By Anote Ajeluorou
Perhaps for the first time, four female writers converged in Nigeria’s only residency for writers in Iseyin, Oyo State, to complete ongoing literary projects. They are author of Bom Boy and Nigerian-Barbadian, naturalised South African, Ms Yewande Omotoso; author of Victor and Ugandan writer, Agiresaasi Apophia; author of Abamo and indigenous language writer, Rukayat Olaleye and author of Eno’s Story, Ms Ayodele Olofintuade.
The Ebedi International Writers Residency was instituted a few years ago by medical doctor-turned writer, politician and former President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Wale Okediran. It’s situated at the foot of a hill in the serenity of Iseyin community.
Omotoso said she came to the residency through a friend, Samuel Kolawole’s recommendation. She got to know about Ebedi Writers Residency Programme from fellows she met last year at a writing workshop in Lagos. According to her, “So, I got curious; because it’s a big opportunity, and we need to publicise it.
“I’m working on the first draft of a book set mostly in South Africa and the two main characters are 80-year-old women, neighbours. It’s basically a story about their relationship. They hate each other but are dependent on each other. It looks at South African dynamics, the racial problem 20 years’ on after a democratically elected government in 1994. What are the racial dynamics that exist in the Western Cape. There is segregation by class and colour in Cape Town 20 years on. So, I’m just looking at why that is the case”.
Although she hopes the new work would be different from Bom Boy, Omotoso remarked, “Because I’m not only South African; I think whenever I write, for instance, my character is West Indian, and the other character is a white South African. I feel like when I write, I need to put a character there that relates to my experience, which is me being a foreigner. So, I can write from a West Indian perspective in South Africa, and she also comes to Ibadan. You know, I’m Nigeria but I’m not really Nigerian so I can write from West Indian perspective. I always need that perspective that I know”.
Bom Boy won her South African Literature First Book award, and it’s about her roots in Nigeria, but she countered easily, saying, “It’s not directly my story because it’s not autobiographical but it is about somebody who doesn’t fit in and who is struggling to find his place. I can relate to it in some degrees because that is what life in South Africa is to me. Otherwise, I’m not that weird”.
Although they are a band of four female writers holed up in the same setting, they have their individual work schedules, as Omotoso noted, “Everybody works differently. For me, I take it as a really amazing opportunity and I’m not prepared to waste it. I came really serious; I have my calendar and what I need to accomplish when I leave here. I mean, who else is going to give me a place to work? I’m really grateful for it. So, I have managed to finish the first draft in the space of five weeks. And I agree, it’s because of focus, you come with the intention; it’s intentional. Everything is geared towards producing”.
Omotoso would gladly recommend the residency to anyone willing to really work, stating, “My intention is to recommend it widely, and my intention is to interact with Okediran seeing he is very open because I have some suggestions that I think will help make it a little bit more organised. I think it can be international. You can have writers from all over the world wanting to come here. It works. Any writer wants this. It’s such a big deal; we have to shout it and be proud of it. I think it works.
“And I feel that we can make it more popular, which I also think will help with the funding. It’s very brilliant; there is no question about that; it’s such a great idea, a great project”.
HER friends had gushed so much about Ebedi that a usually skeptical Olofintuade wanted to see for herself. As she put it, “I got a call from President, Ibadan chapter of Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA), Uncle Akin Bello. He was like, ‘do you want to go to Ebedi?’ and I said, ‘why would I want to go to Ebedi?’ I was just kidding. He asked me if I wanted to come to Ebedi, and of course, I know about Ebedi. Almost all my friends have been here. Everybody comes back from here and says, ‘oh my God, you should go for it’. I got in touch with Dr. Okediran and we got talking... I just made up my mind to come and I have no regrets.
“I wanted to come and start a new novel, Shina Rambo, but when I got here I got a mail to do a first draft of the one I was working on before I got here. So, that is what I’m doing and I mean, it’s just been totally amazing, a great experience. It’s called Lakriboto Chronicles. In Yoruba land, lakriboto is an independent woman, whom a lot of men see as sexless, a woman who doesn’t bow down to men. I’m examining the African community. Is there really a community? Are we really as cohesive, as close and as family-oriented as everybody claims we are?
“That’s what I’m questioning and I’m also questioning the way people with mental illness are treated in our country. The story is about three women, one of them has mental illness; they are just girls that were growing up in a typical Yoruba family. There is a kind of loss involved so they were moved around among relatives as house-helps to take care of the children. I’m following the journey of these three women”.
If anyone would do a controversial theme, it has to be Olofintuade. Her lakriboto story has all the elements of stirring the hornet’s nest with its tendency towards gay issues, as she said, “My understanding of lakriboto may be wrong; it may be about lesbian. It’s amazing, you can’t be a lesbian and have no sexual organs. What I also want to examine is the fact that we all say, ‘we are Africans and being gay is not part of our culture’. The question is, where does lakriboto come from if it is not part of our culture? And how can you be a lesbian and you don’t have sex parts? You are supposed to be a sexless person basically because you don’t have sex enough”.
UGANDAN health worker and writer, Apophia, knew about Ebedi as a member of FEMRITE, which is Uganda Women Writers Association. Two of her compatriots – Doreen Baingana and Barbara Oketa – had previously had residency stints there. She said, “Oketa was asked to recommend somebody and she picked me. I applied online but it took some time and I didn’t get a reply so I asked Barbara whether she had given me the right address and she gave me Dr. Okediran’s email; then, I applied to him directly. I sent a letter, my CV and a sample of what I was working on. I was accepted and I had to apply to Art World Africa for my air ticket.
“Ebedi is getting popular, especially at FEMRITE where other writers have also applied but are not sure if they would get funding for air ticket. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to come because Ebedi replied over a month ago and I have been here only two weeks while the others have been here for a month. But the residency is becoming very popular.
“I had thought I was going to work on a novel but since I came here I’ve been working on a series of short stories and I have finished seven of them. I’m right now working on the eighth. Of course, they are addressing different themes and are all set in Uganda, fortunately or unfortunately. There is high level of unemployment, the patriarchal tradition and how women are being repressed and are trying to rise to the top; they are also on love and life generally.
“The quiet environment here really makes you want to work, and you have to be committed because you have nothing else to do. We are not cooking or cleaning the house so you are just in your room - eat, read and write. Also, this is not a city. Perhaps, if it were in Lagos we would have been tempted to go to the bar or places like that.”
The Ugandan writer freely expressed her views about her host country, Nigeria and what she thought about its people, saying, “I find Nigerians warm, receptive; so, I haven’t had any major challenges. I have learnt a lot from them. Of course, I’ve met many Nigerians in meetings at international conferences. I’ve seen them make presentations. I know they are very brilliant, hardworking and it is the same thing I find here. People have come here and written a lot in one month. So, they don’t waste time. I realise that maybe in Uganda we are in some kind of trauma. Nigerians are just the people who are aggressive, eh?”
However, Apophia wants some improvement on how things are run at Ebedi Writers Residency Programme, noting, “I think that on a weekly basis we should have someone write a brief report, get an excerpt of what the residents have done. Then, at the end of the six weeks, the residents write a report”.
FOR Olaleye, an indigenous language writer, who lives at Apete, Ibadan, Ebedi has been the right place for her to be holed up with fellow female writers and really write to her heart’s content. She has finished work on a book Olori Asake since getting to Ebedi. According to her, “Now I’m working on a collection of poems. I write poetry, prose and drama”. She is enthralled by the environment at Ebedi, which she described as a haven for writers.