In the Spirit of Ake by TJ Benson
Photo credit: Lidudumalingani Mqombothi
This is a picture of a girl not taken.
Thin dark with full purple painted lips, ashen-black curly weaves tucked behind both ears, standing at least five feet nine inches tall in a denim strapless dress, baby blue by the way, fluffy sleeves. I do not know her name. Now imagine her at the brink of an evening, on Olumo Rock, sleeves billowing in the soft wind, the sea of Abeokuta’s night lights twinkling far behind her. There is no moon.
‘Are you done?’ she calls out to me and combs the hair out of her face ‘Have you taken it?’
‘Yes’ I say, swallowing my frustration as the mountain guide calls us back to the stairway leading down the mountain. ‘Yes I’ve taken it. Thank you.’
We entered Abeokuta in the night. The roads and the Government House overwhelmed me, and every street we swung into, searching for ‘Feminism Hotel’ was lit up by streetlights. All of us had booked hotels but the person in charge apologized on the phone five hours prior to our arrival: ‘The hotels contacted us and wanted to know who and who would really come, was trying to call but we couldn’t find your number…’
So Feminism Hotel. Suggested by some writer comrades who got into Abeokuta earlier than we did. The streets were lit up and empty so it took at least two drives round the four overhead bridges (or were they three?) in the city, consultations on the internet and the kindness of strangers to get there. We almost missed the humble signboard in front of a closed shop that read ‘Feminisimi’ and pointed into a compound beside it. We trooped in cautiously, passed the dilapidated building that wore the name with pride (because no way would we sleep in there) and found the main hotel behind it, a two storey residential block with no light.
‘Oya let’s go back to the car,’ said Nurdin after the girls and I greeted our comrades ‘we can’t sleep here.’
I had been following the moon since five days earlier, when an uncle on his hospital bed had begged me to die. Ake was just a dream then. Astrologers were saying the moon coming on the fourteenth would be the largest humans would see from earth in the next forty-five years. My uncle was forty-seven and already begging for death so I knew there was no guarantee I would be alive when the next supermoon comes around. It was just a wish then, discovering the notification on Facebook, after soothing my uncle to sleep on his hospital bed, but I wanted to be in Ake in time for the supermoon.
Nothing but workshops for the chosen on the first day. Still, I was glad I came because it afforded me the opportunity to meet my buddies and babes from Facebook whom I knew only by profile picture and name. Basit Jamiu was younger than I had imagined, the boy wonder who kept spewing links to whatever New Yorker piece he was reading. Mystique Cynthia was way nicer in person, and. even forgave me for thinking she was Adeola Opeyemi. It was a delight to see Ogbu Godwin who I met first in my final year in Niger State then infrequently in Abuja. Kemi Falodun was simply a delight to meet, she had interviewed me via email when I was shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize yet I couldn’t recognize her at all. She recognized me. I found it hard to believe all that seriousness could be bottled into her petite frame and baby eyes. I continued my camaraderie with Hymar David from where we left off during his visit to Abuja. We had exchanged jeans jackets, now I seized his cap. I found Pearl Osibu beside NoViolet Bulawayo on the first day. She sounded exactly as she did in her Facebook posts and was as caring and loving as I expected. ‘The soft feminist,’ I thought to myself as I hugged her and laughed and she wanted to know why I was laughing
‘No it’s just that you sound exactly as I imagined but I thought you were taller.’
Mark Anthony was more than the baby-face we all knew on Facebook, really mature and I was surprised to have most of my serious conversations on writing with him. There is a photograph of him I did not find time to take: ‘I want you to snap me,’ he said, ‘not those fine fine pictures but me with nature. I want to snap a picture with things that breathe.’
Meeting Tolu Daniel was uncomfortably comfortable: it was meeting myself outside my body. Of course he was older, dressed way better than I was, served as an editor for Afridiaspora and worked for the Government, but he also found time for photography and stories.
We spent the first half of the day in a frenzied exchange, butting into each other’s sentences, affirming each other’s values and disagreeing with each other which was really agreeing with each other if we argued long enough. By evening he led me hungry and spent to a restaurant for food and more stories. Over my eba and egusi and his amala and ewedu we exchanged bad loves. Well this man is really me so he did most of the talking—I am usually the one with stories to tell when I connect to a familiar spirit. I made inferences from his relationship history which were mostly true or false and his reasons why they were wrong when they were formed insightful glimpses into my own love life.
‘But you are mad,’ I told him while washing my hands after the meal, ‘why do you hold back? Why can’t you be mad with her? Why don’t you just let go?’
But isn’t this the same issue with me? I wondered, climbing the okada that would take me to my hotel.
Frances Ogamba is hot!
There is no other way of saying it. Okay the Brits would say her figure is ‘striking’ so yes, Frances is striking. I had seen her shuffling about on the first day in her high-waist jeans and blue star print wrapper crop-top but there was no way I would screw the baby face of this woman on Facebook profile pictures to that body. I scream and pick her up for a twirl in the dining hall when I recognize her, stunning myself and everybody then apologizing afterwards, laughing.
From then on I am a local not to Abeokuta but Ake, the idea found by Lola Shoneyin populated with different institutions of art, peopled by people like me. All my life I had to be ashamed of literature. I had to cover a hand on my exercise books while writing short stories in secondary school and minimize my laptop screen from time to time while labouring at my novel in the university to avoid ridicule. Here I could say ‘I am a writer’ when asked ‘What do you do?’ and there would be no confusion, no further inquisition (what do you really do?). Here I could worry openly about my mental health and it was okay. I found myself opening up to strangers who weren’t really strangers but spirit partners from another life.
‘Meet Tayo Madein, she’s ‘a tech enthusiast’ and gbam, I find myself talking about my collection of Afro Sci-Fi short stories ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ which was shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize some months ago. Her child-like enthusiasm and her smile makes me return to the delight of those stories. Ake is a place I receive a sort of rebirth.
Evening. Day Two.
Falana. O Falana. O Falana!
Falana is the lone butterfly that travels the beautiful gardens of dreams. O Falana! From Yoruba to Portuguese she ruins us all from her throne on stage singing from familiar terrains of love to the strange familiarities of our collective childhood. She sits on her percussion box and drums a medley of Wizkid ‘she go say I no be woman’ just teasing really, using her voice to touch the skeleton of the song, twisting it into a strange delicious melody, then stops drumming her percussion box to sing;
‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings’
To which we the entire congregation cries
‘these are a few of my favourite things!’
The Adunni & Nefertiti Group are a triumph in the harmony of indigenous music. They troupe into the hall in their white gowns, high headgears and beads after Falana, the long-legged Queen, introduced them, proclaiming things in Yoruba I can’t understand but find delightful to the ear. They would go on to switch to Bini then Itsekiri then Urhobo then Hausa and back to Yoruba.
‘Why una keep face like that?’ the lead singer questions our shock in between pieces. We are beginning to wonder about the boundaries between tongues, if these languages should continue to serve as barriers when they can be a great storm thrashing in a harmonious celebration, returning our collective humanity to us. ‘Clap for us ni!’
Mesmerised, we do. They promise to return and join Brother Brymo. Brymo doesn’t show at first. His band serves us some pieces, the sort life bands do at wedding receptions ‘Kai ooo what is this type of music?’ Hauwa complains beside me. For her poetry, Hauwa Shafii has been referred to as the Queen of the North. She would be collecting N20, 000 worth of books from the Ake bookstore as part of a student prize she won. ‘This is cool music na.’
‘No I want Brymo!’
‘Yes we want Brymo!’ echoes Deborah Oluniran beside her and as if at their behest he climbs the stage and the crowd roars. One thing that affects me so much is that he is such a human being. He is wearing a white speckled black sleeveless dansiki with spectacles and asking us which piece we want him to perform next. Then he plunges into the song we all agree on, his band disassembling the melodies and reassembling them back for us in a way we would never hear again. I already lost my voice at Falana but I shriek still not caring who is looking. Such wisdom! I usually avoided his ‘Penis no get shoulder’ track but in this concert I am confronted with the wisdom behind the song:
‘he go say he wan put am small’ he sings in his really good raspy voice and the crowd joins him to sing ‘Penis no get shoulder!’ His face in the red stage lights is really serious about this so I consider the song seriously. I forget to worry about Hauwa and Deborah. Besides Adeola Opeyemi is just a seat away chanting the ‘PENIS’ with all her might without flinching. He apologised for the vulgar lyrics before starting the song, and made sure there was no child in the crowd first. Such a gentleman. And who fucks halfway anyway? Even life doesn’t fuck you up halfway. No buffering about it. My goodness! I am usually prudish when in the company of people but today I turn to Romeo beside me and shriek ‘AS IN! IT ACTUALLY MAKES SENSE! WHEN A PENIS GOES IN THERE IS NO SHOULDER TO STOP IT! GAAAAWD!’
Perhaps this is the highness people use substances to attain. Some spiritual elevation from the body. Every part of me is alive. And at the final performance I receive another rebirth. As promised Adunni Nefertiti joins Brymo on stage and in a gift we don’t deserve Falana comes to join them for his ‘Arambe’. Brymo administers his raspy voice to us, the Adunni group of four sway side to side, parting the song into four harmonies and Queen Falana is behind them on the throne of her percussion box and I’m thinking this is a celestial choir; these people are spiriting me out of my body. Now I am arriving at Ake, led by the supermoon. Its gates have opened up for me. Where is Rasak Opeyemi? She left to eat but promised she would be back didn’t she? Why isn’t she back from home? I had felt a sort of kinship with her after playing the hand-slapping childhood game of Tinko-tinko out of boredom before the concert started, unbothered by the laughs from the crowd and the flash of camera lights. Where is she?
There he is. Lidudumalingani Mqombothi. Hair peeking out of his bowler hat, just like the pictures. When he asked me online if I would make it to Ake Festival so we could hang out I was elated like really? Caine Prize Lidudumalingani! But he is not about that at all. In between panel discussions we talk about a whole lot, nothing to do with the Caine prize. From photography to film to books and books and books and the question ‘so what do you really do?’
I laugh thinking of my superior who is waiting for me to deliver a softcopy of Archidata then I tell him of my work history and prospects to which he says ‘nice nice nice’ before telling me about himself. There are delightful surprises with him, before a photowalk we are talking about writing and I tell him ‘O how I love Lesley Arimah! Been following her work since 2013’ to which he replies ‘O Lesley, we were in London together, she likes you too.’ To which I reply, ‘No! She is not cannot I cannot believe nooo!’
Some of the book chats are just there you know, especially if you’ve attended other book chats where people ask. redundant questions. And I ask myself ‘Goodness are you sure you want to be a writer? Do you want to defend your characters over and over again? Do you want to tell people what inspired what or if that part of your story is non-fiction? Do you? Do you? Answer me Tarfa!’
But most of them are lovely. The reading between NoViolet Bulawayo and Jennifer Makumbi is a delight. By the time Sarah Ladipo Manyika is done all copies of her ‘Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun’ are sold out. I love Chinelo Okparanta’s reading of her ‘Under The Udala Trees’ as well as Panashe Chigumadzi’s ‘Sweet Medicine’ which I still berate myself for forgetting to buy. The conversation between Teju Cole and Helon Habila was meant to be a book chat for ‘Known and Strange Things’ and ‘The Chibok Girls’ moderated by the journalist Kadaria Ahmed but of course it is Teju Cole and it is Helon Habila so we end up with an intense panel discussion and a crowd that fills up the Cinema Theatre. Teju Cole really is Teju Cole, yes the one you meet in his New Yorker articles and Instagram posts—as precise in speech as in his sentences. Helon Habila is way softer than I imagined what with his opinion of NoViolet Bulawayo’s ‘We Need New Names’ fresh on my memory. He talks softly about abandoning the novel his editor was expecting and travelling to Nigeria to write about the Chibok girls. He really is sensitive and really familiar with the terrain having grown up in the north, though Kadaria Ahmed, ever efficient, skilfully corrects some of his notions, like a misconception of Jihad. She drops refreshing questions that make me reconsider my misgivings about book chats and aah I hope to be intelligent enough to one day hold a conversation with her! She uses an open ending to a chapter of ‘Known and Strange Things’ to question Teju Cole’s spiritual belief, whether he has faith in an afterlife, a smart manoeuvre really to which he replies ‘I have to think’. Even this draws laughter and applause from the crowd. He is such full form! When asked about his opinion on the recent election of his adopted home country he replies with a wry smile ‘O no I’d rather talk about the Chibok girls.’ And when he talks about finding home in the question ‘have you eaten’ every one awws and sighs in admiration.
The panel discussions are sensational. At least most of them are. There is a photo of Sibbyl White and I hurrying between panels. ‘They are going to talk about sex,’ I explained breathlessly as Lidudumalingani took the photo.
‘TJ why are you barefooted?’ Someone had asked the previous day as we hurried to the Cinema Hall ‘Aren’t we going for the madness session?’ I’d replied.
The ‘talk about sex’ titled ‘Legs Open, Eyes Closed: Sensuality in New African Writing’ in the brochure fills up the small chatroom. The air crackles with excitement as erotica author Kiru Taye, sex blogger Nana Darkoa, former Hints columnist turned novelist Toni Kan and author of probably the first lesbian novel set in Nigeria Chinelo Okparanta sit down. Okay, perhaps I am being naughty. Google Kiru and you will find she is the award winning author of sexy contemporary stories, Chinelo is a critically acclaimed writer, Toni Kan is ‘noted for exploring themes of African sexuality,’ and Nana focuses on writing stories that explore issues around the diverse sexualities of African women with her blog ‘Adventures from the bedrooms of African Women’. In her talk she educates us while our eyes grew wider and wider. ‘…and queer sex isn’t even about homosexuals. Straight couples can have queer sex. It’s about the couple really.’
Chinelo Okparanta wondered why a woman would still sit down in a bar and wait for a man to come and buy her a drink in 2016. Yes she understood that was how a date and maybe sex was initiated in our cultural clime but then why couldn’t women pick men? It’s 2016 for goodness sake.
Nana let out her frustration ‘We are hypocrites really. Read our post colonial literature and you would see that they keep skipping sex. Even in our society. I mean look at our population, how did we become this many if we aren’t having sex?’
Toni Kan tries to clear the reputation he has garnered from his days of writing about sex at Hints Magazine. He insists it wasn’t erotica and that ‘I am a church boy’ to the uproar of the crowd. People are interested in Kiru’s sex life: how her husband reacts to the things she writes and she obliges—‘O he reads them and he learns a few things.’
Nana Darkoa tells us her parents are proud of her, her mother reads her blog and her father celebrates her awards but he is absolutely not interested in his daughter’s sex life. We have so many questions! Sibbyl sitting beside me has an answer for Joy Isi Bewaji who asks Nana what she meant by wanting to create ‘Feminist Porn’.
‘The camera is always focused on the woman, the-’
‘I know Sibbyl, I know’ I said laughing, trying to calm her down beside me. Nana gets a chance to elaborate to Sibbyl’s delight even though Lola Shoneyin came to tell us our time was up.
‘If I would make porn’ Nana says, ‘It would have lots and lots and lots of foreplay. And the focus won’t only be the woman because that pushes some straight women away. I would want to see the man too. And it would be nice slow sex you know? Ladies don’t you watch porn and feel o my God isn’t he hurting her?’
All the women scream ‘YES!’
I don’t know how I managed to navigate the various circles of friends. It seems the entire Facebook came for Ake! Everyone I had been longing to meet was in Abeokuta by the fifth day. By the second day I was exhausted. Barely spent time with Hauwa or Deborah or Nurdin with whom I had travelled from Minna. Couldn’t even settle down to compose a shot of Kechi Nomu and Tochi Eze, women who were way more mature in person and whom I called ‘Witches’. I wish I’d spent more time with them.
I Was telling Tolu Daniels on the first day how stupid I would be in a conversation with the critic Oris then ten minutes later a tall man came into the hall after Dami Ajayi, turned to me and said ‘You are TJ Benson right?’ I nodded then he shook my hand and hugged me and said ‘I’m Oris’ and I was thinking WHAT! As Tolu smiled from a distance. Thirty minutes later the three of us were engrossed in a discussion on critiquing fiction.
I didn’t want to talk to Jennifer Makumbi because I love her so much but at some point I couldn’t help myself. And I was glad I did, she is so spectacular in her ordinary self and ordinary laugh, made me so comfortable with her that I found myself locked in a thirty-minutes conversation on the similarity of some post-colonial burial customs between my Benue and her Uganda thanks to her prize winning work on Granta, ‘Lets Tell This Story Properly’. She was eager to talk about what she was working on and made me proud of my cultural heritage, even though mixed. ‘You bring the world to your village,’ she told me. ‘That is how it is done.’
NoViolet is such a human being, a quality that endeared her to all of us at Ake. You could lean across your chair to ask a question or simply say hi. I had to pinch myself when Tolu Daniels introduced us ‘O so what are you writing at the moment, I’m interested in what you young folks are writing,’ she said and I swallowed back my scream. Chinelo much like her writing, is as collected as a pool of undisturbed water, an attribute which led me to submit a restrained short story I wrote from the perspective of a Japanese doctor slaughtered in northern Nigeria with his colleagues to her three years ago. Her response was quick and her encouragement is something I return to from time to time but after her book chat I kept myself from reaching out to her. Yes she had looked at my work three years ago and I admired her and so? She owed me nothing. Not even a selfie. I love her and it doesn’t matter whether she knows it or not.
This is the face I wear throughout the festival: yes you love NoViolet and so? Yes Ladipo Manyika is simply exquisite not just in her prose but in the way she slows everything down with her voice and somehow colour grades her environment into this warm gentle gold and so? How do I explain this to Troy Onyango who demands I take a photo with Teju Cole at all cost? Su’eddie Vershima understands when I decline to join for a photo with Ngugi Wa Thiong’O. Humans have the tendency to want everything that is good for them, even people, but I have been examining this for a while, wondering if this selfish want of beautiful people can foster pure friendship with them. It is not until Lidudumalingani starts taking photos of me that I am able to ask for a photo with him, on the second to the last day.
Sibbyl doesn’t like it when Romeo and I get depressed so we are happy for her benefit on the morning she arrives. Romeo is doing a better job of it but I am worried for him. Two weeks later he would swallow fifty pills of aspirin. He came a day before her; I had already spent two days here looking for edible affordable food, a roommate, fighting insomnia, wrestling my Abeokuta nights to write and struggling to breathe the Abeokuta air. I couldn’t wait to leave this place but the moment I stepped into any panel discussion or book chat or film show the spirit of Ake would seize me and make me feel at home. I was sick of Abeokuta but at home in Ake. How could I leave the city without leaving the great ideascape Lola Shoneyin envisioned?
All this came with the self-loathing I felt for feeling these things when I knew I would be dying at home in Abuja if I hadn’t made it to Abeokuta this year. It was sickening really. And Sibbyl would have none of it.
‘Eat na?’ We are in the crowded buka I prescribed. It is a shack made of wood with benches and tables and I am surprised that there are curtains. Sibbyl, Romeo and I are at a corner away from the many men swallowing huge chunks of food. ‘Just order something,’ she says.
‘At least eat small’ Romeo urges and so I ask for a plate of what-was-it-again? I would get stomach upset later but this was Sibbyl and Romeo and I had to be happy for them; we had to be happy together. Someone once said happiness is a conscious decision. The madam manoeuvres her body to us and packs up the white lace curtain.
Let the sunlight in.
There is a picture of me taken by Lidudumalingani with his film camera during our photowalk. In the picture I am standing with a Canon 650D hanging down my neck, flower print shirt by Shammah tucked into my black trousers, hands digging into my pockets, my face tired of the hunger and excess food oils and the insomnia of Abeokuta. It is the only single shot he has of me after taking several. Like me he had camera issues. Unlike me he would have to fly back to South Africa to discover them in his photo lab. After taking care not to, he used the same film twice hence super-imposing his precious images on each other. He shared some on instagram after the festival. Film is not dead, his hash tagged them. They turn out rather nice if not apt like Helon Habila super-imposed on an airport signpost.
We were crossing the road back to the Cultural centre after the security men at the stadium had asked us to leave. I cross ahead of him and once I turn at the centre of the road to check him in case, as I jokingly say from time to time during our walks, ‘let them not come and kidnap you on my watch,’ and I find he hasn’t started crossing ‘Just stand there.’ he shouts ‘Yes, like that.’
Sibbyl’s hotel looks like a pre-independence public hospital with its unkempt lawns and cracked walls. The inside has the ambience of a coffin. She got here at night and couldn’t find a shop open or an Okada rider who would give her directions to where she could lodge, even though this was a city with good roads and streetlights. What terrible thing happened in this place to snuff out its night life, to keep people indoors after eight O’clock? Who declared a curfew? When I find myself stranded in a northern city I can always rely on finding a Tea Shop. The Mai Shai’s tea would soothe me from the rigour of my journey. I would be welcomed into the town by the brew of cocoa, milk, sugar and whatever secret herb he had up his sleeve. Nurdin, Debbie, Hauwa and I find a Mai Suya one of these desperate nights we hunt for food. He laughs when I ask about Mai Shais. ‘This na Abeokuta.’
Nurdin asks the price of the gutted, beheaded chicken roasting on the coals. When he tells us we all gasp and I exclaim:
‘Is the chicken alive?’
I was able to take several shots of the ancient architecture of Old Abeokuta on our way to Olumo Rock. I spotted Lidudumalingani in the crowd of guests at the same time he saw me so he made crazy eyes, stretched his hands above his head and I snapped. I found Olumo Rock to be disappointing. The great Olumo Rock of my Macmillan Primary School English Text! They actually built twin stories with lifts and stairs just to climb. Maybe it was because I’d joined a mountain climbing group in Abuja months ago. I was surprised when I saw the steps ‘Aren’t we supposed to like climb?’ It wasn’t high! The only stressful part was arranging ourselves in groups to pay the six hundred naira ticket fee to climb and twisting ourselves into the caves where ancient men once hid from war. We were surprised to see fresh chicken feathers on the door of the oracle. In 2016 people still had testimonies of prayers answered by the deity. We were surprised to see the priestesses alive. Some Christians were cautious not to say ‘Ami’ when they blessed us. We didn’t come on time
‘Photographer!’ called the guide as he ferried people into one of the twin towers. ‘Night has reach.’ So I told the girl in denim dress above the Abeokuta lights on Olumu Rock ‘Yes’ when she asks if I am done. Damn the memory card. It just started misbehaving and wouldn’t let me snap the girl. Lost thirty photos in the end.
Sleep was a war I had to wrestle myself into that night.
The final night is a catalogue of disjointed moments that will return to me as memories for the rest of my life, especially if I don’t see the people that made them.
– ‘In the beginning there was sound.’ Ngugu Wa Thiong’O.
It is impossible to be in the hall with someone whose work you read as a child and not feel you are transcending death, even lifetimes somehow. Throughout the Festival this man was available and accessible to all. Listening to him speak about language in the Herbert Ogunde hall that last evening, I couldn’t help but recall the performance of Adunni & Nerfetiti, how as their voices soared in different tongues in the hall some possibilities of language opened up before me. ‘We do not need to create a new pan-African language,’ he said ‘Let us understand each other first.’ Then Okey Ndibe opened the floor for the available translations of his popular fable ‘The Upright Revolution: or Why Humans Walk Upright’ to be read. He began in Gikuyu. He made the language magic with his gesticulations. Geoff Ryman’s was the most dramatic and pulled us to the brink of our seats. NoViolet’s reading in Zimbabwe rang clear in the hall.
-Mackenzie Mbasughun Ukpi didn’t recognise me at first on the first day. She has loved my work online and was delighted once she recognized me. Her sister, another lovely woman whose photographs I was able to make, was by her side throughout Ake. I made some composition shots of her with star flowers and sunset which was really fun to make, because she would inhale, compose and wait for the click of my Canon before exploding into laughter. Let me be a writer here. She laughs like the gentle gurgle of a waterfall. Kill me. It was truly a gift to meet her as I haven’t met many Tiv people who are interested in writing stories. ‘And that lady who writes short stories in her Tiv language…’ Ngugi asked from the stage that final night and someone called out her name. ‘Yes because I want to be making references to her on my travels…’
– At least three out of the four Nigerians shortlisted for the Short Story Day Africa 2016 competition are present. I am one of them. I had already met Umar Turaki whose candid short film ‘Salt’ was featured sometime during the week. Eddie Okolo came on the last day I think with his hair in two pleats running down to his neck, fresh from the Lagos Fashion Week where some of his knit-work had been showcased. After the last panel he brought out bread slathered with butter and shared it with me ‘Men are scum,’ he said.
– I see the girl whose photograph I didn’t take in the palm wine and poetry event after Ngugi’s interview. The hall is crowded. I am sitting on the ground. She is sitting on a guy’s lap.
– Dancing in front of the cultural centre with Ife Olujuyigbe. Eighties music playing from someone’s car in the parking lot. Someone drags her into the night and she turns back to shout ‘bye!’ and I remember Deoye and Jite invited me to the beer parlour.
– I was shocked at Caleb Okereke and Chimee Adioha’s heights. With their gangly bodies they sauntered into the dining hall, baby bodies carrying men, both having published books before age twenty-three. Caleb’s eyes can get shiny black in wonder, like a deer’s in the night. The effect is as unsettling as Chimee Adioha’s nose rings. He doesn’t wear them in the centre cartilage like a bull but clipped to the corner of one nostril.
‘Tee jaay!’ Caleb squealed with his shiny black eyes and we hugged.
‘You remind me of one South African fashion model a lot,’ Says Chimee after we hug.
‘He is from Namibia actually,’ I tell him. ‘I used to study him when some photographers deceived me that I could model.’ We laugh. ‘But yes I suppose we do look alike.’
– I recognise Noah Oladele once I see him. He is of mixed heritage like me but unlike me he has a firmer grasp of both languages. We hug and explode into his father’s Yoruba which I know very little of ‘Ore Bawo ni?’ ‘Ah Mowakpa o’ before falling into my father and his mother’s Tiv language where I am stronger ‘Or wam u tseagh Facebooku?’ ‘ehn o u fa makeranta’ and I nodded, quite proud of myself as some people stared. I would remember this polytribal conversation days later in Ngugi’s interview.
– ‘I am Tiv-Idoma-Igbo.’ I tell some folks I can’t remember ‘My father is Tiv and my mother is part Idoma part Igbo.’
‘So you are Tiv.’
‘No I come from my father and mother so I am Tiv-Idoma-Igbo.’
– I hate beer parlours. But this is Deoye and Jite and Hymar and Romeo and Olubunmi, people I love. I forget my disgust for beer in between my analysis of Olubunmi’s ‘Smithereens of Death’ and take a sip from Romeo’s cup.
‘Where is this girl?’ Jite ask no one in particular and the girl appears. ‘Come and take his order. ‘What do you want?’
I still have hope I will find grilled meat somewhere so I say Smirnoff Ice.
‘Which one?’ the girl asks.
‘Ahn-ahn, the big one na!’
– ‘We call on the desert to remember when she was the bottom of the sea,’ says Lebo Mashile on the poetry stage. Atie and I exchange glances of astonishment.
– ‘Nothing is private my dear,’ Adebola Rayo tells me, sitting alone on the front steps, ‘How many besties are still in your life from ten years ago? Well there you go. How many of them did you share your secrets with? Well they have made new friends to share those secrets with as you have. Nothing is private Tarfa.’
– On the evening before the last day Caleb runs into me in front of the gallery and hugs me for three minutes straight and means it. I smile sadly in understanding, this is goodbye and for the several conversations we are supposed to have. I can’t hear the things he says to my chest but I thump his back with one hand and it is weird this hug, like hugging my dead father and the brother I did not have and a son at the same time in one body. I wanted to dig into those conversations, ask him about love, how was he doing? Did he feel too young for it? Or just as fucked up as a person as I was? Would he keep writing for Bella Naija? Was he working on a novel? How was the sales for his ‘Safe Journey’ faring on Amazon? Instead I held him at arm’s length, wished him well and told him we would definitely see again. He was smiling and his eyes were doing the shiny black thing.
– Lidudumalingani cannot dance to save his life! Ha! Well he admits this so I forgive him. He just follows me on the cocktail queue a little then disappears to his hotel or wherever. Who said writers cannot dance, who? My goodness you should have seen Ogbu Godwin on the floor. He didn’t even wait for any baby to rock. He brought himself and his stories to the music with moves we had never seen. The craziest girl, a dark skinned lady with lowcut hair and interesting choice of fashion like the bondage belt she wore over her sleeveless jean mini dress had to pair up with him. I couldn’t even dance with Sibbyl. Or Frances. Those girls did not come from Port Harcourt to play. Cheesus. No man could come near them when they paired up. Even the guys that were supposed to suck at this like Olubunmi Familoni killed it. I saw Oris with his arms crossed surveying the crowd.
‘Are you preparing some sort of critique on-’
‘Are you not supposed to be dancing?’
I laughed and grooved away. Minutes later I saw him rocking a woman who was rocking another woman.
– I am squeezing past bodies on the dance floor looking for Sibbyl to tell her I am going back to my hotel. And travelling back to Minna in some hours time. I spot Atie dancing in between two women. He winks at me and I convulse with laughter ‘Come and dance with me!’ calls Elizabeth Ughoro, the gypsy spirit of Ake, disappearing from one event and appearing at another, Laughter floating after her. Beside her, Deoye is cheering me on. These are my people, so I feel the Nigerian music and let go.
‘Tarfa wake up now the panel has started, get up from the bed.’
I have been awake for hours, my eyes are open but my face is blank and Atie, my ad hoc roommate tries his best to rouse me. ‘Get up, there is already hot water in the heater for you.’ He is not playing now. We are like girlfriends, my roommate and I. Each morning we tell each other to wear this or change that, next time the barber is barbing you he should do that, o, I wanted to dye my hair but…goodness why did I forget my shorts in Abuja, so that you will be giving them sexy legs abi, shut up idiot aswear Atie if I was your elder brother I would probably kill you, don’t know how your brothers haven’t, ah everybody loves me na, hahaha fool, I told you to bring another print shorts for me from Abuja aswear I will seize this one, but you didn’t bring a Killing in the Sun for me, ehen there is this writing assignment they gave us in the workshop I want you to see… and so our nights and mornings pass.
This morning he sees something is wrong. ‘Sebi you were supposed to see Adebola Rayo. Get up lets go.’
‘No we are going together. What sort of behaviour is this?’
To be honest I don’t know. All I know is I am not ready to immerse myself into another day of O-my-God-you-came! Wow good to meet you, are you a writer? Where is this panel, are there free hotels left? Have you seen so-so person? Let’s take a selfie. I wasn’t ready for all that with a hungry stomach.
‘I think I’m not too well. Just go I will join you.’
When he leaves I am surprised at the magnitude with which my problems collide into me on my hotel bed. Ninety percent of my depression is not because of Abeokuta. Coming here just gave me room to really come face to face with them.
That night I don’t join Atie immediately, feeling guilty for being away from the girls, I follow them to their room. They have been having a swell time actually; Victor Adewale took some really nice shots of them with his phone. I don’t know how it happens but after some prodding from Hauwa Deborah starts retelling the story of her kidnapping. She was coming home at night from a church program. The leader turned out to be a young man who fell in love with her poetry. Fed her, made a fire to keep her warm in the bush while his other gang members slept, kept her talking throughout the night, decided she would be more useful as a wife and promised her she would love him if she had his baby. She reasoned with him and eventually before morning, he set her on her path home.
‘I still see him from time to time,’ she says, laughing at my astonishment ‘I told him I would write about us and he said he would love it if I changed the location and our names.’
After telling Sibbyl goodnight at about 1 am on Saturday, the last day, everything that filled me up with bile this past week came back to me. The car that brought me to the party had left so I would have to trek to the hotel. No single Okada in sight ‘But fuck it!’ I told the moonless sky as I walked past the stadium I had been prohibited from. ‘I am alive!’
Ake has been awesome. I have never been at home in any organization at any point in my life as I have been in Ake. Just consider the party I had just left. I don’t go to dancehalls! But these people in this dancehall were my people and the small chops were awesome and the cocktail was delicious and the dancing o my God the dancing! This trip has been the best of my life, the longest too. It was pure bliss in between Nurdin’s life stories as he drove us down from Minna, the roads stretching out like sentences before us. Except for that time before Jebba when Road Safety stopped us and fined him for carrying a fire extinguisher with a chipped cap. We got into Abeokuta before midnight and it was cold but it was magic too. That is how I found joy walking back to my hotel that night. Every cell in my body was raw with excitement and music and the poetry of Titilope Sonuga and Lebo Mashile.
I saw the super moon that night of the fourteenth you know. Out the car window, blurry and uncertain, right when we got into Ogbomoso. My friends from other countries sent me pictures of their supermoon which showed it fuller and more beautiful. It occurred to me then in the car that only five days ago this journey was just a wish. This life is just a dream.