Galaxy of Africa’s Literary Stars


The 4th edition of Ake Arts and Book Festival has come and gone, but participants will continue to remember the superlative experience they had during the festival, writes Peter Uzoho

Like never before, the festival held between 15 and 19 November, 2016, at the Ogun State Arts and Cultural Centre, Kuto, Abeokuta, and witnessed a galaxy of African literary stars-writers, thinkers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, book lovers and art enthusiasts, who in different sessions, made this year’s edition more intellectually enriching, thrilling and memorable. Issues bordering on Africa were discussed in different perspectives, ranging from politics, religion, culture, language, sex and sensuality, amongst others, with reference from the authors’ works.

Among the artists were renowned Kenyan author, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nigeria’s Prof. Okey Ndibe, Kunle Ajibade, Toni Kan, Odafe Atogun, Leye Adenle, Helon Habila, Chinelo Okparanta and Teju Cole.

Others were Zimbabwean Tendai Huchu, Panashe Chigumadzi and Noviolet Bulawayo. Also present were Jowhor Ile, Clement Aboifouta, Laila Lalami, Jennifer Makumbi, Pemi Aguda, Geoff Ryman, amongst others.

The audience comprising scholars and students, booklovers, and enthusiasts in literary and performing arts, who came from different African countries and beyond to see, listen to their idols, discuss their books and share knowledge and experience with them, also used the golden platform to make direct purchase of preferred books from authors which earned them author’s autograph at the point of purchase.

To both the artists and the audience, the festival offered them an opportunity to have a feel of a new environment, make new friends, gain new contacts and taste new delicacies.
With the theme ‘Beneath the Skin’, the festival hosted nine book chats featuring 18 authors like Alain Mabanckou, Helon Habila, Laila Lalami, Petina Gappah, Teju Cole, Panashe Chigumadzi, Tendai Huchu, Chinelo Okparanta, Noviolet Bulawayo, Jowhor Ile, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Odafe Atogun, Tade Thompson, Toni Kan and many more.

Already established and new artists were engaged in 12 exciting panel discussions where issues on identities, race, gender, mental health in fiction, and the rise and fall of African economies, were in focus.

There was exploration of sensational genres such as erotica, horror fiction, and prison stories. In two art exhibitions, the works of Laolu Senbanjo, whose ‘Sacred Art of the Ori’ featured on Beyonce’s latest album Lemonade; and Fatima Abubakar who captures the lives of the people of Borno State, in a stunning series of photographs, were brought to light. In an acoustic music concert with Brymo, Falana, Adunni and Nefertiti, the audience really had a good time.

On day one, shortly after the opening ceremony, the first book chat entitled ‘The Face of Tyranny’ was introduced, and Jowhor Ile and Odafe Atogun, whose stories were set in the 90s, which was during the Nigeria’s military era, fraught with oppression and tyranny, discussed their novels.

Atogun, reading an excerpt from his book ‘Taduno’s Song’ revealed that Taduno’s character in the story was modeled on late Nigeria’s music legend, Fela Kuti, who vehemently fought brutality and oppression with peace and music. Justifying his decision not to tie the setting of the story to a particular military leader’s regime, he said “the president in Taduno’s Song is representative of tyranny all over the world. Tyranny in the world has the same face.”

On his part, Jowhor Ile, whose book ‘And After Many Days’ shares the same theme of tyranny with Atogun’s Taduno’s Song, noted that the novel is narrated in the voice of Ajie, the youngest of the three Utu children- beginning with the disappearance of the first son, Paul. He brought to light the sibling rivalry between Ajie and his older sister, Bibi, who he said, bears no resemblance to his own sister.

In a conversation session on day 2, the moderator, Kolade Arogundade, led the panel, made up of Toni Kan, Chinelo Okparanta, KiruTaye and Nana Darkoa, to discuss the topic ‘Legs Open, Eyes Closed: Sensuality in New African Writing’.

In response to the question on why they (the panelists) started writing romance, sex, and erotic fiction, Darkoa, who owns an award-winning blog, ’Adventures’, said “I started the blog after travelling with a group of women and we were talking openly about sex and our desires, and the horrible statistics- about 70 per cent of women not having orgasms. I wanted to write about sex in Africa.”

For Kiru Taye, author of over 20 romance novels, “I started writing because I wanted people to read about sex like me, since I read a lot of romance. I was trying to debunk the myth about sex. The African population is exploding, people are having sex and I wanted to talk about it.”
Chinelo Okparanta, Nigeria’s US-based author of ‘Happiness Like Water, and Under the Udala Trees’ contributing on the argument on what gives them the power to write about sex when in most African societies, sex is a no-go area during conversation, said, “when we talk about sex, we are talking about power. Shame is the power that we give others to wield over us, so when I write I take back my power.”

In his argument on whether ‘men are guilty of kissing and telling and boasting about their sexual encounters’, Toni Kan said, “Men tend to exaggerate their sexual conquest and prowess. Besides, there’s this thing about shame in sex with women. If a woman has a one night stand with a man, she is considered loose, but for a man, it’s just another sexual conquest,” Kan added.
In another book chat, Zukiswawanner, led Laila Lalami, author of ‘The Moors Account’ and Tendai Huchu, writer of ‘The Maestro Magistrate and The Mathematician,’ to explain the concept of identity as captured in their works.

“I see identity as something that is fluid,” Lalami said, in reference to the identity of Mustapha, the main character in her novel. According to her, the question of ‘what are you, not who are you’, holds sway among people. “And how that shows people trying to figure out what is your actual national origin,” she added.

Speaking about her sensitivity to names, Lalami noted, “There is a connection between our names and our history.” She revealed that such interruption from the outside was something she had wanted to write about.

Viewing fiction as irrelevant as reflected in ‘the mathematician and the magistrate’- two of the characters in his novel, Huchu argues “I have many doubts as to what it is this art form is for or what it does, especially when people start talking about how it can transform society and all those things. I’m a bit of a skeptic, and I think it was part of my own personal skepticism appearing through the characters. But I also thought it would be cool to have characters themselves that are saying that this thing that we are in is nonsense.” To him, fiction does not always solve man’s problem like hunger.

Also lending his voice in another panel with his compatriots, Panashe Chigumadzi and Noviolet Bulawayo, while talking about their works and country, and how the past 50 years of Zimbabwe’s history impacted them as writers, Huchu said, “To ask me to exclude the things in the country I was born is asking too much, it is my reality.”

For Chigumadzi, “Zimbabwe for the past 200 years is a particularly interesting place and it was only natural for my imagination to reside in Zimbabwe.” She noted that while her family had left Zimbabwe when she was three to live in South Africa, she never stopped being Zimbabwe partly because her father kept her country alive for her and being Zimbabwean in South Africa, in a way, made her different.

For Bulawayo, writing about Zimbabwe in her first novel was something she had no control over. “I could not write it. But now that I have done this thing, I can go beyond it,” she said. Bulawayo noted that she was not sure of the reception her current project would get as it was going to be different from one of her works ‘We Need New Names’.

In the face of the challenges Zimbabwean writers had in getting their stories published for people to read, there were yet alternatives. “We see narratives from guys who, with certain resources, might have decided to tell their stories through literature,” Huchu noted.

According to them, other media stories being told were through serialised novels in newspapers and on Facebook, and also in short video clips that often went viral via WhatsApp.
For Chigumadzi, it was “a time when people had to find ways to say things in convoluted ways because of censorship.”

Activities for day 2 got to a crescendo at the cinema hall, where the heroic film documentary of Clement Aboifouta, ‘Hissène Habré: a Chadian Tragedy’, was shown. The film chronicled the horrible state of Chadian citizens who went through what is commonly regarded as ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ in the hands of their military dictator, Hissène Habré, and his men, from 1982 to 1990.
Though, their eyes and minds were prepared to watch and withstand imminent shock from the nasty visuals in the film, through a close-up showing a man with cuts on his neck, chin and ribs, the audience could not resist their natural impulses, as most of them would scream, almost shedding tears. Their senses of pity and sobriety were energised, eclipsing the moment of enjoyment.

With Aboifouta as guide, the camera roams through the houses of victims, roving over their faces as they describe the horrors faced in the hands of the dictator’s men. Habré ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, and in that time, over 40,000 people were killed, and many more enslaved, imprisoned, maimed, and made victims of other horrifying acts.

Interestingly, the documentary did not end without seeing justice triumph over Habre and his evil rule, thanks to a female human right lawyer and activist, Jacqueline Moudeina, who was instrumental to bringing justice for the victims. Describing Moudeina, Aboifouta said, “She has a lot of admiration. She was very young and just starting to be a lawyer. She was attacked by the DSS and injured. Yet, she was with them for 15 years on the journey to justice.” Hissène Habré met his waterloo in May 2016 as he was finally sentenced to life in prison.

Giving insight into the process of selecting the sources of his story, Aboifouta said he was “careful to ensure all their stories were true and non-fiction.” He noted that it was painful for him to listen to the victims because their stories reminded him of his experience- he was imprisoned for four years. He believes leaving the country is not an important thing for him because that would be seen as abandoning his responsibilities.

On reconciliation, he said: “There’s the need to write all that has to be written on the page of justice before moving to the page of reconciliation.” This thought was shown in the documentary when one of the victims faced his torturer who was reluctant to seek for forgiveness even after admitting his own callousness during the regime. He chose, instead, to ascribe the things he did to simply following orders.

In seeking justice, Aboifouta spoke of the importance of secrecy of their operations, of hiding their documents as they went getting the dictator to pay for the crimes he committed. In the process, they had the support of organisations like the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, European Union, among others. But more still needs to be done in support of the victims, especially in their health, which, until now, they’ve had to deal with on their own.

The final day saw the hall full to the brim as the audience was well-seated to witness the long- anticipated session, where renowned Kenyan literary icon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Kunle Ajibade, in a panel moderated by Molara Wood, discussed their prison experiences. Both authors were imprisoned by the government of their countries for their writings. Ngugiwa Thiong’o was sent to prison by Jomo Kenyatta for writing a play in Kenyan language, while Ajibade was incarcerated by Nigeria’s dictator, General Sani Abacha, for allegedly taking part in a coup to topple his government.
Both read particular chapters from their prison memoirs before the audience. Ngugi read from his ‘Writing on Toilet Paper’, while Ajibaje read from his ‘I am digging for Gold’. This led to a question by the moderator, Wood, who asked Ngugi, if his prison writing was a way of starting a struggle writing in literature.

He said while in prison, he pondered why he was put in prison for writing a play in a Kenyan language, Gikuyu, which he said was the same language with Jomo Kenyatta. “I understood the politics of language in prison. When people conquer another, they impose their language on them. For example, when Japan colonised Korea they imposed their language and names on them,” he said.
Expressing his displeasure over the suppression of African languages, citing scenarios where in schools, children are punished for speaking in their local languages, he urged, “We must all campaign against the criminalisation of African languages in our schools. We should stop it.”
Ajibaje, narrating his own prison experience, said he started writing in prison after General Yar’Adua was found dead in prison. “I began to think I will not make it out of prison,” he noted.
“Reading and writing in jail was a freedom we fought for. For my first year in prison, I was treated like a hardened criminal. I was only allowed to read the Bible or Quran. After the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni nine, human rights organisations clamped down on Nigeria.”

According to him, “I gained the freedom to read after I wrote a letter to the warden who said, why not? Part of the responsibility of our occupation is to speak out for the masses.”

Reacting to the question on finding God and faith while in prison, Ajibade said, “I have always been Godly long before prison but not religious. The Bible and the Quran are wonderful books. I have always recommended them. If there’s any take away from the punishment of prison, it’s by reading those books (Bible and Quran) thoroughly.”

Contributing, Ngugi added, “In Prison I always looked forward to the Muslim prayers because of the powerful singing. Writers are a part of the prophetic tradition of the Bible.”

Apart from having similar prison experience, both share one other thing in common. Both had children while in jail. Ajibade had a son, while Ngugi had a daughter, and they both agreed that the birth of their children gave them courage to persevere.

Responding to a question from the audience on whether their prison experience and their struggle for a better society is worth the kind of democracy in present day Nigeria and Kenya, Ajibade said, “There’s nothing in this life you can get without struggling. You just have to be vigilant and resilient. So yes, prison was worth it.”

Adding his thoughts, Ngugi chipped in, “Life in itself is a struggle. You only stop struggling when you die.”

Meanwhile, it was all fun and fanfare going into the night, as poets took control of the stage, thrilling and entertaining the audience with their scintillating poetic renditions, a session running concurrently with palm wine sipping and drinking.