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Abeokuta… a feast of books, arts on the rock

By Anote Ajeluorou (who was in Abeokuta)
27 November 2016   |   2:39 am
Perhaps, the closing Poetry and Palmwine Party became a fitting toast to a lavish weeklong festival that celebrated books and arts and those who produce them in Abeokuta.

…A Dream Platform For Africa’s Creatives
Perhaps, the closing Poetry and Palmwine Party became a fitting toast to a lavish weeklong festival that celebrated books and arts and those who produce them in Abeokuta. The festival ended a week today, but its memories, as Nigeria’s gathering of cultural producers from across Africa and the wider world will continue to echo for a while yet.

To savour the parting night of poetry and palmwine were Kenyan’s celebrated writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who earlier in the evening, held the gathering of writers at Ogunde Hall of June 12 Cultural Centre, Kuto, Ibara GRA, spellbound in a conservation with Nigeria’s Prof. Okey Ndibe. It was a conversation that reaffirmed the Kenyan writer’s belief in the equality of all languages, including African ones, and the need for African writers to use their mother tongues to write and seek translations into other languages.

Also at the party were Prof. Femi Osofisan, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade, who moderated the Poetry and Palmwine Party, Commissioner representing Delta State on Niger Delta Development Commission’s (NDDC) board, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo, award-winning Zimbabwean novelist, Noviolet Bulawayo, jury head of Etisalat Prize for Literature 2016, Mr. Helon Habila, Mr. Toni Kan, whose new novel about Lagos, The Carnivorous City, is receiving rave reviews, and a galaxy of other writers too numerous to count. The festival had as theme ‘Beneath this Skin.’

The performers on the night included, Chika Jones, a poet and volunteer at the festival, Dike Chukwumerije, whose spoken word dwelled on the pervasive schisms in Nigeria’s social strata, America’s Michael Kelleher, Nigeria’s Titilope Sonuga, whose vocal piece was at once a battle cry and rallying point for mothers and women, as it affirmed what they are and what they are not in their relationships with the men in their lives. It was such rousing performance that she got the hall standing up as one man in salute to poetry with such sublime grace.

Still on the poetry of societal healing that rages against all forms of oppression and evil, Ifowodo rendered pieces from his new, telling collection, A Good Mourning. There was one that mourned Kudirat Abiola, slain wife of presumed winner of June 12, 1993 elections, MKO Abiola, and to all the slain of Rwandan genocide. South Africa’s Lebo Nashile also added her feminist poetic voice to the fray, and railed against men, who deal women a mean hand; she did not spare her country’s president, Jacob Zuma, who was alleged to have raped a woman. The said woman has since died of a brokenness and loneliness. But it was the fire of her performance that transported her poetry to that place of shared pleasure.

Politics Of Language Skewed Against African Writing
The Poetry and Palmwine Party dovetailed into an earlier conversation session between Ndibe and Thiong’o tagged ‘Life and Times Series,’ which echoed the celebrated writer’s strong belief in the primacy and equality of all languages. He finds it a shame that African languages have been abandoned for European ones on account of colonialisation in spite of the inherent beauty and what he called the ‘musicality of African languages’ as was evident in the performances of the poets.

In fact, to highlight the lyrical beauty of African languages, Ngugi, whose theatre and politics are of the Marxist, revolutionary kind in putting Africa and the people first, has had his short, folk story, ‘The Upright Revolution’ translated into 55 languages. However, on the night, it got its Yoruba translation by Kola Tubosun. The story was read in no less than six African languages to which the story has been translated. Three from Nigeria – Hausa, Igbo, read by Kiru Taye, and Yoruba; Ngugi’s native Kikuyu in which Ngugi read it and Shona, read by Kenyan journalist and blogger, James Murua, and a Zimbabwean language from which Bulawayo read it.

The reading from multiple African languages provided sheer linguistic delight. His seminal work on the use of African languages Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language is instructive of his Afrocentric passion in reorienting the African mind towards his neglected languages and cultures.

As Thiong’o noted, “The thing for me is the musicality in African languages, like an orchestra. The musicality in African languages is very powerful. It really moves me so much to hear the sounds of African languages.”

Ngugi brought a biblical angle to the sound implication in language, saying, ‘In the beginning was sound. Just look at the galaxy, the wind, the trees; they all make sound. Sound is everywhere. Then out of sound came words and out of words came language, intellectualization and literature. Humanity grows out of sound.”

With the translation of ‘The Upright Revolution’ into some 56 languages and still counting, Ngugi said the story has taken a life of its own since he let it be published by an African literary association.

“In my house in Kenya and California, U.S., we tell stories,” he told the enthralled audience. “All languages of the world, including African languages, can be in conversation with themselves and we don’t need to discard African languages. This is a challenge to all publishers in Africa to publish in local languages and get translators to put them in other languages.”

He noted the obstacles to the flowering of African languages in the creative process to include poor government and educational policies and publishers’ poor perception towards local languages. He also tasked literary prize givers on the continent to look inwards, saying, “I take issues when writing is in French or English as conditions for prizes and not in African languages. We don’t have to negate our world. All languages, even the so-called English, European languages, came in phases; European languages went through phases of development.

 Toni Kan; Tendai Huchu and Leye Adenle in conversation

Toni Kan; Tendai Huchu and Leye Adenle in conversation

“But this changed during the imperial period of dominance and aggression to expand abroad. I hate the notion that to develop one language others must die. Everything financial was put forward to make sure that other languages die so English must survive. The problem is the question of hierarchies of languages and cultures.”

Ngugi gave a stunning analogy to stress the primacy of all languages and the European hypocrisy of privileging theirs over others. According to the notable writer, whose memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer’s Awakening, just came out, asserted, “To say that your god is more than other gods is ungodly. All languages are very beautiful; one beauty doesn’t have to dwarf others!”

While responding to Panashe Chigumadzi’s query about the number of women in attendance in Makerere University, Uganda, in 1962 when the pan African writers’ conference was held, Ngugi said although they were about two, he marveled at and saluted the courage of African women writing at the moment.

“There were only two women writers back then in Makerere in 1962,” he said. “But today, it’s different. It’s incredible the energy of women writers”.

For Ngugi, Devil in the Cross would appear to be his favourite. However, he confessed to the fact that every writer, including him, always considered the next unwritten book as perhaps the most interesting, the unattainable ideal, as he had seen the others. On his Marxist stance, he explained the dialectics of his work, saying “arts comes closely to reflecting the dialectics of nature; arts frees the human spirit from confinements.”

Meaninglessness of Democracy Without Education
One of the Book Chat sessions had two Nigerian writers living in the U.S. – Teju Cole and Helon Habila – sparing on Boko Haram, exile and home, with Kadaria Ahmed moderating. The two writers have non-fiction books out, Known and Strange Places by Cole and The Chibok Girls by Habila. Cole said it was always different coming home to Nigeria, an experience he relishes so much. He stated that after the Chibok girls were abducted, there was a flurry of responses from all over the world and almost everybody became Chibok girls’ expert in the profusion of opinions and views that fell far short of what was at stake; he felt he had to write a counter narrative.

“After the Chibok girls were taken,” Cole said, “everybody knew so much about Nigeria, even when they knew nothing. I was asked to write for The New Yorker. I had to write an anti-essay. What I had missed in all the commentaries was a sense of grief. It was recognition of the limit of opinion. I hadn’t been to Northern Nigeria; if you hadn’t been there, you can’t write about Chibok.”

Habila, who grew in present-day Gombe State, said the limit of the Chibok girls’ tragedy was “the limit of fiction. Fiction wouldn’t fit, especially when you need no ambiguity.”

He was in Germany at the time to complete a work of fiction, but he simply couldn’t, as the news paralysed him.

“The North is such a complex place,” he told his audience, “there are pockets of differences here and there. There are Northerners but Christians, Hausa-speaking and non-Hausa. I’m trying to link that idyllic time in the 1970s during Udoji bonanza and there was money to spend. Ours was the only Christian family in a tenement block among Hausa tenants.

“We cannot afford to continue like this. I don’t know what can bring healing. What I know is that we have a commonality of self-preservation. We want to oppose this thing that is killing us.”

For Cole and Habila, there is something wrong with the way man practises religion for it to have such destructive force. “On what basis can we construct oneness, togetherness and avoid the schisms that religion tends to impose?” Cole asked no one in particular. “I should say we should stop engaging with religion. Instead, religion should engage with us and stop the killing.”

“We have reached a divide,” Habila said, “a Nigeria before Boko Haram and a Nigeria after Boko Haram. This is against the norm that a Nigerian loves life too much to want to blow himself up.”

The two writers also examined the sheer inequality in all parts of the country fuelled by the politics of greed masquerading as religion. For Cole, “Boko Haram is not the arrival of evil driven by political and religious ideology,” while Habila argued that “We never go to the root causes like inequality” and delivers, perhaps, a most pungent submission, “without education democracy is meaningless!”

A Dream Platform For Africa’s Creatives
Festival organiser, Lola Shoneyin said Ake was a good platform for Africa’s to network and co-produce, as evident in the large gathering, noting, “I’m delighted to see how Ake festival has grown both in size and significance. We are so chuffed to see how many of you engage with us on our social media platforms… We do also invite non-Africans who through their work demonstrate a keen interest in Africa or who love and cherish Africa.

 Adunni Nefertiti performing

Adunni Nefertiti performing

“As the organisers, we would like to believe that Ake Festival is where African creatives feel safe, valued and appreciated, where they get an opportunity to network with people who share their interests and where they get the best palmwine. We, at the Book Buzz Foundation, get a very warm feeling when we see photos of Ake Festival guests attending each other’s weddings, stopping by at each other’s events or just meeting up somewhere in the world for a coffee. We love it when we hear that Ake Festival guests are collaborating on new initiatives. This sort of gathering is critical for creativity and culture on our continent. I hope we shall continue to be here for one another. The romantic in me hopes that one day, we shall even have a marriage made in Ake Festival.”

Shoneyin also paid tribute to two writers, who joined the ancestors during the year. “But there are times of great sadness, when our hearts are broken. We were all shocked to hear of the passing away of two great friends of Ake Festival: Oyebade Dosunmu, we lost last November, and Ken Saro Wiwa Jr, who passed away last month at the age of 47. Both of them had so much to give. On a personal note, I shall remember their laughter and the joy and friendship we shared forever. We, who shared this same space with you in 2013, will never forget you.”

For newcomers to Ake, she had a word, “For those of you who are joining us for the first time, the essential character of Ake Festival remains the same. We offer an entertaining and informative mix of performances, discussions, screenings, exhibitions and readings, with plenty of opportunities to meet much-admired creatives, to soak up the atmosphere and to explore this beautiful, historic city.”

Crime And Romance In The City
At Ake, two novels tend to stand out on account of their theme and setting in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial, dream city: Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City and Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist. Although many novels have been set in Lagos, these two works have set the city apart and explore its underbelly like no other novels before. For these two hawkers of fictive wares, Lagos is one humongous character that is all-consuming and a real carnivore that devours human beings whole and without remorse.

In a book chat moderated by Zimbabwe’s Tendai Huchu, Kan and Adenle gave insight to their creative muses, with Lagos city as canvas on which they have painted words and emotions that run deep. Kan affirmed that “a crime novel must reflect the peculiar reality, environment we are in” and that The Carnivorous City “is a love song for Lagos!”

While Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist is about prostitutes and the precarious lives they live, with some being killed in the line of duty and the woman, who sticks out her neck to save the ones she could, Kan’s The Carnivorous City is about a Lagos Big Boy, who goes missing and the wife and older brother’s efforts to find him in city that easily becomes a quicksand under the feet in minutes.

And Peugeot Revs Up Support For The Arts
Among the numerous sponsors and supporters of Ake Books and Arts Festival was Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN), makers of Peugeot range of cars. While speaking on the sidelines of the festival, its Head, Corporate Communications, Mr. Haroun Malami, said PAN, a pioneer car brand in Nigeria, was gradually waking up from its many years of mismanagement and has discovered the arts and culture sector drivers of Nigeria’s economic future worthy of investment.

Malami said PAN’s support for the arts arrises from the fact that “the business of assembling cars is an art, skills’ dynamic. The dynamic nature of automobile is as the dynamic nature of arts.”

According to Malami, “For more than four decades, Peugeot contributed a lot to Nigeria’s development and economic growth. We are supporting the artists and the art world. We share positive vision with the artists and are willing to develop capacity of the creative industry and support it to bring about economic development.”

Malami said Peugeot, which is making its second appearance at Ake festival, was ready to develop capacity, skills and talent in the arts and culture sector. It had also support filmmaker, Mr. Kunle Afolayan, producer of The CEO, adding, “We look forward to supporting artists with unique skills in promoting Nigeria. We are interested in skils’ development. We’re interested in Peugeot Learning Centre impacting skills to young Nigerians. We’re looking at every opportunity to teach skills that can positively project Nigeria locally and internationally.

Etisalat Prize for Literature Announces Longlist
Director, Brands and Experience, Etisalat Nigeria, Mr. Elvis Ogiemwanye and prize jury head, Mr. Helon Habila announced the longlist of nine books for Etisalat Prize for Literature 2017 at Ake Festival.

The 2017 Etisalat Prize for Literature longlisted books include Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya (Coffee House Press, U.S.),
The Yearning by Mohale Mashigo (PanMacmillan, South Africa), Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane Toure (Blackbird Books imprint of Jacana Media, SA), The Peculiars by Jen Thorpe (Penguin Random House, USA), Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Cassava Republic, Nigeria), And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile (Farafina an imprint of Kachifo Limited, Nigeria), Dub Steps by Andrew Miller (Jacana Media, South Africa), The Seed Thief by Jacqui L’Ange (Umuzi Publishers, South Africa) and Nwezelenga: The Star Child by Unathi Magubeni (Black Bird Books Imprint of Jacana Media, South Africa).