Africa is ethnically and culturally diverse. The nature of the continent’s artistic and literary works is also varied. African writers like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alain Mabanckouand Bessie head, among many others, have elevated African arts into the global arena. Still, it is necessary to maintain the momentum.
Lola Shoneyinpoet, novelist, publisher, bookseller and organizer of festivals, is one of the few dedicated to ensuring that African literature and art are better recognized and appreciated.
When the 48-year-old published her first novel, “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives», in 2010, she travels the world to market her work.
“I’ve been to very well organized and well attended festivals. And every time I went to these festivals, I wondered why we don’t have a festival like this in Nigeria and on the African continent,” she said.
The 2018 personality of the year was also bothered by the cultural differences between Africa and the number of people she met at literature festivals in Europe who saw the continent.
“Sometimes the interview or questioning line immediately made me feel left out,” she said.
Inspired to make a difference for the thousands of African creators and consumers of African literature, she launched the Ake Arts and Book Festival with its first edition in 2013.
Since then, Africa’s premier literature festival has been held every year. The next one will take place from November 24 to 26, 2022, after not taking place in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why this year’s theme is “Homecoming”.
“It’s almost like a Mecca for African creatives,” Shoneyin said. “I never presented it as a Nigerian festival. For me, it has always been about celebrating talent on the African continent. For the first time in two years, we are going to live at home.
Shoneyin, passionate and outspoken, credits the role the festival has played in sparking a passion for reading African literature, especially among Africa’s younger populations.
“I can’t tell you the number of young people I have been in contact with who have told me that they started reading after attending the Ake festival and listening to authors talk about their books”, said- she explained.
Shoneyin believes in attracting African youth to the African literary space, a passion that led her to deploy a software application, A reading app.
Each time a book is published on the app, the author receives between $500 and $1,000. The deployment of the application allowed the sale of 500 books. While the software is on hiatus, she believes it will energize players in the African literary publishing cycle when it resumes.
She believes the festival has made it easier for African book authors to meet their core readers in person.
The greatest beneficiaries of the arts and book festival have been the creators of these works. As Shoneyin points out, “there is a lot to be said for being in a space where you stand side by side with creative individuals, be they writers, artists, dancers or poets, from other African countries ; it gives rise to new initiatives.
While Nigerian-headquartered Sterling Bank has sponsored Ake Arts and Book Festival for the past six years, Shoneyin believes more Africa-based sponsors should actively support African literature through programs such as Ake Festival.
“It is my dream that African businesses invest in African creativity knowing that without culture in our lives, our lives are very empty and colorless,” she noted.
Beyond the issues of culture, sexuality, gender, war, insecurity and governance that past festivals have presented, Shoneyin has been instrumental in using the festival to campaign for environmental responsiveness and climate action, especially among school children and young people.
“Even the idea of One Read for me was to move away from using paper and try to introduce the idea of electronic access to books to Africans,” she explained.
As part of the preparation for COP 27, Shoneyin and the Book Buzz Foundation organized a pre-COP event in Lagos. The highlight of the event was a poetry contest titled “This is where it hurts”. The contest attracted 564 entries, with the winner receiving approximately $1,000.
However, she strives for “every festival to have at least one panel discussion that addresses environmental issues or climate change issues”.
Shoneyin says Africa’s creative sector has a lot of untapped potential because there are not enough financial resources.
“So many ideas in Africa die because of financial challenges that limit their realization,” she explained.
Shoneyin believes that African innovative ideas can be better disseminated if new models are used to accelerate the dissemination of creative and literary works.
“What people who are cultural partners, entrepreneurs or culture enthusiasts need to do is look at some of the models available, but also learn how to adapt them to our environment without losing impact.”