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More than Ashẹ́wó: Kalakuta Queens Remembered

by Ọpẹ́ Adédèjì

 

One of the living Kalakuta queens, Ọláídé is on stage with Fẹ́mi Kútì and Yẹni Kútì, two of Fẹlá’s children. They are passing the microphone around reminiscing about a time when Fẹlá was alive. They speak fondly of him, as if he stepped out of the room and would be back any minute. They are smiling. It feels like we know Fẹlá personally, beyond the music and stories we have read of him. Bọ́lánlé Austen-Peters looks tired. She stands by the trio who keep praising her genius and creativity. She has just explained to the audience that intense rehearsals had been on since October and that the show started airing in December. They have one last show before they come back in April during the Easter break. Behind them, the complete cast and crew of Fẹlá and the Kalakuta Queens stand, still in their beautiful costumes, smiling at the audience. In a bit, we are allowed to climb up the stage to take pictures with the cast.

Ọláídé, one of the surviving Queens from Kalakuta Republic, seated to the far right in blue, while Fẹ́mi Kútì speaks and Yẹni with Bọ́lánlé Austen-Peters look on.

I particularly find the man who played Fẹlá – Ọláìtán Adéníji – intriguing. Apart from the fact that he did a great job with producing a close imitation of Fẹlá’s voice, mannerism, and movements, it is commendable that he has had no history or career in acting. He is an afro-jazz vocalist and saxophonist and prior to this time, definitely not an actor. The audience is awed when Bọ́lánlé says that his role as Fẹlá is his first acting role. Fẹlá, or rather Ọláìtán, smiles a modest smile. I take a picture of him. He is darker than the real Fẹlá but the resemblance is there.

On Terra Kulture’s website, they describe the event as a thrill of a lifetime. While I agree with this, I wish they had used a more adequate description. Fẹlá and the Kalakuta Queens was a thrill of a lifetime and more. It was a spiritual experience. I feel that this is the only way to capture its essence in a few words and evoke a true emotion.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the unveiling of several sexual harassment conducts against well-known members of the public and celebrities, especially in Hollywood, and the conversations around consent and feminism on social media, Fẹlá and the Kalakuta Queens is a timely production. It seems almost like Bọ́lánlé saw what 2017 had in store for women when she started preparing and doing research for the show a year ago. I can only imagine what extensive research and investigation she must have put into it because of Láídé and Fẹ́mi’s remark that the play is exactly what happened in real life. There is an emphasis on the ‘real life’. This leaves me short of words.

Bọ́lánlé explains that, while Fẹlá is continuously being praised for his incredibly unique music that has outlived him and promises to outlive us, no one ever talks about the women who stood by him. After his death, they sort of became relegated to the background, and their roles ignored. It was almost as if they had never existed in the first place. Every year in October, Felabration is celebrated widely in Lagos, and perhaps other parts of Nigeria, with musical performances, art exhibitions, stage plays, film shows and several other acts. But none of these acts recognize the 27 women who became his wives, who were an entourage of his band and more than anything, the inspiration behind some of his music. Bọ́lánlé’s introduction of this narrative to Fẹlá’s living story is brilliant.

The play details the scorn these women faced from being with Fẹlá. Láídé says this. She tells us some of the adventures she had with Fẹlá and the other queens. She narrates the story the way a grandmother would tell stories to her grandchildren. This is not to say Láídé is in any way an aged lady. She is merely in her 60s but looks at least a decade younger. It is almost impossible to imagine her as the troublemaker Fẹ́mi calls her. (In return, she calls him “Ọmọ-ọmọ Ìyá Àjẹ́” – a nickname that continues the moniker that used to be attached to Fẹlá himself: Ọmọ Ìyá Àjẹ, meaning “the son of the witch-godmother”. The witch-godmother was Fúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome-Kútì. Ọmọ-ọmọ means “grandson”). She tells us of the numerous times the police arrested her and the queens, of how the queens beat the Ghanaian police officers who had arrested them, and how they were eventually deported to Nigeria. She says this amidst our laughter. Many times during the play, the women were referred to as prostitutes – ‘ashẹ́wó’ the policemen often screamed into their faces. Láídé who has probably heard this one too many times in her life, reminds us blatantly and continuously that the queens were not prostitutes. ‘We were not prostitutes,’ she says. But the relevant question here is not ‘who were these women?’ The question is, ‘why were they so keen on supporting Fẹlá? They supported him to the extent that they were raped and beaten by police officers. Why were they so ready to give it all up, in order to stand with this rebellious musician? And why did Fẹlá marry all 27 of them?

“Sister Ọláídé”(right), as many people in Kalakuta Republic knew her, was a close confidant of Fẹlá’s mother, Mrs. Fúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome-Kútì (middle). Both of them are pictured here with Fẹlá’s lawyer (left) during one of Fẹlá’s court appearances. <b>Photo credit:</b> Kalakuta Museum, Lagos.

Fẹlá Kútì was absolutely nothing without his queens. Ọládọ̀tun Babátọ́pẹ́ Ayọ̀bádé writes in the dissertation the ‘Women that danced the fire dance: Fẹlá Kuti’s Afrobeat Queens, Performance and the Dialectics of Postcolonial identity’ that the women were indispensable actors in the making of Afrobeat music as well Fela’s rise to prominence as a musician and activist. The author adds however that their collaboration with Fẹlá’s anti-government ideologies as well as their often-eroticized stage performances made them special targets of state-organized violence and earned them contempt from the Nigerian society. In this play we see state actors vis-à-vis Nigerian police officers continuously demeaning and harassing them. On why they have been ignored by history despite their critical role in elevating Afrobeat music to a global level, the author writes: ‘they have been imagined as indecent underclass women undeserving of Afrobeat’s collective memorializing or as collateral damage of Fẹlá’s political and personal excesses.’

The play ran for nearly three hours. Starting around past three, music from a live band serenaded us while the lights were still on and people networked, or caught up with old friends. The music gave off Yorùbá party vibes that I felt were just right. This set the stage for the play. But the Fẹlá vibes did not start here. At the entrance, there is graffiti and the words “Afrika Shrine” inscribed. In the ticketing area and beyond, you are welcomed by photographs of the Kalakuta Queens, of Fẹlá and some of his more famous quotes like “water e no get enemy.” This gives you goosebumps even before Fẹlá’s incarnate walks on stage. When it is time for the play to begin, the lights dim. A eulogy of Fẹlá opens up the show, intensifying the mystery and its spirituality.

There is a tendency to criticize Nigerian stage plays – at least the popular ones, as being too musical in nature. Critics ascribe the stunted growth of Nigerian theatre to this, poor plots and terrible acting.  Theatre critics also attribute the lack of growth to lack of theatres and other like spaces. While these concerns are valid, Bọ́lánlé Austen-Peters has carved out a niche in musical stage plays that continues to thrive. The construction of the new Terra Arena where Fẹlá and the Kalakuta Queens holds, further reduces the dilemma. Previous BAP productions: Saro and Wakaa the Musical held at the Muson Centre. Muson is a great space, but it is not necessarily homely. I find that what the less than spacious Terra Arena theatre does is to make things somewhat informal and yet attractive. Brymo’s concert in December attests to this. And this, I feel, is one of the reasons Kalakuta Queens was such a hit. Characters from the play sometimes walk from amidst the audience unto the stage. The audience itself is more often than not a part of the play in the way we raise our hands up in salutation to Fẹlá, sing along, and cheer with every performance.

When they perform for the first time, they are dressed in white costumes their faces painted in different colors, shapes and lines. They dance in red light and other times in blue, green and yellow lights. Their entire look, from their natural hair wigs to colourful costumes and bead ornaments made the play authentic. It was increasingly important for me that the originality of the entire play went beyond Ọláìtán’s close resemblance to Fẹlá. I wanted to feel this same sense of originality with the other characters. BAP did not disappoint. In 1983, Bernard Matussière took some beautiful shots of the Fẹlá queens. In the main, their portrayal by the actors in this show hews as close enough as possible to a true approximation of their appearance, skills, and dance dexterity. Around the world today, several stylists and fashion icons have drawn inspiration from the bold makeup and hairstyles of Fẹlá’s wives.

The beauty in their choreographies and dancing cannot be overemphasized. Their moves certainly mesmerized the audience. Through the show, I imagined their motions being trapped into an art frame and exhibited like photographs. Though Fẹlá’s 10 to 20 minutes songs have a life of their own, the dance these women brought to accompany them gave a deeper meaning to what it means for a song to be alive. It is without a doubt that the dancing of the Kalakuta queens made Fẹlá’s songs a complete package back then, as they did on stage during the play. It was a whole new level of energetic, sensual and majestic.

The play is hilarious. Think of the way in which Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn’s Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is hilarious, the way in which it showcases a Nigerian polygamous home and is still poignant but not crude in the messages it passes. It is in this same way that Fẹlá and the Kalakuta Queens is hilarious and serious at once. The women struggle and compete for Fẹlá’s attention. They plot against and fight with one another, often using music and dance to pass on their messages. They find a common rival in the beautiful Malaika, the woman from London who says she has come to study Fẹlá and the queens, particularly the queens. They become agitated when they notice that Fẹlá has fallen for her, and that she has gained monopoly over the Kalakondo. As with when they stand with Fẹlá, they unite as one in order to throw her out of the Kalakuta Republic. It is interesting though, that while the women stand with Fẹlá when he is arrested, Malaika does not, further establishing her traitor-hood.

A particularly interesting scene is the court scene. After Fẹlá is arrested the first time, he is taken to court and charged with the abduction of the girls and possession of marijuana. He pleads not guilty and the judge asks the lawyers to present their case. The court clerk is a side-splitting character who seemed to overdo his role but still got the audience laughing. The claimant’s counsel presented witnesses who were emotionally inept at giving a clear and concise testimony. The first witness, Láídé’s mother, cries all through her testimony at the witness stand. The second witness is an aunt to one of the queens, Lará. Though she does not cry, she still presents a poor testimony in poor English. The two women stare at Fẹlá accusingly. While they can prove no clear case against the musician, there is another perspective when Lará’s aunt reveals that her niece is underage. On this count and on the count of being in possession of marijuana Fẹlá is convicted and sentenced.

The women call Fẹlá ‘king’, ‘Black President’ and ‘Abàmì Ẹ̀dá.’ He calls them his queens. He says, “I love all my queens. They are unpretentious and are ready to battle with me. Without them, I am nobody”.  When Fẹlá decides to marry the women, he does not do it for selfish reasons. He learns that his queens are unhappy because despite standing by him, despite being dancers, singers and activists in their own right because they are women, they would never do right by society. People would continue to mock them and refer to them as ‘ashẹ́wó’. So he felt the right thing to do would be to marry them. At first, people – his lawyer, Tunji Braithwaite inclusive – try to dissuade him from marrying the twenty-seven at once. He is told that he would be prosecuted for bigamy. But this does not move him. The women are delighted to hear he is going to marry them. In an article on She Leads Africa, Halima Bakenne writes, “Marriage offers some form of validation for women in Nigeria and maybe even other parts of Africa. It is believed that irrespective of what a woman achieves, she is nothing without a man.” This succinctly describes the motive behind Fẹlá’s marriage to the queens. A priest conducts the marriage ceremony. This is followed by a brief performance after which the show ends.

One of my favorite scenes in the play is Ihase’s performance. After the police destroyed their house and abused them, they were taken to the hospital. At the hospital, Ihase broke into soul-wrenching music. Her powerful voice reverberated across the quiet, still hall. In this same scene, Fẹlá is being treated on a gurney and behind him, in the projector, his spirit is depicted as coming out of his body – death and later on, as the music intensified, returning. Fẹlá Kútì later confirms that his father had mentioned that he once died and returned. This scene is also painful to watch. It reminds me of war-torn countries and daily domestic and street violations of women in Nigeria. It reminds me that sexual assault and domestic abuse are still endemic in our society, just as they were in the 80s. It reminds me that while most of the world has joined in on the #MeToo movement, Nigeria is still lagging behind.

There are so many take-homes from this stage play, like most stage plays and generally from Fẹlá’s life. Despite his many flaws and the seeming patriarchal nature of his relationship with the queens, he never disrespected them. He treated them equally. Their place in history has been reintroduced and there’ll hopefully be more public recognition and appreciation for their role in his life story as time goes on. When I climb the stage to take a picture with Láídé after curtain call, I smile at her and kneel beside her. I say to her: ‘thank you for sharing your story with us.’

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The play/musical Fẹlá and the Kalakuta Queens ran from mid-December 2017 to January 14, 2018 at Terra Kulture Arena. It is billed to return in April 2018. Photo credit: KTravula.com, Tobe, and Kalakuta Museum.

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Ọpẹ́ Adédèjì dreams about a lot of things but most especially about bridging the gender equality gap and working with the United Nations. If you do not find her writing, you would find her reading a novel. She is the co-founder of Arts & Africa.

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Finding Home in Writers’ Words

I watched the Lagos performance of Efe Paul’s Finding Home earlier in December. It held at an underground bunker in Ìlúpéjú and featured an array of bold and exciting voices, including some of Nigeria’s best spoken word acts.

The concept of the show always fascinated me since I first came across it in November 2014. Then it featured a different cast, including Sheila Ojei, and Bassey Ikpi (who has now relocated to the United States), among others. But the format was the same: a show designed around migration and movement, and built from the ground up with the words and stories of the individual poets and performers who make up the cast, and who are at liberty to create characters to advance the theme.

I found that not only fascinating but innovative. But I wasn’t able to see it.

Spoken word performance is a relatively young genre in Nigeria, but you won’t know by watching its biggest headliners perform, be it at art events in Abẹ́òkuta or opening events at Freedom Park, be it reciting inaugural poetry for the Nigerian president or harnessing the power of metaphors to sell the services of a commercial bank. The words move, and excite, and provoke, and instruct. From Wana Udobang’s emotive and playful dexterity to Chika Jones’ soft cadences that packed a punch; from Efe Paul’s baritone and theatrical evocations of truths to Títílọpẹ́ Ṣónúgà’s vulnerable but assertive tenderness; from Sage Hassan’s intense rebelliousness to Dike Chukwumerije’s eclectic experimentations, those who have braved the wilderness of this new and fascinating stage have brought with them a range of creative expressions before only seen in drama. So, when a play was constructed from these kinds of creative manifestations and fashioned around a contemporary theme, the result is always interesting to see.

Finding Home is, thus, not about one thing. It’s about many: a young man who takes all his savings in order to move to a new world in search of the golden fleece, a young woman who marries for visa, an immigrant who was ratted out for deportation by someone of their skin colour, or refugees who found themselves in the bottom of the ocean rather than the promised land. These kinds of stories are what the show is about, told mostly in the first person, with sound effects, mimesis, and playacting, in ways that carried the audience along with the ups and downs of each tragedy or triumph.

We leave because we have learned that staying still will kill you faster than moving.
So when home becomes a mad song from a broken guitar,
And it feels like the entire universe is playing you,
Let your fading footsteps become drum beats of victory and let them say: He was a good man, but when home becomes the stench from a rotting carcass, even the best men, leave.

– Chika Jones

There were other innovations. The show was performed in a semi-circle, for instance, with the actors facing different parts of the “stage” at different times. This gave it a sense of familiarity and intimacy, but also a kind of limitation. It will be interesting to see how it is realized on a flat conventional stage.

There was also an innovative but sometimes frustrating foreign language element.

One of the actors, Tanasgol Sabbagh, performed only in German – a brilliant invention that both illustrated the international dimension of the theme and the fact that the play had recently been shown in Germany, courtesy of the Goethe Institut. But in Lagos on this cool Sunday night, surrounded by bilingual speakers of only English and another Nigerian language, her part felt almost alien. And yet in that alienation is another realization of an important dimension of home or homelessness. How many immigrants, like those portrayed in many tragic instances in the play and in real life, get the chance to be fully understood before being sold off to slavery, or strapped to airplane seats and deported (in the best case scenario), or killed in cold blood in the back alleys of drug and gang-controlled slums of Europe and America?

The play, then, was both a communal contemplation of loss and survival as it was an examination of conditions that continue, all around the world today (accentuated, of course, by the prevailing news at the time, of the sale of Nigerians in Libya as modern-day slaves) to dehumanize immigrants, their stories, their bodies, and their condition. It was also an important twist on the character of spoken word as being just a one-man craft. Under the creative director of Fẹ́mi Elúfowójù, the cast showed what can be done when creativity and cooperation are harnessed to economy. There wasn’t much costume change, and much of the show played out in the plain site of the audience without any negative impact on the plot movement or overall message.

Is Finding Home a drama or a poetry production? Don’t ask. I’ll certainly see it again. I just hope there’s more music next time, by the characters, even if they are sad ones.

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Cast members: Efe Paul Azino, Chika Jones, Títílọpẹ́ Ṣónúgà, Ndukwe Onuoha. Obi Ifejika. Adeṣọlá Fakile. Tanasgol Sabbagh and Fẹ́mi Lẹ́yẹ.

 

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Ajinde: A True Resurrection

By Anthony Azekwoh

 

“I know hate is a strong word, but who likes a weak one?”-  Chika Jones, Spoken word poet.

 

Friday, the 29th of December 2017, was a day to remember. That evening, Arts and Africa, an e-journal that reports on culture, literature and all forms of artistic expressions, marked their third birthday. To properly mark this occasion, they also took the opportunity to relaunch and rebrand themselves with the event, hence the name Àjíǹde, which translated from Yoruba means Resurrection.

I represented Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, who unfortunately couldn’t make it to the event but sent his warm regards. We entered the event and were greeted by cheery women. As soon as we entered, we were immediately greeted by a warm atmosphere of music, laughter, and poetry that reminds suspiciously of home.

Joey was performing at the time. He is a young hip-hop artist whose talent for wordplay and rhythm was already very clear. As he rapped, I took a moment to appreciate the lighting in the room which cast everything in a warm golden light and the paintings which were hung around the room. Joey received a big applause as he finished his amazing set and we welcomed Chika Jones, who absolutely dazzled us with his poetry.

Chika came on stage accompanied by a guitar, talking about a wide range of topics in a bright, witty manner, making the subject of hate more relatable, enjoyable even as he got laughs from the audience. He spoke beautifully on the things he hated in society, the things he deemed unfair and then he moved on later to a poem about love, one that was enough to move even the toughest of hearts.

After Chika Jones’ amazing performance, a brief 5-minute recess was called, to give us all the chance to get some drinks or food at the bar. It was closed during the performances to allow everyone focus. It was during the recess that I met one of the founders of this amazing platform, Ọpẹ́ Adédèjì, an amazing woman who, along with the wonderful Afọpẹ́ Òjó and their whole team, had brought such an amazing event to life. I also met the talented Dami Àjàyí, again as we had met more than two years before, when he paid a visit to my secondary school introducing us to his work.

Fọpẹ́ and Ọpẹ́, co-founders, on stage

After the recess was over, we were greeted by yet another performance, this time by Yakeeb, a man whose poetry spoke volumes. He spoke about love also, bringing the age-old topic back to life in front of our eyes. As he spoke, Aàdesokan, an abstract artist who had his own solo exhibition called “Almost Delirium” earlier this year, began a live painting. The painting, like all paintings, began with an empty canvas but as time went on, it was soon filled with a myriad of bright saturated colours, mingling with dull ones to form an image strengthened by the force of his almost erratic brushstrokes.

After another recess, we were treated by a soul moving viola performance by Eghonghon-aye who graced us with not one but two songs played beautifully from her viola. The first was a slow-moving song that was a bit sad. The second was a piece made to embody the gracefulness of a swan. It was a faster paced upbeat song which contrasted with the first and yet, they were both played perfectly and with great skill.

After, the founders, Ọpẹ́ Adédèjì and Afọpẹ́ Òjó, graced the stage and they talked a lot about the history of Arts and Africa, the present, and also the future of their amazing platform, telling us more about what to expect in the close oncoming future.

All in all, it was an amazing event, organised by amazing people with performances from skilled and talented individuals. I sat in the car thinking, as we drove home, that if this was what they wanted, a resurrection, then they had more than surpassed their goals.

 

 

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Anthony Azekwoh is a student of Covenant University, and the author of The Fall of the Gods, which won the 2017 Awele Creative Trust Prize and has been serialized on Brittle Paper.

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A Hotel Called Memory – A Review

By Ọmọ́túndé Kasali

 

As 2017 draws to an end, it is enjoyably refreshing to reminisce on a historic occurrence in the Nigerian film industry: the first Nigerian silent movie A Hotel Called Memory was screened in November 2017. Directed by Akin Ọmọ́tọ́sọ, produced by Ego Boyo, written by Branwen Okpako, and starring Nse Ikpe-Etim, Kemi ‘Lala’ Akíndójú, Mmabatho Montsho, and Nomzamo Mbatha, AHCM is a fresh take on filmmaking in burgeoning Nollywood.

In the film, we see a woman, played by Nse Ikpe-Etim, struggle to rediscover herself as she goes through a bitter divorce after a marriage of many years, eventually wrecked by infidelity. She holidays in Zanzibar and Cape Town, two of the three cities – with Lagos as the third – in which AHCM is shot. As an aside, this is meant to give a seamless pan-African relationship between these African cities, such as exist for European cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris.

As a non-dialogue film in which the actors communicate non-verbally and occasionally by texting to pay homage to historical silent movies as well as reflect the huge significance of texting in modern ways of communication, AHCM, explains Akin Ọmọ́tọ́sọ, is so made that it invites the individual viewer to construct their own perception of the film. The idea is to stimulate engagement and have the viewer actively project themselves into the story, experience it, and ultimately develop their own meaning of it – in contrast to conventional films where viewers sit before the screen and passively take in information. Interestingly, he reports that he has received varying interpretations of the film from viewers at the end of the premieres, all of which are correct in their own terms.

The director, Akin Ọmọ́tọ́shọ at a recent screening in Lagos.

However, there are questions on the strangeness of such a silent film to the Nigerian viewer who is accustomed to conventional movies, as well as on the commercial viability of AHCM – both of which Ego Boyo vigorously debunks. On the first point, she argues that silent movies such as AHCM are not highbrow and there is a ready audience for them. However, this audience has to be found. On the second, she affirms that the overriding interest in the making of AHCM was creative and not commercial as it was made at great financial risks with no external funding and therefore, to the good of the production, less pressure.

Subsequently, the film was produced on a lean budget, smart technology with no lighting, with a lean cast whose choice was informed by their openness to new acting challenge such as would be offered by AHCM, as well as rigorous filmmaking which took two years. Conclusively, Akin Ọmọ́tọ́sọ offers three pieces of advice to young filmmakers looking to break through and push the boundaries of filmmaking in Nollywood: acknowledge that it is hard, take it as a marathon, and don’t take nos.

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Omotunde Kasali is a language and literature enthusiast. He lives in Lagos.

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Aké Festival (2017): A Volunteer’s Recap

By Deaduramilade Tawak

I decided to volunteer at Aké for the festival this year because I wanted the experience of what it was like to be on the other side. I am not new to volunteering, whether for events or organisations, but if I was accepted, this would be the first time that I’d be volunteering for an event of this type and scale. I had applied to volunteer last year, but was not selected (I went as a visitor, but only on the last day because my leave wasn’t approved), so I wasn’t very hopeful.

Photo credit: David Adélékè

Three weeks to the festival, I receive an email from Ify (who is the Administrative Manager for the festival) saying I have been selected as a volunteer. In the email is a document with Terms and Conditions to be signed, but I’m still waiting on leave approval. The document also includes the rules and regulations for volunteers: no chewing gum on duty, no smoking on duty, no asking guests for money or favours, no fighting and so on. Finally, two weeks to Aké, and two days before the deadline for accepting the volunteer offer, I receive confirmation of leave approval, so I print, sign, scan and send the document.

Reinhard Bonnke’s farewell rally will be ending on Sunday, the day volunteers are expected to arrive in Abeokuta for the festival. We decide to leave as early as possible to avoid traffic, but not too early that we’d have to wait hours before seeing Ify, who is in charge of volunteers. We being myself, Afọpẹ́fólúwa, and Opẹ́yẹmí (whom I’d found by asking around for volunteers leaving from Lagos). I’d gone to Abẹ́òkuta myself the year before, and although it wasn’t a bad experience, I felt that I’d be more comfortable if I had familiar faces on the journey.

Photo credit: David Adélékè

We leave Lagos shortly after 11am, and I sleep for the entire journey and wake up at the exact moment we arrive at Kuto Park, Abẹ́òkuta, not far from the Cultural Centre where the festival will hold. We take a cab to the centre and meet another volunteer (Ona) waiting. We have 4 hours to kill. Fortunately, I have books, my phone, and three other ladies to keep me company. Slowly, other volunteers begin to arrive. First Yetunde, another first-time volunteer, then Stephanie, another veteran volunteer, and then a stream of young men and women I do not know or recognize.

Ify arrives and we have a “family meeting” where we introduce ourselves — most people are from Lagos, many of us are writers — and are given a quick break down of what the week will be like. Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn arrives at some point. The truck with the books and the other things we’re supposed to sort hasn’t arrived, so we headed to our hotel to group ourselves into rooms. I pick Ona as my roommate. Dinner of jollof rice appears soon after, and we rest a bit before heading back to the venue to help offload the truck. When this is done, we’re each given two orange volunteer shirts, then it’s good nights.

On Monday, we’re grouped into teams, and I’m placed at the registration desk. I’ve been warned by my friend, Ọpẹ́, who had volunteered for the past two events to try to avoid that designation. Being at the front desk means that you miss most, if not all, of what happens during the festival. She’s right. I miss out on all the interesting panels, but catch pieces of conversations as people move from one panel session to another. There are five other people with me including Ona, Yétúndé and Stephanie.

We start with sorting bags and tags for guests, visitors, press, and crew. There’s some downtime, during which I read my copy of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Leslie Nneka Arimah. There’s more sorting, packing, getting to know each other, setting up, tweeting, chatting, and reading. Somewhere in the middle of all this, there’s a call. I have to leave for Lagos very early the next day. I inform Ify of this development.

I leave for Lagos at 7pm AM, my business takes longer to sort than I expected, so I get back to Abeokuta at about 5pm. I’m told that I haven’t missed much, and registration starts shortly after I arrive. I work out a system to get through registration quickly. We register guests and attendees till around 9pm.

From Wednesday till Saturday, I spend all my time at the registration desk, except for when I go for food breaks or toilet breaks. This is where I get Mona Eltahawy to sign my copy of Headscarves and Hymens. This is where I get to meet Bim Adéwùmí, who is one of the major reasons I decided to attend the festival. This is where I finally put faces to names and Twitter handles. This is where I develop an addiction to kòkòrò. This is where I catch up with people I never see, except at these things. This is where I find out about and enter the Aké Festival giveaway, which I will come to later. Being at the registration desk means that I meet almost everybody who came for the festival. It also means I have to smile a lot, even when I’m tired and hungry, and when I’m upset because almost everybody else who’s supposed to be helping at the registration desk is not.

One of the highlights of my time at Abẹ́òkuta isn’t at the festival, but in a small hotel room party a few minutes away from the hotel where volunteers are lodged. Another highlight is the Palmwine and Poetry night. I caught the tail end of the event, as we closed the registration desk at about that time. I came in in the middle of Poetra’s relatable poem on feminism, and I also heard Koleka Putuma perform a few poems. The brightest highlight is winning the book grant.

At the end of the event, Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn gives a thank you speech, after which I am announced as the winner of the Aké Festival book grant. I have won N25,000 to buy books at the festival bookshop. The night, and the festival, ends with a party.

The next day, we go back to the Cultural Centre to pack up the bookshop, I redeem my books, and combined with books received as late birthday gifts, I leave Aké with 16 nooks, and the stipend volunteers receive at the end of the festival.

Aké is always a delight.

Photo credit: FuadXIV

Even if you’re stuck behind a registration desk for all 4 nights and 3 days of the festival, and have to make do with a barely good DJ (last year’s DJ was great) at the closing party you’d been looking forward to since Day 1. Being surrounded by friends and people you admire, Africa’s best writers, upcoming writers, book lovers, and art aficionados, and managing to listen in on concerts and performances happening close to the front desk make up for it.

Literary festivals are delightful because they are a few days of mingling with people, who for the most part, enjoy the things you enjoy. I have attended Aké as a [one day] visitor, now, a volunteer, and, next year, a full event visitor, or maybe a guest (a girl can dream).

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Déàdúràmiládé Tawak is a reader, writer, and researcher. She was the second runner-up in the CREETIQ Critic Challenge 2017, and has had her flash fiction, essays, interviews, and reviews published in Brittle Paper, Athena Talks, Africa in Dialogue, and Arts and Africa. She lives in Lagos and tweets from @deaduramilade.

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