Cinderella goes to the ball – Ake Arts and Books Festival

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“There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…”  John Lennon

Some things were just meant to be, that is the only way I can explain how I ended up at the Ake Arts and Books festival in Abeokuta Nigeria.  Despite being aware that it was going to be near impossible to get a visa to Nigeria I still entered the competition that the organisers were running for a round trip to the festival with Rwandair.  I did not for one minute think that I would win so you can imagine the shock when I got an email saying that I had actually won.  After celebrating for two days, panic set in. How the hell was I going to get a visa?   But as they say, where there is a will there is a way.  So, with blood, sweat and tears and calling in favours I managed to secure a Ugandan passport and a visa with just two days to spare.

The tent where some of the Panel discussions took place

The flight with Rwandair was painless and drama free which was a relief given my experience the last time I took to the air.  I was picked up from the airport by a member of the organising team, who I spotted as soon as I stepped out of the airport building.  I arrived dead in the middle of rush hour so the ride to Abeokuta from Lagos was a little scary.  Watching the driver weave his way in between the huge trucks, jumping from lane to lane was sometimes hair raising but I was lucky in having Nomboniso Gasa for company in the car.  Her interesting stories about the time she lived in Lagos and the work she did with Nelson Mandela was fascinating and kept me distracted making what was a relatively long journey seem short.

A Warm Welcome

Ake Festival Director
Lola Shoneyin, the woman behind the whole festival

I have been to many literature events and festivals and have stalked enough writers that from the moment I found out that I was going to the festival I was filled with excitement rather than nerves.  However, as I got out of the car and made my way to the building where all the guests were gathered having dinner it dawned on me that I was walking into this room full of all these talented writers, artists and poets and there was I, this imposter. The nerves set in.  I need not have worried though, the reception that I received from Lara the event’s communications manager and Lola Shoneyin the Festival director was so warm that I was immediately put at ease.  And the great hospitality from the organising team continued throughout the festival.  No request was too big for them, despite the pressure they must have been under trying to satisfy everyone.  Most knew me by name and approached me to congratulate and welcome me, I could not have asked for more from them.

The Accomodation

Reception area at the Green Legacy Resort Abeokuta

As competition winner I got to stay in the same hotel as all the guests, how cool is that?   On the first night I ended up sharing with my travel companion as they were not enough rooms left. 

It was not a problem for me but I felt a little bad for her as I had an irritating dry cough which I was afraid would keep her up all night.  On the second day a room was found for me and I accepted it despite the fact that it could only be locked from the inside and the AC was broken.  Given that I was not paying I was not about to make a fuss.  The broken AC suited me just fine, with my cough the last thing I needed was cold air circulating about the room, and I could carry my valuables with me during the day. The resort is huge and has the potential to be great but there is still a lot of work to be done for it to get there.  The reception area is extravagant with plush leather sofas in three separate seating areas.  The bedrooms despite the extravagant furnishing did not quite live up to expectations.  The bathrooms had two showers over the bath but no plughole blocker for the bath.  There was also a lack of wall sockets to plug in appliances and on some mornings there was no water at all.  Still the bed was very comfortable and the rooms were airy and spacious.  The hotel staff were very polite and tried to help as much as they could. On the Saturday morning I had a late start and the cleaning staff found me in the room when they came to clean.  The young man heard me coughing and recommended that I eat some oranges to help sooth my dry throat.  I told him that there were none in the restaurant so he offered to get me some.  I gave him some money for them but he refused to take it saying that it was his suggestion and that he would pay for them.  When I returned to my room that night there were oranges and watermelon waiting for me above the fridge, I was so touched I nearly cried.

The Discussions and Talks

Ake Festival
Mamle Kabu and Toni Kan share a joke

The literature programme kicked off the day after I arrived.   With book chats and panel discussions which explored issues such as the representation of African women in literature, writing about Africa from the diaspora, the future of genre fiction in Africa, corruption in 21st century Africa and many more.   It is a shame that no one has yet invented a way for one to be in two places at the same time, with the engaging discussion topics and the impressive panellists it was hard deciding which sessions to attend.  

Michela Wrong, Teju Cole and Tolu Ogenlesi in a panel discussion

The talks with an audience that consisted mostly of other writers were often lively and engaging and with sometimes very heated exchanges.  As with any unscripted discussion, the conversation tended to drift off topic at times so the panel discussion that was supposed to be on New Nigerian fiction spent most of the allocated hour and a half discussing the Afropolitanism.   Until then I hadn’t realised how much emotion the word Afropolitan evoked. It is a shame that Taiye Selasi who coined the term in her 2005 essay pulled out of the festival.  It would have been great to hear her take on the subject. 

The Headline Event and Party

Ake Festival
Professor Wole Soyinka in conversation with his son Dr Olaokun Soyinka

The main event after which the festival got its name “The Shadow of Memory” was an interview with Professor Wole Soyinka.  This was however no ordinary interview, instead of the usual set up where you have someone interviewing the writer, the organisers run a competition amongst university students and selected four wining questions to be put to the professor.  The winners, two boys and two girls, were given the opportunity to put their questions to the great man in person.   The questions varied in range from the political to cults and then to more personal issues such as his views on alcohol, how he wooed his first love and how he kept his hair so straight.  Most of the questions were answered honestly and with great humour although you could tell that he was uncomfortable with some of the more personal ones.  This was my first audience with Professor Soyinka, I found him to be very sincere and humorous which made wonder why I had left it so late.  I will certainly be checking out more of his writing after this.

Marlon James and Tope Folarin on a panel

After the stimulating discussions in the day in the evening we were treated live music, poetry and drama including the stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.  Adapted by Rotimi Babatunde the production was lively, entertaining and just as funny as the book.  I take my hat off to the people who wrote the music and arranged the choreography, they were a delight to listen to and watch.

On the last night we were treated to poetry and palm wine.  I have heard so much about palm wine and despite being a teetotaller I decided to try some to see what the fuss was all about.  After only two sips my head was swirling and I had to sit down, it was that strong.  Luckily it did not affect my enjoyment of the sometimes funny, sometimes emotional poetry performances.  So despite NEPA’s attempts to sabotage with several power cuts, there was no stopping the fun and frolics which continued late into the night with food, music and dancing after the performances.

Ake, A Legacy

Two young school boys from the local school

I have attended many literature festivals in different countries in the last few years and I can say that the Ake Arts and Books Festival has left a greater impression on me than any other.  I think the main reason for this was because I was in such close proximity with the writers, I ate, slept and socialised with them throughout the festival.  It was also special because it was on the African continent and it showcased and celebrated artists and writers from the continent.  And I loved that fact that it engaged and involved the local community.  Where most festivals fly the speakers in, do their thing and pack up and leave after the allotted time, Ake was different.  Alongside the arts workshops with school children, there was also a community outreach reading programme whereby a number of writers including Chibundu Onuzo and Yewande Omotuso led reading sessions in local schools, there was a speed dating session where buddying writers were given the opportunity to meet publishers and agents, and local students were given vouchers to spend on books at the festival. 

I cannot thank the Buzz Foundation and Rwandair enough for the experience.  I will definitely be entering next year’s competition although I don’t think I stand a chance of winning.