Travelogue: From Kaduna to Abeokuta, the City Under the Rock

By Abdurrahim Salihu

The journey from Kaduna to Abeokuta was less than a smooth ride. We took off around 7:30 pm on 15th November. It was a night journey on a Marcopolo bus. Our transport was slightly old and the driver slow. To our discomfort, the ‘attachment people’ — passengers who pay a fraction of the fare to occupy the aisle — were packed like sardines, but much less graceful. They would cover the 14-hour trip with their backs hunched or standing erect, with only the backrests and armrests of seated passengers for support.

I was heading to Abeokuta for the annual Ake Books and Arts festival in the company of 10 beneficiaries of Governor El-Rufai’s sponsorship scheme: billed to take students from Kaduna to the festival. Of the 11 of us, 6 had never been to the south of Nigeria before and they naturally came with heightened excitement, partly born from the anticipation of their destination and by burning curiosity to experience firsthand the much talked-about Kaduna-Lagos journey.

Throughout the first third of the journey, we talked, cracked jokes, and laughed, making a point of our being students headed to the famous Ake Festival. It was a process of bonding. 8 of us were guys from ABU Zaria and had been friends, while the two ladies in the group were from Kaduna State University. Because I attended Ake Festival last year, I was seen as a veteran of sorts, answering questions of where we were at, and the things they should look out for. Like the graves in front of houses at Akure, and the closely-knit, old buildings that line the road in Ilorin.

The first phase of the journey was fun non-stop. Each of us had already consumed the snacks we boarded the bus with; plantain chips, chin-chin, biscuits, soda, etc. Starting to wear out, I took out my Ipad and plugged in my earpiece to watch the fourth season of Banshee that I reserved for the trip. After the first two episodes and halfway through the third one, relentless sleep called and I succumbed after trying and failing to suppress it. It was sleep that failed to comfort. It was intermittent, punctuated by jerks, bumps, and swerves as the driver tried to avoid the worst of the potholes that riddled the road. I was sore-backed and my legs were numb. Every now and then, one of my friends would let out a hiss or whimper in exhaustion. Migraine crept in slowly. Thus, the bus crawled through dozens of towns and villages. Around half-past 6, a sign post informed me that we were making our way through Osun state.

The atmosphere was misty. From our elevated position on the bus, I could see the green landscape, dotted with sunflowers and purple hibiscus. It was a relief from the purgatory that was the night. My adventurous spirit was slowly being rekindled. I craned my neck to see as far afield as possible. Gradually, the famous brown roofs presented the ancient city of Ibadan to us. I could sense the deep-seated culture in the human habitations and the quaint aura of historic glory.

The group’s joviality had resurfaced once again. This time, with a sharp boisterousness, a point I personally thought was an unconscious display of victory for making it through the night. Evidently, we reacted somewhat exaggeratedly to a herbalist’s jokes. The herbalist was one of those people who usually come aboard in Ibadan to feign public-spiritedness as a strategy to tap into the credulity of inexperienced people heading to Lagos for the first time.

‘Shagaam’ ‘Shagaam’ we chanted in unison, indicating our bus stop to the driver.

Kaduna to Abeokuta
Image: Abdurrahim Salihu

We drove in a taxi through the hills of Abeokuta, a very beautiful city. The day was hot and sunny and the scenery gifted a firm reassurance of life and hope. The atmosphere was serene, reflecting the orderly nature of the city. The traffic was light, hence the road was relatively quiet.

We arrived at the June 12th Cultural Centre. At the gate, a soaring banner heralded our arrival at the city beneath the rock that rocks. I was instantly captivated, once again, by the beauty and solemnity of the place. I refreshed my mental image of the place from last year; the majestic façade of June 12th centre, the beautiful statues and statuettes interspersed all over the neatly-kept grass, the flowers lining the slope of the driveways and pavements, and the cluster of gazebos at the far right of the entrance.

I turned back and said to my friends, welcome to Ake Festival!

The Ake Experience
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Sarah Ladipo Manyika reading at Ake festival. Image: Abdurrahim Salihu

When it comes to recollecting the rich experience of the following three days, I find it more aesthetically appealing to put less emphasis on the apparent linearity along which the events were arranged. This is because each event — a panel discussion, a book chat, an encounter with new friends or idols, an exhibition, etc — contributed to an irreducible complex of emotional and intellectual whole that became an indelible part of me. And this complex whole, in a nutshell, is the Ake Experience.

The Book Store

It was my favourite spot in Ake Festival. I loved the exhilarating spectacle of the store, with its impressionistic aura. It was divided into four sections, with pristine white shelves arranged symmetrically to form the four compartments. The store was brightly lit. Evidence of a dexterous workmanship. The colourful books were neatly arranged on the shelves. They were beautifully curated like art in a modern museum.

The Ake Bubble

All the events were ah-mazing! And the guests were superlatively great. Titilope, the goddess of spoken-word poetry, was a vision to start with. She’s all sublime! Her stunning, heart-rending rendition flowed in a serene manner, in a stream-like tranquillity; with her rising and falling pitch resembling the whistling of moving water. Titilope captured the beauty of black Africa like no other. She took us to the moon and back.

Her graceful gestures, fluttering and emphasising the contours of her poetic rendition, takes you back to Falana’s magically dexterous hands beating her drum the previous night. That multi-lingual diva, she sang and beat her drum with great panache. A simple but beautiful symmetry of rhythmic words and beats, spiced with a pleasing melodic tune. I can’t imagine an aesthetic harmony more perfect than that.
You can tell, I had already been immersed in sublimity just like a pilgrim in a divine presence. Those two had placed me on the Ake pedestal. Henceforth, I barreled from cinema hall to chat room, from exhibition hall to the bookstore and dining area, for panel discussions, conversations and book chats; meeting new people and engaging them.
Ake festival community is an utopia of happiness and harmonious interaction. It’s a community of kindred spirits connected at a deeper level. You’d see people, they’d smile at you and you’d smile back. A subtle acknowledgement of the invisible string that connects us to one another. My abstract imaginations of Plato’s ‘Republic’ and St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ found practical applications in this place.
Lola Shoneyin is a force of nature! She’s built a phenomenon much bigger than herself. It’s just superb how she’s made Ake Festival what it is today.
You can’t help but be hit by Sarah Ladipo’s élan when she stepped into two of her characters’ shoes in her book “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun”. Instead of the usual reading of excerpts during book chats, she chose to reenact scenes. It was very original and out of the box. You can imagine how she had acted and captured the nuances in the characters’ voices, their mood swings and thought processes.
Or Teju Cole! An iconoclastic intellectual who’s in a class of his own. Not the ultimate signature of his greatness, but he trended on twitter right when he was on the stage. Of course, the hall was filled to the brim. He’s an intellectual per-excellence. Unlike your pseudo-intellectuals who mistake rashness for smartness, he’d wait and formulate his thoughts, mince his words and then brilliantly respond to the loaded questions posed by Kadaria Ahmed.

Carnality in Public Discourse.

Ake festival is unique in virtually all aspects. And this uniqueness was prominently pronounced in its integration of carnality into public knowledge. There were two sessions, “Legs Open, Eyes Closed: Sensuality in New African Writing” and the book chat on “It Wasn’t Exactly Love”.

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Farafina Reads at Ake festival 2016. Image: Abdurrahim Salihu

These two sessions made us accept and come to terms with a fundamental aspect of our humanity, our sex life, which has taken the backseat for centuries. In the former, you have Chinelo Okparanta, Nana Darkoa, Toni Kan and Kiru Taye discussing the dynamics of sexual experience, and the necessity for sexual liberation from, inter alia, the warped sexual expectations we have

‘It Was not Exactly Love’ is a collection of twelve great short stories by Mazi Nwonwu, Nana Darkoa, Yewande Omotoso and others touching on the sexual life experience of people from all social classes. In the session, they tried to give us an insider voice by inviting our empathetic imaginations to feel the immediacy of their characters’ sexual adventures.

Father

He stepped into the Cinema Hall gently, walking majestically down the aisle. The opening ceremony was about to start. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the literary god whose name has been engraved on the infinite stretch of African Literature for eternity. I can’t describe the overwhelming sensation I felt. I just felt my goose bumps coming out. I never imagined I could meet him. Because when I read his ‘A Grain of Wheat’, (A first edition copy of my father’s), about 10 years ago, I thought he was dead. That presumption you have when you read a classic.

All my friends know that he’s my favourite. One of them used to shout ‘Uhuru na Kazi’ when he saw me. I took that particular copy to him for his autograph. He was impressed when he saw the copy. He held it and checked it out with a warm smile on his face. With delight, he calmly scribbled “In Solidarity”. For me, this moment was the peak of Ake Festival. It could not have been better. It’s a dream come true!

The Rock

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At Olumo Rock: Abdurrahim Salihu

I also took the tour to Olumo rock. A soaring, magnificent constellation of big and small rocks, of great historical significance. It harbours a shrine, a wartime hideout, graves of Baales, etc, all of which have been preserved, somewhat. There are two ways to get to the peak, either through the staircase or through the ancient route.

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Olumo Rock: Abdurrahim Salihu

The ancient route is much more challenging as it is a narrow, cave-like passage with smaller, ill-assorted rocks as the steps. Struggling through the route, I tried to imagine the sure-footed ancients leaping from one rock to another taking defensive positions. Upon getting to the top, you would have a complete panoramic view of the beautiful city of Abeokuta, the brown roofs and ancient buildings. The spectacle is soothing, and the air was refreshing.

The Nostalgia

So, I woke up tired on Sunday, exhausted from the ecstatic farewell party of the night before. Very sad and weak, already engulfed by nostalgia. The Ake bubble had burst. It’s time to face the post-Ake reality. I staggered out of bed, cleaned up and proceeded to pack my luggage. It’s then I realised the luggage I had to take home; 20 voluminous books worth 35,000 Naira. For a second, I almost regretted the enthusiasm that drove me to pick up any title or cover page that I had found interesting. But the die is cast.

We all checked out of our hotel rooms and hit the road. As if in conspiracy, the heat from the sun was relentless and the usually ubiquitous okada were nowhere to be found. We shuffled down the sleek road, each struggling with their luggage, mostly books, thanks to governor El-Rufai’s 20,000 Naira worth of books token given to each of us. We followed the trail of an earlier plan with drivers of the Peugeot vehicles that had served as festival cars to take us back to Kaduna, but it was a dead end. We trekked to the motor park and boarded a car to Agege, Lagos, where we would get a Marcopolo bus back to Kaduna.

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Heading home. Image Abdurrahim Salihu

The trip back to Kaduna was eventful. We took off around a quarter to 8 pm. Shortly after, the driver stopped for a refill, and a liquid substance was spotted down the aisle. At first, some people thought it was water. The driver even cautioned “If you want to wash your face better come down, and don’t do it inside the vehicle”. But others were forcing the lady close to the substance to admit that she had urinated. Certainly, she had not been seen washing her face, neither had she claimed to have done so.

Finally, after much pressure, she admitted to the crime, “I bin dey knock, knock knock, but you no wan stop. What do you wan make I do?” she asked the driver. After much hysterical laughter and teasing, we got going. Then, we heard banging from the rear of the vehicle. It was a guy who was also pressed and had dropped to ease himself when the driver stopped at the filling station.

Initially, the driver refused to stop but people kept yelling at him. He stopped eventually. The guy came in breathless, sweating profusely. Almost an hour later, we had all adjusted for the journey ahead, all you could see was the light from people’s gadgets. Amidst the whistling wind and squeaky engine noise, there came a sharp sound from one of the rear tires. It was a puncture. And it was gradually letting out pressure. This was along the Lagos-Ibadan Express. The driver kept going, despite the intensifying noise from the punctured tire. Apparently, the bus had already tilted.

“Driver, driver, driver, stop nah, you wan kill us neh?”  the passengers were shouting. It turned into a commotion of sorts. He continued driving, covering the distance of almost a kilometre before stopping at a police post. The more experienced travellers explained to the less-experienced, why he couldn’t stop where the tire burst — It could be a trap set by armed bandits.

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Changing the burst tire. Image: Abdurrahim Salihu
The task of replacing the damaged tire proved herculean. It took two hours before we could set off once again. Meanwhile, we all alighted. You could sense the tension in the air. People took to making calls narrating their ordeal. Then, a group that was standing in front of the bus came rushing to the back, they were frenzied.

One of them — tall, dark-skinned, austere-looking, in his late 20s — stuttered in Hausa; “There is a corpse over there, where we left, emitting an acrid smell”. Instantly, the tension in the air peaked. Subsequently to our great amusement — at least the composed ones — another man came sprinting towards us from the direction of the supposed corpse, saying that the ‘thing’ was an evil spirit that transformed into a female body. So he was running not to be possessed by it. The dissonance about him was the funnier part. The man was ruggedly-built, in his early or mid-40s.You wouldn’t him to be that superstitious.

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Carcas. Image: Abdurrahim Salihu

In a bid to find out the truth and maybe calm the fears of our co-travellers, two of my friends and I went to investigate, and found the hoopla was on account of a cow decomposing by the roadside.

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