At the end of the day, just before dinner, I look at my fingers and underneath my usually white nails are thick lines of accumulated dirt. If you ask me, I’d say this is how you know that you are a volunteer at the Aké Festival.
We arrive Abẹ́òkuta at around 2 pm, after haggling prices with taxi men at Ọjọ́ta and settling for a price that we are not proud to say. We hop into the back seat of the car, feeling cheated we close our eyes and sleep pulls us away, although not too far away from the blasting of trailer horns and the zooming of cars as they pass.
Whenever the driver stops the car, I open my eyes to check how far we’ve come. He stops the car about four times, one time to buy fuel, the second time to check the engine and make a call, the third and fourth times to ask for directions.
— Ẹjọ̀ọ́. Ibo ni June 12, cultural centre wà?
And people are kind to answer.
— Drive straight down, that way.
Seun Mabo would be the first person to welcome us. She is pretty and her hair is done in tiny strands of what looks like dreadlocks. Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn will later introduce her to us as the goddess of Aké Festival.
–She knows everything. She’s your go- to woman.
The people here are nice. I tell my friend that this place must be the Lekki of Abẹ́òkuta or at least the Ogudu GRA. There’s a lot of grass. The roads are smooth and tarred with black and white lines of demarcation. The Ogun state arts and culture centre is large and serene and the building altogether looks like it wraps around itself like a birthday present with different colours of green, lemon green, pink and pitch.
The Ogun State Arts and Culture Centre is grand, but not exotic.
To the far right are the bar and canteen, that is our next stop after Seun Mabo. We meet some volunteers there already and they welcome us. They are sitting around the table, drinking orijin and radley beer and discussing the literary scene in Kaduna. I eat ofada rice and two hard pieces of meat that put my teeth to a test. We are early so we pass time until Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn comes.
Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn is lovely and earthly. She seems genuinely interested in all of us and we have two rounds of introduction.
–Tell me your names and where you’re from
She speaks to us with a smile, and we tell her. These volunteers have come from far places. From Kaduna, from Owerri, from Lagos.
–Tell me why you chose to volunteer. I’m very curious about that.
And we tell her. What strikes me about her is the way she says the word “very” and she says very a lot, it sounds like she’s saying “vewi” but she says it very fast so that you can’t tell unless you’re paying close attention. It’s endearing. Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn is human too, after all. She acts like she’s one of us. Like she’s a volunteer too. So we offload a van together and then sort books. She and her husband decide what books they’re keeping and which ones they’re selling.
They say when they don’t want a book anymore. Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn tells us that she’s done carrying cartons of books around with her every time she moves.
It really is a lifetime of reading – and rereading and they’re selling most of it at the secondhand bookstore of the Aké Festival this year.
She tells us that her personality towards us might shift in a few days. We’re there for work and she makes it clear to us that she’s going to need us to step up to the challenge. It’s not play, she reminds us.
She takes her time to show us around the event centre. She explains what all the spaces are going to be used for. There are the green room, the cafe, the event centre, the book chat hall, the gallery for exhibitions, the cinema hall, the reception and the media room. Every space is accounted and you can tell that a lot of thought and hard work have gone into the planning of this festival.
Dusk is settling and she insists that we play a little game while we await dinner. We are called to the centre of a circle and we have to guess every volunteer’s name correctly. It is interesting to see people cram each other’s names as though they are about sit for an exam. It is a bonding process because by the time we’re done with this exercise, the volunteers start to feel closer to each other.
We offload another bus and then we settle down to have a nice dinner of jollof rice, dodo, fish and chicken. You can tell that the volunteers already feel at home. After a hard day’s work, I overfeed.
The large white bus drives us to the hotel. The bus ride is of jokes, music and excited chatter that is filled with expectation and contentment at the. Many of the volunteers have already made friends with each other. It feels like camp all over again.
The hotel is nice. We stand around the reception, registering and getting cards to swipe our room doors open. I am tired so I change my clothes and lie on my bed. I fall asleep thinking about the numerous people that have done the sex on these same sheets, about the number of naked bodies that have lain on the sheets that we are now lying on.
This is what hotel rooms will do to you.