Trading her law degree for a new trade in art, craft and interior décor may only have made sense to her alone at the time. But more people are coming to terms with her decision as Kokwe Yebovi moves surefootedly towards a cultural renaissance of sorts, starting from her small space. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

We had been talking for a couple of minutes at the Pool Bar of the Eko Hotel and Suites in Victoria Island, Lagos when Akin Adeoya, a writer, hotelier and businessman, walked by with a friend. I interrupted the conversation with Kokwe Yebovi to hail him with his recent alias which points to one of his hotels, ‘Prince of Anthony’. Coming closer, he acknowledged my greeting but extended his hand to Kokwe for a shake, while saying he recently learnt that women should be asked if they preferred a handshake or a hug.

Showing warmth and friendliness, Kokwe returned the gesture. More compliment followed from Adeoya’s friend who unreservedly admired Kokwe’s dress-a Woodin type with intricate patterns. It was another stimulus for her to continue (with greater vehemence) the subject matter of our discourse.
“That’s exactly what I am talking about,” she said of the remark made by the departing lady that she will look odd in that Kokwe-type-of-dress which she appreciated. “If I had a few minutes, I will explain to her why it is important to wear African fabrics. I know she works in the corporate world where she is given a dress code. The point is that she can have these fabrics sewn to smart business wears. With that, she will emphasize her individuality and everybody would remember meeting her.”

In the past 20 years, Kokwe has become a consummate promoter of the African heritage. For so long has she also kept her distance from the wig and gown trade, preferring to open an art gallery and direct a festival. Once she chose to wear her hair in dreadlock, many friends and family members knew it was a matter of time before she tucked her degree in Law under a pile. The dreadlock grew long and thick, becoming the source of discomfort aggravated by the often humid Nigerian weather. This led her to trim the mat of hair to a shocking low-crop, which she also dyed to achieve a new look she proudly calls her style. Turning her back to the legal profession may have been a tough decision, but it was one she weighed thoroughly.

Kokwe views her passion of celebrating the African mores as a summons to service, which she has embraced, not minding the challenges. She said she is resolved to face the trials. “It is a lonely path. I would say it is a calling. I have been doing this since 2004. That is when I established ‘Enye’ (her art gallery). I left the legal profession and started this. I had to do something. I started talking to people and bringing things like pots and mirrors from Ghana because I also do interior design, with African theme like what we did at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Sky Lounge. Luckily the client wanted something African, we did that in 2008. It is a daunting task. It is something that I feel I cannot but do.”

It is no surprise that Kokwe became an Afrocentric. As the child of Togolese parents born in Nigeria, she was faced with a season of bullying which confused her young mind. Why was she was not accepted like everybody else? Though she lived among the Yoruba (and actually has a claim to some Yoruba heritage), her Ewe genes was always itching to find an expression.

This personality battle raged inside her for long, but not anymore. She explained. “Growing up in Nigeria with a name like Kokwe. You know Nigerians can be quite possessive, particularly the Yoruba. I was often taunted with statements like “e ma pada lo si ilu yin. ‘Eyin aganyin’ (We would send you Togolese back to your homestead). That was all I ever heard. As a child, it was confusing. You see yourself the same as everybody else, but the society thought otherwise. My father had to start using my Yoruba names, ‘Olufunmilayo Abimbola’ because my grandmother is half-Abeokuta, half-Badagry; so that is my Nigerian side. He had to start using my Yoruba names in order to make me acceptable as part of the quota system. We used to have quota system when we were in school. I had to be a Yoruba, which I believe I am, as well as Ewe, but the blood that runs in my vein is Ewe intrinsically.

I identify with that place more. I don’t really like nations-Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, because, for me, they are colonial constructs. They were not created for the benefit of the people. They were created for the benefit of the people who governed-that is the foreign powers. I do not think of myself as a Nigerian or Togolese. I think of myself as an Ewe. If I meet you and you tell me your name. I ask, ‘where do you come from?’ I look at people from their ethnic background. I think that it is very important that we celebrate and emphasize our origins so that we don’t lose them.”

We had many candid moments during the interview. Kokwe is not one of those vain ladies who make a fuss about age and ancestry. From her perspective, she is essentially an Ewe woman. “My name is Kokwe Oluwafunmilayo Abimbola Yebovi. If you look at those names you find out that the first one is a Togolese name. The two others are Yoruba and the last one is also Togolese. The reason being that I was born and brought up in Lagos, but my ancestry is Togolese. I have Ewe grandparents who came here and had their children. I am second generation Nigerian, but I am very much an Ewe woman that is what I like to think of myself. I was born on May 11, 1962 at the Island Maternity Hospital in Lagos. My trade name, Enye, is something that I really gave a lot of thought to because I wanted a name that would express exactly what I am trying to do. It means ‘I’ in Ewe language. Enye meaning ‘I’ is giving your identity to the world as an African, as an Ewe, as an original person; in thought, in dress, in language, as much as possible. It expresses everything that I am trying to do, which is to bring heritage and culture to the forefront of our live as Africans because what we have done so far is being enslaved. A lot of us are still mentally in that space. We are trying to bring people out from thinking of themselves as anything but African. This is what Enye is about and by extension, the Alkebulan Festival.”

According to Kokwe, the idea of the festival was originally conceptualized for Ghana’s 50th independence anniversary, she lived in that country at the time, until her daughter stumbled on her notebook and persuaded her to activate it, but this time, in Nigeria. A few tweeks here and there, set the stage for the first edition of the Alkebulan Festival last November at the Freedom Park in Lagos. The second edition will hold at the same venue between November 23 and 25. The Alkebulan Festival is a summation of what Kokwe lives for.

“It is an affirmation of who we are. Looking at the past, Alkebulan came from what they call the sub-Saharan region. In those days, this area used to called Alkebulan-land of the blacks. As a collective, we couldn’t find a suitable name for the festival. I wasn’t happy about Africa. I wanted something new. Alkebulan describes all of us. It is the Ewe, the Tiv, the Twi, the Kalabari, the Yourba, the Hausa and the Ibibio. It is everybody as an African. It is all of us a collective. It is a way of bringing to mind that we had a great history. We had a civilization. We brought civilization to the world. A lot of things done in Africa had never been seen. We have the oldest university in Timbuktu. We have the Pyramids. Till today, with all the technology in the world, scientists don’t know how the Pyramids of Egypt were built. They were built by black people. These are the kind of things we are trying to bring to mind. That is why I used Alkebulan to bridge the knowledge gap between what we did then and how we are now.”

According to Kokwe, her consciousness as an Ewe was heightened during the 15-year period she lived and schooled in England. “When you say I am a Nigerian, then the fact that you are a Kalabari person or a Fulani person or a Tiv person is in the background, whereas these are the important things. Our culture, our heritage, our languages, we have to resuscitate them. We have to make them the fulcrum of our lives. We are having this conversation in English. I speak it well. I lived in England. I went to school in England. I have a degree in Law. I am very Anglophone, as they say, but to me, it is a shame. I have an art gallery called Enye. What I do now is promote our own. Within that space, we have art, we have goods that are made in Nigeria. We are trying to promote locally made artefacts, accessories and all that. I encourage people to buy local things so that the money goes back to our pockets. When we buy foreign goods, we are helping those countries that are well advanced. We still running way behind them because we are not putting the money in our pockets.

They see us as impoverished. All the major resources, whether it is oil or gold or diamond, anything that comes from our soil is actually being controlled by foreign powers and this is not a secret. The majority of what comes from our ground is taken abroad. We are not getting anything from it. It hardly even trickles down to the person in the village. I know that if we take hold of our little economic space, everybody has to wear a dress; everybody has to wear shoes, everybody has to put furniture in his house, if we are conscious of these things, our local economy will be better. Buy furniture from me. Go to Nike Art Gallery, she makes fabrics; put the money back in our pockets so that we can grow.”

Despite the daunting task, Kokwe seems to have tamed some of the prevailing adverse conditions and she looks to the future with great hope. “We had very big dreams for the first edition of the Alkebulan festival. Luckily we were able to bring a lot to fruition. We had over 25 different acts. Over 300 performers. We had two theatre plays. We had traditional dancers. We had contemporary dance. We had art exhibition, both contemporary and traditional art exhibition. Because it was the first one, it wasn’t so well attended, but it was good. This year, we are trying to bring in some international acts as well. I went to Abidjan and I saw the Masa Festival. It is fantastic. We are trying to bring people from the diaspora as well to come and be a part of the festival. We are driving towards an international festival. Of course, Togolese were there, the Agbaja people of Togo were there. We had a lady from Cameroon, she was one of the contemporary art exhibitors. We had South Africa, one of the vendors was from South Africa. We have some international participation already. They have shown interest already for this year’s festival. People are beginning to get into this cultural appreciation.

We are hoping that the Alkebulan festival will do that. We want to be on the level of international art festivals of the world. We want to be the destination to go every year. We are going to have amazing acts. We are going to have music. We are trying to promote African classical music as well. We have brought all the art together-we have fine art, we have performing art, we have theatre, we have music. We have vendor-vendors are a very important part of Alkebulan festival.”

To an African who sees nothing good in himself or his ethnic group, Kokwe thinks the liberation of that mind-set is not going to happen overnight. “It is miseducation. This is the problem. We are trying to re-educate people. We are trying to reengineer their mind. They have been told that they are not good enough; that whatever is African is substandard, including the people. This narrative has been sold to us in the past 500 years. It is not something that can be erased easily,” Kokwe added.