Ake Festival 2019: Grey Matter From Africa’s Literary Giants, By Jibrin Ibrahim
It was an opportunity for us Africans to situate ourselves on the world stage, not so much to compare ourselves with others but to ask ourselves two questions: What stories can we tell and what experiences should we reflect upon to inspire us to improve our lives and livelihoods? Secondly, what are the bad practices that have blocked our development and what can we do to change them for a greater tomorrow?
I had the pleasure of participating in the Ake Festival in Lagos last weekend. It was another master stroke for the convener, Lola Shoneyin, who has guided the development of the arts and book festival from a Nigerian to a major African event. It was indeed a conclave of African thinkers, writers, poets, filmmakers, actors, photographers, dancers and artists. As usual, it was four days of fun, songs, dancing, exhibitions, screenings and debate. The noise was often loud and boisterous but many of the issues were so grave that what I remember the most are the profound silences provoked by deep reflection.
The theme this year was “Black Bodies: Grey Matter” and at this time, there were probably few other issues that could bring out the best grey matter from Africa’s literary and intellectual giants. It was an opportunity for us Africans to situate ourselves on the world stage, not so much to compare ourselves with others but to ask ourselves two questions: What stories can we tell and what experiences should we reflect upon to inspire us to improve our lives and livelihoods? Secondly, what are the bad practices that have blocked our development and what can we do to change them for a greater tomorrow?
One of the most interesting book chats was with Jumoke Verissimo on her debut novel, A Small Silence. In the book, she explores the life of an activist and human rights crusader who is seen as a change agent. He had been jailed by the oppressive state and released. It’s set in post-June 12 Nigeria and investigates the trauma and mental strength of he who had refused to sell out and join the oppressors. Jumoke said her motivation for writing the novel was that everybody around her loves and respects the radical but no one appears to like the idea of being like their hero – WHY?
The main theme of the Festival was addressed by the panel on “Demystifying Skin”, in which white people seek sun-tans to become darker and dark people bleach to become lighter. There was a great discussion between a whiteman, Gavin Evans, presenting his book about the false science propounded by ideological racists and a black woman, Reni Eddo-Lodge, explaining why she wrote her book about why she is no longer ready to discuss racism or white people who, whatever their orientation, are beneficiaries of structural racism. Trust Lola to put them on the same panel. But maybe the star of the panel was Mpho Tjope, an albino with a story to tell. He explained that at six, when he started primary school, all the black students rejected him as the white kid who was different. Later, on discovering apartheid on the other side of town, he was told in no uncertain terms that blacks like him have no place in white South African society. There is no trauma as devastating as the discovery that you are white but not white and black while being “white”. It was a truly fascinating debate about structural inequality, privilege, discrimination and exclusion.
There was a rich debate on African writing 50 years after the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The fulcrum of the discussion was that Achebe and his contemporaries had to tell the story of colonial oppression, its impact and the African response through nationalism, and they told the story brilliantly… Today there is a massive unloosening and expansion of all genres in African literature and writers say whatever they want to say
Skin colour and tone are however not essential in telling the story of discrimination, hate and wanton destruction. 65-year-old Yolande Mukagasana was at Ake 2019 to warn Africans that colour is not always the issue. Her book, Not My Time to Die tells the story of how her husband, three children and siblings were all killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. She made many of us cry by a detailed description of how she could easily have been one more among the dead, as the genocidaires came to the house she was hiding in and she could hear them describe how they would chop her up with their machetes when they find her. It was not her time to die and her message to all Africans was to beware of exclusion and hate that have been causing so much pain, trauma and deaths for our people.
There was a rich debate on African writing 50 years after the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The fulcrum of the discussion was that Achebe and his contemporaries had to tell the story of colonial oppression, its impact and the African response through nationalism, and they told the story brilliantly. Luckily, the first-generation writers got onto school reading lists early and subsequent generations benefitted immensely from reading them. Three generations later, the new African writers have been liberated and no longer have to follow any specific genre. Today there is a massive unloosening and expansion of all genres in African literature and writers say whatever they want to say – about our repressive society, love, creative non-fiction, sexual orientation and so on. As Helon Habila said on the panel, he is glad that he does not even need the label – African writer – and could just be what he is – a writer.
One thing struck me about the rigidity of Nigeria’s school curriculum. Many of the young Nigerian writers were science students. They all complained that as “scientists in training” they were not allowed to study literature in school, so as not to distort their scientific thinking. They discovered literature later and dumped science for the joys and pain of creative writing. My point is that it is stupid to think literature would do harm to scientific thinking. The greatest scientists have been those who would create modes of thinking that no one had thought of before. Science is not about learning facts by rote, it is a field for creative thinking and blocking young scientists from literature is very stupid indeed.
The theme of sexuality occupied a prominent place in the discussions. One element was the imperative of the struggle to eliminate sexual violence from our public and private spaces. I was particularly impressed by the work of young female activists in the collective – Stand Up Against Rape – who are hunting down and prosecuting perpetrators, while providing legal and psychological support to victims. The level of sexual violence in our society is extremely high and many more of us need to stand up against it. On a separate matter, there was an interesting moment when a radical South African black lesbian (that was her self-description) stood up to say that they have decided to drop the slogan – All Men Are Trash. The problem, she explained, was that many of their heterosexual sisters were complaining that by telling men they were all thrash, the men felt compelled to treat all women as dust bins. I am really glad that from now on, not all men are trash.
I spoke of the paradox of Nigeria’s religious reality, in which we have about the highest religiosity in the contemporary world. This means that our religious arena is characterised by high levels of activism, including the multiplication of religious authorities, texts, discourses and identities… The paradox is that notwithstanding, Nigerians are among the least religious people in the world.
Our own panel was on the theme of religious extremism in Nigeria. Ebenezer Obadare spoke to his book, The Pentecostal Republic, which explores the ways in which Pentecostalism has emptied all agency from its followers, who have forgotten the lessons of Calvinism’s protestant ethnic and the spirit of capitalism, when Christians were taught to be hard working and thrifty to acquire wealth. To the contrary, the new generation is trained to believe passionate prayer is enough to make you wealthy and healthy. Abdulbasit Kassim, one of the greatest young scholars of the Boko Haram phenomenon addressed the issue of the ideological and theological orientations of the movement, as they themselves articulate it. Indeed, his source book on Boko Haram is compulsory reading for all those who want to understand the movement.
I spoke of the paradox of Nigeria’s religious reality, in which we have about the highest religiosity in the contemporary world. This means that our religious arena is characterised by high levels of activism, including the multiplication of religious authorities, texts, discourses and identities. The key marker of high religiosity is the visible growth in the intensity of belief and in the expansion of time, resources and efforts devoted to religious activities and practice. In other words, Nigeria is consumed by an extraordinary expenditure of energy in religious activism. The paradox is that notwithstanding, Nigerians are among the least religious people in the world. While claiming to be Christians and Muslims, we show very minimal adherence to the beliefs and core values of the two religions, such as love, compassion, honesty, moral uprightness and peace. The consequence is a high level of theft of public and private property by apparently “religious” people. There is massive immorality, debauchery, sex outside wedlock, homosexuality and other activities that genuine Christians and Muslims, who believe in the core values of their religions, avoid.
Finally, the Festival illustrated the black body experience through the presentation of four films. Nadine Ibrahim’s Marked, a documentary that investigates the purposes for which scarification have evolved in Nigeria. Malika, the story of a Queen that struggles to keep the peace in her rapidly expanding Empire. Accent, the experience of a young girl who encounters different treatments just because she is different. And, To Be Free, a view on the art of Nina Simone.