Named after Umuofia, the fictional village in which Achebe’s iconic novel Things Fall Apart was set, the festival was themed “We Need New Philosophers”.
By Chimezie Chika
The dates between 8 and 11 November 2023 marked the commencement and conclusion of the Umuofia Arts and Books Festival (UmuofiaFest) which was held in Awka, Anambra State. Being the first of its kind in Southeastern Nigeria in a long time, the organisers cited the presence of already thriving international literary festivals in the Northern and Western parts of the country, Kaduna Book and Arts Festival and Ake Arts and Book Festival respectively, as part of the rationale behind the foundation of UmuofiaFest. “That the Southeast, which has produced a good portion of Nigeria’s great writers, from Chinua Achebe to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, does not have a literary festival until now is unacceptable,” said Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera, the Director of Eagle Nest Literary Movement, the group that organised the festival.
Named after Umuofia, the fictional village in which Achebe’s iconic novel Things Fall Apart was set, the festival was themed “We Need New Philosophers”. In Chukwudera’s opening speech, he spoke about how philosophy could be the basis for the advancement of civilisation, especially Igbo philosophy in this case. In his words, “The history of human evolution is replete with some civilisations coming together — often by mutual consent — to become a larger one. It is within such visions that you find philosophy. What our society lacks today are philosophers who can think up new ways of synergising our different strengths into the hallmarks of civilisation which are: brotherhood, peace, and unity.”
Noting that philosophy is ingrained in culture, he stated that the core objectives of UmuofiaFest: “We want to celebrate African literature, arts, and culture with flamboyance and attention to the legacy of the future, for that is the spirit of Achebe’s Umuofia, a place that entertains a medley of cultures and philosophies, with all its rich and conflicting dialogues. It is important that we acknowledge all the beauty that is around us, and that we do not let the spirit of our identities die off. And we can only do this when we think of posterity. What we can do is to bring our culture, in all its ramifications, to the forefront of things.”
The first day of the festival, the 8th, featured outreach in three secondary schools and the English and Art Departments at the nearby Nnamdi Azikiwe University (NAU). The party of early arrivals went from the expressive atmosphere of student art exhibitions to the CPHA Botanical Garden in Awka — a place that contains an incredible amount of biodiversity within a relatively small space. Amidst the lush flora, there were animals such as monkeys, peacocks, a baboon, a crocodile, a tortoise, a porcupine, and many species of birds. Stimulated, the festival participants began to have discussions about ecological sustainability in the country and what role art and philosophy have to play in developing a more eco-conscious society.
On the second day, the festival started properly in the auditorium of Havila Suites Hotel with the breaking of kolanut — a ritual which begins every event of the Igbo. Panel discussions and a book chat followed, involving young student writers from Nnamdi Azikiwe University and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as well as poets Ehizogie Iyeoman, Kingsley the Poet, and journalist Emmanuel Esomnofu. The highlight of the day came towards evening with the screening of a short documentary film titled, African Odyssey: Ancestral Memories, by artist and filmmaker Emeka Anozie, about a Haitian woman who traces her roots to Ouidah, Benin Republic, and her emotional reflections on the painful legacy of slavery. The subdued atmosphere that followed this film was transformed by the music performances that ended the day. The most fascinating of them all is Oluoma, a young musician and medical student, whose bravura performance of Igbo folk songs in her mezzo-soprano, accompanied by her masterly play of the uboaka, received an enthusiastic response from the audience. Her second performance on the last day of UmuofiaFest, which she began by playing the oja, generated controversy on X when the video was posted on the platform.
The third day of the festival began with the “Chinua Achebe Symposium”, which featured readings and a town hall-like discussion about Achebe’s works and his literary legacy. Panels on the Trauma of Biafra, Music, Literary Communities, and Igbo Renaissance followed, featuring experts, professionals, and upcoming talents in various fields. These panel discussions were interspersed with book chats featuring the novelists, Nnamdi Ehirim, Ikenna Okeh, and Chukwuemeka Famous, both of which I moderated. The same pattern of panel discussions followed on the final day, in which I was panelled in a discussion on “The Root of Igbo Philosophy and Spirituality.”
Panels on the role of media technology and how philosophy could be used to advance the ailing society also featured prominently. In the former, Chuka Nnabuife, the Director General of Anambra Newspapers, tried to look at philosophy from the perspective of the media. In the latter, Prof Ike Odimegwu, a professor of Philosophy at NAU, offered long philosophical disquisitions on the subject while veteran journalist Uzor Maxim Uzoatu took an eclectic stance, citing many contemporary instances where philosophy may or may not work. The highlights of the last day included a rousing stage performance of Achebe’s Arrow of God by the Ijele Theatre and an evening poetry event which featured music and stirring spoken word poetry performances.
Each event at the festival elicited discussions that sometimes became heated. The robustness of the discourses and the genuine interest in the intersections of issues concerning culture, philosophy, literature, and politics were raised over and over again.
Besides its focus on literature, UmuofiaFest also offered a delightful stage for different musical and cultural expressions, from fashion and art to music and a wide range of self-expression. In such a bohemian crowd, the possibilities are endless, as seen in hairstyles, clothes, and the different ways in which people exhibited their ways of seeing and understanding the self in relation to the world. In the performance of experimental artists like Jvbal, who played their music and spoke about how it was inspired by Igbo mythology involving the god, Ekwensu, and the fabled hero, Ojadili, these alternative expressions and art take centre stage. Or the case of the eccentric music maestro, Gerald Eze, who spent time meticulously discussing what he sees as the lack of continuity in advancing culture through music, especially via indigenous musical instruments which, in his opinion, are not receiving enough agency in the contemporary scheme of things.
Though this is its inaugural edition, UmuofiaFest has managed to cover a lot of ground and stamp its presence in the Southeastern part of the country. Speaking to the media organisations present, Voice of the East and Anambra Broadcasting Service, Chukwudera promised that the next edition of the Festival would be international. He called on interest groups and capable individuals to support the vision. “We are not done yet,” he said, “we are still in the process of producing the next philosophers and thinkers who would push the wheels of evolution and growth in our society.”
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1