Creative righting of wrongs
Yesterday I got an email from a friend who tells me she is organizing a literary festival in the Gambia. I organized the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta last year and I often reflect on the invited guests and how they created an unforgettable artistic vibe.
There was just something about the way they laughed at lunchtime, their openness at talks, the enthusiasm with which they shared their work, the chemistry between them and the historical city where Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s Ake is set. With 79 authors, 10 artists and a Hollywood actor in Abeokuta last November, I remember distinctly the moment when time slowed down for me.
I’d joined the festival guests for breakfast as I did every morning. I was a teacher for many years so there’s still something about noise that challenges me. I sat back and looked around, observing happy, animated faces. I caught bits of conversation here and there and remember thinking how amazing it was to have all these accomplished individuals, most either African or in some way connected to Africa, exploring Africa’s issues, on African soil.
One of the guests at the Ake Festival, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, came out as gay in response to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan signing into law the Anti-Same-Sex Marriage Bill. With this new law, gay Nigerians could be jailed for 14 years if they are found to be engaging in ‘crimes’ such as PDA (public displays of affection), amorous relationships, attending gay clubs or forming gay societies. But that’s not all. Being a liberal, easy-going, heterosexual writer, I could bag myself 10 years in jail for public advocacy for gay rights.
A lot of people have asked why this law was necessary at all, given that the Nigerian constitution already clearly defines marriage and states that it involves a man and a woman. Apart from this, not one Nigerian gay couple has ever requested a marriage licence.
President Jonathan’s popularity has been on the decline for some time now and the disaffection has been palpable. Some have suggested that in signing this law, he was pandering to the lowest common denominator to boost his popularity ratings. It was a masterstroke because in a rare show of unity, Christians and Muslims, Northerners and Southerners are lining up to commend him for a law that introduces yet another layer of prejudice into a country already ravaged by religious intolerance.
Nigeria, ‘the giant of Africa’, has now joined 37 other African countries nations in degrading, dehumanising and discriminating against its citizens. Good on President Museveni of Uganda for blocking an equally draconian law, saying ‘Unless I have got confirmation from scientists that this condition is not genetic, but a behaviour that is acquired, I will not sign the Bill.’
At the Festival, and almost continuously since, I have been discussing Yoruba culture with my friends in the creative industries. It’s exhilarating to hear youngish, forward-thinking Nigerians discussing the elements of our culture that we think should be jettisoned, or at least revised. These range from parents not being allowed to know where their children are buried, to the fact that age is seen to determine how well you understand the world.
Having said this, we all believe that there are many meaningful elements of our culture that must be sustained. Flawed as some of these traditional customs are (in the light of what we now understand through science about human psychology) the next generation of Africans is using writing, art, film, dance and theatre to confront these practices with sensitivity and clarity. Given that some African leaders have a penchant for using tradition to justify retrogressive leadership, it is important that the continent doesn’t allow politicians to further entrap it in a web of out-dated, archaic and sometimes absurd practices. The focus should be on building upon only the progressive elements of our culture.
Spaces like the Ake Arts and Book Festival can shape Africa’s future by promoting freedom of speech and providing an avenue for African intellectuals to exchange ideas and decide for themselves what should be 'African'. This must not be left to politicians and their populist tactics.
In the wake of the exciting economic predictions, Africa’s confidence on the international stage must be built upon its real strengths.