My Heart is in Ake Right Now
This post is dedicated to Mercy Omeike, RIP, and all the beautiful people from AABF 2013.
As it is the one-year anniversary of the first annual Ake Festival, my mind runs there frequently this week. There was no precedent for what I experienced at last year’s festival and I imagine there won’t be anything quite like it for a long time. There is a novelty that cannot be captured in being part of the beginning of something. So although I expect that the Ake Festival will continue to thrive years into the future, and be squarely placed on the international calendar of writers’ festivals, I dare to say there will be nothing quite like the first one.
My voyage into Ake began with a mishap. My ticket was purchased and I was so wrought with glee—but also scared that I might not make it because who was going to watch my daughter for 10 whole days???—that it didn’t even occur to me to look at the ticket and make sure the details were correct. So a few weeks before, when Yeye’s Godmother agreed to keep her for me, I took a closer look at the ticket. Ah, yes, Ololade Siyonbola. That good old ancestral name. Read the link for more details, but suffice it to say here that Ololade Siyonbola was not a name anywhere near my passport or driver’s license or identification of any kind. Panic ensued. You see, British Airways don’t play that. Your passport name must match your ticket name or you buy a new ticket. Chikena. Let’s do an official name change in court, my father said. Let’s buy a new passport from a 419er my lower mind said… I went in circles for weeks thinking what a tragedy it would be if I missed this opportunity to meet Wole Soyinka and perform my poetry in Naija.
Up until I arrived at JFK, I did not know if I was really going to Ake. Even when I had organized my daughter’s clothes for the week and a half and written a long email for her Godmother and teachers and the friends and parents who would look out for her for that time…I did not know if I was really going to Ake. Even when I packed my lemongrass and wheatgrass powder and raw granola, I did not know if I was really going to Ake. When my cousin dropped me off at the airport I asked him to wait around in case they sent my immigrant behind back to Brooklyn to hide my face in my humble bed. I had gone to church that morning and made all kinds of deals with God and spoke prayers with a fire that would put Oyakhilome to shame.
So I took my heavy bags all the way to the ticket counter, scared sh-tless, and sat in front of the ticketing agent murmuring prayers in all kinds of tongues, certain that she thought I was crazy. When she handed me my ticket and told me to go board, I wanted to run into the gate before she changed her mind, but instead I went grinning like a fool through security to go sit at my gate.
Miracles do happen.
The first person I met at the gate was Tope Folarin-Caine-Prize-Winner. This is the name that we gave him in Ake because of course, this was a proper last name for a Nigerian writer. I also met Wale Adebanwi—as I was scanning the sea of white faces for brown ones with enough funk to pass for writers traveling to Nigeria of all places. Then the best part of the whole trip—not meeting Prof. Soyinka, not the incredible food, not all the adire I bought—was meeting Dele Shoneyin. Now Dele Shoneyin is not a writer, or even an artist for that matter. God knows why he was invited to Ake. God knows why even I was invited to Ake. Let’s chop it all up to nepotism. Dele Shoneyin, however, is one of the funniest people on this planet. He brought us filthy amounts of laughter for the entire trip and I’m not sure how I’ve survived the last 12 months without his jokes. I’ll skip over the part about the London airport treating the Nigerians like Unabombers and fast-forward to the part about the Nigerian “customs agents” harassing our American counterparts for bribes. They did that.
There were two highlights to Murtala Muhammad though: Seeing my dad for the first time in a year, and the MTN rep who said she liked my braces and thought they were a fashion trend and not a torturous beautification project.
It must have been after midnight by the time we left the airport. It was a bus full of writers: Teju Cole, Tope Folarin-Caine-Prize-Winner, Christy Watson, Marlon James, Adepero Oduye and other wildly famous creatives. Our van was led by a police escort: young and strong and proud. They were ready for action at a moment’s notice, and by action I mean they would kill you if you messed with us… They had guns. I was smidge nervous. I won’t go into too much detail about the driver who refused the orders of our police escort and what happened to his face. I called out in my Igbo-Yoruba, but the police escort either didn’t hear me or thought I was speaking another language…
We arrived at Obasanjo’s luxurious hotel two hours later and had dinner at two in the morning. My room was fly. The bed was lush, the shower was new and the closet was grand. I had a great view of the pool that I would never use and big rocks all about town. The power went out a few times that night and the water wasn’t running but I couldn’t care less. I was in Naija! Beautiful, serene Naija in a luxurious room on someone else’s dime! It was a much needed break from NYC.
The rest of the story is a whirlwind and includes incredible food at the June 12 Cultural Center, a Q&A and brokered “deal” between me and Wole Soyinka, meeting the swag-master governor of Ogun State, reading to school children at Abeokuta schools (I almost cried), Olumo Rock, trips to Kuto market and seeing “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives” live on stage. There was also lots of drinking, flirting and a little bit of dancing as is to be expected when you put a bunch of good-looking young people in a fancy hotel.
Many days of actors and writers’ workshops, panel discussions, visits to local schools, book sales and signings, eating, eating and eating ended with a tour of Abeokuta. The ancient town in Ogun State, from which so many prolific Nigerian artists hail. I saw the house that Fela grew up in and climbed to the top of Olumo Rock with one of my new soul sisters, where I prayed into a Baobab tree and greeted a 127 year old priestess.
The thing that I cannot fail to mention is that the staff of the Ake Festival was un-Nigerian in every stereotypical way. They were consistent, they were loyal, they were warm, they were concerned, they were open, they were friendly, they were PROFESSIONAL. Never mind that Lola Shoneyin is a goddess and of course her team would be a reflection of her. These are young Nigerians in their early twenties who cared so much about this festival, everyone there and every legacy that it leaves. There was a level of professionalism, service and love that I have not experienced in 23 years in the US. Which is why it was so unbearable to hear of the passing of a key contributor, Mercy Omeike, months ago.
The only downside to the festival was that it ended, and that I could not go on living in that fairytale of a week forever. But even that spurned more blessings in the deepening of relationships and partnerships and the manifestation of ideas inspired by the moving conversations and engagements from that weekend.
I leave you with a quote about the Festival from the renowned Funmi Iyanda:
“Everybody is here: most of Nigeria’s old, new, emerging literary minds, art minds, film minds, are here. And the kind of conversations that I have been privy to have been very enlightening. They are very important conversations, especially at this point of our lives. Often times, people don’t make the connection between the people’s culture and the growth of the nation. And it is events like these that bring that sort of synergy that is needed. I think one of the challenges in Nigeria is that we lack cultural confidence. We do have cultural bravado, but we lack confidence. Cultural confidence is a quieter thing that comes from the recognition of who you are as a person and as a nation. It is festivals like this that encourage cultural confidence; and I am glad that we have school children being part of it.”