, the objections were accepted without reservations. The discussion tells me that in the end, rights are exercised by individuals and not by collectivities.
I have not forgotten about the question of the city. Ahmadu Bello Way runs through the hearts of high and low ends of Kaduna commercial life, with banks at one end, and the central market on the other. At Gusau Institute, where the bookish meet, in the central market, where the folksy trade, and in the banking halls, where the monied and well connected rule, the latitude available for acting, thinking, and playing is wide. Women, including those wearing the full hijab, and men ride in the same auto-rickshaw, work together, and trade side by side. On my way out of Kaduna, I got to see with my own eyes that there is more to the city. In Rigasa, nearly every woman covers her head and most of her body in virtually the same design and nearly invariable solid blue or white. They too are Northern. But who speaks for them? At Gusau Institute, no one seem qualified to do so with authority. The main road through this side of the city is being widened and many men—and no women—are at work digging trenches and laying concrete road dividers. Here the range of action available to individuals is severely limited by religion-assigned sex. One set of discussions that bring this division into clearer relief concerns the new novels that we can name as the North-in-Nigeria narratives. These stories are reimagining Nigeria expansively around cities like Jos, Kaduna, Kano, and Lokoja. For Toni Kan, Richard Alli, and Odafe Atogun, the city is palimpsestic (that is the term used by one of them at a discussion session), particularly with regards to individuals and nations, in ways that the village cannot.
Let me end on a whim and give the last word to Shadrack Nuhu, the young Northern Man who showed me around the central market, gratis, and saved me from the insatiable gods of haggling that preside over Nigerian markets, north or south, east or west.