Sunday, November 3, 2019 1:43 pm
This year’s Ake Arts and Book Festival has come and gone, leaving sweet memories in its trail.
By Nehru Odeh
It sounded like an unforgettable tale that would never end. Though the seventh edition, it was magical and cinematic,what with the razzmatazz, its star-studded cast as well as the euphoric feelings and sense of grandeur it educed. It was, indeed a rock-star performance. And participants were wowed everyday- for four days on end – by panoply of rich, colourful programmes, cerebral panel discussants, writers, novelists, poets and artistes.
Indeed, it was an event spiced up with laughter, drinks, music, intriguing book chats, panel discussions, art exhibition, book launch, interviews, concerts,films, interactive sessions and performances. And people moved from one session to the other, getting only five or ten minutes for break, in a seeming fairy tale that will never end.
And like a box office hit, it starred big names such as Mona Eltahawy, Helon Habila, Tope Folarin, Chika Unigwe, Bernandine Evaristo, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Leila Aboulela, Nnedi Okoroafor and Ayobami Adebayo who wowed the audience, while Zimbabwe writer and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga headlined the event.
However, something very intriguing about the fiesta was the aesthetics of its ambience, the sparkling white, virgin building that housed Alliance Francaise and served as venue, assorted drinks, the spacious environment that made for free movement, interaction, building of relationships and networking, the air of freedom everyone breathed, Lola Shoneyin’s occasional adult jokes and anecdotes as well as the colourful motley crowd whose minds were fixed on stories and books and the book frenzy that ensued – all adding vibes to the fiesta. Still, another intriguing aspect of the festival was that the seats which the panel discussants sat were constructed in form of local African pots.
This is the surreal but captivating story of this year’s Ake Arts and Book Festival which held between 24 and 27 October 2019 at Alliance Francaise/Mike Adenuga Centre in Ikoyi, Lagos. Organized by the Book Buzz Foundation, this year’s festival has as its theme Black Bodies. Grey Matter. The festival had a cosmopolitan appeal as men and women from across the globe participated in the programmes and did justice to the theme during the four-day event..
Lola Shoneyin, the Festival Director, set the tone for the event while welcoming guests to the festival at the opening ceremony. The award winning writer and poet said the fiesta will address “our Africaness, our blackness, our negritude and will also be tackling the issue of mental health. She also noted that this edition has more creatives – writers, thinkers, film makers, poets, photographers, artistes – from more African countries than the Ake festival has ever had.
“Our discussion of the theme for 2019 naturally brought some very important issues to the fore. And they became clearer and clearer as we discuss them. But we cannot and should not ignore the scars of our not so distant history or even those of our present realities. In act before it becomes too temporarily distant we think it is important that we take another look at the creativities that have been born of those physical and mental scars. … Perhaps the problem will help us better understand who we are or who we can become,” she maintained.
And indeed the festival lived up to its billings as participants did justice to the theme via the various book chats, interview sessions and panel discussion, which included the ones Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Helon Habila, Mona Eltahawy, Tope Folarin participated. And there were sessions filled with emotional and heart rending stories: for instance Adetutu Alabi’s story of how she dealt with her tribal marks in school, Yolande Mukagasana’s story of how she lost her family in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Adenike Oyetunde’s tale of her journey that was really about scars, body modifications and social acceptance.
In one of the book chats, Nwaubani, while discussing her book,Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, shocked the audience when she debunked the misconception that Boko Haram captured the Chibok girls because of their aversion for western education. The award-winning writer said the insurgents never planned to kidnap the girls, that they ran into them while looking for food to steal.
“There was some construction work going on in the school. So Boko Haram was going for the food in the food store. They gathered all the food in the store and packed in their bags and then they saw the girls. They locked all the girls in a dormitory and they had an argument. One of them said “What do we do with the girls?” In fact the girls revealed that one small boy said “Let us burn all of them. Let’s set them on fire. Somebody said “No, let’s take them out and lead them to their parent’s home and use the girls to access their parents and steal some more food.” Then they had an argument. Then somebody said “Let’s take them to Shekau. He will know what to do.” And that what led to the media frenzy that became Chibok. .So it was accidental,” she revealed.
In another book chat, Ayobami Adebayo cross examined Habila’s latest novel, Travels. Habila who said he never met a writer until he went to university also said he was influenced by Dante, Matthew Arnold and a lot of canonical poets while writing the book.“One thing about Travels is that it’s such a perfect metaphor for the human condition. Most of the greatest stories in Literature are about travel, “Habila said, citing that Homer’s Odyssey as one of them.
Another book chat that was mind-blowing and almost brought down the roof was when Fakhmiyyah Hashim engaged the Egyptian writer, feminist and activist Mona Eltahawy in a conversation around her latest book, Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. As soon as Eltahawy arrived at the stage, she set the hall on fire, the atmosphere took on a feverish pitch and the woman who has been waging war against patriarchy since she was sexually abused at 15 let no one in doubt what her stance on patriarchy was. According to her she is on a mission to destroy patriarchy. “I refuse the crumbs that patriarchy throws at me … I do not want crumbs; I want the whole fucking cake. And I do not want patriarchy’s cake. I want my own fucking cake,” Eltahawy who opines in her book that the seven necessary sins for women and girls to bring down patriarchy are anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust, averred.
Eltahawy is under no illusions that the enemy women and girls have beenfightingfor centuries across the globe is patriarchy and has taken it upon herself to destroy it and kill all men who support the oppressive system. She couched her feelings and ideas with numerous powerfully rendered slogans: “Patriarchy is the strongest and oldest continuous occupational force …“Patriarchy socializes us to be in competition with one another (women). ‘Divide and conquer’.” I am not in competition with anyone. I want young women to replace me.” “Patriarchy makes us believe that being a woman is a great offense.” “Patriarchy and its crime are offensive.” Asked if she wasn’t worried about her safety, she said: “Will I be hurt on this mission? I already have.What more can they do to me?” She then recalled how she had thrice suffered sexual molestation, first as 15 year old in Mecca and as an adult in Egypt and the United States.
Eltahawy, at the forefront of a revolution to liberate women, also said she does not believe in moderate feminism. “What is moderate feminism anyway? No moderate feminism!. Do I scare you? You should be scared. When is patriarchy ever moderate that you demand feminism to be moderate? The state, streets and home victimized women. My revolution’s mission is to dismantle that,” she said, adding that women don’t need equality but liberation. “It’s too late for equality, I want liberation. I want to be free,” she submitted.
However the high point of the festival was when Molara Wood interviewed Dangarembga in a session tagged Life and Times Series. Dangarembga spoke about her life as a woman growing up in Zimbabwe, her writing career and the writing process that culminated in her critically acclaimed trilogy, Nervous Condition, The Book of Not and This Malleable Body. The award-winning writer also rendered an account of how her writing career was almost scuttled when The Women Press, her publisher, dumped the manuscript of her first novel.
“And so I sent it to them. I didn’t hear from them. Then many years – seven years after I had sent it to them – I happened to be in London. So I went down to their offices. And I asked if they had received it. They said no they don’t think they received something of that nature. I told them I definitely sent it to them. So the woman said to me ‘Well if you sent it, it must be at the basement. Let me go and check.’ So she went down to the basement. She came back with this package, which also now had cobwebs. And then she said, “Is this it?’ I said yes. Very often the universe is really very helpful because the person who was heading The Women’s Press at the time was a South African woman who was in exile, a writer. And so they gave her the book to read that day. The very next day she called me up and that was it,” Dangarembga explained.
The festival was not just dotted by book chats, panel discussions and interview sessions such as those who already mentioned, it afforded many an opportunity to build lie-long relationships across borders, boundaries and limits. Shoneyin hinted at this act in her welcome speech. “As each year goes by I have immense and not so secret pleasure of watching seeds that are planted at Ake festival grow, of seeing friendship blossom or hearing about individuals gathering together and starting something new somewhere else. So it is a positive thing, a forward looking thing. But first let us look at ourselves again as we move forward with optimism,” she noted.
The four-day annual fiesta ended on a memorable note with a poetry event in which poets such as Wana Udobang, Dami Ajayi and Gbenga Adesina read their poems. Then it was followed by an after party, with many wishing that the fairy tale never ended, while they looked forward to attending next year’s edition.