Today, we are delighted to share a Words on the Times, Outriders Africa with Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike – an Energy Law expert, speaker, humanivist ©, poet, writer and theatre practitioner, previously dubbed the ‘queen of spoken word poetry in Nigeria’ – who has offered us video performances of her poems “Touch” (performed at the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival) and “Call Me By My Name” (below), from her YouTube channel.
AiW note: Outriders Africa, a project announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019, builds on the existing ambitious Outriders concept, exploring “the idea that in shifting, disorienting times, a writer can make a unique contribution to our understanding of the world, giving voice to untold stories and providing new insights on contemporary geopolitical contexts”.
Ten writers paired up – Kayus Bankole & Kei Miller, Nadine Aisha Jassat & Tsitsi Dangarembga, Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike & Wanjiru Koinange, Amanda Thomson & Sabrina Mahfouz, and Eliza Anyangwe & Emmanuel Iduma – to together conceive of and embark on “an international journey through Africa, meeting writers and communities along their way and engaging in discussions around migration, colonial legacies, inequalities and the impact of globalisation and environmental change.”
Each of the writers were to create a new work in response to their journey for an Outriders Africa anthology, published by Cassava Republic Press, for the Book Festival this year. Intro vids to their pairings, meetings and plannings ahead, showing both excitement and the creative freedom of the project, were filmed at the Festival in 2019 before their journeys began.
But then came the year that was 2020…
With the restrictions and interruptions imposed at the onset of the pandemic – to both travel and being together, let alone being either “out” or “riding” internationally – the writers presented their journeys in the virtual edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020. The Outriders Africa anthology is forthcoming in 2021, to be presented at next year’s festival.
Bridging then and now, with thanks to the Book Festival and the writers, we have been able to catch some of the Outriders for their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A set initiated to connect up in the wake of the early lockdown measures and resulting #COVOID for books, continuing on now to share our experiences and ways of working in the changing times of our nows.
Donna’s Outriders journey was launched and made with Wanjiru Koinange, a Kenyan writer, raised on a farm on the outskirts of Nairobi, who is restoring Nairobi’s iconic public libraries with her social enterprise Book Bunk.
Outriders Africa – Sub-Saharan Swiping.
[Donna and Wanjiru journeyed to] The Gambia and Senegal, where, like everywhere else, a maelstrom of taps and swipes has seen modern dating change beyond recognition.Seeking to decode where love lies for women in modern Africa…during surprising, funny and moving conversations, they quizzed a vast array of women across the West African region about hookup culture, how their cities inspire companionship, and whether romance really is dead.
We will hear from Wanjiru with her Words on the Times as part of our Outriders Africa series soon – watch this space.
And see the first in the series from Nadine Aisha Jassat – poet, writer, and creative practitioner – with a poem, ‘Auntie’, which we shared on Monday here.
Words on the Times, Outriders Africa – Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike.
AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your own work and involvement with the Outriders Africa project?
Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike: I have had a longstanding curiosity about what it means to be an authentically African and sensual woman – owning one’s body so completely that it exudes an aura and confidence that does not seek to explain itself. Alongside this was the question “What did our Mothers know that has been shrouded in silence?”. I knew that many African mothers would be scarred to openly discuss sensuality, talk less of sex, but what if I am just open, vulnerable, bare? Seek their wisdom like a woman-child that requires the kind of nurture only mothers can give? Will they lift the veil for me…will they pass on the secrets of feminine sensuality and its powers? Will they finally yield and step away from the culture of silence that seeks to gag women?
While I carried these questions with me for well over 15 years, I performed poetry and created experiential theatrical works which are mostly cathartic – a call to be whole, unapologetic and free. This I have done publicly for the least 10 years although I have been writing for about 30 years.
My works led me to performance opportunities at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and this is how I got invited to join the Outriders Africa Project. A complete honour and privilege that I am ever grateful for.
I am also thankful that the opportunity to be a part of Outriders Africa, met with the ready questions I had burning on the inside of me all those years and that we were allowed free reign over our creative processes and how we chose to express them; the project was very artist focused and I LOVED IT, especially since I was partnered with the amazing author and library restoration enthusiast, Wanjiru Koinange.
I journeyed through The Gambia, Senegal and Rwanda and learned everything from the charm of waist beads, to secrete language exchanges between lovers communicated entirely through specially embroidered cloth to the source of the sacred waters of kunyaza where anything less than absolute earth shattering orgasms for the women was considered sacrilege. My Mothers opened up to me. They did.
AiW: How are things on the ground with you, where you find yourself now?
With Covid-19 I have learned a new way to fear.
I needed to measure the weight of my fear in a way that it did not destroy me. I decided that I would know only enough to be safe and no more. I refused to give in to the panic that was stretching itself across the world. I recognized that although my fear was part of a collective energy all over the world, I was facing it in isolation and had to determine what permission to give this fear, panic and anger that sought to consume me. I therefore muted all the news media, friends who would incessantly call to update me on the new way to lose my mind (since every last news item carried a dread within it) and focused instead on the silence, broken only by the things I chose would surround me – music, the words of the Bible, my family and calmness.
I lost 10 people in total during Nigeria’s lockdown period – 3 of them to Covid- 19. Sufficient was the grief to keep me grounded. I therefore had no room to add global panic, fear or terror to my space.
This turned out to be a good thing as I found myself gradually move from frantic, frenetic fears to a quiet calmness. I am fully immersed in the communal fears of the world but not consumed by it; I am thankful for this.
AiW: Has the pandemic affected your thinking about travel?
I was really looking forward to the Festival this year; it would have been my third time performing/functioning in some professional capacity at the Festival and this was a personal goal for me. However, the Festival had to be canceled and, along with the rest of the world, we reconnected online and it was a brilliant one.
Everything moving online has given travel a different colour and the fear of human contact in the light of Covid-19 does not help.
It terrifies me, but I miss travel so horribly. The ranging emotions I have about travel can be likened to one who stays in a bad marriage – you love it but you hate it for so many reasons – and probably in equal measure.
AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
I could not see them often during the lockdown but were on the phone to one another every day. We discussed our concerns, fears and shared information in a non-abrasive way – it was a safe space to be vulnerable.
My close friends as well were such a blessing.
Talking to God…I could not pray in the conventional way, but I spend many days being the strong shoulder that everyone can lean on, so being able to just express to a something bigger than you (whether you can see it or not) that you are afraid and shaken was cathartic for me.
And music. Music is everything.
AiW: How can our blog communities best support you?
I have my debut collection of poems and apothegms out.
It is called “A Different Kind of Broken” and will be available for sale shortly. It would be lovely if people could follow me on Instagram: @DonnaOgunnaike and Twitter: @DonnaOgunnaike for details on how they can purchase a copy or support my craft. That would be wonderful! Thank you.
I would also love more discussion type features. Publicity always helps the craft of a creative so I welcome every opportunity – absolutely!
Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike is an Energy Law expert, poet, writer and theatre practitioner, ranked as the ‘queen of spoken word poetry in Nigeria’ through the years 2012 to 2016. Her theatrical productions Love Like Slave and Strelitzia…An Experiential Journey To Self (an experimental walk through installation) were hosted by the British Council and Lagos Theatre Festival in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Strelitzia was also the only theatre production from Nigeria chosen to be performed at the World Cultures Festival, Hong Kong in November 2017 where all four shows were successfully sold out. She has two audio albums, Water For Roses and Cessy’s Daughter, which have been well received internationally. Her poetry shows have been hosted by various establishments including the Edinburgh International Book Festival and BBC Art Talk on the Hour.
You can still catch Donna and Wanjiru’s reflection on their Outriders Africa journey (recorded on Friday 21st August), available for free on the Book Festival website: “Wanjiru Koinange & Donna Obaseki-Ogunnaike: Outriders Africa – Sub-Saharan Swiping”
Joined by writers Renee Akitelek Mboya and Efua Oyofo, two of the women they met along the way, Obaseki-Ogunnaike and Koinange today share their responses from these unforgettable interviews.
With a special introduction by Kenyan feminist, storyteller, writer and performer Aleya Kassam, who reads M Neelika Jayawardane’s The Sportsman. In partnership with pan-African writers collective Jalada Africa, the place to discover specially curated new writers and voices.
Browse the event’s Edinburgh International Book Festival online Bookshop page for links to purchase Donna’s book, details of Wanjiru’s book, The Havoc of Choice, and to sign up to register interest and keep informed about the forthcoming Outriders publication from Cassava Republic.
And where it all began… see this short introduction video filmed at the Book Festival in 2019 for the genesis of the journey at the start of the project.
With thanks to Edinburgh International Book Festival – to Siobhan Clark and Frances Sutton – and to the Outriders for sharing their experiences and work.
Watch this space for more Outriders Africa Words on Times in the coming weeks…
Read the first in the series from Nadine Aisha Jassat – poet, writer, and creative practitioner – with her poem, ‘Auntie’, who features in her Q&A responses and across her work – and which we shared on Monday (19th Oct) here.
For more Words on the Times – to hear from other makers, thinkers, producers, agitators & activists, platforms & supporters and their experiences of working as we move through the pandemic – see the blog category here.
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