Images courtesy of books2africa.org
Weary from the long and treacherous journey, Ariyike collapsed on her small Vodafoam mattress in the corner of her room and slowly drifted to sleep as the sun set on her town in Osun state. That night she would dream of the journey ahead of her with great anticipation, for tomorrow she will have crossed the Atlantic.
She had just finished reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; his depiction of strength, culture and of Okonkwo’s stubborn determination had moved her to tears. This was just one of her more recent journeys made possible by her imagination as she soaked in the light of the sun and sat in the presence of the bountiful books that had been donated to make up her school library. Ariyike could go anywhere she wished, whether that meant travelling back in time through the words of Wole Soyinka to learn about the past lives of her people and, in doing so, herself, or flying as high as Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise would take her. How she had laughed as she followed Teju Cole in his re-discovery of home in the city of ever moving bodies that is Lagos, in his narrative Every Day is for the Thief. She had travelled all the way to South Africa beside Nelson Mandela during his Long Walk to Freedom, and saw the way life changed afterwards in Trevor Noah’s experience of being Born a Crime. One of her favourites was Maleeka’s story, she could relate to her struggle of learning to love your own skin. With support from Sharon. G. Flake’s The Skin I’m In, nobody could tell her that her melanin was not beautiful. She could not wait to pick up a copy of Chimamanda’s Ngozi Adichie Americanah— she would at last cross the Atlantic and learn of life as a black woman in America.
20 years later Ariyike is still the young girl from a small town in Osun state, only now she has a Ph.D. to her name. Her name, Ariyike Afolashade Olusesan, can be found on two of the New York Times best sellers; a picture of her, smiling nervously and showcasing her freshly made braids, located beside Michelle Obama’s portrait among Time Magazine’s most influential women.
Today she will stand on a platform addressing the students of her alma mater at a Books2Africa fundraising event. She will struggle to express the debts of her gratitude in a 15-minute speech. She will tell them of how every single one of those books told her that she too was capable. She will tell them of how she picked up a pen and began writing her own stories after completing Purple Hibiscus. She will hold back tears as she describes the fateful day she found a creative writing textbook that had been donated to her school library. She will end her speech with the words, “My journey in understanding black excellence was a journey in discovering myself. Through the words of those who wrote before me, whether it was a novel or a textbook, I was able to harness and cultivate a power I was not aware I possessed. Each stride and every fumble were accompanied with knowledge that somewhere out there someone had received knowledge from these books and had cared enough to share it with me. They were telling me that I too was excellent and that my development and my story mattered.”