“The Price of Things”

Last night, after leaving the festival site, called the June 12th Cultural Centre, I took a motorbike taxi home; in the first instance, the taxi driver got my destination wrong, and then when I got to the hotel, after agreeing the fee for the ride, he tells me he has no change. Change is in short supply in  Nigeria, or so it seems, after every transaction I’ve made at the Ake Arts & Books festival; but not all types of change, if the new but tentative buoyance of the cultural scene is to be believed. Wednesday night, Kunle Afolayan’s historical, crime epic, October 1, screened here to an appreciative audience, but perhaps more importantly, an after-screening conversation about the film revealed some of its successes that signal a change in the opportunities available for Nigerian cinema. The film is poised to be the first African film to feature on the popular video streaming site, Netflix – which will go some way to recouping its two million dollar budget. Happily, Afolayan also revealed that his film grossed over 300, 000 dollars in Nigerian cinemas in the weeks following its release.

By the end of the year, he added, Nigeria will have twenty cinemas, offering, for the first time the prospect that Nigerian filmmakers will be able to recoup their investment in higher production values and reach an eager audience. Whether the price of the ticket will be palatable to the country’s masses remains to be seen; where books are concerned, there is still a gap to be filled.  A day before, I watched a young English literature student visiting Abeokuta for the Ake festival mull over buying a copy of Wole Soyinka’s classic memoir, Ake. The book was priced at 3, 500 Naira – way too much, he said for him to even consider buying the book, and he wasn’t tempted to purchase an abridged version sold for 800 Naira, though within his price range, he balked at buying a kiddie version of the book; he’s the perfect target audience for someone looking to market cheap but nicely produced books. Though that sweet spot hasn’t been tapped, there is a veritable resurgence of book publishing, and the festival bookstore features a dazzling array of books by an increasing number of publishers. Whether they’ll be able to meet their audiences at the level of their pockets remains to be seen.

A pre-occupation with their pockets concerns the characters in Tunde Kelani’s filmed play, “Yeepa” – a arm-grabbingly good satire on Nigerian corruption; based on the work of Russian writer “Gogol”; “Yeepa” is about the terror that befalls a town council of corrupt officials when they hear the fearsome and incorruptible Public Complaints Commissioner has arrived in their town; one by one, all the figures of authority reveal themselves to be not only inefficient, but mendacious feeders at the public trough. No one comes through unscathed, and even the angel of the people’s revenge is an altogether unsavoury character who lies and schemes to both extort money from and punish the townspeople. Perhaps no message could have be more apt at an arts festival taking place in a venue named the June 12th Cultural Centre. Named after the elections that brought an end to the military dictatorship of Ibrahim Babangida – but ushered in not democracy, but a period of even more brutal military rule, the centre is the state government’s cultural centre, refurbished and upgraded by the sitting governor during his time as a senator. It’s presence not just a mark of time, but a pleasant detail in a new democracy paid for by a constellation of activists for change – a group to whom, death itself, must be added.

In the bookstore of the festival, I come across a collection of writings by Bisi Fayemi, a feminist activist and wife of former Ekiti State governor, Kayode Fayemi – flicking through the book, I come across an article where she talks about a conversation with the murdered democracy activist’s daughter, Hafsat, who founded a charity in her memory. Under pressure to change the name of the organisation, Kudirat Initiative for Democracy to Kudirat Initiative for Development, Hafsat turned to Fayemi for advice; she tells Hafsat Abiola, not to change the name, that her mother died for democracy, not development. On stage, during a panel on feminism, she’s equally strident, and forthright, seemingly unchanged by the trappings of power, she talked about the gender-balance law introduced during her husband’s tenure to increase women’s presence in politics and state office. Equally strident, was writer Ukamaka Olisakwe who told a chair-bracingly shocking personal story of how her young girl having her clitoris massaged by her paternal grandmother in the mistaken but deep-seated cultural belief that it would prevent her becoming a prostitute; a practice broken only when her assertive mother confronted her mother-in-law, and others in her community. Change, it seems comes in Nigeria – but it has to be asked for, strongly.

The Ake Festival runs from 18th November – 23rd November 2014

Dele Meiji Fatunla