Africa in Words Guest: Robert Gates.
SOAS African Literatures Conference: 55 years after the first Makerere African Writers Conference
Saturday 28 October 2017 | 9.30am-7.30pm
Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre | SOAS University of London
African writers-novelists, playwrights, poets and their readers, as well as art critics and historians will gather at the UK’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on October 28 to remember an event in 1962 that is said to have partly defined ‘modern’ African literary awareness.
Fifty-five years ago, Chinua Achebe, riding on the fame of Things Fall Apart, together with other Nigerian playwrights and poets that included Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Christopher Okigbo (who would die in the Biafra War), and others from West Africa – Kofi Awoonor, Cameron Duodu, Frances Ademola – met in Kampala, Uganda. It was to be in communion with their kindred who had also travelled from East and South Africa: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ali Mazrui, Dennis Brutus, Lewis Nkosi, Es’ kia Mphahlele, and from the Diaspora the African-American, Langston Hughes and the Indian-Africanist and founder of Transition magazine, Rajat Neogy.
They and others unnamed, were in their early 30s and creative. The gathering that came to be known as the Conference of African Writers of English Expression or Makerere Conference of Literature also focused on apartheid and what these writers thought they could do to dismantle it. What united them was their love of Africa. It was at this conference that Okigbo said he wrote his poetry for poets, and Soyinka would invent the lyrical phrase: A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude.
Few decades after, many of those present were on global stage. Achebe would become one of the best-known African novelists of his time, Soyinka would be the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and others – including Ngugi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Flora Nwapa, Zulu Sofola, Mabel Segun and Efua Sutherland – had become laureates of other literary significance. It was not the conference itself that would generate this, but the rarity of that togetherness.
In 2014, after he had co-edited Crucible of the Ages: Essays in Honour of Wole Soyinka at 80, Ivor Agyeman-Duah decided to co-direct a 55th anniversary of that historic conference.
“I did not know the dimension of that thought except it has now turned into an international recollection,” he said in his current role as a Visiting Associate Professor and Director of the Wole Soyinka Foundation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
The London remembrance will be followed by one in Kigali, Rwanda, on November 15, and on November 21, this will travel to the Chinua Achebe Auditorium at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, to Lusaka in Zambia, before it arrives in Accra, Ghana in January 2018.
The programme for the event at SOAS on Saturday October 28 is now available online.
After the keynote by the Nobel laureate Prof. Soyinka, the day itself will reflect on aspects of contemporary African literature, with time devoted to the memory of two leading writers who passed on this year: the Nigerian, Buchi Emecheta, author of Joys of Motherhood and The Bride Price, and Abiola Irele, the undisputed literary scholar and specialist critic of Francophone literature; and to Alain Ricard, foremost scholar of African literatures in France, who passed in 2016. Christopher Okigbo, Efua Sutherland, and Achebe are to be remembered through poetry readings, including from the executive secretary of the Pan African Writers Association, Atukwei Okai from Accra.
The highlight of the day’s programme will, however, be the launch of The Gods Who Send Us Gifts: An Anthology of African Short Stories edited by Agyeman-Duah and published in East Africa as I Was Hungry and You Fed Me (Ayebia Clarke).
Dedicated to the 1962 Conference, it has stories by some of the major award-winning writers of the continent (and from seventeen countries). Among them is the novelist of Noma award-winning, The Cry of Winnie Mandela, also Chancellor of University of Johannesburg, Njabulo Ndebele, distinguished playwright Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangaremba, Sefi Atta, Ogochukwu Promise, Zukiswa Wanner of South Africa, Boubacar Boris Diop of Senegal, and Monica Arac de Nyeko of Uganda. New voices include Mary Ashun from Ghana, and exciting new writing from Rwanda, Botswana, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The anthology’s three forewords are from Soyinka, Baroness Amos, and the Botswana-South African literary theorist of UJ, Pinkie Mekgwe.
It is the second anthology (of an anticipated trilogy) by the editor, himself a short story writer. The first one, All the Good Things Around Us (2016) – with contributors that include Chika Unigwe, Ogochukwu Promise, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria), Tope Folarin, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya), Ellen Banda-Aaku (Zambia), a lead story from Ama Ata Aidoo and a Ben Okri poem-prologue – was adopted by SOAS for an international workshop last year for participants from 14 countries in London as part of the School’s centenary celebrations. It was also used by major reading clubs last month in Edmonton and at the University of Alberta in Canada.
The Kenyan Daily Nation wrote of it: “The language, style and literary substance of the book make it one of the greatest anthologies of African stories in the recent past.”
As we devour the second of the anticipated trilogy, Agyeman-Duah looks perpetually engaged in creations and creative activity. Together with Pinkie Mekgwe, they are collaborating as curators and editors with the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg on, This Presence is from the Departed Past, a literary anthology of voice and word with some Nobel laureates, philosophers, ethicists and writers from parts of the world to mark the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth next year.
For more information and tickets see: bit.ly/SOASAfrLitsTix