KABAFEST and the changing Northern Nigeria narrative

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ana Darkoa, Wana Udobang, Fatima Zhara Danejo and Aminat Salihu at the session on Feminism for the future: Perception and Reality.

Kaduna weather is known for being quite unpredictable.

Intermittent rainfalls and scorching sunshine. If you have to be anywhere now, just go with umbrella.

No harm. But Kaduna’s cultural landscape is one of the country’s finest. Its history provides a fascinating tale for any culture-centric individual.

The state, in fact, has a rich cultural heritage in terms of festivals, music, dance, drama and craft.

With 32 autonomous traditional institutions in the form of Emirate councils, mostly in the northern part, and chiefdoms, in the southern part, Kaduna State is a kaleidoscope of cultural and religious intersection.

The state is home of the internationally acclaimed NOK culture in NOK village, Jaba Council.

This is where the NOK Terracotta head (the oldest known figurative sculpture south of the Sahara) was discovered dating back to 500BC.The state has something for every cultural traveller.

From September 5 to 8, book and art lovers and culture connoisseurs took over the facilities of Silversands Hotel, on Katuru Road, Ungwan Sarki Muslimi, Kaduna, as this year’s Kaduna Book and Arts Festival held.

First hosted in 2017, the major highlight of last event was the signing of the literacy project, Write to Right Project memorandum of understanding, between the European Union, represented by its ambassador, Michel Arrion, and a French cultural organisation, Africultures, represented by Moise Gumis, to propagate massive literary and digital projects in five states in the North – Kaduna, Katsina, Borno, Adamawa and Bauchi.

The project is aimed at supporting creativity, production and reproduction of educational and recreational books in the five states.

It also engages over 25 writers and support over 10,000 teachers to make impact. The project is worth EUR3 million (N3 billion).

Following the success of its maiden edition, this year’s feast featured over 70 guests, comprising writers, poets, actors, musicians, artists and filmmakers.

And not to mention, the innumerable number that attended creative writing classes and participated in panel discussions.

The last edition had attracted renowned authors like, Zaynab Alkali, Richard Ali and Leila Aboulela from Sudan, the Book Buzz Foundation decided to do a repeat of the festival.

Aboulela won the first Caine Prize for African Writing. She is the author of four novels, a collection of short stories and several radio plays.

Her novels, ‘The Translator’, a ‘New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year’, ‘Minaret’, and ‘Lyrics Alley’, were all long listed for the Orange Prize.

‘Lyrics Alley’ was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.

Leila’s book of short stories ‘Coloured Lights’ was short-listed for the MacMillan Silver PEN award. Her work has been translated into 14 languages.

At the opening on Wednesday, September 5, Kaduna State Governor, Malam Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, who was represented by his deputy, Mr. Barnabas Bala Bantex, reiterated his administration’s support for the creative industry.

He also said his government is committed to creating a veritable platform for art and culture development in the country.

The governor said the festival would not only celebrate the arts and the literary world, but equally change the wrong perception of Northern Nigeria.

Part of the efforts aimed at achieving this, he noted, is the institutionalisation of Kabafest as a fixture on the cultural calendar and a fitting platform for nurturing, promoting and celebrating creative potential.

While noting that his government is delivering on its commitment to supporting the arts, creativity and creatives, El-Rufai said necessary encouragement would help lift reading culture, as “literature and other arts make a major contribution to helping us understand one another better, explaining to us where we are, and pointing out where we could go.”

According to him, “cultural dialogue apart, the creative arts could in themselves be sources of economic dynamism,” adding, “the Nigerian Film Industry, the musicians and the photographers are breaking new grounds and demonstrating sustained viability.”

He added, “we seek to promote the creative arts, to nurture minds, but also to create jobs and wealth for our people.”

At the event, renowned novelist, poet and short story writer, Professor Zaynab Alkali, was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her immense contributions to the Nigerian society through her creative works.

In her acceptance speech, Alkali said the award told her and other writers that they were on the right part for contributing to the large society.

She described “arts as a potent weapon for social change and a steady ladder for the growth of the human soul.”

She said: “Part of a writer’s responsibility is to enhance the nobility of the soul by encouraging moral integrity of character and condemning corruption.

“A writer is expected to create works which depicts social harmony through modeling love and respect to a people steeped in multiple conflicts.

When a nation loses its focus, and subsequently a sense of direction, a writer is expected to be at the forefront in the process of refocusing and redirecting the nation’s course.”

The opening was ignited by poetry performance from Efe Azino and Ogaba Ochai’s contemporary dance. The star performance was from exceptionally gifted Mara Menzies from Kenya. She told the story of a Gikuyu woman who dared to eat meat.

It 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 questioned tradition that women cook, but are not allowed to eat the meat and men alone eat the delicious meat.

The opening ended with musical performance by Jeremiah Gyang and Ashiru Danauta.

The dominant message in Kabafest 2018 is changing narratives: Literature, politics, health and every sphere of life.

Within this context, the changing narrative of the Northern Nigeria expressed in the festival sequentially revealed an engagement with ideas of turning a page.

The festival reflected and engaged the post-traumatic Boko Haram landscape.

It also adequately interpreted the diversity and complexity of the new Northern realities like the growing case of mental challenge among Northern women, the rise in feminism and obstacles to economic opportunities.

Most poignant is the fact that the North has changed and no longer in contained shackles of religion.

The opening panel discussion posed the question: Does African Literature Matter?

The panel had Kenyan novelist, Mukoma wa Ngugi, son of the famous Ngugi wa Thiongo, the Nigerian writer Safiya Ismaila Yero and Ghanaian writer, Kinna Likimani. It was moderated by Abubakar Adams Ibrahim.

The panellists argued that literature had flourished in the continent from the 12th century and there were numerous African writings from the 18th century, as well as slave narratives of their ordeal, which formed part of the corpus of African literature.

“We have to think of African literature as a contradiction because: It helps with decolonisation and cemented the colonial metaphysical idea of Africa,” said Ngugi.

He added, “there are implications when a writer’s imagination begins from their timeline. If the writer’s imagination is not in touch with history, it’s like writing with one hand behind your back.”

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 life and tell our stories.”

In the words of Yero, “the West wants to limit us. I have no interest in the West and how my work is perceived by them.”

She said Western critics treat African literature as emerging, which is very wrong.

How do you define African literature?

“It is so big. Just read a book from Africa,” said Yero.

“Scholars don’t want to think beyond the Achebe, Soyinka and post-colonial literature, we have evolved. There are now new voice from the continent and new literature.”

Ibrahim recalled a criticism of his work by a Canadian, who said his award-winning novel, ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms’ did not address topical issues in contemporary Nigeria – the Chibok girls and female genital mutilation.

“The expectation from the West is that African stories should expand the news,” Ibrahim said. “It is not my job as a writer to explain.”

It was in this context that Ngugi proposed the use of ‘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.”

The panellists asserted that contemporary African writers, whether at home or in the diaspora, are contesting precisely this imposition of culturally representative literature.

They have taken to writing stories that are explicitly less politicised and not any ambiguous version or vision of Africa and the African diaspora.

The consensus was that African literature exists, “it’s flourishing and it is telling the African story.”

All the authors affirmed they would write what they want to write not what others want them to write on.

In the session on contemporary Northern Nigerian literature, themed, ‘In Search of Ourselves: New Nigerian Writing’, Basit Jamiu, Year Turaki and Hauwa Nuhu Shafi present imaginatively inclusive visions of the new writers, which years of contained worldview muffled.

The panel explored the notion of the ‘self confession generation’, and the idea of writing as a form of therapy.

“Through the process of creative non fiction, the writer is a giving a name to feeling, thoughts and experiences that are sometimes difficult to articulate. Through naming, you are concretising something,” said Shafi.

On the process of being vulnerable in published creative non fiction, Turaki said, “it is a deeply uncomfortable to write and put it out there, but the responses and engagement from readers is both liberating and affirming.”

Shafi condemned the stereotypes about writers from the North. “They are perpetuated, because people limit writers from the North.

This is the time to open our minds and explore. Good writing is good writing notwithstanding from where it comes.”

For Basit, “more institutions like this have to be created so that more Northern voices can be heard.”

The panel raised pertinent questions about public display of vulnerability in a society that valourises ‘strength’ and importance of editors protecting contributors whilst mitigating potential threats to their safety.

One of the most fascinating sessions was the Booklogue, where writers discussed their works. One of them had Hadiza el-Rufai, author of ‘An Abundance of Scorpions’ and Ayobami Adebayo’s ‘Stay With Me’.

These two novels represent voice 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, the challenges of childlessness 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.

Yesterday was poetry night. This year featured five Nigerian poets and one of the most talented poets from Southern Africa.

They include, Dami Ajayi, Chika Jones, Efe Paul, Wana Udobong, Femi Oyebode and Koleka Putuma. They were joined by six poets from the north.

The festival, no doubts, is helping to push the fact of a changing narrative, which is genuine and reflective of the Northern literary scene as viable alternative to the South.

The Kaduna State government, in partnership with the Book Buzz Foundation, organised the festival.