A book festival in Makurdi?
In these days of Boko Haram and insecurity?
Jeez! You’ve got guts.
This is our first reaction, though it is almost immediately replaced by awe, when we see the Instagram post announcing the inaugural Benue Book and Arts Festival. However, like the toad that does not run in the daytime for nothing, we dare the odds and end up having a refreshing time, learning and unlearning from and with other literature and culture enthusiasts. Even better, we get a chance to chat with the convener of the festival. Oh! We had to, because as Benjamin Franklin tells us, “Well done is better than well said.”
In this conversation between Amara Chimeka, Founding Editor of The Village Square Journal, and Su’eddie Vershima Agema, we discuss what it takes to hold a literary festival in Nigeria.
TVSJ: Recently, we attended the Benue Book and Arts Festival in Makurdi, Benue State, which you organised, and we would love to commence by saying congratulations on successfully hosting a literary event that had the first lady of the state in attendance. What inspired the Benue Book and Arts Festival, and what did you hope to achieve with it?
Basically, when people hear Benue State or Northern Nigeria or even the Middle Belt of North Central, what comes to their mind first? Boko Haram, herdsmen, people being killed or for those who are naughty, kerewa. One cannot deny the absence of some of these issues, but they are not the primal happenings here. Annoying stuff that reminds you of Chimamanda’s ‘Dangers of the Single Story’ because if you stay in Benue, you know this is not absolutely the case but how do you change people’s perceptions and at the same time do something for your people so that they get to see the beauty of other people from other parts of the country? Hold a literary festival!
The theme for this inaugural festival was Changing Narratives. We partnered with the University of Sussex, amongst other organisations to do this, got some of Nigeria’s finest voices, students from nursery and primary schools representing our country’s tomorrow, a lot of Benue’s fine people, civil society organisations, our own Governor’s wife, Dr Eunice Ortom who was kind enough to attend and support us … Well, in the end, I am sure many people had their narratives changed about a lot of things in their individual and collective capacities. Another objective was to encourage cultural appreciation and inspire increased more youth participation in literature while creating a platform for their voices to be heard. Furthermore, we penned down the promotion of reading culture. To ensure this, we ensured that there were several books at the festival at subsidised rates and we all gave out loads and loads of free books to guests, particularly the students available.
TVSJ:, Can we say that the recently concluded Benue Book and Arts Festival is the first major literary event to be held in Benue State, Nigeria? Kindly share some of the major challenges you and your team encountered while organising the event?
The Benue Book and Arts Festival is not the first major literary event to be held in Makurdi. We had two previous Association of Nigerian Authors conventions in 2003 and 2017 during the tenure of Professor Moses Tsenongu and Dr Charles Iornumbe respectively. They were successful and had Nigeria’s literati converge in our capital. In 2015, we also had a SEVHAGE Literary Festival, which saw several writers and literature lovers from around the country like Amu Nnadi, Romeo Oriogun, Silas Sharamang and TJ Benson, to mention a few, come in. Another significant event was Nelson Apochi’s A Book for Change event, which was held in 2016. The organisation, Purple Silver led by Anselm Ngutsav also had a few events of importance in Makurdi. So, we have had some antecedence. In having the Benue Book and Arts Festival though, we set out to deliberately bring people from across the country and involve organisations that might ordinarily not have worked on a literary event. The Eunice Spring of Life Foundation (ESLF), Adinya Arise Foundation, and Gender and Environmental Risk Reduction Initiative who were among our chief partners, are organisations that ordinarily focus on other themes in their development actions. We also invited big organisations like the Benue CSO group and Benue NGO network for the event. The hope is that these organisations would key literary events into their thematic focus since a lot of people do not realise that literature is a key way, one of the surest ways to bring in development to any land. All you need to do is just think of Things Fall Apart and how it revolutionised thinking about Africa in the world. Our major challenge for this event was largely getting our people to key into the vision and to have them come in. With so many issues happening and the hustle to get bread in our continuing economic struggle, people do not really have time for a lot of things. Fortunately, we had a sizeable number of people. Naturally, people would complain about finance, but our team made a lot of sacrifices, which we are still trying to recover from, even as we got support from a few quarters like ESLF. So, no complaints on that front. We would make the financial sacrifices again and again if we have to. It is the price one pays to do the things we love for the people we love.
TVSJ: If there was one recurrent theme emphasised upon during the festival, it was the issue of holding on to our roots and saving our native languages. Additionally, there was a display of competence in mother-tongue competition among secondary school students as part of the events. Can you say that the festival achieved its goal of culture/native language propagation? How do you intend to follow this up?
I am a big culture advocate and we are glad that the festival was able to emphasise a celebration of our ethnic nations. I believe that our hybridity – being Africans and knowing all the oyinbo things we know – is one of our biggest advantages. The problems come with us thinking our cultures are inferior. At the end of the festival, several people left with a better appreciation of their ethnic nations and languages. They actually told us this. I think this is a plus. How do we plan for follow this up? Well, we will keep on pushing language propagation and our cultural appreciation cards in whatever ways we can. SEVHAGE has other areas that we use to reach out to people and students. There is the SEVHAGE Monthly Reading and Performances, and the September 2019 edition is themed around discourse and performances on our heritage.
Also, the Festival initiated an idea – from the insistence of students – that we should bring our activities to their schools. We are working on a programme of poetry club in these schools, and this will be another avenue to occupy their minds with this idea. With champions of the cause on our side, like Chuma Nwokolo whose works explore the theme greatly and Professor Moses Tsenongu, a professor of oral literature, we know things will only get better. If you add Bash Amuneni, the stage poetry prince who has a way of letting our languages pepper his works, no matter how little, you know that we have the right cannons for our fight.
TVSJ: The event featured a variation of literary artistes across the different genres, including Chuma Nwokolo And TJ Benson. Also, many books were featured in the event like Why Women Won’t Make It To Heaven by Professor Dul Johnson and Scarlet by Alexander Emmanuel, which was officially launched at the event. What criteria guided the feature of these books in the festival?
There was no strict criteria per se. We just ensured that we had proper coverage and inclusivity in terms of women and men across various generations and fields. We also made an effort to ensure that every genre had fair representation so that there would be something for everyone. We are grateful to all the guests who came because they did Benue and literature a big favour by blessing us with their presence and their deep engagements. We can only hope to do better next time and have more people come in, particularly those who ordinarily would not have such platforms to express themselves.
TVSJ: As part of preparation plans for the event, you held a literary competition for different literary and cash prizes were awarded at the event. Do you plan to sustain this part of the festival?
The summary answer is yes, maybe not always as a part of the festival but we hope to sustain the SEVHAGE Literary Competition in the coming years. This year’s version was co-sponsored by the Eunice Spring of Life Foundation and Barrister Paul T Angya. It was really lovely to read the hundreds of entries from all parts of Nigeria in the adult category and to see the various amazing performances of Benue students in the secondary school category. I honestly believe that the Nigerian literary community deserves to be celebrated more with accolades, and this is one that we hope will stay for some time. I should mention here that the winners of the competition can be found at http://sevhage.wordpress.com.
TVSJ: For you, the organiser of the Benue Book and Arts Festival, what was the highlight of the event?
I am not sure I can point down one particular event that was my best. I think every aspect of the festival had its thrills for different reasons. Don’t forget that we took a long time to painstakingly plan the events – even though we could not hold all of them due to certain issues that came up. So, we were actually looking forward to every aspect of it. In some cases, we laughed and in others, we had to be very sober. There was a little frustration at some point too because many times, you think you have everything planned out, but something just happens that is beyond your control. Interestingly, some of those moments eventually metamorphosed into fun times. I would gladly re-live most of the festival because it brought loads of smiles to people, gave them a chance to reconnect, and gave us all a chance to celebrate Benue and literature in an atmosphere where we forgot most of our life’s frustrations. That joy and satisfaction that a lot of people testified to, through God’s grace, that’s probably my highlight!
TVSJ: Currently, you are a Chevening Scholar in the United Kingdom; you run a publishing firm, Sevhage Publishing; you are an editor; you are a celebrated writer; and you are a husband and father. How did you cope with all your many commitments and organising a literary festival in Nigeria?
I have an awesome team at SEVHAGE and an amazing wife, Agatha – few words can describe all she does. Awesome woman. Well, they all made the job easier. Mrs Elizabeth Jeiyol, Otene Ogwuche, Tine Agenor, Andrea Kwen, Debbie Iorliam, Oko Owoicho, Torkwase Igbana and Anselm Ngutsav were the extra part of my administrative team. We had great support from Felicity Jila, Carl Terver, Silas Sharamang, Anointing Biachi, Ephraim Chigba, Anselm Ngutsav, Luper Aluga, Faith Edesime, Emmanuella Ikomon, Gabriel Agema, Jennifer Aduro, Nathaniel Aduro, Msendoo Kaase, Yusuf BM, Abayol Peter, Sam Ogabidu, Adakole Stephen, Msughter Jerry, Iveren Betse-Ayede and Samuel Adoka. I am taking time to mention each of them because without them the festival would not have been half of what it was. We got support from several of the writers we invited too, which is incredible. So, it was really nice. Naturally, some things suffered, and I became bones but God always proves Himself faithful. He made things beautiful and used people like the Governor’s wife and my friends from several ends to support. Over here, I am thinking of Chuma Nwokolo, Denja Abdullahi, Alexander Ochogwu, Joshua Agbo, Amara Chimeka, Benjamin Torlafia, Bash Amuneni, Servio Gbadamosi, Iquo Eke, Ahmed Maiwada, Isaac Ogezi, Maik Ortserga, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, Jerry Adesewo, Igba Ogbole, Tersoo Agera, TJ Benson, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Daisy Odey, Chiedu Ezeana, David Onotu, Bizuum Yadok, Mimi Werna, Tersoo Agera, Praxis Magazine, ANA Benue, ANA National, to mention a minute few. I could ramble on, but the summary is we had a great team and a greater God. With that combo, you can have only a few mistakes, which are due to our human issues.
TVSJ: What should we expect from the Benue Book and Arts Festival in the near future? How do you plan to sustain the festival with regards to funding and other challenges associated with holding literary events?
Far more. We are learning from our mistakes and hoping to do far better. We hope to have bigger prizes, more people in attendance and more engaging conversations. For funding, early planning usually helps take care of some hiccups. Save here and there, sacrifice this and that, talk to this one and that one, and a huge dose of God’s grace. For other challenges, they will come as is wont with every event, but we will take each in stride. With faith, what mountains can’t be moved?
- Su’eddie Vershima Agema is primarily a husband, father, development worker, editor and culture activist. He is currently completing a Master’s in International Education and Development at the University of Sussex where he is a Chevening scholar and President of African Writers. He was also recently appointed as Curator of Black History Month for the Students Union at the same university. Su’eddie is also the convenor of the Benue Book and Arts Festival and team lead at SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative.
Among other awards, he won the Mandela Day Short Story Prize (2016) and was nominated for the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature (2018). He is the author of Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile (Winner, Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Poetry, 2014), The Bottom of Another Tale (Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories, 2015) and Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell. His children’s book, Once Upon a Village Tale was shortlisted for the ANA Prize for Children’s Literature 2018.
Su’eddie is on Nigeria Writers’ Awards 100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers Under 40 (2017 & 2018) and EGC’s Top 50 Contemporary Poets Who Rocked Nigeria (2013-18).
He blogs at http://sueddie.wordpress.com and is @sueddieagema on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.