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Coming Back to Their Roots

Lola Shoneyin, Director of Book Buzz Foundation and organizer of Ake Festival
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For three days beginning from Thursday, November 24, 100 poets, dancers, novelists, painters and filmmakers from all over the world will converge in Lagos for the famous Ake Arts & Book Festival. With the exception of a few, nearly all of them are Africans, some based outside the continent, thus inspiring the theme “Homecoming.” Michael Jimoh reports…

For a class of professionals who work in solitude, nothing presents a better opportunity for that outdoorsy feeling than meeting and reaching out to colleagues at book fairs and festivals. Having spent much of their time in the privacy of their studies stringing words together like termites in the mating season, hoping to make sense of ideas, creative types often look forward to that carnival-like ambience full of comradely backslappings and ‘long time no sees.’

There is the Edinburgh Book Festival, for instance, where, along with the grand ideas proposed and discussed by guests, an unfeasible amount of alcohol drains down thousands of gullets. The Zimbabwe International Book Fair had its own share of impressive writers who visited annually until 1995. In that year as a special guest, Robert Mugabe, a Jesuit-trained scholar and former president, launched what the organisers called “a virulent attack on homosexuals.”

They quickly moved the fair farther south first, to Johannesburg and, finally, to Cape Town Book Fair. Thankfully, Ake Festival has not had a Mugabe showing some presidential muscle. Ever since it began in 2012 in a southwestern town in Nigeria where Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka had his formative years, the book fair has had a smooth run. And then, Covid-19 made things worse, denying the creative community all over the world the very communal gathering they would have most cherished.

Now, with Ake Festival scheduled for this Thursday in Lagos, writers and many more in the artistic community are sure to get their groove back. For one, they will all meet in person, post-pandemic. Two, there have never been so many of them invited all at once in previous festivals. And then, the theme of the festival, “Homecoming,” seems just apt enough.

Nothing could be more apt for the tenth edition of a festival that has drawn attendees from America, Asia and Europe. It has been said that two or so writers have even made it from down under in Australia in previous fairs.

For this edition, there is something close to a world register, though, most of the invited writers are from Africa, some of them teaching in American and European universities, many more residing in the continent. “Our African roots influence our Art and our creative expression,” says Lola Shoneyin-Soyinka, Director of Book Buzz Foundation and organizer of Ake Festival. “As we migrate and settle around the globe however, these bonds may weaken with time. This makes the ritual of homecoming particularly significant; it is a response to a centripetal force calling us home to experience the regenerative power of our ancestral roots.”

Coming home to “experience the regenerative power of our ancestral roots” will be authors like EC Osondu, Ade Bantu, Emanuel Owusu-Bonsu, Diyabanza Kiabanzawoko Emery, Angela Makholwa, Abiola Sobo, Abdulkareem Baba Aminu, Fatouma Sissi Ngom, Femi Fawehinmi, just to name a few of the 100 invited artists.

One of the most noticeable accomplishments of Ake Festival is the organiser’s ability to bring together some of the brightest and promising writers from the African continent together. In one interview, Shoneyin-Soyinka herself gave a hint of what inspired her: “I felt there was a need for African and Black authors to have open and honest conversations about the experience of Blackness. About how they saw the world but to an audience that almost automatically and instinctively had context.

“As a writer myself, when The Secret Wives of Baba Segi came out, I would travel far and wide doing interviews and talks to mainly white audiences. Sometimes you get these questions about the oppressive elements of your culture. I often worried there wouldn’t be time to provide context and also discuss the positive sides of the culture. I wanted to curate a festival where the audience would be largely Black. When artists, writers and creatives come to Ake and speak to the audience they don’t need to explain the context, they just get it. This allows them to get into the real nitty-gritty of what their work of art means, what their hopes are and about what that piece of art can do in the world.”

As one of the most important book fairs in Africa for now, the literati and cognoscenti will be only too eager to learn from the dozens of writers, painters and sculptors when they listen to them or visit their stand starting from this Thursday.

Another reason for Ake, Shoneyin-Soyinka once conceded to an interviewer, “is about keeping your eyes open about what Black people are writing and creating around the world and the African continent throughout the year. I keep in touch with publishers and agents and create a list and book them for the festival as early as possible.”

How true! When THEWILL spoke with Shoneyin-Soyinka last Friday afternoon, she politely declined an interview, however brief it may be. There just wasn’t enough time. As the arrowhead of the Festival, she was up and doing, making sure everything went well, from scheduled flights to hotel accommodation and much else for the hundred or more guests expected from across the world.

Such logistics, as anyone would imagine, cost some bricks of cash. The World Bank and the British Council have been sponsors of two or so editions. Now, Sterling Bank is taking up the bill for Ake Festival 2022 just as the bank has done in the last two, thus sustaining the founder’s dream of staying on course. The biggest funder, she has said “is Sterling Bank in Nigeria. That, for me, has been the biggest shift. People are now waking up to the importance and value of culture. Sterling Bank really embraced what we are doing and I’m so happy that they have stuck with me on this journey.”

And for keeping her dream of a culture cum book fair in Nigeria alive. “I always knew what I wanted to do, but over the years the dream has grown. So, when you have a dream, leave space for it to grow, because it might grow in directions you didn’t imagine to begin with.”