Q&A: Scholar-activist Kadija Sesay, on AfriPoeTree

AiW note: In 2016, writer, editor, academic, and publisher Kadija Sesay developed the ‘Modern Pan-Africanist’s Journey’ app as part of the Research and Development funding (UK) that she received from Arts Council England, for her second poetry book of the same title The Modern Pan-Africanist’s Journey.

In 2021, the AfriPoeTree SIV (Selective Interactive Video), a new multimedia platform based on Sesay’s Modern Pan-Africanist’s Journey app, was developed by Yorkshire based digital media and theatre company 2b Acting. The AfriPoeTree platform aims to provide a space to promote equality, inclusion and diversity, and be an antidote to negative portrayals of Black art, culture, and history. Fully interactive print, audio, and video content, including interviews and performances, will be accessible on the platform via mobile phones, tablets, and desktop computers.

Featured poets include Tony Medina, Rashidah Ismaili, Bernardine Evaristo, Zena Edwards, Rosamond King, Fred D’Aguiar, Ama Ata Aidoo, Inua Ellams, Nick Makoha, Natalia Molebatsi, Niyi Osundare, Rommi Smith, Sonia Sanchez, Dorothea Smartt, and Benjamin Zephaniah.

Another section of 50 Poet (Ancestors) starts with E.W. Blyden and includes activists and political leaders who were published poets.

As AfriPoeTree takes root – with 60 poetry rooms already established and a crowdfunder campaign open until April 2, to support further SIV development and enable its full branching to interactive spaces for 100 poets to nest among (follow the link or see below for further details from Sesay of how to donate, support and be a part of this growth) – AiW’s Davina Philomena Kawuma spoke with Sesay about decolonisation and how she’s become a more staunch Pan-Africanist, the importance of networks in managing a literary festival, gatekeeping and reading practices, and curating ‘In this space we breathe‘, an exhibition of the late British-Gambian photographer Khadija Saye (who was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017), among other things…

Davina Philomena Kawuma (for AiW): Thinking through the context of academic engagement in the US, in his interview with Francis Ohanyido, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ spoke of his 2003 book, Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change, as his “attempt to try and contextualize contemporary Africa in the tradition of radical politics”: 

The framework I use is Pan-African. In the book I look at the role of the Africanist and African scholar. There is a fascinating discussion that brews under the radar in academia. That is the Africanist scholar (mostly white and American) and the African scholar (African and elite) do not get along because they are in competition of who speaks for Africa. The irony of course is that they both, even as they pretend to speak for the continent, long abandoned it. But juxtaposed to these kinds of intellectuals are others who have seen their role in more political terms – Fanon for the African intellectual and Basil Davidson for the Africanist.

He later speaks of African writers as being “the single most important facilitators of Pan-Africanism”: 

People like Du Bois and Nkrumah might have provided the theory, but it is the writers that humanize Africans to each other. We see each other through their works. 

Although the interview in question was conducted fifteen years ago, in many ways there remains much competition about who should speak for Africa, and why. 

I’m interested in what Mũkoma says about how different intellectuals view/frame their roles; in what terms do you view your role as a scholar/academic? And have you, in the course of your PhD research, encountered any fascinating brewing-under-the-radar discussions?

Kadija Sesay: I see myself as a scholar-activist, with the emphasis on activist! I see my role as the need to marry the two. As Walter Rodney explained, why would a scholar who has expert knowledge on African history not want to share it with the people to help them to emancipate themselves, in a space that they are comfortable in? Therefore, it is better to do such work in their own space, rather than within academic institutions.

Whoever considers themselves to be a scholar-activist needs to read Walter Rodney’s The Groundings with My Brothers even if they do not implement their activism in the same way. I have also read and listened to Professor Horace Campbell on modern Pan-Africanism.

With regards to “brewing discussions,” ones which I don’t think are necessarily under the radar – as I don’t sit still in institutions long enough to get involved – are those around decolonisation (particularly of literature and publishing). Those – and renewed discussions around Pan-Africanism – interest me, although I’m not interested in reviewing or being involved in discussions which ask “is Pan-Africanism still relevant?” I don’t perceive that as being a useful or productive approach.  

The discussions around decolonisation have become increasingly strong as it’s realised that decolonisation applies to all aspects of our lives – it is not limited. The tumbling of statues seemed to be the public face of this so the term became common parlance. Is it overused? Misunderstood? I don’t think so, as it is a hidden evil that runs through the foundation of our lives. So I have to view my work in that vein rather than ‘postcolonial,’ which is not a term that I am endeared to, and which I try to avoid using otherwise it feels as though we can never shake off the cloak of colonialism if we always see ourselves in relation to it. 

I also veer away from using the term ‘race,’ because as a Black Scholar in Britain there is an expectation that whatever you do, the focus will be on race. I didn’t want that, so I didn’t engage in those discussions. One reason is because I concern myself more from the standpoint that when I am in Africa I don’t feel that it’s necessary for me to engage in issues of ‘race’ and ‘identity.’ That’s what freedom feels like to me.

DPK: Growing up, here in Kampala, it seemed to me that the existence of solidarity between African and Black people was taken for granted. I usually heard Pan-Africanism spoken of in very formal contexts, when perhaps the president invoked it in his Independence Day Celebrations speech. It seemed then that Pan-Africanism could only and only should mean one thing to everyone.

More recently, however, I’m learning that in some spaces, disputes remain about whether Pan-Africanism originated on the continent or in the diaspora; and that historical tensions linger, the result of what Pan-Africanists based on the continent perceive(d) as patronising behaviour from Pan-Africanists based in the diaspora. I’m also learning that it is perhaps more accurate to speak of Pan-Africanisms, following Hakim Adi’s argument that Pan-Africanism assumes different forms at different times in different spaces.

How has your perception/awareness of Pan-Africanism/s evolved over the years? 

KS: There is only one Pan-Africanism, I’d say, but there are different definitions, precisely because as Adi says, “Pan-Africanism might be more usefully viewed as one river with many streams and currents.” Adi also added that the core aspect is “the belief in some form of unity or of common purpose among the people of Africa and the African diaspora and the notion that their destinies are interconnected.”

The useful thing about being an academic researcher is that you have to consider aspects of your specialisation in deeper, more nuanced considerations and you learn how to do that. That’s what I enjoyed about my PhD – I have referred to myself as a Pan-Africanist for a long time yet it is clearer to me what I mean by that now and what I expect of myself. I can view and apply it to my life better than I could before. I have become a stauncher Pan-Africanist. 

If you believe in the strength, beauty, development of the continent, then you believe in Pan-Africanism or even if you feel the same way just about the African country you reside – it is still Pan-Africanism as you must be a nationalist to be a Pan-Africanist.

John Henrik Clarke paraphrased Blyden at the end of his essay Pan-Africanism: A Brief History of an Idea in the African World, in which he indicated that a true Pan-Africanist should be an African person engaged in a restoration mission that will lead his people back to respectful nationhood.

My perception of it now is to view Pan-Africanism through the beliefs and actions of Walter Rodney. It took a scholar-activist in the mode of Rodney to show how this theory of Pan-Africanism could and should be realised in practice. He was born in Guyana – a country that is part of South America but which is classed as being in the Caribbean – a country whose population is almost equally made up of people of Asian descent as it is of African descent. So how do you bring them together for their individual good and for the common good of their country? 

For Rodney, Pan-Africanism at its root was to make obvious the shared commonalities of the oppressed, to fight for equality and unity. Those are the core elements of Pan-Africanism whichever definition of Pan-Africanism is used. 

What that means is that modern Pan-Africanism today is not necessarily just about being of African descent although the ‘movement’ and the progress must be led by people of African descent. That is something I have taken from T. Ras Makonnen, also Guyanese, who to me, when I look at his achievements, was more of an action-orientated Pan-Africanist than George Padmore. But he is often less considered perhaps as he did less writing and there is less written about him, but the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester would not have happened without him. Pan-Africanism from Within, which was edited by Kenneth King, is a biography on Makonnen, written from interview transcriptions.

DPK: In Literary Activism in A Country That Doesn’t Read, Edwige-Renée Dro argues that, in fact, Ivorians do read – only that many of them don’t read what those in intellectual circles consider worth reading:

It is being asked again and again what I as a writer am doing to make Ivorians read that I became a literary activist. It is the endless refrain of ‘Ivorians don’t read’, ‘Africans don’t read’, ‘If you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book’ that made me a literary activist. It is people reducing literature to reading that made me a literary activist. It is people reducing the role of the writer to one who should put society on the right path that I became a literary activist.

Is the reduction of reading to literature, and of literature to reading, something you commonly encounter? What kind of refrains turned you into a literary activist?

KS: I agree with Dro that you can’t reduce literature to reading, which renders it easy to confuse literary activism with reader activism. Is the aim to encourage people to read or is it to open up vistas for people to enjoy literature? Different approaches are needed. 

I love going to literary festivals, but I don’t necessarily read all of the books of the people I go and listen to. I may buy a book, but it is often in mind to give it to someone as a gift, so I’m still supporting the writer and the festival – I just know that I won’t particularly read that book myself. But giving a book as a gift may be my way of encouraging someone else to read. 

And I also just like owning books – the same way that some people like owning trainers (I only ever have one pair of trainers, but a floor covered in books) – so there is both literary activism and reader activism going on here.

I came to be known as a literary activist when I was asked to do an event, and the person who recommended me asked how I wanted to be described and I just talked about what I did, and he said, “Oh, I’ll just say that you are a literary activist, then.” That was Paul Beasley, co-founder of Apples and Snakes. This was about 20 years ago. I didn’t know anyone else who called themselves a literary activist in the UK; I’d never heard the term used before – I just did what I did. There were not that many of us – it was only later when working in the literary field that it became something that could become a career choice. 

For me, literary activism is working in the field of literature – that could be anything from organising events, festivals, mentoring, which usually involves an aspect of volunteerism. But because people don’t often do sufficient research, they don’t realise that people have been doing these activities for decades, often in small ways, as they were managing it themselves on whatever limited budget they had, but things got done. 

But the real reason is for African writers, we have to do everything. If you’re working in a literary space where a lot of this work has not been done, then you have to do it yourself. We find ourselves having to create these structures,” Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ said recently on Twitter.

That is why books such as Bernardine Evaristo’s Manifesto are important. Hers has been a life of art activism (and in that I’m including theatre and literature); she didn’t just emerge ‘lucky’ out of the Booker bubble.

So it wasn’t a refrain for me – it’s just something I grew into. I suppose some of the refrains that irked me and made me continue to believe that I was doing the right thing were things like “there is no such thing as a Black British writer/Black British literature” (there were only post-colonial writers, I was told, but because I wasn’t an academic, then, obviously I wasn’t aware of that!). Those were the general and personal attacks that I experienced.  

Because of hearing things like “there is no Gambian literature to speak of,” “young people don’t read books,” and “performance poetry isn’t real poetry,” I was always trying to put our literature on a level platform with others; for example, when I was asked to produce a publication for writers, when I worked at Centerprise Literature Development Project, a large part of the budget went into producing a broadsheet newspaper, Calabash, three times a year. I was adamant that Black writers deserved better than A4 photocopied and stapled sheets. When I was forced to leave the job, people asked me if I was going to take Calabash with me. Of course I couldn’t – it belonged to the project – so I started SABLE instead. 

My years at Centerprise had highlighted just how big a mountain we still had to climb and the only publication that was available to publish our work in was Wasafiri; there was nothing for the emerging writer who just wanted to shout out and say, “Hey, I’m here, I write great poetry, here is a sense of my worth from this beautifully laid out 6-page spread.” This was one of my intentions – to create an aesthetically beautiful platform for emerging writers. 

I just wish I could have published more issues more regularly, but it needed more finance and more people working on it. It was expensive to produce and trying to get the magazine industry to see that a literary magazine could be profit-making was difficult. So I had to put it on hold when I started my PhD.

DPK: A discussion that’s no longer very much under the radar is the one concerning how [not] to talk about literary activism. Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire urges a distinction between literary activism and gatekeeping:

The work literary activists do, the making of the rocks, the building of literary and cultural infrastructure, like that of the journal editors Coetzee talks about, is often derogatively referred to as gatekeeping by its harshest critics and housekeeping by the polite ones. It is not uncommon to hear literary rockstars themselves similarly refer to literary activist work as dull “boring day to day stuff”, that is, when they remember to mention it at all. In acknowledgement sections of books, where we can say a writer reveals their “power base” and “pedigree”, the literary activist is most times missing. The North-based editor, literary agent, publicist has a higher chance of getting a shout that is denied the Africa-based and focused literary activist, revealing which labour is “valued” and what is rendered invisible.

Bwa Mwesigire’s What is Literary Activism? (Or Who keeps the housekeepers’ house?) rejects the language of gatekeeping, arguing that it is through and within such language that the work of ‘the Western Publishing Industrial Complex’ is performed. He invokes Carlee Coetzee’s metaphor of ‘unsettling the air-conditioned room’ as one way through which we might begin to rethink all the behind-the-scenes labour that is undervalued because it is feminised, domesticated, chore-fied, and informalized.

From where you stand as an editor of several anthologies, what do you suppose might constitute less problematic language when discussing literary activism?

KS: The phrase “less problematic language” is a good one. I didn’t know about this discussion on literary activism between gatekeeping and housekeeping, and that’s simply because I do what an activist does – I get on with the work; and because it is a lot of work, both ‘boring’ – which is the admin side – and ‘fun’ – when you get to engage with the writers and the work itself – I really don’t have time to intellectualise or academicise what I do. That’s not only ‘boring’ to me but it’s absolute bullshit. I’m a scholar-activist in the sense that I put my research into action. 

This is one reason why I found it necessary to develop what started off as an app to promote my forthcoming poetry collection, The Modern Pan-Africanist’s Journey. Six years later, it has now developed into AfriPoeTree and in some respects it is like putting my research on an app, so that is now more widely accessible, and also incorporates my other love of African poets and poetry, which is what I initially considered doing my research in.

It includes African poets around the globe with their own 360 degrees ‘poetry room’ so that users can watch, read, listen to their work and information about them, and it is linked to sections such as resources for poets and Pan-African organisations and quizzes on African poets and Pan-Africanism. 

The more I added to the AfriPoeTree SIV platform the more I realised there was so much more to do. I ‘met’ African poets who I didn’t previously know along the way – it’s great. It does include some poetry in African languages, not a lot though, and that is definitely an aspect that will be developed. But what drives it is video, so those who have their own poetry rooms can upload video whenever they like.

DPK: Mboka Festival of Arts, Culture and Sport celebrates Gambian and African diasporic cultural heritage. The incorporation of sports is unique; I’ve never been to an arts/cultural/literary festival that also celebrates distinction and diversity in sports! 

Abdulrahman Ndegwa’s Literary Activism in the Swahili Coast traces the beginnings of the Hekaya Arts initiative – how it was influenced by “the incredible literary history of the Swahili coast” and “the need to put contemporary Swahili art and literary content back on the global map.” 

Ndegwa speaks of how the work of novelists and poets like M G Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Abdilatif Abdalla served as “building blocks” that gave Hekaya “a sound and reliable foundation to work from.” 

He also touches on the difficulties of running Hekaya in times of little or no funding – the ways in which networks of individuals from organisations such as Art Managers & Literary Activists, Kwani?, Writivism, Storymoja, the Miles Morland Foundation, and African Writers Trust contributed to Hekaya’s growth over the years, and how the 20-year plan that they envisioned for the initiative has sustained their spirit. 

What histories, needs, artists were influential in the founding of Mboka Festival? How important have networks been to you, and what sustains your spirit during difficult times?

KS: You have to look at SABLE LitMag with regards to what informed [me] as an activist as the covers feature activist writers. So I was only/am only ever interested in working with writers who are themselves working or collaborating with other writers or some other form of activism. 

I multi-task, so when one project is on a low I’m usually working on another one anyway – there is little time to be low, as that wastes time. Activists have to be resilient, and as Nawal el Saadawi said, “Creatives must also be dissident”; the essence of being creative is to be dissident.

Networks have been supremely important. The first most important international literary resource for me was Kalamu Ya Salaam and his network, “e-drum,” a mailing list which opened up my Black literary world. This was before most of the social media platforms that we have now. I remember that it was a Canadian creative living in the UK, Vanessa Richards, who introduced me to e-drum but it was Ato Quayson who pushed me to get online and in 1999-ish.

Kalamu is so forward-thinking and he was one of the early Black creatives to get onto and realise the power of Twitter. He is the epitome of a literary activist. He demonstrated an early manifestation of online Pan-Africanism – and I’m not talking about how Pan-Africanism is viewed in the diaspora – with a list that embraced whatever came his way that was African and literary.

What sustains my spirit is being in Africa. Being in the UK – like the weather – dampens it. It is helped only by my nurturing family and when people appreciate what I do. 

I received the Leeds Black Award (Arts) category in 2013, although I’d moved from the south to the north of England to set up Inscribe, a writers’ development programme for Peepal Tree Press. Being a Londoner, that spoke volumes to me; it meant so much that they could see the work I did to support writers outside of London. That was very humbling because of the traditional north/south divide. 

I received a STARS Award, too – an award for Sierra Leonean women of achievement. Both of these mean more to me than the MBE I received as this is from my people who can see the work that I do to support them.

Although Mboka officially started in 2017, in some way it started in 2007 when I organised the first literary festival in The Gambia. I copied the model from the Calabash festival in Jamaica. We travelled from the Dakar PEN Congress with participants including the late Binyavanga Wainana, Doreen Bangaina, Courttia Newland, and the late publisher, Jessica Huntley. Buchi Emecheta was supposed to have been our keynote writer but she was unwell. But the political situation made it difficult to carry it on. 

In 2017, I collaborated with other organisations who wanted to do something similar to the SABLE Literary Festival, and one of them, Camp Africa, was also active in sports. It links with culture as the sports are specific to the region such as wrestling, African style; it also includes Owari, which, although a game, is participatory – like sport – as well as traditional, cultural, and Pan-African – so that is how that came about. It all factors into the festival taking on the mantle of responsible tourism. We have a new partner now that Global Hands left Yaram Arts.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o at Timbooktoo Bookstore for Mboko Festival. Photo: Saadiya Sy

Publishing was always an important aspect of the festival which was heightened by the time we got to 2017, with the discussions around decolonisation and African languages. I cheekily asked Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o if he would come to the Mboka Festival and he agreed! That was pretty amazing and special and despite taking place during a politically sensitive period, he said that as long as we guaranteed it was safe, he would come

The Gambia was safe during the transitional period of a new Presidency; it was only outside destructive forces who tried to say that it wasn’t. People left in droves, but we stayed. We said it is important to show the resilience of art and what art brings to a nation. My belief is  that “Art is the Heart of a Nation” – this is art being dissident.

DPK: I really enjoyed your essay in Wasafiri about co-curating the late Khadija Saye exhibition, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe for The British Library, a photographer with whom you connected through an inter-generational and Pan-African exchange nurtured by the Mboka Festival.

This, from the fourth paragraph, really stood out for me: 

An initial reaction to Saye’s work could be that her photographic images appear simple, as there is very little in each one but each object and symbol represented and the way in which she places them in relation to her body, fuses her personality with her accumulated power. Alongside these very careful and deliberate choices, however, she has chosen a photographic process that leaves much of the final image to chance. For this, she relinquishes control to trust in the dynamics of her art.

I am not a photographer; I know nothing about how to choose a process that leaves the final product to chance. Yet I can’t help but think about this in terms of writing: what it might be like to leave the bulk of a poem’s or short story’s intention or structure to chance. 

Do you ever find yourself wanting to relinquish control, and trust chance, while you’re moulding your own poems and stories?

Andichurai, (Incense pot; usually andi churai), Khadija Saye (2018). Khadija Saye estate. DisplayBritish Library

KS: This is a good question. I like structure and control of my poems, particularly. But I think you have to thoroughly study what exists in terms of style and structure – then you know how to break it and develop your own. It’s why I like Sonia Sanchez and her development of haikus to sonkus.

So there should always be an element of risk-taking when you write. If you don’t take a chance you don’t learn, your writing doesn’t grow, move, or develop, become challenging or original. That is what it means to develop your own voice. I’ve currently put my second collection on hold as I want to spend more time researching the various styles and forms of African and African-American poetry – and I have other ideas that won’t fit into that collection.

DPK: Reading what you wrote about the incense pot, how here attention was being drawn to “a common Gambian household object found in rooms throughout the compound,” I instantly thought of the mats I own, mats which, in my culture, ‘a proper woman with a proper house’ must have. There are different kinds of mats – there are the mats you lay out for family members, and then there are the mats you only lay out for visitors, usually beneath the shade of a large tree in the compound, and so on. All the mats I own were handwoven by female relatives; my favourite was woven by my late maternal grandmother.

Your essay encouraged me to look anew at those mats, traditional objects into which so much care and thoughtfulness had been lavished, and through which I remain connected to aunties and cousin-sisters, but which often spend the day, alone, in the corner of the living room. I was very embarrassed by how dismissive I’ve been of them; I’m now determined to pay more attention to them, and similar objects.

I’ve always wanted to write about everyday, common household objects – the kind that Saye embraced – in a way that makes them seem anything but ordinary; how to do this remains one of my biggest technical headaches. Do you have any recommendations?

KS: In some ways, Saye’s images, if compared to literature, are a series of short stories; so since you have so wonderfully come to an awareness of the role of the mats in your life, you could approach them in a similar way. 

It sounds like you have lots of stories with your mats. The stories could be written as poetry; they could be written as short stories. Either way, they could be turned into a longer narrative in prose poetry or as a novel as each one becomes linked by a common thread. 

With familiar objects like this, it’s a good idea to start with what you know best – what is closest to you – as it is a better way to engage with the richness of the story. It’s also good to do some additional research around the objects, which is what we did with Saye’s work; which adds different (factual) layers to the story; there may be (mythical) knowledge that is unearthed, too. Objects can be given their own characteristics or be the actual characters themselves – personifying them. 

DPK: In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African-American Poetry is a book you wish more people knew about. What, about this collection, do you consider vital? 

KS: Aesthetically, it’s beautiful. It’s a book that makes you want to love poetry even if you say you don’t like poetry! Books like this make one realise how beautiful it is to own a book. It was edited by a poet who is equally a literary activist, E. Ethelbert Miller. He is a poet you want to know and become enriched by having him in your life. 

It is a good example of what anthologies could and should be. Anthologies provide a really good sense of the social history of the time and also offers the opportunity for less known writers to appear with established writers. 

DPK: Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and yourself curated This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelves in 50 Books, whose hardback version is coming soon to shelves near us.

The book is described as “a decolonized reading list that celebrates the wide and diverse experiences of people from around the world, of all backgrounds and all races” – one that “disrupts the all-too-often white-dominated ‘required reading’ collections that have become the accepted norm and highlights powerful voices and cultural perspectives that demand a place on our shelves.” 

Is there a novel or two among those 50 that you wish you’d written, and why?

KS: Segu by Maryse Condé. It is a wondrous epic. Although it is set in West Africa, it reflects the richness of our African history per se. I just love it.

DPK: I’ve always liked to think that I have a straightforward (because practical) relationship with my hair. I cut it off a few years ago, and after that never chemically straightened it again. Now, I wear it in braids, as my current relationship with it is mostly informed by convenience; I tend to avoid hairstyles that’ll increase the amount of time I need to make myself ‘presentable’ before I leave the house. 

Novelist Imbolo Mbue, on the other hand, describes her relationship with her ever-growing Afro as an “an idiosyncratic love affair”: 

…one I celebrate alongside my numerous identities which include: black, woman, immigrant, Cameroonian, anglophone, African, American, human. Perhaps I’ll cut off my hair again one of these days (to try a new style, or just because I feel like it). But, for now, just like my beloved homeland, it reminds me that, within a tangled, twisted, knotty situation, beauty resides.

The idea of hair as a site on which national and transnational cultural identities and politics are navigated is also explored by Salooni, a multidisciplinary art project by DJ Kampire Bahana, photographer Darlyne Komukama, theatre practitioner Dr. Aida Mbowa, and fashion designer Gloria Wavamunno.

Erin C. J. Robertson wrote about how The Salooni Project revealed “that more needs to be done to transcend Hotep information, or as Kampire defines as “a poorly educated, overly Pan-Africanist, sort of mystical, spiritual history or practice or knowledge,” that tends to supplant the topic of Black women’s hair on the internet, so that they can arrive at a truly free future where “hair is an expression of the full degree of their freedom no matter what that looks like,” Aida says.”

What was creating Hairvolution: Her Hair, Her Story, Our History like? How close are we, do you reckon, to the truly free future that projects like Salooni are working towards?

Cover art for Hairvolution: Her Hair, Her Story, Our History

KS: I didn’t edit Hairvolution; I’m one of the contributors – I contributed an essay about hair and some of my hair poems from my collection, Irki. I had always said that I wouldn’t write poems about hair – again, an expectation of Black women to focus on hair – but it is so much a part of our lives that I wrote them without realising that I had written ‘hair poems.’  

I think whatever project, and writing, is done about Black hair is important and essential as there is so much to be discussed. It’s almost too soon to draw on comparisons as there is still so much ground to cover that it’s probably best to highlight what is still missing.

Watch this space for more from the AfriPoeTree project as it is nurtured into its audio-video-interactive-360 degrees Poet Rooms-moving-performing-anthology fullness in the coming months… As Kadija says:

The crowdfunder is necessary to fill the additional 40 poetry rooms and to support further SIV development, so that we can continually create new content. This is important to keep it fresh, vibrant and relevant. So it would be great if people can support Afripoetree through the crowdfunder. All donors will be able to preview the app before the  official launch and we are also gathering gifts to offer donors  throughout our first year to say thank you.


Kadija Sesay is the co-founder of Mboka Festival of Arts Culture and Sport in The Gambia. She is also the publications Manager for Inscribe/Peepal Tree Press and has edited several anthologies by writers of African and Asian descent. 

Her poetry collection, Irki, which means ‘Homeland’ in the Nubian language (Peepal Tree Press, 2013), was shortlisted for the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry in 2014, and she received a 2020 Society of Authors grant to work on her next collection.

Her PhD (Brighton University, UK) researched Black British Publishers and Pan-Africanism, receiving an AHRC scholarship and a 2019 Kluge Fellowship to research at The Library of Congress. Her thesis will be published by Africa World Press. 

She was the external curator for the Khadija Saye exhibition, which opened at the British Library on 3rd December, 2020 and closed when London went into Tier 4 Covid-19 restrictions. The exhibition reopened in May 2021 and ended on 7th October, 2021. All nine self-portraits, in which Saye displays objects associated with Gambian culture, are reproduced here

Together with the lead curator, Marion Wallace, at the British Library, Kadija explored some of the objects used in Saye’s photography in Khadija Saye’s Art and the ‘Toothbrush Tree’, Cowries, Incense and Amulets and a short documentary film. Her poem, TURRA’NDORR, was commissioned separately from the exhibition by Visual Verse: An anthology of Art and Words.


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