My Ake Festival 2019 diary: “Black Woman love yourself” – Etemi Vincent-Okeke

(Following the announcement of “Black Magic” as the theme of Ake Festival 2020, Etemi Vincent-Okeke reminisces on her first Ake Festival and shares with her unique insights from the festival.)

DAY 1  

I was excited.

From the time I got into my car and all through the drive to the venue,

It was my first time at the Ake Arts and Book Festival and I couldn’t wait to experience it.  I was an Ake Virgin (as someone put it, lol!). I hadn’t been to a gathering like that before and was so eager to be part of it.

Getting to the venue, there was a line of cars waiting to park. I found a small space on the pavement and squeezed in. I walked into the building, it was the Alliance Francais|Mike Adenuga Centre which was recently completed. There was a big backdrop with Ake Festival and names of sponsors splattered all over it. There were so many people taking pictures, I almost went to join in as I needed a picture of myself by the branded backdrop but perished the thought as it was two minutes to six and I had to find a seat.

As I got into the hall, the noise and chatter of the creatives who now seemed like family welcomed me. I scouted the hall with my eyes for a second and moved towards the middle row to get a seat. “Hello are you a guest or are you … are you just here” a voice interjected just before I could sit down. Well I am here for the event, I said. “Ehn are you an invited guest because these seats are reserved for them”. Oh okay I will find another seat then. There was no need extending the talk as I finally got the poorly communicated message. I found a seat at the far left and settled down. The program didn’t start immediately but I was already enjoying the ambience. There were people from other African countries and around the world. I enjoyed observing everyone from their hair styles to their outfits to their conversations. Purely bohemian, I thought. There was also a mini bar that read ‘un peu de Paris a Lagos’ (a little bit of Paris in Lagos), which sold baguettes, pastries, ice cream and coffee. Everything was Art to me as I wore that hidden inner smile that no one could see. “Hooray! I’m home,” I thought to myself.

Finally the compere jumped on stage and the show began.

I loved everything from Lola Shoneyin’s speech to the last song sang. The poets, dancers and singers were great. I enjoyed listening to the sponsors’ speeches and the awards segment. But it wouldn’t be complete if I don’t write about the Jamaican Canadian D’bi Young Anitafrika, who intrigued me the most. Her poem focused squarely on the Black Woman, calling out the two words continuously as if she was pulling our ears to make us hear her clearly. I realized I needed that pull because all the while it didn’t occur to me that I was one of those that she was referring to as Black Woman. I live in Nigeria, the word black isn’t as common in that context. But I finally embraced what she was saying because I had never heard anything like it before. I loved it even more for that reason. Then there was the person who stood up and said he identified as they (non-binary) an identity the world is learning to get used to, and we should.

It was a great first night. I met my sister’s friend Toni Kan (Mayor of Lagos), I had heard so much about him and it was a pleasure meeting him finally. We chatted about everything writing as trays of cocktails and canapes wandered passed us. I also told him how I had mistaken him for some other man who surprisingly played along, unbelievable right! But I won’t bore you with all the details.  I drove home elated, excited and ecstatic, words that can merely describe what I felt. As I lay down to sleep I heard D’bi’s voice, Black Woman, show yourself some love, tell yourself I love you, black woman, black woman, black woman, you are strong. Then I dozed off.

Day 2

I noticed that everyone was so nice and welcoming, it felt like a safe space, a creative’s haven. There was no presidential treatment, everyone sat together and was approachable. Lola Shoneyin walked around ensuring everything was in place, I hadn’t imagined I would see that much of her, but it made me understand why the air there was so breathable; that’s the kind of spirit she must have wanted when she first began the festival.

I attended the panel discussion on Historical Fiction for Today’s Africa.  It was moderated by Tolulope Adeleru-Balogun. On the panel were Tunde Leye, Jennifer Makumbi, and Wayetu Moore. It was a very enlightening session that focused on historical fiction. Jennifer spoke about the history of Uganda and how she infused this history into her book Kintu. I finally understood why they say “she does for Ugandan literature what Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian writing”. Tunde Leye, the writer of Afonja talked about the need for us, especially the young people, to learn about our history as Nigerians. He emphasized that most of us are only aware of our history with regards to the white man and colonialism and how we got our independence, but are not taught the deep roots of our history. I found this especially true as we haven’t heard much history outside the white man’s narrative. Aware of the nuances of the authors, I realized I hadn’t explored African literature as much as I thought and should. These authors aroused a sudden curiosity in me to discover more about African history. I also attended the Intimacy and the Exploration of Self session where I learnt about Creative non-fiction. The changing shape of corporate Africa panel discussion with Mo Abudu and Amal Hassan was also a very interesting one.

Hungry and looking for where to eat, I strolled to the back of the venue where I found two food vendors. There was the choice of either shawarma or amala. While I was still trying to decide, the mouthwatering bowls of amala being consumed by some men at the stand caught my attention and without any hesitation, I ordered a bowl with ewedu soup. We were at the Ake festival after all and what other food would suffice? It tasted as delicious as it looked! I knew that I wouldn’t miss it on Day 3.

I loved the controversy that ensued during the Book Chat session with Adaobi Nwaubani and Sulaiman Addonia, because of Adaobi’s detailed report of how the Boko Haram insurgents were not necessarily rapists and how some of the girls were in support of them. Stockholm syndrome I thought, but after hearing that some of the girls were molested by the Nigerian soldiers who rescued them and were forced to pay for food with their bodies at the camps that were supposed to shelter them, it was no surprise that the insurgent group was more appealing to them.

I bought her book, marking it as one to dive into in order to gain new perspectives on a totally different side of the stories we’ve heard. At some point a lady had to ask Adaobi what the Boko Haram insurgents had done to her which triggered laughter from across the hall. Most of us hadn’t heard a version like this before so I wouldn’t blame the girl that asked the question as it seemed almost like Adaobi was sympathizing with them and supporting them. Adaobi redeemed herself by telling of her experience of meeting with the girls and some captured insurgents. It made more sense as she is a journalist who focuses on under-reported humanitarian issues.

Then finally came time for the Molara Wood interview with TsiTsi Dangarembga and it was brilliant. I gained a lot of wisdom from her experience.

The concert was a lot of fun, it compensated for the endless wait we endured with bated breath. Artists like Temmie Ovwasa and Fokn Bois made it a night to remember.

Day 3

I started my day with the Long of the Short Story panel discussion moderated by Toni Kan. He was joined by Jennifer Makumbi, Chika Unigwe, and Billy Kahora. The discussion was focused on the importance of short stories and the work it takes to create them.

During the Q and A session, a lady asked a question about writing short stories. She wanted to know whether short stories are used by authors to fill out a gap in the process of finishing their work on a novel. She asked this because as a publisher she usually advises new writers against starting with short stories as many of them do so. Imagine my relief when all the writers on the panel disagreed with her and pointed out that the same work put into writing a novel is the same work put into writing short stories. A collection of short stories is same to them as a novel and there is absolutely nothing wrong starting with it. I attended a couple more panel discussions including; Roots and Representation: Black women in film with Adepero Oduye, Dakore Egbuson-Akande (whom I love so much), and Nadine Ibrahim; Scars, Body Modification and Self/Social acceptance; The Gender Binary and Everything In Between (I particularly enjoyed this one because it was both educative and informative). Panel done, I continued the discussion with my longtime friend, Google before heading to the interview with Yolande Mukagasana (I had to buy her book to read her full story, an opportunity to learn more about the Rwandan Genocide. It was also an opportunity to explore African literature).

The village Arena was one of the best spaces for me, Sterling bank did a great job in putting it together.  It brought back childhood memories. I hadn’t had time previously to sit in there but by day 3 I was ready to throw myself into the Village Arena tent. I initially thought I had to pay for everything in there, except the games. So, I came cash ready only to find out it was all free. What!!! Wow!!! Who would have guessed, I exclaimed to myself. Imagine my joy. I started with the henna and then got some palm wine. Then I tried some tamarin for the first time, I learnt that it is a northern delight. I sat down and watched guys play draft as I sipped my drink. “Do you know how to play,” one asked me.

‘Not at all’, I answered, “I’m watching and learning.”

At the end of my visit to the Village Arena, I had assisted one of the players on his game and played a full game of draft myself, taken pictures with the bare chested muscular guys guarding the tent and made new friends. Leaving the tent, I proceeded to the Amala stand and had a bowl of golden amala. Again they didn’t disappoint.

The Eat the Book session with Ozoz Sokoh was amazing. I have always thought of it as a brilliant idea. Ozoz made foods from Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo and Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela. It was all lovely, who would have thought pawpaw and pepper would go together in a sauce, she called it pawpaw chutney. I was truly impressed.

The entertainment in the evening was brilliant, Tope Tedela gave an astounding performance in the one man play, Whumanizer, and D’bi Young Anitafrika did not disappoint either. It was such a fulfilling day, I went home excited as usual. 

Day 4

I did not get in on time because I really wanted to attend church and to be honest I was really tired; it had been three long days already and in the midst of having a good time, I took no cognizance of the fact that my body was gradually tiring out.

I arrived just as the Book Chat with Oyinkan Braithwaite and Kagiso Molope, hosted by Ozoz Sokoh was just about to begin, so I quickly dashed to the gallery to see what it looked like before joining in. There was an interactive session going on there but I just wanted to feast my eyes on beautiful art work and yes I did. The pictures were pure art, I also loved the write up on the wall about Ake Festival.

The discussion went well and it ended with s. Braithwaite clarifying that she has nothing against men for those that might have been thinking that her book ‘my sister the serial killer’ represented a huge part of her life. Everyone laughed at her unique humour all through the session.

The next Panel discussion was on mental health in Nigeria, one that I had looked forward to being a part of because of the increasing number of mental health issues in the nation and the fact that a lot of people lack education on this. It was very educative and eye-opening. Two ladies asked questions surrounding sexual assault and how to deal with it and also get justice. The panelists advised them on the right procedures to follow and whom to talk to.

After this we were treated to a beautiful line-up of performing poets. We cheered and clapped and then came to the end of the festival. The guests exited the building first and then Lola Shoneyin gave the closing speech and it was a wrap.

Getting home, I reminisced on my experience in the past 4 days and how much I didn’t want it to end, all the people I had met and the discussions we had, the books I bought, the village arena experience, and just how simple and easy the environment was. The beauty of it all filled my heart. A new day has dawned for me. Then I heard her voice – Black Woman hold your heart, tell yourself I love you. Black Woman stay the course, stay the course.

I dozed off.

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