Of Class and Glass, Elevators and Futures
by John Otroyin
Julie Andrews of Sound Of Music sang: “When you read you begin with A B C; when you sing you begin with do re me.” In the same key, when you talk of Ake you begin with traveling. Sing with me, tra-vu-lin.
Sadly, there wasn’t much traveling to do this year as the 2018 festival was held here in Lagos. The only traveling was to beat the infamous Lagos traffic, which was why I left my house at 6am for a 10am workshop. With the perfect combination of Lara.ng and google maps, I effortlessly located the Ake workshop venue.
I entered the Ouida house with the enthusiasm of a college freshman to meet the awkwardly staring eyes of volunteers dressed in vanilla Ake vests. When I saw a familiar face, I walked up for a handshake and asked for the workshop space.
“Hello, how may I help you?” came a docile but stern voice from behind me. I turned to see a petite being in a unique pink Ake vest, tight black pants, and dreads. The dread and cowries in them reminded me of Ake17, where I wrote in my memoir (Of Rocks and Dreadlocks) the African writer starters pack: dreadlock, African print shirts, and cowries or bead necklace.
The workshop with Ben Aaronovitch, author of eight books, (one thing that forced me to apply, if he could publish eight, surely I must learn to write my first book that has never made it past plotting) somewhat fell short of what I was expecting, but was good. Two of the workshop participants, Tega and Mariam, I’d met at SSDA Hotel Flow workshop. The other three were fresh friends, one of whom I couldn’t help but stare at, making sure I averted my gaze before her eyes met mine. If I end up writing a shitty debut novel, blame her, her soft voice, her delicate face.
Before the end of the workshop, I went down to the library (just below the workshop space) to take a leak, and guess who I found. Odafe Atogun, author of Taduno’s Song and Wake Me When I’m Gone. My mentor whom I’ve only conversed with over the phone since becoming a mentee. Photos do him injustice. He is younger in person, with much more life than the photos imply. Maybe it’s because he barely smiles in the photos I’ve seen.
I made to shake hands, but he drew me into a hug and I felt the presence of the Lord. Then when he introduced me to Lola Shoneyin as “…one of the boys I mentor,” I felt the heavens open and a voice cry “this is my beloved, with whom I’m well pleased. Watch out for his books.”
LS was in the conversation, but absent. Her mind was briskly walking to each venue, checking and making sure things were in the right place. Odafe asked if she read my memoir about Ake 2017 – which he’d read and asked that I send it to her, he said she’ll love it. But LS gave a lost look. She didn’t remember our Twitter conversation where she gave me her email to send the file, but that was the last I heard from her. She’s been busy, sure.
The welcome ceremony took place on Friday, 26th October. There was a welcome address by the indefatigable Lola Shoneyin and a short film on the “Journey So Far” of the Ake Art and Books Festival which is in its sixth year, with the theme: Fantastical Futures.
There were speeches by various dignitaries: Molara Wood, the editor of Ake Review; Vice-president Yemi Osinbajo; F. John Bray, Council General US; etc. The Nommo Awards, in its second year, was presented by Geoff Ryman, Jennifer Makumbi, and Zukiswa Warner whose spirit and substitute drumroll amused me.
There were electrifying dance performances. One by Wanjiru Kamuyu reminded me of the snake dance from Benue state. But hers is not of a particular tribe. Every move and delicate turn spoke of Africa. As her hips swayed and as her hands sang, she called Africa by her many names: Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, Liberia.
Ogaba Ochai grabbed eyes with his dance to present the Ake Review. His costume gave me the Childish Gambino vibe. His performance transfixed me. His stomach twirled and told of the sand dunes of the Sahara, his broad chest told of Africa’s vast lands, his head shook and his dreads danced like the trees of the tropical rain forest, the expression on his face held my soul. Chibundu Onuzo, author of Welcome to Lagos, warmed the air with her voice to round up the ceremony.
The panel discussion shook tables so hard, some broke. There were book chats where authors read and discussed their books. When panelists hit the right spot, people snapped by pressing the middle finger and the thumb and suddenly releasing. Walter Shakespearean Ude would later describe it on Facebook as the “woke version of applause”. Are we not entering the future already?
Arit Okpo, the moderator of the first book chat was giving me vibes with her dress. I tweeted it – she retweeted and liked – and later gathered courage to tell it to her face. She hugged me. I felt things.
I left Radisson Blu for Ajah after the book chat with Odafe and I missed the whole Saturday event, to attend my uncle’s wedding.
The first Ake I attended was 2016, I was a naïve visitor. Second time, 2017, I was a volunteer, running up and down, carrying this and that, issuing events’ tickets and announcing upcoming programmes (a visitor met me later to say I did the announcement in bedroom voice).
This year, I attended as an informed visitor, whose hands weren’t constantly wrapping his body and looking lost. So when I pulled up for day three, I entered with shoulders raised like do-you-know-who-i-be? I greeted the volunteers on the front desk – new friends – and walked into the festival space feeling like Naomi Campbell. There’s always a great display of African fabrics at Ake: adire, kampala, kente, lace, etc. I was on Ankara sewn into top and knickers. I wasn’t going to sit and be the last one in class. It was a pepper them situation.
One wonderful thing about Ake is the opportunity to meet big writers. I met the goddess Nnedi Okorafor, again. Dami Ajayi (the only successful doctor and writer I know, rocking both women and satisfying both), Mona Eltahawy (I just like her red hair), Jennifer Makumbi (I adored her from a distance), Wana Udobang (her poem got me snapping for hours), etc.
I also met two Facebook people I couldn’t bring myself to message. TJ Benson (warm person) and Walter Shakespearean Ude, (he recognised me from Facebook and I kept asking myself how).
When hunger set in, I went down to the cafeteria with Mahe and Terry (fellow Ake17 volunteers). When we were told the prices of a cup of coffee, soda, and ordinary doughnut, my stomach churned. See why I was angry Ake left Abeokuta for Lagos? In Abeokuta, there was a canteen with five hundred Naira ticket for meals. But who is shown Wakanda and longs for Ajegunle? We just fed our eyes on the beauty of the hotel, climbed the glass stairs and walked the corridor made of nothing but glass. Class!
Ake festival 2018 came to a close with poetry performances that left me gasping for air. For days, lines from Wana’s poem You Will Not Be Catfished popped into my subconscious – It’s my prayer now: I will not be catfished, point and kill, they will not choose me like they chose my ancestors. From Nastio Mosquito’s performance, he’ll pass as a bass soloist. Imagine Fredric Handel’s But Who May Abide solo in his voice, with its depth and timbre.
I left to beat Lagos traffic just after Saddiq Dzukogi’s poem about his heavenly daughter who would have been two years old. Sad.
From running faster than the crowd to catch a moving bus, to sleeping in the traffic, I got home in the darkness of the night with a resolution – same after every Ake – to be the best me, to create art, my own way, according to my own taste.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
John Otroyin is a Nigerian. His piece came fourth for the NHCP short story competition. He holds a certificate of Creative writing specialization course from Wesleyan university Connecticut (MOOC). His work are on Nantygreens, KalahariReview, TushStories, and PIN (poets in Nigeria) journal. He is an alumnus of Ake festival’ Creative Writing and SSDA Hotel Flow Workshop. He writes on nighttalesng.wordpress.com and enjoys being a Countertenor.