LAST SATURDAY NIGHT, I danced hard into my bones. I danced until I escaped the rhythm. When I re-entered the rhythm, as Skibi Dat cued, I dipped and emerged with the wickedest shoki ever danced and then without a breath bent my arms into the most spectacular dab. I have only begun plateauing now, on my desk.
But I had nearly not gone to Kuto. Everything tried my resolve to be there. And I was powerless against most of it. Albeit on Thursday night, when my attention was deep in the festival and my body was merely here, existing through the night, I decided it was madness to remain. So, in the morning, on the back of extemporaneousness, I packed an extra shirt, toothbrush, soap, two books—We Need New Names, Open City—and my tablet. I deleted all the music from my phone and composed a new playlist. The old one had stayed so long in my phone it began rot. My mother hollered ijeoma to me and I left the house.
I hadn’t realized how flighty my decision to leave was until I started to hear it. I heard Bastille’s Good Grief turn into Milt Jackson’s Bags and Trane which in turn became Max Roach’s All Africa and then all of it, its upbeat of multiple percussions, turned into the entire stretch of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. I was listening to chaos. There was no order to my selection and I knew it. It was the small gesture that interpreted my journey to Kuto—I was propelled simply by careless desire. The carelessness magnified itself: I forgot a point and shoot, a small swathe of cash and a notepad. But the commotion of my playlist was just in order with my spirit. I was uncertain of the worth of my journey and it weighed on my destination. As the cityscape changed into blooming forests, the music became Bon Iver’s Towers and I put it on repeat. It was the soundtrack to the restless trees that flourished in the wind.
I entered Abeokuta flayed from the journey. Which was unusual, but for the angst of it. I soon entered the Cultural Centre. The time was one fifty. Ope, my dear friend, volunteered at the welcome desk. She beamed a brilliant smile at me once she saw me, and Fope (dear, also) came to embrace me. Although my face may not have revealed, I was even happier to see them. I registered. Fope walked me to the one book chat that motivated my coming. In it, Teju Cole and Helon Habila discussed two fine books—Known and Strange Things by the former and The Chibok Girls by the other. They were writers greatly impressed on me. First, Helon; whose book Measuring Time I communed with for weeks. The book is so beautifully paced, like he meant to implicate the title. The characters are nuanced and run deep. Then Teju; whose oeuvre is by itself evidence to a remarkable mind. I have read both Open City and Everyday is for the Thief. And by the time Known and Strange Things was released, I’d read nearly all the articles listed. And the same fascination I hold regarding his literature, I extend into his photography and music.
They talked a lot about Chibok and her missing girls. Somewhere, the talk evolved into dissecting tragedies and the politicking of it. All the talk, as delicate as it was, was somehow masterfully held together.
They read excerpts from their books. The chat closed. I found that people had now flocked to Teju on stage to sign their books. On my seat, I contemplated whether to sign mine. Fairly, I didn’t see why not. So I began to contemplate why I had contemplated signing in the first place. There must’ve been a reason I was originally reluctant. The people migrated outside and formed a file. I went and I joined them. Fope sauntered nearby with her friend, Stephanie. I asked Stephanie to take a photo of myself and him while he signed. I asked about her locks. I heard more about how people had been asking than I heard what may have been the answer. By my turn, I was closer in his space than I’d ever been, yet farther from him. The wedge between us was invisible. Even more—encrypted. I’m unable to decipher it still.
I’d handed him my book and said, how far? He must’ve replied hey.
What’s your name?
Oh hetch eye, Ohi.
All best wishes
– Sign –
His heart was open. He smiled liberally. I commented on his Instagram; that I’d decided to come when I saw his post with Nigerian light. He replied courteously. I was still in admiration of his work. Neither of us had driven the wedge. Like I said, I’m still unable to decipher it.
I went on to watch two short films, Salt, A Mother’s Journey. Both, thrilling in their uniqueness. There was a third, No Good Turn, but it wouldn’t play so it consequently didn’t matter. By now, Moyo, my dear friend from secondary school had come. He would host me in his place (an offer too generous for lowly me). He saw me first. We hugged. We strolled the perimeter and went into the bookshop. We chatted and caught up on years and years. I lost a teacher whom I’d loved so dearly. Tears brimmed in my eyes but I downed it. I would sob later, with water on my face, so even I am not faced with my own vulnerability. Which is paradoxical, of course, seeing that I am baring to you now, what truly transpired in my aloneness.
I saw Lola Shoneyin for the first time. She is the director of the festival. She was jittery. People were flocking in droves into buses and cars. We were all going to Olumo Rock. She didn’t know me, but it didn’t stop her from thundering to me: hurry up enter this car, quick now! And I entered. Outside my window, LS was pulling a chubby lady in hijab into the front seat of a space bus. She said, “TillyT squeeze yourself inside”. I know the name from my Twitter so I made a mental note to accost her in my time.
The sprawling, undulating terrain is all of Ake. Soyinka opens his memoir, Ake, like this. And it is true. I know the distribution of its coordinates. Abeokuta has a peculiar topography. You see, the Z coordinates – which tell you the height of a point on the ground – is hardly similar over a mere few meters. Some of the town is high, hundreds of meters above sea level, and then it suddenly plunges into valleys. I was living in, and navigating rocks but I was mostly blind to the magnificence of it because of its commonality with my city—it had roads and brick houses, shops and taxis, etcetera, etcetera. We drove many fractured roads till we reached Olumo Rock.
Olumo Rock is a mighty sight. Moyo and I grouped with Precious and Hassan whom I’d met earlier. I know them but we had only just met in person. Precious would’ve stated the obvious: wow, you’re short; before she even says hello. Hassan would’ve taken all radical stances, even to the most humdrum shit, when we banter for the first time. I would be mildly flabbergasted, Fope too. But honestly unbothered. They were petty things of no real consequence. He was very much like a sibling.
I say to Precious: I have never seen these many kites except over slaughter fields in Port Harcourt. I thought shit and carcasses were the only things they were drawn to.
It’s the men, she says
Men are scum.
It made me weak in my soul. I left her and charged up the stairs that lead into the rock. Then via the traditional route, through shrines and caves and by the old princesses of the rock I came to the summit of Olumo. The sheer height tried me but I was mostly composed. The edges of the rocks shaved into slopes and that in itself triggered my basophobia.
All of Abeokuta spreads out into a brilliant ‘scape from the top of Olumo. There is the cathedral to be seen and an abandoned boys’ college. I left, going down the stairs of course, and with NoViolet just by my side. I intended to say: look, fine author, your book sits right in my bag. But it would hack her space. So I let her be.
When we returned, the Iyalode of Eti was about to begin. I met a familiar face and we talked ourselves into sudden fondness. The play opened with a tragedy. They proceeded across the stage, chanting a dirge, then off the stage and unto it again. They claimed space beyond the stage. I left before the end of it, when the plot began to congeal. Except for her company, the rest of the night regressed in feck.
I woke up early on Saturday and Moyo and I chatted. He talked richly about poetry and I listened. Then we listened to Bukowski and Transtomer. Then we ruminated over Transtomer’s poetry. Allegro:
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
Rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
But every pane of glass is still whole.
At the cultural centre, all of us—Moyo, Precious, Hassan, Seun, Joy and myself— already making ourselves into a gang, strayed off to find food. Seun proclaimed himself leader of the pack. We ate and talked. We all talked unpretentiously, withholding nothing. It was with these guys I wanted to spend the rest of Ake, and I did.
Back at the Cultural Centre, I hopped from one chat room to the other. I never really settled into any. Pemi Aguda was in one, discussing horror in fiction. Teju was in the other with Sarah Ladipo, discussing home, identity and kinship. One interesting fellow had said during their panel: My father was Ghanaian and my mother Nigerian. I was raised a Ghangerian.
I went to the bar and sat with BK and QBT. We talked. We smoked. Conversation is a device to cut people open in these spaces. It is also a bed to be cut open on. I left the bar and roamed the vicinity. Evening came soon enough and I relinked with BK. QBT went AWOL.
The key to the mystical emerged. BK and I, we accessed heavens. We talked philosophy, jazz, trap, failures and sins. We talked gifts and destiny. We talked about our place in the scheme of the universe. We recorded ourselves talking. I met up with Fope and Tosin and Ope much later. I talked to strangers. I saw Eddie Gothboy. I whacked his ass and told him to giddy up horsey. In retrospect, Tosin should’ve stopped me.
There was poetry and palm wine in minutes. Somehow, I found myself a seat in this plane and tossed glances at Pemi. But I wasn’t really looking at her. There was one fellow who sat on the floor, by her. His shirt and skin were nearly the same shade of brown. In my eye, the person looked like a cone of shit wearing glasses, drying up. The poetry came alive in my eye. Words grew limbs and floated above the poets. There were words and words; brilliant words. Titilope’s poetry, which I never listened much to, became the opus of the night.
The party started. In the beginning, I’d done nothing but wait in line over thirty minutes for drinks and small chops. All the while, the party simmered in the centre of the room. Everybody danced, including all your favourite writers who you know to have gone to the festival. They were all there in the party dipping, winding their waist, twerking. I soon joined them. Although in my space, alone. My body was exorcising itself. My mind was deep in the numinous. The music was arrhythmic where I was. I’m unsure how long I ventured into this state. But I soon re-entered the music, just as Skibi Dat cued, and I dipped and emerged with the wickedest shoki ever danced and then without a breath, I bent my arms into the most spectacular dab. Everyone danced into the night. The DJ played Hola Hola and men in red shoes padlocked girls in locks. Exceptional writers but godforsaken dancers roamed the dance floor like androids and danced dances that looked like a choreography of convulsions.
By the time the partying was done, it was too late for me to return home. We were four like this. The midnight crew. We wandered Abeokuta on okada in the middle of the night until we found a club. We slumbered in the club.
I returned on Sunday morning motivated to be more. Inspired to write. The night is still in my bones, beneath this skin. I have only begun plateauing now, on my desk.