Lagos, Nigeria – Earlier this month, an electric bulb glistened above Umar Abubakar Sidi’s bald head and his glasses reflected blue light from his computer screen as he sat in front of a bookshelf.
He was about to read from his poetry book on the second of a three-day annual book festival to an audience mostly in the southeastern city of Enugu, almost 600km from Lagos where he lives.
“There is no joy greater than being in communion with fellow creatives,” he said with a ready smile before reading.
More than 100 writers, artists and readers had gathered at the Alliance Francaise in Enugu and virtually over Zoom to listen to Sidi and others participate in book chats, panel discussions and conversations at the Crater Literary Festival.
The festival began in 2017 when its founder Adachukwu Onwudiwe was unable to attend the Ake literary festival in Abeokuta, a two-hour drive from Lagos, because she could not get time off from her job as a librarian at a non-profit. As there was no similar festival in Enugu, she decided to fill the gap by establishing her own.
For years, Enugu was a rich literary hub, producing some of Africa’s top writers including Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Chimamanda Adichie and Chika Unigwe. But over the past decade, festivals that celebrate writers and literature in the region disappeared, according to Onwudiwe.
“There just hasn’t been a concerted effort to sustain the literary heritage by the government and the private sector,” 34-year-old Onwudiwe, who is also a writer, told Al Jazeera. “Why we wanted to do it [the festival] is to promote literature and creativity. There are those doing things in the region but because their names are not in the big magazines, no one knows what they are doing. So we decided that we are going to cater for those ones.”
A new breed
In recent years, researchers have identified a declining reading culture in Nigeria as people’s attention spans wane globally, partly due to the rise of social media networks like Instagram and TikTok.
But Onwudiwe said the average age of those present at the five editions of the festival has ranged from 20 to 45. And these youngish people are also trumpeting their attendance on, coincidentally, social media.
“One of the things we discussed is the low attention span, about how we can create to sustain people’s attention … with the right policies within education and culture, we can actually do that,” she said.
Across the country, similar new festivals are springing up to showcase local arts, reviving writing communities and facilitating intellectual intercourse in the mould of older ones like the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) and the Ake festival, which began in 1999 and 2013 respectively.
Perhaps coincidentally, many are happening around the same time in the last quarter of the year as a parallel or precursor to end of year festivities now tagged Detty December. These festivals, spread across different parts of Nigeria, include the Sokoto Book and Arts Festival, the Benin Art and Book Festival and the Kwara Books and Arts Festival, among others.
These upstarts are not only fostering a reading culture but they are breeding new stars, Onwudiwe said.
“The more we create these festivals, the more we give voices to people,” she said. “It creates an avenue for authors and publishers to make their works known. I wish for more to happen.”
Meanwhile, the Ake festival, which organisers say is Africa’s biggest literary spectacle, has been an inspiration for organisers of some of these fledgling events. It held its tenth edition this November, in Lagos.
“I am delighted that I have been able to give more people confidence to found new literary festivals,” Lola Shoneyin, veteran writer and Ake festival director, told Al Jazeera. “A part of it [organising the festival] was about showing people what is possible and the fact that I am a woman makes it more important. It means that young men and women could see how they can use their potential.”
For Shoneyin, there are not enough literary events in Nigeria and seeing more people taking the initiative to start new ones is a thing of joy.
“I actually met the young lady who started the Benin Arts and Book Festival because she came to Ake festival this year all the way from Benin. Luckily, I was able to spend quality time with her and offered some advice on what to do next,” she said.
‘The opportunity to engage’
Attendees say the events are giving audiences from across the continent and diaspora access to writers of all genres, and a well of knowledge.
Just before Sidi, a naval helicopter pilot, read his poetry to the Crater faithful, three curators – from Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria – joined a playwright from Owerri, near Enugu, to discuss the 1959 Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome.
LABAF, which holds events at Freedom Park, a former colonial-era prison, held a Q&A session with legendary filmmaker Tunde Kelani and screened his political drama Saworoide.
A star-studded cast including Tanzania’s Abdulrazak Gurnah and Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, two of only four Black winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, headlined Ake this year. Writers Nnedi Okorafor and Jennifer Makumbi, rapper M. I. Abaga and singer Brymo, and Nollywood stars Shaffy Bello and Deyemi Okanlawon also attended.
Also present was Leye Adenle, the London-based author of the novel Easy Motion Tourist, who said that although he had toured Europe, he only felt truly at home at festivals in Nigeria.
“I still remember … getting excited at sighting authors I’d read or knew about but had not yet met, and the joy of signing books for Nigerian fans,” he told Al Jazeera. “The opportunity to engage one on one with African readers is a privilege that one only begins to appreciate when attending book festivals in the rest of the world.”
For Eseoghene Okereka, a 30-year-old writer who attended the Crater festival this year, the event was an avenue to connect with fellow creatives and trade ideas.
“It is very comforting to know that there are people who share your ambitions,” she said.
Wale Ayinla, a 24-year-old poet living in Abeokuta, agreed. Attending literary festivals exposed him to a community of older writers whose advice helped him find his voice and navigate the publishing world, he said.
Meeting his heroes also gave him clarity of purpose.
“I remember seeing Wole Soyinka once and I just felt fulfilled,” Ayinla said. “I knew I had to do more so I can be able to sit on the same table with this person.”
Rewriting the script
But the plot is hardly straightforward for festival organisers working to celebrate culture and put artists on the map. So they have had to rewrite the script.
Unlike bigger festivals which have attracted corporate funding and are able to fly in guests to Nigeria from across the world, Onwudiwe has had to provide her own funds. There has also been the goodwill of a few individual donors and the zealousness of a small cohort of volunteers.
This year, she had to work with a small budget of 390,000 Nigerian naira [$875], which significantly hampered planning.
“We have not been able to secure any corporate sponsorship,” Onwudiwe told Al Jazeera. “The creative scene [in the east] is not that big … being underfunded means that we have to remain small.”
Insecurity has also punctured the peace in parts of the southeast, as “unknown gunmen”, a catchall phrase for separatists and armed groups, take advantage of what locals call the economic and political marginalisation by the federal government.
So, Onwudiwe has made the festival a hybrid version to cut down on costs and is looking to create other events for children, in efforts to revive a reading culture.
Although it comes at a price, she says she is happy to provide a platform and connect writers with the readers who support them.
“There are times that people reach out to me to say they saw my festival portfolio online and want to meet a guest at the festival and I link them up to buy their books or other things,” she said. “For me, that is very important.”