Magnifying Words and Sounds of Ake Festival

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The 2019 edition of the Ake Book and Art Festival, sponsored by Sterling Bank, gives essence to the written and unwritten word, Chiamaka Ozulumba reports

When youths massively attend a musical or TV reality show, one can hardly be surprised. The reason is that such a form of entertainment is the in-thing for many of them. But when you see a similar quantity of young people passionately gracing a book event, there is cause for added joy because it takes more than wit to be able to attract them to literary and academic programmes.

This is a feat that the 2019 edition of the Ake Arts and Book Festival achieved last week, when it held at the Mike Adenuga Centre/Alliance Francaise, Ikoyi Lagos. The four-day festival, founded by writer and teacher, Lola Shoneyin, and principally sponsored by Sterling Bank, provided stakeholders an opportunity to celebrate the word and engage vital issues in the global space.

There are several pluses for the project. But the youth angle is one factor that seems to define its character. Apart from catching their attention, the Ake Arts and Book Festival is thus planting the seed of continuity for the literary kingdom that, many fear, stands the risk of losing out to other media especially in the highly technologised epoch the world has found itself.

Impressive Opening

The opening ceremony was so rich in content that it whetted the appetite for what to experience during the main events. For one, it brought together key players in the industry: hosts, sponsors, partners, writers, other artists, all of whom expressed delight and pledged further commitment to the growth of humanity. The ceremony anchored by broadcaster and poet, Wana Udobang, featured speeches, poetry and musical performances, with the likes of Efe Paul and D’bi Young Anitafirika gracing the stage.

In her welcome address, Shoneyin, who was widely applauded for her resourcefulness and the fast pace at which the festival has grown, expressed joy that it has blossomed bigger not only in terms of content, but also the larger and diverse participants it now attracts.

“This year, we have more creatives from more African countries than we have ever had,” she said.

She thanked sponsors of the festival, especially Sterling Bank, whom she saluted for being an indigenous brand that powers the project.

Shoneyin added, “I am very proud to say that the Ake Arts and Book Festival is now one of the few on the Africa continent that has an indigenous company as its main partner. Sterling Bank has taken the step of partnering the Ake Festival for the foreseeable future. This partnership gives me so much hope. I sincerely hope more players in the private sector develop and promote creativity and the arts on the continent.

“We are immensely grateful to Alliance Française de Lagos/Mike Adenuga Centre for sharing their new and stunning premises with us. Working with Charles and Maurice to make Ake Festival 2019 happen here has been an absolute pleasure.”

The Director of the French Cultural Centre noted that the festival was the first major event to hold at the inspiringly built Mike Adenuga Centre, which flaunts facilities that many participants described as fantastic. Apart from normal office spaces, the centre boasts conference halls, theatres and other impressive arenas. Other notable members of the international community in the country – the Canadian High Commission, US Embassy, British Council etc. – all rallied round the organisers.

Then the time came for the sponsors, Sterling Bank, to state the essence of its involvement. Its Chief Executive Officer, Abubakar Suleiman, felt very much at home among the creatives and expressed the bank’s readiness to further invest in the development of art and culture.

Suleiman noted that the bank was committed to partnering Shoneyin because it appreciated the roles the sector played, saying such were larger than entertainment.

He said, “It is interesting to see Lola stand here and tell the entire gathering that she is grateful for our support. We did have a commitment with Lola when we started. We said we wanted to have a long-term partnership and we sat with her and listened to what she had done and what she still wanted to do. But the truth is that we might not have known all she thought as far as the project is concerned, but we just know where she wants to go, and we want to be on that journey.

“People treat art as if it is what we do when we have done everything else or in some way what we do when everything else has failed. But I disagree with them. I think and I’m truly convinced that everything we know about ourselves and our history is the work of the creative specialists. Everything we understand is understood in context and that context is the work of our creative people.

“Take away the context and the story changes completely. Last year, I spoke a little bit about how the greatest storytellers in the world were able to give us the Bible and the Quran because those who told the stories told such compelling stories that, centuries later, our everyday life is being determined by the stories they presented. Stories are still a reason for people to go to war today, the reason for people to give up their wealth. They are still the reason for people to do other important things. So, truly, storytelling is much more than what we do when we have done anything else.

“As we sit here tonight, let’s understand this: we are not writing stories just to entertain people. We are writing stories that will lead to peace or war, lead to poverty or prosperity. The stories we write today will form the foundation for everything that the rest of us will do. So, I beg you all, even as we hold ourselves accountable, let us create stories that will inspire Africa to the highest height that it can be.”

Book Chats, Piercing Engagements, Celebration of the Departed

While films such as ‘Tony Morrison’ and ‘Malika’ were screened, art exhibitions, music concerts, poetry readings and performances as well as panel discussions that straddled all areas of arts and life were held during the festival. There were book chats with many writers – including Jumoke Verissimo (bordering on her new novel, ‘A Small Silence’), Abdourahman Waiberei, Leila Abuolela, Yolande Mukargasana, Wayetu Moore ad Bernadine Evaristo.

Among the issues thrashed at panel discussions are Demystifying Colours, Historical Fiction for Today’s Africa; The Making of a Graphic Novel, the Long of the Short Story and Looking Back on Four Hundred Years of Slavery.

Writer and critic, Molara Wood gave a preview of the ‘Ake Review’, saying the panel received as many as 500 submissions. On the other hand, while Sterling Bank, which created a mini village within the venue, organised a promo for participants, Vlisco announced winners of an award it is powering as part of the festival.

During the special tribute session, media executive and writer, Toni Kan; and seasoned artist, Victor Ehikamenor, saluted some creative souls who recently passed on, including Pius Adesanmi, Oyebade Dosunmu and Binyavanga Wainaina.

No Escape from ‘Things Fall Apart’

The festival, which was also attended by other industry leaders such as ‘The News’ co-Publisher, Mr Kunle Ajibade, and winner of the 2019 edition of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, Jude Idada, found the edition auspicious to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s classic, ‘Things Fall Apart’. At one of the sessions, award-winning writers, including Helon Habila and Chika Unigwe, interrogated the iconic book especially from the perspective of latter-generation writers. Nnamdi Ehirim was also on the panel moderated by Wale Lawal.

Habila recalled that, being a science student, he did not have the opportunity to study ‘Things Fall Apart’ in secondary school. But when he eventually had the opportunity to read it, he did not miss the classical status it represents.

The programme, indeed, gave Habila an opportunity to reveal a role Achebe played in his evolution as a writer and scholar abroad. The former journalist with ‘The Vanguard’ noted that shortly after he published his first award-winning novel, he received an international phone call that surprisingly happened to be Achebe’s. The legendary writer had informed him that he would be the first Achebe Fellow, an offer that he (Habila) could not resist.

“He is the reason I’m working in America today. On getting to the US based on his invitation, I hanged out with him. He was a great man with a great soul.”

According to Habila, it is very rare to find a book that defines a whole generation – as ‘Things Fall’ apart does.

“The book came at a time we had Pan Africanism and nationalism. Then it became an anthem. It is very hard to find a book that practicalises the politics of that time. ‘Things Fall Apart’ also solves the question of what language to use to write. Achebe did that. What we have in the publication, is it African English? Is it Igbo English? Achebe demonstrated how you can manage the two traditions in a way that shows they need not be in conflict. They can co-exist,” he said.

But Habila said he did not want to adopt the Achebe model as a writer, though yet confessed he could not escape it totally.

He added, “I didn’t want to write a book set in a village with people talking in proverbs. I wanted a non-linear model. But when I was writing my second book, I had to go back to the Achebe model because you cannot escape it. I then chose to be in dialogue with it.”

Ehirim also said he read the book through friends when he was in secondary school. But, according to him, he initially didn’t see how it was incredibly different from works of the likes of Emecheta and, say, Elechi Amadi.

“Then I read other things around it,” he added. “That was when it began to unfold better. One thing we should bear in mind is that Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo etc. are products of a generation’s thinking, not an individual opinion. My generation is not necessarily trying to rewrite ‘Things Fall Apart’ because the time and process of its creation are different. But it is important to note that the novel did a lot in breaking stereotypes. It made all Africans proud.”

Unigwe, author of ‘On Black Sisters Street’ and a winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, recalled that, growing up in a middle-class home, she had access to books that are, however, from the West. But, along the line, she got the opportunity to read ‘Things Fall Apart’, which, she said, made her realise that Africa existed before colonisation.

Her impression is also that the novel has continued to be iconic because it is a good book. She said, “No matter what you write about, if it is not a good book, it will not stand the test to time. ‘Things Fall Apart’ came in 1958 and tore colonisation apart. It was published in the West; so, Achebe was just being radical. For instance, Tutuola did not question the idea of the colony. But Achebe did so when it was critical.”

The Women are Here

Another interesting session paraded two women who have succeeded in their careers. These are acclaimed broadcaster and film producer, Mo Abudu, and Kano-based technopreneur, Amal Hassan. Both held the audience spell bound as they relayed their experiences, marching in a forest dominated by men. The session tagged ‘The Changing Face of Corporate Africa’ was moderated by Shoneyin.

Abudu and Hassan urged all present, especially young ladies, to be ready to dare, to stay focused with their dreams but be prepared to make sacrifices without compromising their integrity.

They warned them that entrepreneurship is not a child’s play. As a woman, there are points they have to relate to their employees with motherly tenderness; but when they need to be firm and enforce the rules, they should do so and never look back. Indeed, Abudu conceded that it was a result of such inevitable tendencies that some called her a slave driver.

According to her, she cannot tolerate idleness around her. She said she always took the lead at work, so that no one had any excuse to be lackadaisical.

Hassan, founder of Outsource Global, now have about 800 people working with her. She noted that there were few women leading businesses in northern Nigeria as a result of some added challenges. “We women have to work several times harder”, she added.

Based on her experience in being able to balance the home with work, however, she noted that she always encouraged her female employees to get married and have children.

A question arose over how the women handle possible antics from men who may demand sex before giving them business. Both of them said the antidote to that was to be diligent and firm.

Abudu said, “You must be culturally aware at all times. If I need to be on my knees to get what I want, I do, but this is not to the point of compromising your womanhood. You get approached for sex. We are in a situation people ask all sorts of things. You have to be strong. Look that person in the face and tell him you are not for that.

“Some say ‘she slept her way through’. Sometimes, other women say that because that is the only thing they know how to do. If you think I slept my way to get a project that is worth millions of dollars, then I must be really good at it,” she enthused and won bountiful applause from the audience.

With Yoruba, no Language is Supreme

Shoneyin and her team also appealed to cultural development by holding a session on the challenges, development and survival of Yoruba language. At the programme anchored by researcher and writer, Kola Tubosun, who is also a son of veteran Yoruba poet, Latubosun Oladapo, actress and broadcaster, Feyikemi Niyi-Olayinka, joined Yoruba language scholars – Professor Femi Taiwo and Arinpe Adejumo – to examine historical and socio-political factors militating against the development of the language.

The incisive session titled ‘Yoruba: Linguistic Vehicle or Value System?’ permeated the pioneering efforts of Bishop Ajayi Crowther who translated the Bible into Yoruba, the historical roles played by the likes of D.O. Fagunwa, J. F. Odunjo and Adebayo Faleti’s contemporaries such as Akinwumi Isola and Oladejo Okediji as well as what obtains now. It explored the puzzle that defines the present in terms of the quantity and quality of books being written in Yoruba and the syndrome that has relegated the language in many homes and other places.

While Taiwo, an authority in African philosophy and author of award winning ‘How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa’, believes that the role Ajayi Crowther played in the development of Yoruba has not been given adequate recognition.

Taiwo identified the different levels of Yoruba language obtainable, including the everyday usage, the language of the initiated (Yoruba awo) and the literary/imaginative Yoruba, which he called Yoruba Ero.

He recalled the role Samuel Ajayi Crowther played not only in translating the Bible into Yoruba, but also in ensuring, amid colonial pressure, to protect the integrity of some elements of the language and culture even in the Christian book.

“We only salute him as a slave who became a bishop. We don’t look at other things he did,” Taiwo noted.

Adejumo, a former Head of the department of Linguistics, University of Ibadan, and author of ‘Afago Keyin Aparo’, a play, assured the gathering that a good number of writers are still pushing out Yoruba books. She, however, noted that the book industry was a tripartite structure in which each pillar should play its own role.

She identified writers, publishers and readers/buyers as the three pillars. Unfortunately, she said, buyers were not playing their roles, thus forcing publishers, who are businessmen, to look elsewhere.

Adejumo commended the organisers of the Ake Arts and Book Festival for giving Yoruba language the space to breathe on its list of concerns.

“It is because they realise that Yoruba is worthy of being discussed and that no language is supreme to others,” she said.

Niyi-Olayinka, who inspiringly played the role of Asake in, ‘O Le Ku’, a film that Tunde Kelani adapted from Akinwumi Ishola’s book with the same title, recalled how ‘Owuro Lawa’, a programme she co-anchors on Lagos Television, started 15 years ago. According to her, the perception of many stakeholders about Yoruba programmes can be so frustrating that the first TV station to which she and her partners took the proposal looked down on it and said it would not work. She, however, expressed the fulfilment that the programme that runs Monday to Friday has continued to wax stronger.

Niyi-Olayinka challenged parents to ensure that they speak Yoruba to their children and expose them to culture and tradition.

While also commending the festival organisers and sponsors, Niyi-Olayinka explained that the crisis facing Yoruba language were reinforced by society, parents, religious bodies and schools, all of which did not give enough encouragement to the study and use of the language especially by children. She thus urged all stakeholders to rise to the challenge of propagating the language.

She said, “Religious organisations are also guilty. What language do we use to preach? What language do we use to pray at home? How many of us parents have Bibeli Mimo at home?”

In all, the experts canvassed measures that will strengthen all the aspects of the language. They want schools to allow the indigenous languages flow alongside English.

“They want government and other institutions to strengthen the policy that will ensure its development. And for students, especially those seeking admission into universities, they enjoined them to embrace Yoruba too as, according to them, it is as functional as any other discipline.