The residue of compulsive novelty and fervour still lingers in Makurdi Benue State, weeks after the debut Benue Book and Arts Festival lit up the city with wild energy in June. Predominantly known for its famed River Benue, Benue State is an agrarian state in Nigeria that conjures thoughts of tremendous agricultural food produce, incredible hospitality and the infamous Herdsmen-Farmers clash. The state capital Makurdi where the festival held, is garbled with high-walled houses flanked by shacks, busy streets of impatient motorcyclists, spilling buses with chatty drivers, hawkers of assorted wares and a motley of people. The bridge that looms over the river affords a view of the purring water and the tiny dots of fishermen huts at the river bank. This suggestive ambience of calm and repose of the city, especially in the evenings for literary flourishing is however, misleading. The city trots in regards to being a literary hub as it affords little thriving space for its emerging writers.
The hoarded aesthetic starvation of the creatives in the state did find a release in the festival that featured some of Nigeria’s finest writers. The festival –the first of an annual series- was the brainchild of SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative/SEVHAGE Publishers, a two-forked organisation that combines sustainable development programmes for societal growth and professional publishing. In organising the festival, SEVHAGE collaborated prominently with the Eunice Spring of Life Foundation whose staff and SEVHAGE became the driving force behind the success of the festival. They collaborated internationally with the University of Sussex, its Student Union and the African Writers Society of the University of Sussex and had national partners such as the Gender and Environmental Risk Reduction Initiative, Oyalewa Booksellers, Women’s Right to Education, Adinya Arise Foundation, and Arojah Concept, McArthur Foundation, with support from WRR, Nelson Apochi Owoicho through his Education For Change Initiative, and Praxis Magazine. The festival’s theme revolved around redefining the narrative through literature and the art form and restructuring the society through story-telling. In regards to the aim of the festival, the festival director and founder of SEVHAGE Initiative, Su’eddie Vershima Agema and the festival manager, Otene Ogwuche stressed that the festival was intended to play a pivotal role in changing the negative views about Benue State and reintroducing the state to the world through presenting its story. They praised the role of the University of Sussex as a body, its Students Union and African Writers Society as being greatly instrumental in the festival’s success.
The festival was a three-day packed series of engaging sessions that witnessed the coalescing of art and life through the confrontational talk session of Chuma Nwokolo’s, The Extinction of Heritage moderated by Dr. Agatha Agema, the engaging discussions of Bash Amunemi, Rudolph the Poet and Daisy Odey on Spoken Word and the Redefinition of the Literary Scene, the lucid and enlightening discussions with Ahmed Maiwada, Isaac Ogezi Attah, Sam Ogabidu and Chiedu Ezeana on Poetry, Literary Establishments and Progressive Narratives. In projecting the festival’s nexus between art and society, keynote addresses such as Chuma Nwokolo’s The Bleeding of the Niger; Justice, the Bribecode and the War Next Time, and Prof. Moses Tsenongu’s Changing Narratives illuminated the rife issues facing the reality of Nigeria and the role of storytelling in promoting positive change. Chuma’s paper enjoined the audience to actively change Nigeria’s narratives by joining the Bribecode movement (http://bribecode.org) to fight grand corruption in the country. One of the highlights of the festival was the panel on Why Women Won’t Make it to Heaven, a collection of short stories written by Professor Dul Johnson moderated by Anselm Ngutsav (the festival’s anchor) and Su’eddie Agema.
The kaleidoscopic aura of the festival was heightened by the flattering colours of the festival’s customized printed shirts, the random photo-shoots of captured laughter, the excited shrieks of reunited friends, the sound of stringed music and daring spoken words performances, the funky styled outfits of eccentric writers, the eye-popping array of book stands and the flow of palm wine and spicy meat. There was special commendation for the spicy meals prepared by one of the festival’s coordinators, Andrea Vanen Kwen.
On the first night of the festival, writers gathered together at the back of the festival venue and treated themselves to stories under the moon. Other than this, troupe performances and spoken words performances graced the relaxed evenings of the J.S Tarka Foundation and heightened the anticipation of subsequent sessions. Two plays were performed by the entertaining Arojah theatre troupe led by their director, Jerry Adesewo. Their performances were notably sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. Another performance that took place on the second day and had to be repeated on the third was a feminist spoken rendition by Ciara Ogah and friends.
The last day of the festival was a climax of activities that involved various competitions such as Read Aloud competition, Sing Aloud competition and Poetry completion for secondary school students as a medium of thrusting them into the storytelling process of redefining their societal stories. Eight schools participated in the various events that saw them smiling away with several prizes. The students performed admirably and wowed the crowd when they were asked to sing in their languages (including Tiv, Igede, Idoma, Hausa and Igbo). The highest applause, however, was reserved for their poetry renditions. The students were given 20 minutes to write poems which were judged by literary scholars and authors, Joshua Agbo and Bivan Amos. The selected entries were read in breath-taking voices by their writers who wowed the audience with their depth. It was a tough competition for the judges led by children’s author, Mimi Werna, supported by members of her panel including Felicity Jila, a WASH consultant and Bizuum Yadok, Chairman of Plateau State Authors’ Group.
A spoken word workshop was facilitated by stage maestro Bash Amuneni for participants to hone their craft. Some other workshops to be facilitated by Chuma and T. J. Benson could not hold due to some technical problems that saw participants not showing up in time.
The literary community in Benue presented an award of literary excellence to Dr. Eunice Ortom, wife of the Governor of Benue State and founder, Eunice Spring of Life Foundation (ESLF) for her literacy campaigns within the state and beyond. She was present to pick the award herself and spoke warmly of her passion for education which was attested to by everyone present, especially Mr. Tine Agernor, the Programmes Manager of ESLF. On stage were Chuma Nwokolo, Elizabeth Jeiyol of Gender and Environmental Risk Reduction Initiative, Su’eddie Agema, Amara Chiemeka of Purple Shelves, Alex Ochogwu, and Dr. Charles Iornumbe, the Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Benue State Chapter.
The last day of the event was also the day of the unveiling of the fantasy novel, Scarlet by Alexander Ochogwu, published by Purple Shelves publishers who also actively participated in the entire festival. The book review was read by award winning poet, Silas Sharamang before Su’eddie Vershima Agema introduced an engaging session for the book which featured the author, Flt Lt Alexander Ochogwu and Sam Ogabidu, poet and former chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Benue State chapter.
In the evening, there were social events and an awards ceremony for the SEVHAGE literary competition sponsored by SEVHAGE, Barrister Paul T. Angya and ESLF. Opening the ceremony was the crooner, Bem Sar, best known for his nationally celebrated song, ‘Something Good.’ The poetry category was won by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto who smiled away with N50,000 for his poem, ‘Every month a year.’ Other winners in the category included Adedayo Agarau, Pamilerin Jacob, Adenle Iyanuoluwa Deborah and Osi, Stanley Chijioke. The fiction category was won by Ebuka Prince Okoroafor with the short story, ‘Cat Boy’ who got N50,000 and N3,000 worth of books for his troubles. Other winners in the category included Hajaarh Muhammad Bashar, Olaposi Washington Halim, Chizo Emeka Joshua and David Iruoje. The final category was the non-fiction category whose first prize was won by Odueso Oluwatimilehin Charles with his work, ‘The Herculean Misconception’ which earned him N20,000 worth of books. The other winners include Samuel Amazing Ayoade, Chukwu Emmanuel, Nguher Terungwa James and Edoziem Miracle. The SEVHAGE competition had attracted 491 entries from all over Nigeria. The list of the winners can be found at https://sevhage.wordpress.com. There were more performances before it was time to pause the show till next year.
Notable guests through the event, amongst others already mentioned included Dr. Maria Ajima and Pa Isaac Yongo of the Benue State University, commissioners, wives of the legislative officers including the Benue State House of Assembly; Igba Ogbole (Director of News, Radio Benue and author); Debbie Iorliam; Helen Teghtegh; Tersoo Agera; Mrs. Rosemary Hua; Mrs. Beatrice Shomkegh; notable writers like Servio Gbadamosi; Iorliam Shija; Carl Terver, Maik Ortserga, National Assistant Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors who represented ANA National President, Denja Abdullahi; members of ANA, Benue State Chapter including Vice Chairman, Paul Ugah, Secretary, Terseer Sam Baki and Aondosoo Labe, Publicity Secretary. Other prominent faces included Paul Liam, David ‘the Oracle’ Onotu, Conrad Anyamkyegh, Benjamin Tor Lafia, and Umar Yogiza Jnr.
In extending the literary space in Nigeria through the Benue Book and Arts Festival, SEVHAGE and its partners has not only provided an outlet for exposure and network of literary creativity in Benue and across Nigeria, but has also lurched the borders of storytelling for societal development to new heights.
Prepared by Torkwase Igbana and Su’eddie Vershima Agema