My Aké Experience: Part 1

by - 13:22

It was in July, when I got an email from a member of the Aké team asking me if I would be in Nigeria around November, as the Aké Arts and Book Festival would like to invite me as a guest for a Blogger panel. My first thought, 'For real!'. Was I excited? Of course!!!! 

Since the first edition in 2013, the Aké Arts and Book Festival has grown to be one of Africa’s largest literary events. And I have followed twitter, facebook etc. every November to find out what was happening in Abeokuta - and been envious of the lovely people at Aké. And here was an opportunity for me to spend five days immersed in literature, books, arts, culture; to get to listen to writers, publishers and more discuss about their works; to meet some of the bloggers that I have been interacting with for a few years now; to be back home [even if for a short while]; to escape the cold, cold winter ... plus I heard that the Aké party was legendary. 

Then in September, I was asked if I would like to host a book chat with Irenosen Okojie and Taiye Selasi ... my response [in my mind] 'Heck yeah!'. November finally came, and I counted down to Aké, excited about being there, but also nervous about being on a panel – speaking about my blog - hosting a book chat with authors, being live-streamed ... Don’t worry! This isn’t a post about my fears of the panel and book chat, but about my time in Nigeria, my 6 and a bit days in Abeokuta, my Aké experience. So how was it?

Lola Shoneyin explained at a press luncheon prior to the start of the Festival that: 
'In organising, the Aké Arts and Book Festival, one of the key things is to bring poets, writers, artists, film-makers, thinkers and all the people who espouse our issues creatively into a space where they can have honest and creative conversations about what it means to be African, what it means to be able to engage with one another and also with the outside world.'
And you know what? Lola Shoneyin has created something special with AkéThere was a truly magical atmosphere at the festival - being in Abeokuta, the land which just seems to be oozing art and talent; at the cultural centre which Lola Shoneyin and her team were able to turn into an inviting space where artists of all types and lovers of said artists could come together to share, discuss, debate, learn and connect; and the Aké team and volunteers who were just amazing (to Ademola, Afolabi, Fola, Jessica, Seun, Tobi, Toni, Wale - and everyone else who really took care of us and made us feel welcome - you guys rock!!!). And my time ...

Day 1: Out of office on, 10:30am BA flight to Lagos, and time to say goodbye to cold England. Boarding, and who do I see, but an Aké guest, the lovely Kate Haines of Africa in Words – who would also be hosting the Bloggers panel. A 'hot' meal, Butterfly Fish, and 2 movies later (actually don't remember what I watched now), landed at Murtala Muhammed International Airport – through immigration, collected luggage, got a Sim card and was welcomed, first by the humid early evening Lagos weather, and then Afolabi from the Aké Team. On to the bus taking us to Abeokuta. There I met a few more of Aké’s guests and visitors - Véronique Tadjo, Nnedi Okorafor, Nana Darkoa, and a film-maker from Ethiopia who worked at the Goethe Institute, Daniel. Tired, but excited - I was home (even though it was kind of weird, being in Lagos and not heading home). 3 hours later – there was a bit of traffic leaving Lagos – hello, Abeokuta! First stop the cultural centre for dinner. There we were warmly greeted by the Director herself - Lola Shoneyin, who welcomed me so kindly with a hug and a smile (starstruck, but kept my composure).

[Side note: My re-discovery of Nigerian literature happened in three waves (19, I read Karen King Aribisala's Our Wives and Other Stories; 22, at a bookshop in Brussels I bought Purple Hibiscus not knowing who Adichie was and read it in one sitting on the train back to London; 23, making a conscious decision to really delve into Nigerian literature I bought 3 books - On Black Sisters' Street; The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives; The Thing Around Your Neck. So to meet – in the flesh – and be hugged and welcomed - by my first name - by one of the female writers that was part of my rediscovery of African literature was unbelievable for me.]. 

Dinner with Véronique Tadjo and Nana Darkoa (who I find out works on women's rights issues, like myself - ah! to find a kindred spirit only a few hours in). After dinner, really tired (it was probably 11pm, but it felt like it was 3am), driven to the hotel, let everyone know I was safe and sound in Abeokuta, and sleep!

Day 2: Overslept, in the lobby met the wonderful Jessica (Aké’s Media and Comms Manager), late for breakfast (thank you to the wonderful lady, who kindly offered me cereal and bread – even though breakfast was clearly over), and had a pretty chill day. The festival had not officially started, but there were a few sessions: workshops with Taiye Selasi, Nnedi Okorafor and Helon Habila, and on site school events on the Environment. So I ended up re-reading Ghana Must Go and checked out the world outside the hotel - including the cultural centre, where I got a glimpse of the Aké Bookstore (managed by the lovely Fola) which was still being set up. This was also the day I met Siphiwo Mahala. 

Day 3: No over sleeping this time. On the way to breakfast I see the fabulous Ainehi Edoro of Brittle Paper (at last, we meet!), and at breakfast I meet Dilman Dila, Mehul Gohil and Zukiswa Wanner. Head over to the cultural centre, which results in my first (and certainly not last) book buying session of the Festival. 

This was the day of school visits. Lola Shoneyin pairs me with Dilman and, we are joined by an Aké volunteer, Remi, and a reporter from Sweden (whose name escapes me at the moment). As we make our way to the bus, we are also teamed up with Bisi Alimi and Ayo Sogunro. I wasn't sure what I would say to the students - here I was with a writer and film maker; an activist, public speaker and op-ed writer; and a writer, lawyer and social critic - but the school visit was amazing. I think back to being 12-15, and how great it would have been to have writers, film-makers and activists speak about writing (in its various forms), reading, activism, and providing alternatives beyond 'so-called' traditional career routes. Among the many students, we met a young man who clearly was inspired after Bisi Alimi spoke about op-eds (we might have a future op-ed writer thanks to Bisi Alimi) and a young woman, who wanted to be a fashion blogger - she came up to me afterwards to find out more about how she could go about doing that. 

After the school visits we head back to the cultural centre for lunch, and there I hear that a few people are planning to check out Olumo Rock and head to the market (as they won't be around for the planned excursion on Sunday!). So off to Olumo Rock and the market we go! 

Hello Olumo ...
Up we go!!!
View from the top. 
Not Kuto market (I think!) .... but plenty to see and buy.

In the evening we watched Ramata, a Senegalese movie, adapted from a novel by Abasse Ndione. Ramata tells the story of a beautiful and wealthy woman in her 50s, who seems to be missing something from her 30+ year marriage to the now Minister of Justice. However, a chance encounter with a young man in his 20s one night leads to a series of strange events, which ends up shaping her life. 

While beautifully shot and acted, the movie was all kinds of wrong. This had to do with one scene, about a third into the movie, where the young man drags Ramata into a room in the bar where he has unwittingly kept her for hours against her will. A scene, which felt to me (and to a large majority of women in the room) as rape, but which to others didn't. Rape turns into lust and longing, and Ramata just can't get this man out of her mind. 

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All this, and Aké hadn't even officially started. Now to panic about my book chat and the blogger panel the next day. Day 4 and more in part 2. 

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