Some notes from Amsterdam on the brilliant AKE festival 2023 by Willemijn Lamp


The arrival

Arriving at the hotel it is Ms. Lola Shoneyin herself who welcomes us at the stairs with all her beauty in a blue dress. Tobe and Ayomide follow: it’s a very warm reunion after the experience we shared in Amsterdam. The fact that these 3 women are all there, even before we set a foot in the hotel is everything. We are immediately at home, in Lagos, Nigeria.

Home is indeed the place where you see familiar faces, but also where you immediately feel that you are on the brink of going to be part of a bigger family: The AKE family.

Now, what is the AKE family?

The AKE family is a community that stretches from the continent Africa to Europe and the USA. It consists of writers, thinkers, poets, performance artists, publishers, agents, who all gathered in 2023 and before (but I can only talk about my experience in 2023) in Ikeja for a festival that aims to create a space where the audience and the participants can actually enjoy each other presence and escape from the realities they all encounter in their own native country, (-including my own country that on my day of arrival voted for an extreme-right dangerous man-) and at the same time feel free to address exactly all these issues that make them want  to escape in order to improve the reality of their countries.

But there is a catch. None of the guests or people in the audience are escapists. They are in fact people who are changemakers in their own right: as a writer, as a festival organizer, as a videographer, as a chef, as a publisher, as a curious witness in the audience who holds many identities at the same time.

So there is no escape once you are part of the AKE family: it is not a self-confirming and self-congratulation event, this is a festival that demands to take action. Yes, the festival is a temporally refuge, for kindred spirits worldwide, to find solace, recognition and beauty in words, but it is more than this.

It sets an agenda, to also act on what is needed on a local and global level: re-owning the rights of African writers, to re-invigorate the publishing industry in terms of printing and distributing the works of the talented writers and storytellers.

Lola Shoneyin

Lola Shoneyin, clearly is a force of nature. And is indeed capable of ‘making look difficult things look easy’, she’s -clearly- ‘not afraid to fail, so therefore she experiments’.

But the way Ms Lola experiments, is empowering to us all. It’s about knowing where you are coming from, setting your criteria for your festival in terms of program, community and presentation.

Now what did I learn/see at your festival

The theme of the festival was Bloodties. Loved it, because clearly this is what AKE is all about, for years already: especially in terms of reconnecting with people in diaspora.

For me a recurring theme, underlying the many inspiring booktalks, was Ownership: whether it was about Owning your own stories, Owning the categorization of genres by (often Western) publishers and marketing people. Writer Ayana Lloyd Banwo: “Rewriting, re-imagining our own stories is our reality, its not ‘magic realism’ or ‘fantasy’. Who decides what is magical, who decides what is fantasy? It’s our reality, worthy to make into art.” Owning the ecosystem of the publishing chain on the African continent. Owning the translationsrights (“The dignity of languages” Petina Gappah). Owning the skills of letting A.I. work for you as an artist: Ojoma Ochai stated: “It’s not A.I. that takes your job, it’s an artist that knows how to use A.I., who really owns it.”

I also learned that the 4 P’s of a cultural production: PR, Program, Public, Production are not quite sufficient to grasp the essence of what a festival (which is a cultural production) really makes great.

The 4 P’s of an excellent festival, like AKE are actually:


Passion: being a festival director myself I can confirm that undertaking the organization of an international festival is only possible if you have passion. Passion for creating a space where people can meet and be inspired by each other from the moment they touch ground. There is no real money to be made in this kind of business. Like Ms. Lola stated: “All the businesses that are fueled with passion are on their knee’s”. So you do it, because there is a deep inner drive, a necessity that is beyond selfinterest.

Pleasure: the pleasure lies in the off-stage meetings, the on-stage encounters with likeminded people, who in each other companies thrive and excel and feel free to speak their minds. Pleasure lies in the attention for how a venue has been dressed up for this event: a bookmarket, a market where you can buy the unique fabric that is on the spot modified to your body, where you can purchase the facemasks, the oil for your skin that makes Ms. Lola looks as ageless as she does. Pleasure is dancing, together with all the guests and the audience on the typical fantastic Nigerian Afro-beats that is conquering the world already for decades. Pleasure is having your tastebuds challenged each day by the magnificent food that was served in the green room for the attendees.

Perseverance lies in the many challenges that you meet once you decide to create a festival in a country that is basically blacklisted by all the embassies in the world as a ‘no-go zone’. The list of writers from the West who were invited to come to the AKE fest and did not accept this generous invitation, is unfortunately long. Fear? Disinterest, Ignorance? The people of the AKE fest went the extra mile, Ayomide, Tobe, responsible for logistics and hospitality, together with a huge team of gifted people, were 24/7 available for questions and last minute changes in schedules of people. Providing us with even the photos of the people who would pick us up at the airport, advising us to not use the toilets at the airport: up to the smallest detail they were prepared for every single guest. I see you Ayo and Tobe! You are crucial for executing the vision of Ms. Lola, without you, such an inspiring vision would not come to life as it does, now for years already. And I congratulate you Ms. Lola, for surrounding yourself with such brilliant women, for taking them with you, so generously, on your journey. This is what true solidarity, sincere leadership looks like.

People: the people is YOU, your dreamteam, the writers and the audience. The engagement of the audience at the AKE fest is unlike everything I ever experienced before. It starts with the voice-over (Dr Olaokun Soyinka), mentioning the guests of the panel and asking for the specific AKE-applause, which works each time. The engagement of the audience is felt in the hungry and eager questions from the audience: “Why do you have to kill your characters all the time? Can’t you send them abroad or something?” “You were minister of finance, you were in power, now you wrote a book in which you tell us how to do better? Where were you when you were in power? Why did you not make the change that you ask us now to make?” And you know that your story resonates as a writer, when you are reading a fragment of your book, and the audience is finishing your final sentence, as a choir, together with you. Maybe USA-based writer DK Nnuro summarized it best when he replied to a question from the audience regarding the difference between a Western audience and the audience in AKE: “Y’all give me life!”

Some random observations, but nevertheless very important!

– The fantastic collectors item piece of art that the AKE fest program book is!
– The amazing videographers! (worldwide people could join the excellent livestream, which made the festival even more accessible!)
– The fantastic moderators!
– The food
– The dreamteam

I want to give a special shout out to Ms Wana Wana. This fantastic woman, who was part of the opening ceremony. She -again- gave me goosebumps, like she did so many times in Amsterdam. She let me tear up by her beautiful opening poem: an ode to women worldwide. She made me feel seen as a woman, in all my strength and flaws. I felt extremely moved, in a way that hardly ever happens to me. Ms Wana Wana, preaching, touching people with her voice, her words, her magnificent presence. What a blessing to see her again.

Dear Ms. Lola, you are the definition of a force of nature, you keep giving me the Shivers, from Joy, from Excitement. You are an inspiration for me, but I think for a whole industry of festival organizers, publishers, agents, worldwide. It is all because, like you said yourself, you are not afraid to fail. Therefore you allow yourself and your people to experiment, to do things differently. It’s that attitude that we all can learn from and that we need so desperately, everywhere nowadays.

So much love for you, thank you for allowing me so generously in your world. Thank you for the huge amount of inspiration that I got at AKE, thank you for creating a space where new friendships and new tasks are born and set up.

Willemijn Lamp

Willemijn was invited to the AKE Arts & Book Festival as part of a fellowship for international literature festival directors.