AiW Guest: Temitayo Olofinlua
Earlier in the year, I watched The Hate U Give and If Beale Street Could Talk and, through these films, saw how the American justice system hurls itself against black bodies until it is bent out of shape. Yet, the films did not give me a proper understanding of the diverse ways black bodies exist. They did not show me the different ways black bodies can be imagined and perceived. I know that they are just films but it is this variety of existence(s), of ways black bodies find joy, and laughter, and beauty beyond and despite pain that I experienced between 24th and 27th October 2019 at the Aké Arts and Book Festival in Lagos, Nigeria.
For these days, I was in a bubble, just walking from one room to the next, basking in conversations and learning more about how black bodies have existed at different points in time and how narratives have shaped, and continue to shape, them. Titled “Black Bodies, Grey Matter” the festival also featured film screenings, art exhibitions as well as performances. My body melting into the sea of other bodies, it was as though I was being taken through a continuum of present, past and future.
Chinua Achebe begins There Was a County with a reference to the Igbo proverb ‘A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body’. Let us start from the past, where the rain started beating us. The panel on ‘Historical Fiction in Today’s Africa’ featured three writers — Wayetu Moore, Tunde Leye and Jennifer Makumbi — and tackled the way their work (re)writes African history by centring not only African characters but relying on solely African sources. In her novel She Would be King, Moore brought to life a cat that once existed in her grandmother’s stories. Makumbi spoke evocatively of how in Kintu she explored the history of the Luganda people through the voice of ancient oral poets. Leye spoke of how he went beyond history texts — which were largely written by Europeans — to meet with a female guardian of the graveyard of late Oyo kings to understand the Old Oyo Kingdom portrayed in his novel Afonja. He insisted that these stories still exist today but in forms and places hidden to many. Indeed this echoes the opening text of his novel: ‘Because our stories must be told/…Around lanterns and laptops/In voices that are ours and understand us.’
Some of the richest panels showed how present-day issues — sexuality, mental health, police brutality, and abuse — affect black bodies. We heard first-hand how black bodies and systems perpetuate violence on other black bodies. Listening to the panel on ‘Eliminating Sexual Violence in Public/Private Spaces’, I was struck by the connections in experiences of women and LGBT people across Nigeria and South Africa. Ayodeji Osowobi and Damilola Marcus shared how their projects Stand to End Rape and Market March respectively aim to reduce sexual violence in Nigeria. Zethu Matebeni, on the other hand, described the nuanced nature of violence in South Africa — how it targets those perceived as weak and unprotected by the society. Describing the intersections between the private and public space, cultural expectations and how these encourage violence, Matebeni powerfully explained how:
‘The family allows for the continuity of sexual violence from the home or private space into the public … In a home, the woman is demanded to pardon the man at all times, to wake up and survive everyday, maintain the stability of the family because it is for the national good. She is then regarded as the rock … the rock is a very celebrated mantra in South Africa. You strike a woman, you strike a rock. Women are supposed to be so ‘rocked’ that they cannot bleed and they cannot break.’
Listening to these activists, I was left troubled by the hurt many inflict on other people simply because they have power. And yet, more than the dark narratives, it is the progressive, even dangerous, work that these activists do that gives hope.
Speaking of power, the panel on ‘The Gender Binary and Everything In Between’ was also very enlightening, particularly because of the way the panelists opened up themselves, sharing their experiences, past wounds and laying it bare for all. By doing this, they were beckoning on the audience to see humans first, before the divisive laws, before the shackling religions, before the many things that divide and rule us. That panel created a safe space where conversations (ab)normally carried out in hushed tones could happen without any fear whatsoever. In that space, bodies regulated by laws in several African countries found expression.
Even though most of the panels focused on how Africans, through writing, art and their work, are using their “grey matter” to celebrate, uplift and portray black bodies, the panel on mental health focused specifically on grey matter in all its glory. In a world where mental illness is shrouded, where care is limited, this panel was critical to the normalisation of mental healthcare. Hauwa Ojeifo connected the shame associated with mental health in Nigeria, and perhaps Africa, with the interplay of social norms, history and narrative framing:
‘When I think about mental health, it is about a narrative … it is about how can we retell these stories? It is about how we have been conditioned. It is in our movies, our music … all around us. It is about putting real people in front of the narrative. It becomes more human. We have made it this abstract concept, that it is “those people” and not “any of us” so it is about bridging that gap, that it is all of us.’
Ojeifo also argued for the significant role social media can play in reshaping the narrative and giving faces to mental illness. Overall this panel stressed the need for a revamped policy direction to complement the work of different organisations within this space. For one, Nigeria still uses the Lunacy Act of 1958, a tool of British colonialism in regulating mental health, fifty-nine years after independence.
All humans are different; yet, difference is shirked in many spaces in Africa. Highly misunderstood, it is either seen as a sign of weakness or waywardness, depending on who is looking. Some differences are natural (albinism), some are caused by accidents (leading to amputations for instance) while some others are intentional (tattoos, body paints, piercings, etc.): this and more was the focus of the panel on ‘Scars, Body Modification & Self/Social Acceptance’. By telling her moving personal story, Adenike Oyetunde brought to the fore the challenges that people in Nigeria face in a country where physical differences are unacknowledged and unplanned for. Adetutu Alabi, a Nigerian model, spoke convincingly about how she transcended the shame of bearing traditional marks on her face in order to accept herself. And Chidera Muoka insisted on the importance of creating a media space where everyone sees themselves:
‘I learned that I cannot define someone by what they look like on the outside as it has to be about what they look like on the inside. Is this a genuinely good person? Is this someone that I can work with? So, genuinely accepting people, not because of the scars they have—body modifications, tattoos or piercings, none of that—but do you come and bring to the table what you should? That is what I learned …’
And finally, some of the events transported us into the future. Despite some negative notions about African speculative fiction circulating — like Africans have too many problems to be bothered about science fiction, or science fiction teaches African children witchcraft (hello, Harry Potter!?) — Geoff Ryman, the moderator of the panel ‘Are Women Dominating African Speculative Fiction?’ noted that there continues to be an explosion of the genre on the continent. The power-packed panel which consisted of Temi Oh, Mohale Mashigo and Nnedi Okorafor focused on African audiences, decolonising the genre and even challenged the title of the panel. Nnedi Okorafor posited that just like every people with a past, present and future, Africans are not exempt from fiction rooted in African beliefs even as they portray these different times:
‘Everyone has a future. And this whole idea of science fiction not being appealing to African audiences has always been ridiculous to me…On top of that, there are other science fiction narratives that are well loved on the continent, like Star Wars…also if you look at general mythology and beliefs, I don’t see why science fiction won’t appeal to the audience here. In many African literatures, you find the mystical. […] I think it is a very western ideology to think that the mystical is so separate from the mundane and has to be something else. I read Things Fall Apart as an alien invasion…the idea of alien invasion is not new. So, I don’t believe that science fiction and fantasy is not new or odd.’
Both Mashigo and Okorafor insisted that when they write, they are not thinking that they are women and as such should only write on certain issues; they just write. As Okorafor stated:
‘When I am writing, I am not thinking I need to make a point here, it is that the point comes through. So the title of this panel is almost asking: why are female writers successful in speculative fiction? Would this be asked of male authors? I don’t think that will be the case. It is too early to ask the question. We are just slowly breaking in, in terms of publishing. The stories have always been there. At this point, let it ride …’
In addition, the book chat with Temi Oh and Wole Talabi also set their gaze on the future. Temi Oh’s book Do You Dream of Terra Two? follows a group of teenagers into space, yet it is more ‘about leaving home and facing immortality.’ Wole Talabi’s book Incomplete Solutions, a collection of short stories, is also about life in different worlds beyond the present day. For both writers, it is important that their works are accessible to their readers, hence even though they are steeped in science, they are human stories, about human experiences, giving room to a range of human emotions. As Talabi notes:
‘When I write science fiction, I want people to experience that sense of wonder that can come from discovering a really wild concept but also figuring out that it is possible … how much of this is complete fiction? How much of it is science? So that people can go and read about it.’
Indeed, the ‘futuristic panels’ celebrated the beauty of the different kinds of ‘magic’ that African writers are creating with words today even as they use their words to create ‘scientific worlds’, even as they place black bodies in those spaces, in the future and in the present. This is not new and these writers are also importantly leading conversations about the terms on which contemporary African writing continues to be defined and historicised (see Nnedi Okorafor on Africanfuturism).
Ake Festival succeeded in shining light on how different cultural practices are manifest in art across different time periods. The rain beating us on our backs was not just a thing of displeasure, it was also a thing of delight. There were poetry sessions that featured poets like Wana Udobang, Dami Ajayi, Logan February, Tjawangwa Dema, dropping lines of poetry that made me smile, and look more within searching for answers because they raised questions that resonated with me. For the first time, I saw performances of dubbin poetry by D’bi Young Anitafrika as words cascaded into songs, into stories, into tears because they tore through my heart. The strumming of Temi Ovwasa’s fingers on her guitar, her voice beckoning one into her world. Not forgetting the short films and documentaries — Nadine Ibrahim’s Marked gave insight into the value placed on traditional marks in many Nigerian societies; Accent showed the emotional implications of speaking with a strange tongue in a strange land; while Toni Morrison, The Pieces I Am showed us the writer as a human beyond the awards — that kept me grounded to my seat, transporting me into different worlds even as I missed some panels. Beyond the conversations, films, poetry, art, it was also a good time to match online faces with real life faces; to make new friends and have conversations with long-lost friends; to trust my hand into the hand of a body painter who made a tree-like pattern on it.
What is left after the fires of Ake Festival have died down? The smouldering ashes of memories rekindle the moments again, especially as I re-watch videos on YouTube. Life will happen and try to wash the experience away but soon, a conversation, a quote, something from that bubble-experience will spring up once again and light the fires. It will show me that the body never forgets the fellowship of like minds. With the dates for the 2020 Ake Festival set, my body knows that soon again it will feel that which it felt: that which words are not sufficient to capture, that which can only be experienced.
Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning creative writer and editor who calls herself a content busybody. Her first and second degrees are in Literature-in-English. She is currently a PhD student at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.