Roland Watson-Grant Visits Nigeria’s Ibom Festival

Jamaican writer Roland Watson-Grant gives us an exclusive glimpse into his visit to the Ibom Art and Book Festival hosted in Uyo, Nigeria from July 28-31, 2022.

Roland Watson-Grant is a Jamaican novelist, screenwriter, and travel writer who won the Caribbean edition of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021. His novels include Sketcher (2013) and Skid (2014). Watson-Grant attended the Ibom Festival in Nigeria and he gives us an exclusive glimpse of his first trip to the motherland.

Lagos Was a Lucid Dream

by Roland Watson-Grant

It felt like a dream sequence that lasted two weeks. Perhaps this was because I had removed all notions of Africa from my mind. Maybe on my first day in Nigeria, I was still restless from sleeping in a flying chair on that all-night leap across the deep.

Or perhaps I was experiencing the magic that happens when you arrive in a new place with your writer’s-mind switched on and turned up, eager to capture every sound, sight, and scent.

‘So, this is Africa’, said I, the wide-eyed bushy-tailed West Indian in the tan felt hat, looking like a tourist in the middle of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, getting hit by jostling shoulders and headrush after headrush. Why an African-travel rookie was so eager to define an entire continent after a few minutes in one airport was beyond me. So once again, I dumped my conclusions.

Fumbled in my pocket for my phone. I had made a promise to family and a few friends: “When you get my Whatsapp with the first few bars of Dennis Brown’s/Damian Marley’s Promised Land or Toto’s Africa, you will know that I landed in Lagos”. The musical messages would be delayed though. WIFI signup is a multi-layered thing in Lagos Airport. How many times can you watch a COVID video?

Anyway, this is between us, so don’t tell the organizers, ooh? But when I got the invitation to attend the IBOM Art and Book Festival in Akwa Ibom State Nigeria, the first thing I did was scan the entire letter to see if this was another one of those virtual, fuzzy-on-screen-your-mic-is-muted situations. There was that option of course, but for a writer who once slept in a Trinidad airport and dropped into Montserrat on a twin engine Cessna so I could see a volcano up close, my choice was the other offer: Let’s literally land in Africa. I told myself this would be for ‘literature.’ I lied. This was also about Motherland. Kate Ekanem-Hannum and her tireless ICON network team handed me the opportunity of a lifetime.

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Well, at first, the Nigerian accent was a wall. I ran into it headlong again and again. Nollywood movies and their subtitles can make you think you understand the sing-song of an African accent or how Pidgin and Ibibio sprinkle spice over an English sentence. While going through customs and trying to communicate, I found myself many times at sea, long after crossing the Atlantic.

The sunset flight from Lagos to Uyo was a balm for the hustle and bustle. Warm light filtered through shelves and shelves of golden clouds, a scene captured on canvas by Queenette Ebong, a multitalented young artist from Lagos featured at the Festival. I fell asleep in my window seat thinking “My God, Nigeria has its own sky”.

Roland Watson-Grant to Ibom

The accents thinned out beyond the Akwa Ibom Airport and the speech of my hosts from the Festival–slowed down for my Western ears– reassured me I was not a stranger anymore. As did the Chaka Demus and Pliers dancehall tune that blasted on the streets of Uyo.

The IBOM Art and Book Festival was an immersive event. The warmth of South-South Nigeria is partly the result of creative youth who gather by the dozens for the love of literature. I met so many future superstars of page and canvas and I am happy we got pictures together to prove it. Devouring African literature while serving up a masterclass and moderating a panel was a buffet as enjoyable as the food in this Nigerian culinary capital. Palm wine flowed between lines of poetry. I unwrapped prawns and catfish from crinkly foil with as much anticipation as I have about the art and literature that Uyo will share with the world.

Roland Watson-Grant speaks in Ibom
Roland Watson-Grant speaks in Ibom

I digested the poems and local language, thinking of them as songs my ancestors might have left too early to learn.  But I was not prepared for the suya. Ah, suya…that spicy kebab cooked over a fire that turned out to be spicier than anything on the Jamaican menu. On the day I was supposed to have visited the Bridge of No Return– where slaves set sail for the West– I was bedridden in my hotel room. Suya and I are not friends.

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However, as obsessive writers do, I found the strength to record every gruesome gripe for future use. I was fully invested in the experience. I will respectfully spare you the details here, but they might be ideal for a short story about an exorcism.

In the end, I had to tear myself away from Nigeria, but from 6000 miles away, my mind still wanders around the places where my feet fell, and my writing will be forever haunted.

On my last night in Lagos, I had a dream as tangible as anything in my waking hours: I was five years old again, running around my father’s yard in Kingston, Jamaica like Rip Van Winkle. While I slept, the spirit of my childhood was awake, alive, and more curious than ever before.

I will be back to dream again, and perhaps make friends with suya.

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