The theme at the Ake Festival 2015 this year was Engaging The Fringe. This meant that there were events that focused on genres and creative endeavor that are not regarded as ‘mainstream’ in spite of their growing popularity and availability.
There were panels all through the festival but Friday had some of the most poignant ones where this theme was concerned. One of these panels was the early afternoon event which featured Bibi Bakare-Yusuf who was moderating Zukiswa Wanner, Jude Dibia and Bisi Alimi who was standing for the missing Tendai Huchu. The title for the panel was Behind The Veil Documentary and Queer Narratives in African Fiction. Those who were there on the podium had written books which had queer characters; Wanner wrote Men of the South (my review) whilst Dibia wrote Walking With Shadows (my review). Bisi Alimi the stand in panelist is a Nigerian gay rights activist, public speaker, blogger and HIV/LGBT advocate who gained international attention when he became the first Nigerian to come out of the closet on television. That must have been fun.
The panelists were engaging as they explained why they decided to have gay characters in their book. Dibia had heard it said that there were no gay people in Nigeria and therefore decided to write a book with the main protagonist as one of these nonexistent folks. His 2005 book tells the tale of a gay Lagos executive who is outted by a colleague and how it affects him and his family. While he has written two other books Unbridled (2008) and Blackbird (2011) since, this novel continues to be his biggest seller.
On her part, Wanner explained that we all knew about this aunt or uncle in the village who never married and had a friend of the same sex. Therefore the concept of gay characters has been with us since time immemorial.
With Bibi driving the conversation it was a wonderful panel where the other was shown by all the panelists and the crowd who were asking questions of them. It was quite the love in until an older gentleman stood up and asked a question or two that changed the feeling in the room for a while. He accused the panelists of supporting unAfrican culture. He averred that these people were a minority that was trying to bend the will of the majority to their strange ways. He compared what they were doing to what Boko Haram had been trying to do to mess Nigeria up. There was some booing from the audience, I’m looking at you Mona, but Bisi who was the only non novelist on the panel spoke up. Boy did he tell him. He explained that the only issue that a Nigerian citizen needed to worry about was where the acts of two adults affected his ability to pay his bills or get electricity in his house. As long as it didn’t, then no one needed to police the actions of adults. Many were impressed by this answer. When the panel ended the two fellows came and had a chat which was nice.
Another illuminating panel was Inside Out: Tales of An African Transgender with Imanni Da Silva being moderated by Olaokun Soyinka . Imanni Da Silva was born as a boy but went through gender reassignment surgery and now she was a lady. A quick back story. I ran into her at breakfast one morning and I was thinking what a hottie; then I was told she was transgender later. I didn’t know how to react to her as she was very attractive and yet I was thinking, “total babe.” What did that make me? Anyhooo…
Imaani is a presenter, model, contemporary artist, actress and writer. She is also the biggest reality TV star in Angola running a show that is like their version of US TV show called The View. She explained that she had always seen herself as a girl even when she was a child. Turns out being gay and being transgender are two different things. The former is being attracted to people of the same sex while the former is an individual being uncomfortable with the gender they were born into. She explained that even as the most famous transgender person on the planet, Bruce Jenner turned Caitlyn Jenner, had changed from male to female but she was still attracted to women.
So how did she pay for her gender reassignment surgeries? The UK National Health Service picked up the tab.
The engagement from the audience was very interesting. Many wanted to know what were the issues that she holds to her heart now that she had crossed. Turns out the Nigerian women’s movement is very far behind many others on the continent and they are fighting to get their rightful space in the nations and at home. Imanni explained that in Angola, women are very liberated and there is no issue with their empowerment.
So there you have it. A panel or two that shed light on what many see as they fringe at the Ake Festival. It was very well laid out by the team running the festival.