Africa Writes Festival starts yearly on the 3rd to 5th of July each year at the British Library. This years event was just as thought provoking as last years which I attended for the first time.
I was unable to attend Friday’s events, but I did start Saturday with Frances Mensah Williams introduction to her book: From Pasta to Pig Foot.
From her perspective, as a Ghanaian, which I share, we are all a work in progress, many people haven’t quite worked out what they want or where they’re going and there is a point where we come of age, but this usually takes place, that is to say, change often occurs, only after we’ve had something bad happen to us.
As African people, who have only recently been thrown together, and who share the common history of the barbaric and evil slave trade, this raises the question as to whether we are mature enough to decide how and in what form we want change and whether we are ready to work together to achieve this?
If one is African, one is either seen as the stereotypical African as living in poverty or one is viewed as being posh, which is erroneous. From a black woman’s perspective and experience, things are very different.
Through books, we share experiences real or imagined and so connect to our African roots. We read books through this prism, yet there is so little that gives an unbiased perspective of ourselves.
Books are an informal history lesson of their own, they educate, inform, mould, and inspire. We may recognise something of ourselves, which may again resonate with us, in unique ways.
Everything works with demand and supply, there’s a vast audience and market in Africa that isn’t recognised in the West, and our biggest markets may be in Africa and not the West eventually, but this will take time. We are however not taking advantage of our market potential.
We need to repackage and sell our unique experiences for international audiences, as well as African, as Asians have done with their food, that is, what they eat in India or China is totally different from Chinese or Indian food that we eat in the West.
There is so much that we have to offer the world, so many different cultural and traditional perspectives, and there is so much happening across the continent that no one knows about.
We can have an idea, but don’t know what to say, but in the process of writing we find a way of telling our stories, that’s different from the next man.
Through this process we learn how to write with feeling and confidence, as well as authority, as we observe and learn to understand or otherwise, other people, said one of the authors, shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writing 2013.
Most Africans can’t get help from the normal channels that we have in the West, so they turn to other sources, such as religious churches or Mosques.
Observing The White Gaze, the only event I attended on Sunday at Africa Writes, the chair Dele Fatunla asked a relevant or perhaps not so relevant question: Where could we have been if we were not colonized, how far could we have gone?
We had written texts of our own, said one of the writers, and so printing presses would probably have come through our interaction with Europeans. We would probably would have had a few dominant groups, those perhaps who got the printing presses first.
These would have made up the dominant languages. The question that I would like to ask though is this, what stopped us from carefully cataloguing and updating our own traditional written texts, after Europeans left?
The infrastructure on the continent is poor, everyone knows this. Yet we do have Africans who read, but we need to make books more accessible, to young and old alike.
If a person is poor, uneducated and also unaware and uninformed, then that is a double tragedy, as it cripples an individual and disempowers him/her preventing them from creating changes in their lives and the lives of their children and so this forms a vicious cycle. In the West we do find poor uneducated people, but they are not necessarily uninformed or aware.
Inter regional book publishing and selling within Africa is slowly beginning to happen, but we need to get support from established people and governments within the continent. Traditional mediums of publishing are closing and one question that was raised is what does this mean for African writers?
As a still developing continent, we will need to come up with more and more innovative ways of making our voices heard across a broader audience and in different mediums.
For instance a book that costs more than N1,500 is too expensive for the ordinary Nigerian, how does one overcome this hurdle, especially if one wants to reach other parts of Africa, where the differences in what the ordinary man can afford may equally differ?
There are people that want to buy books that can’t, but many people can afford a radio or mobile phone. Similar things are being done in Kampala and many other parts of Africa.
The internet is a privilege to many Africans, and many of Africans only know the moderators that they hear on the radio, how do we reach out to this people? One author said we need to think about cost effective audio books, in local languages.
Another issue that was raised is the fact that the educational system has collapsed in many countries, how does one bridge this divide? There is no doubt that literature in Africa can help to develop the continent and may bridge the divide between the educated and those who are not, by at least making the uneducated person aware.
Are Africans writing for the Western market and if so, how can we reach out to Africa? Cassava publisher seems to be trying to address this issue, by trying to get books into local universities, and Chimamanda Adichie runs workshops every year in Nigeria.
We need more people to try to reach out to people independently and not relying on governments, this is probably the role of the public sector.
Performance poets across Africa are engaging the youth, but there isn’t enough of a supply for the demands that we have across the continent, and mobile apps are fast becoming a means of reaching more people.
There is no doubt that literature through different mediums can help develop Africa with the right attention, as Mensah said we are a work in progress and life is a journey, with many highs and lows.