We’re told at the beginning of the event by Book Festival Director and Event Chair Nick Barley that we have to give the best audience reaction ever when he introduces Jallow and Menzies, because the audience reaction he saw them receive in Nigeria was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. He is clearly genuinely excited to have them at the Book Festival, and as soon as they start performing their respective pieces, it’s not hard to see why.
Jallow opens with a small extract from her adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’. She is a bright, exciting performer, completely at ease onstage, holding the audience’s attention firmly in her grasp from the very first moment. The extract - about Baba Segi’s fourth wife not getting pregnant - is humorous, intriguing and utterly gripping.
Menzies then makes her entrance with a fascinating traditional story of a wild cat who searches for the most wonderful creature in the world. She gets the audience involved as she moves from graceful antelopes to roaring lions and majestic elephants, each animal bested by another until she finds the hunter. And then the hunter is bested by a woman, and she knows she has found what she was searching for. It is a brilliant story, wonderfully told by Menzies, who commands the stage effortlessly.
Barley then leads a discussion with the two women about their upbringings - Menzies in Kenya and Edinburgh, Jallow in Togo - and the importance of storytelling in their lives. Both feel it is a tradition that is being lost and want to bring it back by showing how entertaining and beneficial it can be. Jallow took on the challenge of Shoneyin’s book because she feels the debate on polygamy is too dominated by those who judge it from the outside, and she wishes to show the women’s side of it. Menzies, meanwhile, is setting up a heritage trail in Kenya to teach both tourists and the local population about the country’s history and traditions.
To finish, both perform another, longer piece. Jallow performs another extract from 'The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives', this time becoming the third wife and telling her story as the abused servant of a family as a child. She slips seamlessly into character and fills the piece with humour, giving a fascinating insight into the practices of a culture very different from the UK without it ever becoming too heavy.
Menzies tells the story of Washu, a woman in an ancient tribe who disagreed with the rule that women couldn’t eat meat and began sneaking bites of it whenever she could. A thrilling and hilarious traditional tale from Kenya, it is told with the same flair and mastery as the others, and brings the event to a glorious end. The audience really did go wild, and deservedly so.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place until August 27th. For information and to see events, see the EdBookFest website.