October 2018 was blessed. After years of longing, the stars finally aligned and I was able to pull together the funds and time to attend the Aké Arts & Book Festival.
I’m only a little biased when I state with (Nigerian) pride that Aké is a bright jewel in the literary calendar. The four-day festival was friendly, well organised, inspiring and thought-provoking. What more can you ask for?
Festival founder, Lola Shoneyin has already posted dates for 2019 (October 24-27) so start emptying your piggy banks and booking time off work. I’m telling you, there’s something about standing in a different part of the world and looking out, even if it’s at the same art you consume everyday, that adds another dimension, makes things fresh, teaches you something new.
To help you plan, I’ve thought up 10 tips that will ensure you have a fabulous time at the Aké festival.
1. Getting there
The first five years of Aké were held in Abeokuta, Nigeria. 2018 took place in Lagos and it looks like this may be a permanent move. The new location makes accessing the festival a little easier as you’ll be in the same town as Murtala Muhammed International Airport, where you’re likely to land. The usual flying rule-of-thumb about booking early for better prices definitely applies. If you’re short on vacation time, do note, although it’s billed as a four-day festival, Day 1 doesn’t really apply to regular attendees. This year the Day 1 schedule featured school visits for the guest writers, a fiction workshop for a group of pre-selected writers and an evening dance performance open to everyone. If you need to shave a day off the festival, this would be it.
As a Nigerian/Brit, I have been to Lagos many times. It took me years to realise that the places I visited with my parents were not nearly as far apart as I imagined. For instance, we’d leave my grandfather’s house in Oshodi and it would take four hours to visit family in Ebute Metta. Now, Google tells me the two locations are a 42-minute drive apart, but once you throw in wildly pot-holed roads, sparse traffic lights, tons of vehicles (at various stages of road-worthiness), police and their bribe-collecting check-points, and the Lagosian spirit of doing whatever you please on the road (including driving in whichever direction you prefer), you get Go-Slows, ie backed up traffic that crawls. My dad has always advised me, ‘never plan to go to more than one place a day in Lagos. And get there early.’
With this in mind, I suggest you stay as close to the festival venue as possible. Within walking distance, if you can. The Aké website will have a list of recommended hotels.
This year I opted for a studio room in the three-star, Bleu Ivy hotel. It was reasonably priced, clean, secure, and included a complimentary breakfast. The internet was annoyingly patchy, but the friendly staff made up for it.
Google assured me the walk from my hotel to the venue would take a snappy 23-minutes. I have to laugh as I recall how I enthusiastically relayed this information to a cousin who lives in Lagos and the look of alarm she gave me in return. I quickly understood her concern the first time I did the walk.
The 23-minutes became 40 as I carefully navigated the concrete pavement. It would gape open unexpectedly above deep sewers or disappear completely leaving me to walk on the busy road, a handspan away from rushing traffic. All this under the hot, dusty, petrol-fumed Lagosian sun. It was an obstacle course with high stakes. I reached the festival venue dripping in perspiration, my sunglasses sliding off my face like a water park, sunhat flapping desperately in my hand as I tried not to die of heat stroke.
Right! Taxi, next time, I decided.
Ho ho ho! Easier said than done. But more on that later.
Key point. Pick a hotel close to the festival venue. Super close.
3. Print out your receipts
When I arrived at my hotel the receptionist asked if I had made a reservation. Yes, I told her. I had reserved my room online months before and though the hotel had not emailed a confirmation, they had called me on the number I supplied and we had confirmed the room and date.
“I’m sorry madam, I cannot see you here.” She said in that patient/bored voice Nigerians in administrative positions have perfected.
Thankfully the hotel was not busy (in fact, when I later took myself on a building tour, it seemed to be 95% empty) so I was able to claim the room I had booked. But if it had been at capacity, no doubt wahala would have ensued.
The same scenario played out when I went to collect my festival ticket. The volunteers manning the desk could not find my name on their printed clutch of sheets with attendee details. I handed them my confirmation email and my passport as I’d been instructed to do, but they said they couldn’t find my ticket without the exact date that I’d bought it online.
I mean, it was booked months before. I couldn’t recall which month let alone the day.
Eventually they gave me a festival pass, a festival bag, and told me to visit the venue desk the following day for the rest of my pack.
I don’t know if I was just unlucky or if there’s some underlying issue with Nigerian record keeping. I would simply say, print out all your confirmations and take them along.
4. Download Uber
I deleted the Uber app from my phone after the company’s strike-breaking behaviour in New York during the Muslim Travel Ban. When a series of scandals erupted over Uber’s treatment of its female staff and its hostility to calls for more rigorous background checks of its drivers, I vowed I would never restore it.
Lagos has exposed me. It has revealed my principles to be as weak as melted chocolate. After one day of trying to hail uninterested yellow taxis, or the three wheeled tricycles known as Keke Napeps, I admitted defeat and downloaded the Uber app with the frenzied fingers of an addict desperate for a fix. It was smooth sailing from there. You don’t need a payment card, Lagos drivers prefer to be paid in cash. The prices are cheaper than yellow taxis, the driver will often call you to confirm (so it helps if you have a local number) and you can verify the cost before you commit.
I did delete the app when I left, but that’s really not the point is it? Like Peter denying Jesus three times then being tearfully repentant after.
Whatev. Download the app. It’ll make your life 100% easier.
5. Go to the opening ceremony.
When I read the programme and saw that the opening event was scheduled to run from 9.20am – 11.50am I gave a hearty sigh. Two and a half hours. Na wa o! Is it the Olympics? I hate speechifying. The prospect of a whole morning of it was not appealing. Luckily, my excitement about the festival would not allow me to miss even a tiny piece of it. I got there early, bagged myself a good seat in the auditorium, made friends with my seatmates (more on that later) and watched the guest writers arrive.
If you’ve ever been to a Toastmasters session you’ll know about all the trademarks of a good speech: structure, pace, clarity, conciseness, body language etc. The speakers were all excellent. Even the Nigerian Vice President (politicians are rarely the most interesting speakers). He shared a story about his own foray into writing, a poem he wrote for a high school sweetheart, and the aftermath that cured him of writing for life. Festival founder Lola Shoneyin gave the formal welcome, Dr. Chibundo Onuzo sang and played the keyboard, dancers performed, awards were distributed. The time flew by.
In short, don’t be alarmed by the run time. Go to the opening event, it’s an excellent overview of the festival.
6. Immerse yourself in the panel discussions
Much of the programme is built around questions and theories which are then addressed by authors who have written on that subject matter.
My favourite three discussions were:
Entertainment, Education and Technology in the Mother Tongue
It was a discussion held entirely in Yoruba and explored how Yoruba is used in the present day, whether it has a future and what can be done to help younger generations develop a personal relationship with it.
I took an evening class in Yoruba this year out of frustration at my limited ability to speak my parents’ language. It was very satisfying to be able to follow this discussion.
The panellists talked about the failure of parents to value Yoruba enough to pass it on to their children in an intentional way. They talked about how the loss of the language is also a loss of swathes of the Yoruba culture because law, religion, philosophy, history – is all tied into language.
Is Africa Really Open for Business?
“No country has ever become rich exporting raw commodities,” Victor Kgomoeswana stated during the panel discussion.
He went on to address the issue of cocoa. Ghana and the Ivory Coast produce 60% of the world’s cocoa, yet cocoa farmers earn an average 67 cents per day—6.6% of the final sale price. According to the World Bank, Nestle alone makes $90 billion a year in sales. A figure that dwarfs the combined $69.3 billion GDP of Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
“We have to start producing locally to gain the value from our raw material,” Tayo Oviosu agreed.
The panellists also talked about branding, about valuing African-made goods, and about the role of banks in helping businesses thrive.
There was also an interesting exchange after one of the panellists described Africa as ‘the last frontier’ for businesses.
Moderator, Kinna Likimani was quick to disagree. “Language is important,” she said, “it’s the battleground where culture is fought. We [Africa] have been the ground where people sustain themselves. We are not anybody’s last frontier.”
If you’re interested in reading more on the topic, check out these books by the panellists. Victor Kgomoeswana’s Africa is Open for Business and Feyi Olubodun’s The Villager: How Africans Consume Brands.
Book Chat: Binti and Beasts Made of Night
The book chat between AfricanFuturist Nnedi Okorafor and fantasy writer Tochi Onyebuchi was the stuff joy is made from.
I’m not sure how Nnedi found time to attend. In between collecting awards of all shapes, she’s been writing the Black Panther series, Shuri, for Marvel Comics and George RR Martin is exec producing her novel, Who Fears Death, for a HBO TV series. The woman is on fire!
Tochi Onyebuchi’s debut novel, Beasts Made of Night, has been described by Buzzfeed as a “compelling Nigerian-influenced fantasy” with a “unique premise and lush, brilliant worldbuilding.”
Here are clips of the authors reading from their work.
Here is a clip of Tochi talking about how Beasts made of Night is rooted in his Nigerian culture.
Here is a clip of Nnedi sharing how real events in her life inspired her novella, Binti.
7. Make friends
I was early for the festival opening ceremony. A rare miracle. I snagged myself a good seat and had settled in to wait for things to kick off when the two people chatting beside me leaned over to say, hello. That’s how I met Tope Akintayo and Stephanie Ugbeye. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, bookish people are the best kind of people. Before the festival had begun we’d bonded over our favourite books and which fiction genres we felt needed more input from African authors (Crime and Romance). On the last day of the festival Tope kindly gifted me a copy of the Brittle Paper anthology, Selves. It’s a collection of potent, memoir-style, personal essays by writers from across the African continent. Tope produced that striking cover design. Learn more about the anthology here.
Make friends at Aké. They’ll save you seats, gift you fabulous books, go hunting for food with you in the brief snatches of time you have between events and snap the 1,500 pictures that you need for Instagram.
8. Take snacks
The schedule is packed with exciting events you won’t want to miss. I only had time for breakfast and dinner. Take snacks so you don’t starve to death.
9. Block out time for the non-panel activities
Aké 2018 had a Film Room, Art Room and Memory Room. I made it to the Art room between discussions but I never found the time to watch any of the 11 films being shown, which broke my heart because I’d been dying to see the banned Kenyan film, Awani. I also missed out on the Memory Room, a space where you could listen to recordings from the British Library’s sound collections, including Fela Kuti’s grandfather and an ancient Ifa spiritual sung by priests in 1965. It also had artefacts demonstrating a range of writing, symbolic communication and oral literature from across West Africa.
I thought I’d have time to visit the rooms during breaks, but they really are events on their own. Learn from my mistakes, build in blocks of time to take in these elements of the festival so you don’t miss out.
10. Visit the bookshop
It is in Ouida House, the festival’s home base. It is big, expertly stocked and quite lovely! I took the opportunity to grab some graphic novels that I wasn’t sure I would find in the UK.
That’s it. My top 10. Now go book your festival ticket.