Ake 2015: Engaging the Fringe and Other Stories

I’ve always enjoyed solving problems and festivals flare up with so many little editorial and production fires that for some reason I really like putting out. I’ve been worked in and around literary festivals for the last eight years. With Storymoja alone I’ve happily bobbed around as a volunteer handing out programmes, worked as a media partner while at UP Magazine as well as taught a session at the festival.

Festival work is often maddening and exhilarating but quickly over in a few days. The memories though, those can last a lifetime.

In 2014, at Binyavanga Wainaina’s instance, I asked Ms. Lola Shoneyin if I could work at her festival, the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. We were speaking in August as that year’s Farafina Creative Writing workshop wound down.

Fellow workshop attendees who’d been to the inaugural edition and had raved about the interesting programme, long list of literary giants present and fantastic ambiance.

Having already fallen in love with the mad, bad city of Lagos thanks to Lekki Bridge and dodo and suya and the hyperbolic language and mannerisms of Nigerians, I had to return.

As expected, my experience was great. How many times does one get the chance to listen to Prof. Wole Soyinka speak about life in exile, his writing and sharing anecdotes about secret rendezvous with former president Obasanjo? Then later, discuss sneakers with him? (That would be the Professor and me).

Talking to Prof. Soyinka about his collection of black Converse sneakers.
Talking to Prof. Soyinka about his collection of black Converse sneakers.

On the flight back home, I vowed to make Ake my annual pilgrimage to Nigeria. Thankfully, in 2015 the good people at Art Moves Africa (AMA) accepted my request for a travel grant. I would be attending as a professional observer given that I was to serve as an Editorial Assistant at the Kwani? Litfest that December. Plus, being part of Pan-African writers’ collective, Jalada it fell on members present at the festival to launch our latest anthology: The Language Issue.

Ake’s 2015 programme was themed engaging the fringe and offered several firsts including hosting model and activist, Imanni Da Sylva who was brave enough to share The Story of an African Transgender.

Arriving in Lagos on Sunday, November 15th with Kwani? titles for sale at Ake, the plan was to catch the 7pm bus to Abeokuta that was leaving Murtala Muhammed airport with festival guests on Tuesday night.The drive down was extremely pleasant as I got to link up with old and new friends including fellow Jalada Africa member Novuyo Tshuma, Brittle Paper’s Ainehi Edoro, Kwani? Associate Editor, Kate Haines and literary blogger, Kinna Likimani as well as my fellow returning 2014 volunteers.

The first day was quiet with mostly school visits by a section of the invited writers. I did atleast get to meet up with Taiye Selasi and Siphiwo Mahala, celebrated authors who would later attend the 2015 Kwani? Lit Fest in Nairobi.

It felt great to be back and to have conversations with local and international festival guests and visitors, many of whom I recognized from the previous edition. Loved that I got to discover radical thinkers such as Mona Eltahawy and Chris Abani. The screening of a documentary on rape survivors in the DRC titled The Man who Mends Women was equally moving. (I’m hoping to convince filmmaker Judy Kibinge to screen it in Kenya via DocuBox).

The play Hear Word! was equally dazzling and one which a couple of ladies unwittingly provided the perfect prelude to with an impromptu #FeministTweetup an hour to the show. The conversations on stage both mirrored and amplified those discussed in our share circle; a space where we also gave our take on the festival thus far, including how representative the panels were and the state of feminism in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and USA among others.

Launching Jalada's Language Issue at Ake
Launching Jalada’s Language Issue at Ake with Novuyo Tshuma, Dami Ajayi and Mehul Gohil

By the time the festival was over I had listened to, laughed along with and learnt from great minds—and to my great, great joy I also danced a lot and finally toured Olumo rock, the place that birthed the name Abeokuta.

As fate would have it, in the days following my return to Nairobi, Ake and Kwani? Litfest were to find new linkages as they both held fundraising events towards the medical fund for dear Binyavanga Wainaina, a beloved fixture at both festivals.

With Ake, Ms. Shoneyin aka L.S has created the perfect mix of literary and artistic attractions that both entertain and spark much needed conversations within Nigeria and across the continent. At both editions, I’ve felt like I was part of one big, happy family moving towards the unified goal of better understanding African literature and culture.

2016, here I come!

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