KABAFEST 2018: Celebrating the African Story, By Jibrin Ibrahim
What then is the African story? This was the more difficult question. To illustrate the complexity of the question, the moderator Adam Ibrahim recalled the novel by Aminatta Forna called “The Hired Man”. It tells the story of the terrible civil war in Croatia and the horrors that accompanied it.
This week I’m writing from Kabafest2018 in Kaduna and it’s a story of joy and even more joy seeing the explosion of young talent, bold female writers, audacious dance, rich poetry, great music and above all the completely transformed new generation of writers that have emerged in Africa. Unlike the Achebe’s and Ngugi’s, this new generation are simply telling their stories rather than seeking to prove that Africans too are human and have a culture. Neither do they feel the obligation of retelling the story of African nationalism and its discontents. The festival is organised by the indefatigable Lola Shoneyin with support from the Kaduna State Government and other sponsors.
In the first edition last year, one of the key debating points was the writing of Zainab Alkali and her resistance to being characterised as a feminist, rather than a woman who is simply writing about the world she sees around her. The multiple award winning Zainab Alkali, the Magiran (Queen) of Garkida had come into literary limelight with her first novel The Stillborn published in 1984. It was a coming-of-age story depicting the “physical and spiritual journey of a Nigerian women who learns to survive in the face of harsh traditions” – a recurring theme in new African writing. Professor Alkali was awarded a life time achievement award for her work. In her acceptance speech, she spoke about living a fulfilled life of social rebellion and how being a writer allowed her to share her inner thoughts with her readers.
In this year’s Kabafest, Zainab Alkali was not on the debating set, but her daughter Habiba Alkali was there to discuss her own new novel, The Phantom Army, which is the first major novel to address the trauma and vicissitudes of life under the Boko Haram insurgency. When asked what inspired her to address this issue, her direct response was that she had no inspiration, but was simply scared to death by the insurgency and needed to seek an understanding of what the hell was happening in her society. Hence, she started to write about what she thought was happening. The other Alkali novelist daughter, Fatima Alkali was not there but I had worked with her on the Presidential Panel on Alleged Human Rights Violations by the Army and is a senior lecturer in human rights law whose debut novel Personal Angle is also making waves. Zainab Alkali inspired her daughters to write but as Audee Giwa said while reading her citation, she inspired not only her children but also a lot of Northerners to write.
The opening ceremony of the festival was exceptionally inspiring. Although the deputy governor and first lady of the State were in attendance, no boring speeches by politicians were allowed. The show was ignited by the wonderful poetry of Efe Paul Azino, who told the story of Nigeria, a nation conceived in promise and a nation where promise remains in the ICT incubation hubs in Lagos and made in Nigeria workshops of Aba among many others BUT stays diminished by the irresponsibility of successive political classes, who continue to fail the resilient citizens of our dear country. We then had the rather metaphysical story telling through dance by Ogaba Ochai. When he danced into the hall wearing only short pants and paint on his body, the MC felt obliged to assure us that we were safe. At the end of the dance, the MC again in a rather silly way intervened to reassure us it was not a voodoo dance as if we have problems with voodoo dance.
Thanks to Kaduna Book and Arts Festival for reminding us that the African story is being told by our writers, poets, musicians and artists. It’s a vast story of multiple and diverse sub-narratives. These stories have also been and are being told by different generations of African writers and we are happy that the new generation is bold and audacious.
The star performance of the opening was the story of a Gikuyu woman who dared to eat meat, as narrated by the exceptionally gifted Mara Menzies from Kenya. The format was a participatory and engaging narrative in which she picked up people from the audience to consider the case of Madam Wachu, a good Gikuyu woman who dared to question the tradition that women cook but are not allowed to eat the meat, with men alone eating the delicious meat. The performance was really enthralling. Readers of this column are advised to rush to Silverspring hotel in Kaduna today where Mara Menzies would tell another story at 4:30p.m. Don’t blame anyone if you miss this great show. The opening ceremony ended with great music by Jeremiah Gyang and Ashiru Danauta. After all the important things had happened, the kind Lola Shoneyin gave Deputy Governor Bantex two minutes to declare the festival open. It’s high time we get out politicians to understand that every meeting is not about them but the people.
The opening panel discussion posed the question – does African literature matter? The initial salvo by the Kenyan novelist Mukoma wa Ngugi, son of the other famous Ngugi wa Thiongo was that it does matter and the proof, as it were, is the penchant of many African dictators to jail and even kill writers for their work. The rebellious Ghanaian writer Kinna Likimani questioned the legitimacy of the question as African literature is not a new genre and we cannot forever continue to respond to the ancient query on whether Africans have culture and literature, we should just continue to live our cultural lives and tell our stories. The panellists recalled that literature has flourished in Ethiopia from the 12th century and there are numerous African writings from the 18th century, as well as slave narratives of their ordeal that form part of the corpus of African literature.
The consensus was that African literature exists; it is flourishing and telling the African story.
What then is the African story? This was the more difficult question. To illustrate the complexity of the question, the moderator Adam Ibrahim recalled the novel by Aminatta Forna called The Hired Man. It tells the story of the terrible civil war in Croatia and the horrors that accompanied it. Its therefore a European story of pain and suffering told by Aminatta, a British writer with a Scottish mother. Aminatta’s encounter with horror started however in Sierra Leone, where her own father who was a minister was killed by political opponents in Freetown in 1975, when she was just ten years old. The European story about horror in Croatia was also the African story of mass killings in her Sierra Leone, which is part of her lived African reality. The Croatian story is actually an African story.
…Mukoma wa Ngugi proposed that we use the concept Afropolitan to describe the African writer today. Whether or not they live in Africa, global issues and events mould their narratives. They are African and they are cosmopolitan. The important thing is that they write what they want to and resist the pressure to conform to addressing “African” themes.
It was in this context that Mukoma wa Ngugi proposed that we use the concept Afropolitan to describe the African writer today. Whether or not they live in Africa, global issues and events mould their narratives. They are African and they are cosmopolitan. The important thing is that they write what they want to and resist the pressure to conform to addressing “African” themes. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, for example, drew attention to a Canadian who criticised his award-winning novel Season of Crimson Blossoms for not addressing the top issues in contemporary Nigeria – the Chibok girls and female genital mutilation. Virtually all the authors affirmed they will write what they want to write, not what others want them to write on.
One of the most fascinating sessions was the discussions on the novels, An Abundance of Scorpions by Hadiza El Rufai and Ayobani Adebayo’s Stay With Me. These two works of fiction are representative of the voices of strong female writers. They engage new themes such as writing openly about sex, which African writers used to avoid as if it does not happen in Africa. They also address the pains of marriage, especially when challenges such childlessness arise and women are pushed into taking extreme forms of action in search of solutions. They also address difficult questions concerning religious practices and tensions, as fundamentalism takes root in Nigeria and other African countries.
Thanks to Kaduna Book and Arts Festival for reminding us that the African story is being told by our writers, poets, musicians and artists. It’s a vast story of multiple and diverse sub-narratives. These stories have also been and are being told by different generations of African writers and we are happy that the new generation is bold and audacious. That promise of a greater tomorrow for Africa, Africans and people of African descent is being told, written, sang, danced and painted every single day.