The Gods of Ake Festival 2015 usually have lunch together upstairs and then trickle down, not together as a bunch of broom, but sparingly like falling inches of salt and merge seamlessly with multitudes of mere mortals.
You are not a God. You are one among the numerous mortals. Those ones that queue up in a flash to garner low-cost bargains of books on the Etisalat Longlist. Those ones that visit the Ake Bookstore, admire covers of the array of books in display, marvel that you crossed the same doorway with ‘the author of this one’ earlier, feel the subtleness of the book covers, weigh the straddle of cash continuously been depleted in your pocket, and finally decide to pick one book, again, while inwardly swearing and reminding your brain that this is the last book you will buy, lest you trek back to Kaduna on foot.
PART 1: Three Gods and the Caterers
Before all this, you were still a mortal, just with lesser number of books, visiting Abeokuta for the first time to participate in a Fiction Writing Workshop at the Ake Arts and Book Festival 2015 to be facilitated by three of the Gods, amongst the biggest in the field.
Caterers of Gods and Mortals alike
Courtesy demands that Gods be taken care of, and sometimes, the mortals too. Now, at Ake this is solely the work of the ‘Caterers of Gods and Mortals alike’. You arrive in Kuto, Abeokuta and walk down the sloping terrain of the Cultural Center. Harmattan wind is been sneezed by the skies, drop by drop, threatening a full-blown escape. Squeezing sound of talking drums herald your arrival. You trudge and nod to the beats, like an agama lizard.
And there she is, the phenomenal Lola Shoneyin. You see her in that instant, for what she is: one of the Gods. Then like a chameleon, she changes. She calls for the stool, for the round tables to be placed, for the microphones to be set. She blends. A perfect camouflage. A God and a Caterer alike. There is a pure Caterer by her side. Seun Mabo. An elixir of passion and enthusiasm. She introduces you. Ushers you in. Bathes you in hospitality. You are immersed in the festive mood already.
Cyborg Gods and Vine Hairs
The eerie face of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and host of Egbaland heroes in perfect tarred busts stare intently at you. You find a seat, flanked by more than a dozen other budding mortals (for now) awaiting the arrival of the self-confessed rudimentary cyborg, Nnedi Okorafor. You are a bit jittery. Even a little tummy butterflies.
Her vined hair came in first, then the classic eye glasses. She shuffled in like a character from her strange books and settled amidst the gapes, sheepish smiles and total awe. A God amongst mortals. For the next 120 minutes, you flip-flop and unscrew her vined hair, chew her strange brains in and out, and then leave satisfied. A rudiment of one of the Gods in the making.
“She is just an elegant little bird”
That was Lola’s characterisation of this second of the Gods. To be able to convey a good story of the Gods, you will need to tweak with different narrative voices. Different shades of speech.
I am one of the finest of the Gods (no, common not me really!).
You are one of the finest of the Gods (we all know I don’t really mean you!).
We are one of the finest of the Gods (okay, enough of this!).
She is one of the finest of the Gods!
Enter Taye Selasi.
She really did flaunt in like an elegant bird. Charming. Charismatic. Immediately, the brightest star in an already dazzled room. Even the grumpiest of minds will bow and laugh hysterically at the feet of this literary character. But first, she makes you pick a pen. You are going to write in variousnarrative voices. You write. You read. She stops you with her palms. Swirls her hair. Tilts her head in a perfect angle to speak.
You’ve got to take that again slowly. Intergalactical bus? Lagos? 2096? I love this.
You smile. The Gods approve of your craft. You then write, write, write and laugh!
The Elusive of the Gods
Helon Habila sauntered in. Your archetypal college Professor. Professional and straight to the point.
The best fictions are those that use the devices of poetry.
The worst crime for a writer is to be provincial.
You find yourself taking down notes impulsively. Even the air breezed through like that of a standard class. Nice. But before then …
(24 hours earlier)
… you waited for an angel. The elusive of the Gods. Helon Habila was supposed to broaden your horizon first, before Taye Selasi dragged you through her narrative voices and Nnedi Okorafor capped it all with the finesse of editing. Alas. When the Gods evade even the Caterers, what can mere mortals do? The Gods work in their preferred miraculous ways. You wait …
It is 24 hours later, after complete doses of narrative voices and editing, there you are on the seat of honour, on the right hand side of the Gods, time well measured, ready, to broaden your horizon.
And man, you did! You successfully lifted the veils of hitherto obscured horizons. And that was how a two hour session, so engaging, swept past. It felt like the whole moment was a single stroke of the minute hand of a clock. Tock. The elusive of the Gods departs like a wisp as he had arrived.
PART 2: Festival of Gods and Men
You draw out your festival guide from the pillage of books now rapidly increasing the weight on your shoulders. It says you will be engaging the fringes in the next few days. A headless barely naked figure submerged in gibberish on the front cover stares back. Art. You chuckle and flip through the pages. Gods from all over the world have gathered in Abeoukta. 82 eclectic world renowned writers will be assembling with much enthusiasm. You are at crossroads. There are so much of the Gods that they cannot fit into every discussion at once. The festival guide has split up the Gods. You have to choose. A strange choice: to choose sides amongst Gods, and fast!
It is a rollercoaster. Panel Discussions. Book Chats. Readings. Books. Books. Books. Gods disagreeing. Gods of Africa Magic. The Man Who Mends Women. Books. Books. Books. Hours rolled by. Days rolled by. It is some intense cultural immersion.
Ake does not allow you catch your breath, it drags you with it, and suffocates you in a good way with fruits of the pilgrimage. And the array of Gods, they spiced it up with drama, with magic.
Of Gods of Hymens and Fucking Vaginas
Red-haired curls, vocal, fiery, passionate and oozing with humour. Mona Elthahawy hooked you, together with the audience, straight in the eye and let you know, she was here to talk about vaginas. Yes! So you better jump in. The audience ishysterical, cringing, like a biology class during your undergraduate days, forcibly trying to be comfortable with the idea that vaginas and penises are normal vocabularies. The entropy is pitch high. Discussions engaging. You realise then, that there are some 50 shades of Gods, and red-haired ones stand out, prominently.
The Ake buzz enters another gear. Acquaintances are made. Gods are at par with mortals. Impromptu workshops. Books. Books. Books. Readings. Laughter. Satire. Fictional Felons. And then you all HEAR WORD! Naija women talk true. You listen. The message resonates. You rise with the theatre hall as one. Applause. Applause. Applause. You don hear.
At Ake, the buzz never stops. More doses of books, publishing, religion. Books. Books. Books. Sandwiched with readings, books, business, politics and an already tired governor. And then the poets take over.
The Son, The Father and the Holy Poet
Once the Gods of poetry take to the stage, others just take a bow and blend with the mortals. You sit under the fluorescent light of the Poetry Evening. The poetry squad captained by the effervescent Professor Remi Raji blows your minds and brains out. His poetry squad warms the floor. With a gratifying and a well-deserved voluminous introduction the Coach is finally sent to the field. It is the moment you have been waiting for. Professor Niyi Osundare takes the mantle. The Holy Poet parts his lips. The hall is silent. You can feel the sound of his breath. He begins.
The Longest Love Poem in the World
He saunters quietly back to his seat as the enormity of a single word dawns on you. You clap and clap and clap till your palms soar. Mixtures of emotion rush through your veins. You drift back in time 5 hours back …
… earlier Prof Niyi had captivated the crowd. Then, The Holy Poet recited more than a word. An emotional piece birthed in tears of Katrina. He rose enigmatically to perform.
I don’t insult poetry by reading it sitting down.
He talked of the books his parents read to him as a child, from his father’s library … full of yam. He touched the shadesof our conscience and responsibilities. The depth of our possibilities. Of muses and inspirations. You watched God of the Gods sway his words with awe. You swore forever to remain a poet.
Right now, the adrenaline of the fond memories and excitement of mingling with the Gods of literature in Abeokuta still meanders around your heart. You came to Ake Festival a mere mortal. You left as a soul that is much more than that.