Gresham College Lectures

Literary Activism in Contemporary Africa

October 18, 2023 Gresham College
Gresham College Lectures
Literary Activism in Contemporary Africa
Show Notes Transcript

Literature has always played a key role in social and political life in Africa, even when it is not deliberately or obviously activist in its aims or form.

African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, Obi Wali and poets Christopher Okigbo and Stella Nyanzi have long been seen as key thinkers and engaged intellectuals.

Tracing this history, this lecture shows how creative work changes society and discusses the role of literary collectives such as Chimureng, Jalada, and Bakwa.

A lecture by Madhu Krishnan recorded on 12 October 2023 at Barnard's Inn Hall, London

The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:

Gresham College has offered free public lectures for over 400 years, thanks to the generosity of our supporters. There are currently over 2,500 lectures free to access. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds. To support Gresham's mission, please consider making a donation:


Support the show

In late 2020, the Ubuntu Reading Group, an initiative of the now defunct Kampala based center for African cultural excellence, published a collection of poetry titled No Roses From My Mouth, written by the Ugandan feminist activist and scholar Stella Nzi. The poems and no roses from my mouth were composed from 2018 over a period of 18 months, while NZI was incarcerated in Kampala's Lucera prison on charges of cyber harassment and offensive communication. Zi was by this time well known for her work as a feminist activist. Amongst other things, she started the pads for Girls 2007 movement to get sanitary products into secondary schools in Uganda. Uh, she started the Ugandan Women's Protest Working group and she organized the March, 2018 Women's March against Femicide in that country. The charges raised against her under the auspices of Uganda's Computer Misuse Act came not from her work as an activist or organizer, but rather for a poem that she wrote addressed to Ugandan President Yoweri Muney, which she posted on her Facebook account, written and published the day after Muney 74th birthday. In the poem, Yan writes Yoi, they say It was your birthday yesterday. How nauseatingly disgusting a day. I wish the acidic plus flooding as Steri, that's his mother cursed vaginal canal, had burnt up Your unborn fetus burnt you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda. The poem's quite a bit longer than this, but this is my favorite bit. Um, anyway, in Yi's case is one clear example of the ways in which political activism, literary creation, and knowledge production intersect often with powerful and unanticipated results as a self-styled organic intellectual. In Gram Chian terms, neon's use of poetry as a medium for activist resistance is a natural expression of a larger agenda rooted in practices of engaged and direct action economic in its form and broaden its reach. Poetry via Facebook for nzi is both a platform for expression and a medium for affective transformation. A mode of writing whose very literariness its singularity as a form opens up pathways for radical thought which can travel unfettered even when its author cannot. And I should say that today NZI is an exile. She is, I think in Germany, via Kenya. She is no longer able to live in the Uganda where she's done so much work. The editors of Nazi's collection echo the sentiment in their introduction to the collection. They cite Audrey Lorde and her declaration. The quote of all the art forms poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts in the hospital pantry on the subway, on scraps of surplus paper. At the same time, this economy of form belies poetries transformative potential as literary writing able to and Ralph Waldo Emerson's terms quote, abolish the past and refusal history opening utopian horizons and the possibilities of change. Critically NZI is a doctor of philosophy and medical anthropology by training and a political activist by profession. Yet she deliberately identifies herself as a writer. In a 2021 tweet, YY shares the following poem, and again, I think it's quite interesting though I can't get into the details of it, that she chooses to use social media as her platform for engagement. She publishes almost all of her work on either Facebook or Twitter and has gained large followings. So as she writes, as you can see, although I am in exile, I can still write as my contribution to the fight for freedom and liberation in Uganda. I am a writer. My name was made through writing. I am a freedom fighter. My fight for freedom is liberating. I write to fight against dictatorship. I fight for freedom to write what I like. When I write, I poke the leopards anus with my might when I fight. I use only nonviolent methods to fight. I am a writer in exile. I don't need to be home to write. I am a freedom fighter in exile. I don't need to be home to continue fighting. So I just think it's quite interesting that somebody who has done so much work in the larger sort of political and activist sphere still deliberately chooses to self-identify as a writer, as a literary writer, as a poet, as an essayist, first and foremost as their primary weapon. So since the early 20th century, probably before that, the African continent has been a key site in which literary engagement has intertwined with the political and socialist activist movements that have marked its emergence as a zone of ostensibly independent nation states in the post-colonial era, from the era of anti-colonial mobilization led by figures such as poet, essayist, publisher, and future president of Senegal Leopold Sedar SGO to the centrality of writers in liberation of struggles in Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere. And apparent link has emerged between literature, literary production, political mobilization, activism, and the various struggles to determine the imaginative horizons of political and social experience and claim making on the continent. These function across spatial scales and registers of meaning, some are highly localized, very specific in their linguistic bounds. Others are regional, others are pan national, others are continental, others are dpor extant work And African studies has noted the ways in which the creation of literary collectives such as the Ibadan, Nigeria based ARI Club or Transition Magazine based originally in Uganda, now housed at Harvard or the Nigerian based black Orpheus, as well as university publications like the East African Journals, Dar Light Pen Points and Bus across the fifties, sixties and seventies enabled the constitution of public spaces and platforms in which writers and producers were able to engage in complex negotiations around the meaning of modernity, development and citizenship on the African continent. A few brief examples illustrate the historical importance of literary activism to the region I've mentioned before, but always can repeat the foundational work of Leopold Sedar Sango. First as a poet and as a literary activist central to the development of the Naude movement and the Pan-African student mobilization in mid-century Paris. Later Senegal's first president, the participation of prominent writers, thinkers and members of the Umbari Society, including Wale Ska Chinua, Abe Echa Ahmadi, and Christopher Obo. In the protracted Nigerian Biafran war of 1967 to 1970, the harassment of Rajat Nego founder of Transition magazine by the Ugandan government for perceived acts of sedition through the activities of the publication and the imprisonment. And unfortunately sometimes murder of writers from across the continent, including Ingo Ra Wewa, and Kris Banani. As these examples demonstrate the literary has long served as a key and sometimes feared site of sociopolitical mobilization, debate and engagement on the African continent with important material effects and implications both for governance and for activist movements operating in the region. And to give another quick example, this is one of my favorite examples, is um, one of INGO's novels, Monte Giri tells the story of a kind of freedom fighter who goes across the country fighting for justice against the government. The then government heard tell of this magii and put out a bounty on his head. Well, he's a fictional character, there's no real magii, but they didn't realize this, you know, so the literary is real. Literary activist collectives have played a crucial role in generating claims towards a situated mode of Afro modernity, inflected by the study against Coloniality, which underwrote and continues to underwrite the struggle for political and true independence and produce Pan-African networks of literary and cultural activism forged through textual, imaginative, social and physical modes of space, making these institutions undergirded by their manipulation and reconfiguration of concepts of citizenship, civic engagement, and solidarity. Thus form crucial outlets for forging a more expansive terrain of the political and enabling the opening of spaces in which the sociopolitical sediment could be imaginatively transmitted often through highly specified codes of aesthetic practice. What's vital here to understand is that literary activism functions as a kind of production that to paraphrase heart and negri in their work assembly occurs, quote evermore socially in networks of cooperation and interaction, while simultaneously resulting not just in commodities but social relations and ultimately society itself. Literary activism thus functions through the commons of people in publics and the networks of practice that it produces. As such, it offers a crucial redress to models of the state, the market and civil society as they are normally thought. It thus functions as the medium through which horizontal soar might emerge. At the same time, these horizontal soar remained entangled with vertical structures of power in many ways, including the financial, operational, and infrastructural levels. I'll return to this at the end of this talk. Equally literary activism allows us to consider what we mean when we talk about the literary. What is the literary in a broad sense, if in a European or North American context, debates around literature and aesthetics have repeatedly returned to post-enlightenment notions of art as disinterested what is commonly thought of as art for art's sake in the African context and a global south context more broadly, something rather different has obtained here. That is the work of writers and cultural producers and their concerted interest in engagement with society through aesthetic forms demonstrates the ways in which art and culture more generally have always served as significant and constituent elements of social production and reproduction. A reflection of Raymond Williams mid-century observation that all parts of the social unit interact, engage, and impact upon one another. So as mentioned, scholarship on African literature has always shown a deep preoccupation with the notion of the writer as engaged intellectual with a significant role to play in the raising of national consciousness, construct constitution of the ostensibly post-colonial nation state through anti-colonial struggle for at least a century. The African continent has been a key site in which this has happened. And here I just wanted to show some of the covers of one of the most important and foundational literary magazines of the African continent transition. So this is one of their early covers from their original run, which was based in Uganda these days. They're based in Harvard at the Hutchins Center under the leadership of Henry Lewis Gates Jr. You can see there's a rather different aesthetic going on. They're a bit more of an academic journaly sort of thing now. But still there's little consensus, however, on what the term literary activism means. How do we define the activism in literary activism? How do we define the literary and literary activism? For some literary activism is a question of aesthetics. It's a formal issue, a champion of the platonic notion of the literary and the artistic amme chow, for instance, and perhaps most famously develops an oppositional relation between what he terms markets, activism and literary activism where the former is described as quote, a species of activity that added afresh and what soon became an indispensable dimension to the publishing of novels. And indeed how the novel would be thought of and quote intimately connected to the discovery of new literature. So that's market activism. The latter is more daltering, very helpful definition under this view. Market activism might be seen as concerned with questions of diversity, questions of access, questions of literature, development, representation, and the development of new publics for new literatures. Literary activism by contrast concerns itself more with the intuit and contested question of value and literary value. Yet for other critics, working definitions with conceptualized literary activism as a mode of social production through the opening of spaces and platforms and constitution of networks and publics are paramount, particularly the opening of platforms and Publix which are rendered less visible on the global literary market, those which are based and centered on the African continent. So here we can think about the opening of spaces to make visible what Maura Deun, Adam Monjovi called citation Publix, which exist and thrive and are crucial to the rendering of what we consider the literary and literary production, but which we may not actually see outside of those specific localities, outside of those Inplace locations. As I, along with doctors Ruth Bush and Kate Wallace wrote in a 2021 introduction to a special issue of Eastern African literary and cultural studies. Under this view, literary activism might be seen more aptly as a mode of knowledge production as we wrote. Literary activism is quote an expression of agency that unfurls through a desire for something else, which is not essentialist in its aims and which leverages its own forms of momentum. End quote, still more recent work explicitly delineates literary activism as a deliberate mode of political intervention, both through the production of literary writing under conditions of duress or through its contents, address and modes of publicness. So we can return here to the example of nzi with which I open this talk, who deliberately uses poetry as she's stated repeatedly as a way of engaging people. She says the best way to reach the Publix I wanna reach is by writing poetry and then publishing it freely and open to all through social media. Um, we can also think of in GOGI Wago and his work, particularly in the seventies, where he switched from writing novels to doing community theater. Um, and he switched from English to KU and a concerted attempt to use the cultural as a way of opening up new avenues for Publix to engage. We can think about Kenya Sara Wewa, who was put to death under the Abacha regime who used literary writing, both creative nonfiction and fiction as a way of finding a platform for gon activism. So working on behalf of his communities and the people of the Niger Delta, who because of the oil richness of their region were horrifically exploited and put under great duress by the government. So these various, if not contradictory, if not always contradictory definitions imply literary activism does not function as a single concept or roadmap for literary engagement, but rather as a constellation of approaches to understanding cultural production. We can think of it in a sense as a kind of Vick and stein and cluster concept I suppose. So I'm focusing explicitly on a couple of case studies for the second half of this talk, but these case studies I argue, have wider ramifications for the continent. They're not exceptional, they're just kind of things where I think we can see some of the patterns playing out. So I'm drawing on my own experiences as a researcher, a collaborator, a co-producer, and a friend who's been working with literary activists, including writers, editors, translators, readers, and other creatives on the African continent for nearly a decade. It should go without saying that my reflections are not and could not be comprehensive. Africa is not a country and I am not a pan continental expert. I just know what I've done. Um, at the same time, the case studies that I'm going to be going through strike me as representative of some of the larger patterns and tendencies which have marked literary activist work on the continent. Well before the term appeared in commonplace usage, the centrality of literary activism to the work of cultural production was made evident on the African continent. We can think then, besides the examples I've already mentioned, of things like the Nairobi based Chemi collective, uh, we can think about things such as the 1962 conference of African Writers of English expression, more commonly known as the Macare Conference, where Ingi quite famously had his first meeting with the Chee leading to the publication of his first novel. We can think about the lesser known, but equally important 1963 for a bay conference of teachers of Anglophone African literature held in Sierra Leone. We can think about the 1973 conference on African publishing held in Efe Nigeria. We can think about the great Pan-African festivals held in the sixties and seventies in Dakar, Lagos, Kaduna, Algiers and Kinshasa. And here you can just see, um, this is a publication by a collective I'll speak about shortly called Chi Oranga based in Cape Town. But they spent several years putting together, it's a massive book. I would've brought it, but it was too heavy to take on the train. Um, that's a catalog of the 1977 Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Cultures that was held in Nigeria. And it's a really fascinating document because they put together archival material with newly commissioned writing with historical writing, and it's in about eight different languages. So nobody can read the whole thing, nothing's translated. It's fantastic. Um, difficult to get your hands on, but if you do, you should. It is very heavy. But we can also think about the role of school literary societies, which we know were now crucial to the fomenting of literary cultures. Uh, we can think about periodical cultures, we can think about newspapers. All these sorts of things have for a long time been crucial modes of literary production in the African continent. And quite often I think in the global north, we really only think about novels, you know, um, as they famously say chebe to Adi. But those things wouldn't be possible without these other ecologies. There would be no chebe without school literary societies, which is where he started writing. You know, all these sorts of things foment each other. So both historically and in its present shape, literary activism, I argue, enables a vision of social production which moves away from a polarity between the vertical and the horizontal that is between leadership and movements through its broader engagement in institutional practices. So to give one example, and I've already mentioned them several times, uh, in the 1950s, the Umbari Club for which the influential literary magazine Black Orpheus was published, was both a physical site for the meeting and collaboration of anti-colonial and radical writers, but also a symbolic location through which a series of aesthetic principles were developed and transmitted to wider Publix. Crucially and critically, black Orpheus did not limit itself simply to Nigerian writing. It published writing from the continent and its diasporas. And it was one of the first outfits in which Francophone African writing was translated into English. And I'll get back to the question of translation shortly. However, what's quite interesting about the Ari Club is that it was funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which we know was an institution of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the C I A, despite these funding lines, the ARI Club operated through a transformation of these modes of financial support into new institutions with specific and singular aims, not always of a piece with the goals and objectives of the former. And it's quite interesting to read 'cause it wasn't just the Ari Club, it was, you know, transition chemi. All of these outfits that I've been mentioning in the mid-century were funded by the C I A as part of Cold War era, soft power kinds of conflicts, um, and, um, races I suppose. And what's interesting is to read the kind of variety of responses because most of the people involved did not realize that the Congress for cultural freedom was actually the C I A. They thought they were just getting cultural funds, right? And they used this to do what they want. And there's a very interesting bifurcation where some now express great betrayal at the fact that this is where the money comes from. Whereas others think, eh, I don't really care. I got the money, I got to do what I want. They never told me what to do. I think that's sort of an interesting tension. So both implicated within the vertical topography of power during the Cold War and radical in its fabrication of a space of commoning, the Embar Club cannot be easily categorized as one or the other. And I think a lot of people want to say, well, you got C I A funding, so you're just stooges. And other people want to say, well, you're radical creatives and you resisted. But I don't think it's either of those. I think it's something a little bit messier in the middle. What I'm trying to say is we cannot relegate outfits like the ARI Club into a neat binary in the realm of the air conditioner or the realm of the ver veranda to use Emanuel Terry's formulation. Um, so he talks about the two publics of the African continent, one being the realm of the air conditioner. This is of official spaces like universities and institutions, the other being the veranda where you just sit in the evening and you talk. And both are equally generative and important to the constitution of publics and social production. So this is just one example of the complex historical interaction of institutions, their creation, their transformation, and their mutation. With the end of the Cold War, the institutional landscape against which literary activism operates has again shifted this time sedimenting around the work of NGOs and donor agencies, including the Ford Foundation, who until 2016 supported Kenya's Wan Trust, a very high profile contemporary, though now defunct literary network, um, and the Miles Morland Foundation. These are just two examples as these examples demonstrate. However, literary activism has always been riven by questions of soft power questions of funding streams and the larger role of northern patrons. At the same time, the work of these foundations, institutions and meetings is critical to the constitution of modern African literatures in English in particular, but also in other languages. What this shows us is the role played by the literary as a site through which to constitute negotiate and contest the social. We can think here of anti-colonial thinkers such as France, Fanon and Amelka Cabral, both of whom notably observed the importance of culture to the constitution of the post independence nation. Far from acting as supplementary to real social production, literature functions and functioned as does culture more broadly as a key avenue through which ideas about politics, society, morality, and liberation could be elaborated and date and debated at the same time. This was not saying that literature was instrumental, it was aesthetic. It was a deliberately aesthetic task. Early debates around African literature. Thus think about what the literary does as a register through which to create publics. What kinds of language should be used, what sorts of forms and aesthetics should be used, should literature be realist, should it be magical realist, should be super realist. All of these sorts of things, aesthetics, we're at the center of all of these sorts of questions. It's not just a case of literature as a way of talking to people. So I think there remain then broader questions to think about, about what literature can do and how it does it, which also need to be put in tandem with broader questions around extractivism in the way in which the work of Africa based collectives are often appropriated and I would argue sometimes misused by institutions of the global North if we just think about these sorts of things. So I'm gonna move now to finish to a couple of contemporary examples from my own work. In April of 2017, I organized a workshop in Cape Town, South Africa titled Personal Histories, personal Archives, alternative Print Cultures. This was part of a research network funded by the Arts and Humanity Research Council titled Small Magazines, literary Networks and Self Fashioning in Africa and its diasporas, which I co-led, co-directed for two years with my colleague Dr. Christopher Oma. At the time he was at the University of Cape Town. He is now at Duke University. The workshop was held in this beautiful space that you can see here, which is the now defunct Long Street premises of Chia, a self-described project-based mutable object publication Pan-African platform for editorial and curatorial work. Chia is best known for their Eponymous magazine, which published 16 issues between 2002 and 2011. They have expanded since to a broad sheet newspaper. They also have a popup radio station, internet based, they have live events, they have parties, they have a new space. I think it's in the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town, but I'm not 100% sure. It's called the Chim Oranga Factory. Uh, they do large scale research projects such as the Festac Reader that I showed. And they also run, um, a publication called the African Cities Reader, which seeks to reimagine cities from an African perspective. So they do a lot. As part of our opening conversation with collaborators, Billy Korra, Boi Kona, and Stacy Hardy, we asked how has Kim Orga sought out and forged Readerships and Publix. In response to our question, Stacey Hardy argued that the idea of a quote target market was dangerous and arrogant, offering a powerful repudiation to dominant models within the global publishing industry. And book trait Chia Hardy explained, worked from a premise articulated by its founder and Tony a jobe, that quote, you don't have to find readers, readers will find you. Chi Oren's ethos She continued was one based on recognition what she terms the recognition of being part of something of encountering Chi Oranga and clocking into belonging. For Hardy readers weren't readers, they were Chi Orga people who would find the publication and on finding it, find something of their selves within it, be it through engagement with the magazine, attendance at live events or parties or participation in the collective's online presence. For Hardy, this was a personal story, intricately linked with her own entry into the Chi Miranda Collective, which was sparked by a chance encounter with the journal, the first issue of which you can see here at Clark's Bookshop in Cape Town, early in her tenure as a new and unhappy Cape Town resident. This anecdote, justice is something much more complex than my first make itself evidence as Hardee's response evokes to be, Hm, Oranga person is to enter into a kind of mutual recognition based on a shared ethos. One spread both through the actual transmission of the print magazine, but extending far beyond encompassing multiple modalities and forms both physical, digital, and textual. And yet, while CIGA's editorial agenda is driven by what the editors want to read, and a firm belief that people are quote, interested in brilliant wild thinking as part of the same conversation in 2017, Hardy talked about Shiga Shift from its flagship journal to its current incarnation, the chronic, a quarterly broadsheet in 2013 built both out of a network of friendship, but driven primarily by a need to reach more people. So the idea was, well the form of the literary journal doesn't really reach people, but a broadsheet reaches people a lot more.'cause you know, you can kind of throw it into shops, you can kind of leave it on a bus bench, you can take apart all the different sections, these sorts of things. So perhaps what best encapsulates this multifaceted positioning is their tagline, which I don't know if you can see it, because unfortunately black on red on black isn't very easy to look at. But Chiang tagline is taken from the Fela Kuti lyric who no, no go. No. So my own work with literary activists began as a serendipitous series of meetings in 2016 when I was invited to the now defunct Kampala based r Aism festival, I was invited in order to co convene the first arts managers and literary entrepreneurs workshop, which the next year changed its name to arts managers and literary activists. And we can think a bit about this shift from entrepreneurialship to activism. There's a lot to say. Um, over the course of four intense days, I worked with Dr. Kate Wallace and Dr. Kate, uh, professor Ruth Bush with the necessary aid of Professor Grace Milla, who was instrumental in developing the workshop but unfortunately was unable to get a visa to attend Taylor's old as time. Uh, we worked with 30 odd aspiring literary activists from around 16 African countries. During this time, our sessions focused on a range of questions around how to develop literary infrastructure such as magazines, networks, translation platforms, book distribution initiatives, as well as more theoretical questions around what it means to be a literary activist. On the back of this particular workshop, I entered into a number of longstanding collaborators, our collaborations, rather, with literary producers based on the African continent. So I'm going to now for the end of the talk shift to focus on one of the ones that has become the most central to my work. And this is a collaboration with the Cameroon based network bwa. Following my initial meeting at the 2016 Rivm Festival with Saka EK bin, founding editor of bwa, a literary network based primarily in Yaun Day Cameroon, but really spanning all over the place. I entered into what has been a very happy, many years long collaboration. Our most notable work to date has been the BWA Bristol Literary Translation Project, which was initiated in 2018 under underfunding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Cameroon has a unique history in terms of its colonial and post-colonial past, and this informs the ways in which BWA shapes its literary aesthetic in its initial offering. BWA was founded in 2011 as a digital magazine, Zac bin its founder notes that he initially got the spark to start bwa, to quote Phila Lacuna and respond to the absence of spaces and Cameroon, where writers, particularly Anglophone writers and critics, could publish both creative and critical work. Since its original conception as a digital literary magazine, BWA has grown into a multimedia collective working variously in the publication or production of podcasts as a publishing house, as a pop-up library producing live literary events and more at the time of its founding, MCK Vien himself a writer, had little experience with editorial work nor digital publishing with the institution of BWA books. In 2020, the Collective's publishing House Bach's work has increasingly turned to the question of language and as specific ramifications in the Cameroonian context language use. And indeed the language of literary production have particular vales in the country for reasons which link directly to its complex history of colonial rule. So from the time of independence to the present day, Cameroon has been beset by violent conflict between its francophone government and anglophone separatist movements calling for the creation of an independent nation state, which they would like to have called am amazonia or ambient. And you can see it's very difficult. I know the colors here aren't the best, but you can see all the kind of bluish bits. So that's eight of Camero's. 10 regions are francophone. These two kind of pinkish ones are anglophone. And then this bit here is technically Nigeria, but was once part of Anglophone Cameroon. So once the German colony of Cameroon, after the end of World War I, the country became a un trust territory administered under both British and French mandates. So the majority bit was under a French mandate. The kind of pinky bit was under a British mandate. So you can kind of imagine what this means, right? The bit administered by France, though a trusteeship, a trust territory was administered under similar lines to, or the pinky bit, the anglophone bit that was administered by the British was administered along the same lines as Nigeria. So essentially as the same thing as Nigeria. So what happened then is that you had a bifurcated system in which in one country there were two vastly different ways of organizing politics, education, economics, so on and so forth. So really, really differential lines. Critically, these were not symmetrical lines, they were asymmetrical in terms of resource and wealth distribution. The anglophone areas that is to say were relatively neglected in terms of the distribution of national resource compared to the francophone areas. This was exacerbated by the continual rule of francophone governments since the, the independence of La du Cameroon in 1960. A fun fact about Cameroon, they're only on their second president ever. There's only been two, uh, and they're both francophone. In 1961, the country held a plebiscite determining the fate of the British Cameroons. There is a great deal of colonial interference, as you might imagine. And this resulted in the unification of the northern Cameroons with Nigeria. So the bit that I was sort of jumping to try to point out, uh, and the Southern Cameroons were unified with the French Republic of Cameroons. This in turn sparked conflict between Federalists separatists and unionists, which has continued ever since. So Cameroon now has two official languages, English and French, alongside over 250 African languages, including Fang Ol French is the main language in eight of Cameroon's 10 regions, A 2005 census notes that 57.6% of the population speaks French versus 25.2% of the population who describe themselves as English speaking despite the institution of the National Commission for the promotion of bilingualism and multiculturalism in 2017. Moreover, very few Cameroonians define themselves as bilingual in the sense of fluency in both English and French. Of course, most people are bilingual in the sense of a European language and multiple native languages. More importantly, anglophone and Francophone are less linguistic identities than they are political identities. So you'll meet somebody and I have many friends and collaborators I've worked with who've lived their whole life in say, French speaking Y de and are more fluent in French than English. But they'll say, I'm not francophone, I'm Anglophone.'cause their family's from, you know, the Northwest or something. It's a political identity more so than anything else. This can be kind of captured in a popular saying, which is Cameroon is bilingual, but not Cameroonians. A consequence of the country's policy of official bilingualism, which was explained by former president, their first president, a hijo as quote, by bilingualism we mean the practical usage of our two official languages, English and French, throughout the national territory. So this context is important for understanding Bach's current work and especially the importance of translate translation and language to their mission. As a deliberately Cameron centered project, BWA over recent years has sought to engage in the production of wider networks and infrastructures, not only around writing, but around literary translation and editing as a means of affecting change at the level of the social. This returns us to my work with them. Following our award of A H R C funding in 2018, I worked with Zaka mc bin Georgina Collins and Ruth Bush to design a series of workshops around creative writing and translation under the highly imaginative title, creative Writing and Translation for Peace really spent a lot of time thinking about that. Um, in 2019, we ran two creative writing workshops simultaneously. One was in French, the other was in English. Uh, the French one was facilitated by Stro, the English by Billy Korra. After a period of mentorship following the workshops, we did a follow-up workshop for emerging literary translators facilitated by Ra Schwartz TRO and Georgina Collins. These emerging translators were then mentored to work, to translate the stories from the creative writing workshops from English to French and vice versa, resulting in the production of a bilingual anthology published by BWA Books, your Feet will Lead You Where Your Heart Is, or Le at The Heart of the Project was on the one hand a distinctly political aim to attempt in the context of the Anglophone crisis, to develop lines of communication, empathy, and bridge building between anglophone and Francophone Cameroonian and experiences. And one thing that I should make clear is that Cameroon also has a bifurcated educational system. So you either do, um, Frank French School, which is like the French Baccalaureate, or you do your Anglophone school, which is like GCSEs A Levels, that sort of thing. They have a different name for it, but they're very, very, very different. And in essence what that means is that depending on your political identity as anglophone or francophone, you're getting a different education. You're getting a different story of what the country is and what it means and who tells it. And I find that quite fascinating. There are now some bilingual quote unquote schools, but from what I understand, they're not actually bilingual. Again, you kind of have to choose. And again, that impacts what university you go to. It impacts what you do, it impacts all sorts of things. It's very, very fascinating, but also very sad. So one participant in our workshops explained to us that their interest in participating was something they felt was fundamental due to the fact that without knowing each other's stories, how can communities come to know one another At the same time? The car, the project wasn't explicitly political, by which I mean participants, including writers and translators weren't limited in topics. We weren't like write about the Anglophone crisis. We were like, write what you want, write a great story. Um, they weren't limited in terms of the aims and purviews of their creative participation. Like all of Bach was projects, the primary aim was aesthetic to nurture and support a radical aesthetics and creative thinking through a focus on craft. Yet as the project unfolded, it became clear that this is itself political. So if the literary scene in Cameroon has been mediated in large parts by the country's post-colonial politics and colonial politics, and one thing that's quite notable is that there's very little translation between Francophone and Anglophone. Cameroonian writing, even a writer of the stature of Mongo Butti. Not very few of his books are actually translated. It's really shocking when you think about it. It's of no little consequence. The Bach was, projects have attempted to engage in shape publics and networks of practice differently. So you can think for example, about the 2017 short story prize that they run, which worked across languages including a judging panel made up entirely of bilingual readers. Or we can think about things like the BWA reading series of which you can see some pictures of. One of the addition here, which operates not through official bilingualism, but through an ethos that everyone in the room's part of a community and everyone can choose what language they prefer to speak in. Um, if you wanna speak English, you speak English. If you wanna speak French, you speak French. There's no official translation or interpretation. If you don't understand, you can ask a friend sitting next to you. But the idea is everyone can understand everyone because everyone's part of this community. And this was just a tweet after the third edition of the reading series by the Cameroonian writer and activist Florian in Gimm, in which he says, it was a super moment. I loved the homogeneity between quote unquote francophones and quote unquote anglophones. It was a young audience and everyone was perfectly bilingual reaching across the cleavage that's killing our country. So that was kind of cool. So I wanna link this back to the ideas found in Stacey Hardy's comments, which I mentioned earlier, especially the idea of literary activist work occurring through networks of friendship and intimacy built upon mutual recognition, shared ethics and shared aesthetics. I was struck, for instance, by comments made by Zak Veen in 2019 at a one day conference on literary translation. In a presentation on bwa. Vivin made the point that in order to live out shared aesthetics and ethics, we might need to think about sustainability differently. Bach's own model at present, for instance, particularly with BWA books, is to operate at a loss to make the books affordable. Their books generally sell for around 2000 to 3000 sefa, which is really cheap. If you go to a regular bookshop and get, you know, something published at Gali Mart, it might be 25,000, 2000, 3000 is essentially nothing. Mepi even has argued that of course BWA could look at making a short term profit, but they would likely end up folding in two or three years. Instead, the aim is to generate an audience and a public who are invested in the BWA project, who think of themselves as BWA people. And then thinking about profitability as something that might emerge across time. This, however, returns us to the problem of funding. One irrefutable fact is that the work that we have been doing together would not have been possible without the financial support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and our follow-up activities and research would not be possible without the income generated from the European Research Council, from whom I have a starting grant. And indeed even the names of the projects we've done speak to the imperative to address the Western funder in a way that is going to make you sellable. I would characterize my work with BWA as founded predominantly on friendship and shared ideals. But I'm not naive. It remains the case that this work depends on my participation. As a UK based academic who has access to the aforementioned funding schemes, it's further through. That's true that structures and institutions that are Africa based and Africa centered remain a struggle, particularly access to high quality, affordable printing and distribution facilities. So for example, if you're trying to send a bunch of books from Lagos, Nigeria to Nairobi, Kenya, the cheapest way to do it is via London. While this is happily in the process of changing with publishers such as the Ian Nmba press dedicated to local editing and printing, it remains a significant area of struggle. At the same time, it would be shortsighted to dismiss literary activist work as forever oppressed by the processes of N idealization or derealization. One refrain that's repeated itself across by many interviews, not just in Cameroon but in co devo and Nigeria and Kenya elsewhere, is the need to take and use the resources at hand, but use them for one's own aims and goals. So just to kind of wrap up, you know, you can think about some examples of what people are doing to do this. So, um, the Ian literary activist at Vire, for instance, runs Bibliotech 1949 is is a library dedicated to black women's writing from around the world in the popular quarter of Ypu and Abian. And one of the things she's done is started a restaurant. So she gets some funding from different mentoring projects and workshops, but the restaurant is what keeps the library running. The tagline in fact is 1949, the restaurant where we read the library, where we eat, uh, and they're affordable pricing in a highly populated quarter of the city means there's a lot of foot traffic, there's a lot of people coming in. There is myriad other examples of people trying to think differently and out of the box of ways to fund themselves and the things they do. Um, and so I would just say by way of conclusion that if literary activism, as I've described it, is sometimes ambiguous and entangled in various networks and structures, which cross spatial, spatial kind of scales, which cross different sorts of institutional and logistical barriers and gaps. It's also a space where individuals and collectives retain a sense of agency creating their own networks and platforms, which while not always visible to publics in the globe, north remain essential to development of literary cultures and the construction and constitution of the social more broadly this open spaces through which the very boundaries of the literary and the political can be opened to new horizons based on radical collaborations and a rejection of simple binaries, a received knowledge. Thank you Professor Christian. Thank you. That was a really rich, really interesting talk. I thought what was, um, particularly interesting, this idea of how literary activism works on so many different levels. I mean we are very used to it in that quite literal mm-hmm.<affirmative> level of literary activism or that must mean more diversity in publishing or, or you know, reaching new demographics and this idea that Africa being a very pluralistic space mm-hmm <affirmative> historically and contemporarily, um, actually implants this new idea of literary activism as a struggle for social space, a struggle for political space, cultural space. I thought that was all really interesting ideas. We've got some great questions in a few minutes, Umhmm <affirmative> to, to have a go at them. So, uh, Cyrus was wondering if you could speak a bit more about the cultures that exist, uh, around some of these contemporary, um, sort of African writers. Uh, for example, are they, are they actually widely read at home like, um, or within their, or is it more localized within their own communities? Um, I think it depends. You can't give a sort of blanket answer to that. There are some, so for example, Florian on campus, he's very widely known, um, but primarily through his blogging. He's very big on social media. So there'll be people on social media who are quite widely known, who people sort of know about. Uh, Zi who I opened the talk with is quite widely read and known, not just in Uganda but in Kenya and sort of globally. Um, that being said, there's not a huge amount of readership across linguistic communities because there's not a huge amount of translation that goes on. Um, even a writer such as Emily Boom, who is one of the most famous contemporary Cameroonian writers, has only recently started being translated into English. Prior to that an English speaker wouldn't be able to read her stuff because it was published by Gali Mar in French and Paris. So there are these kind of logistical questions. Um, there's also the larger question of literacy and you know, we know quite a few of my interlocutors for example, have said, well, my mom can never read this because she's not literate enough in English. Um, but I kind of pushed back against this question of readership because we know for a fact that in this country, literary fiction is on the decline. Not that many people read literature anymore in terms of like the big novels and these sorts of things. And I always think when people talk about like, well Africans don't read, Indians don't read, you know, Latin Americans don't read well, yeah, British people don't read either. Why is it such a problem when it's the global south? You know? And so I think we need to think about that 'cause we know from looking at like B S C indexes, we know from looking at Nielsen book scan, we know readerships are under decline everywhere. So I think we need to think about why do we moralize on certain geographies as opposed to others. Absolutely. And one of the points you made earlier as well was that we've got to take a, have a bit more of a broader imagination with these different forms of literary production, especially our mind. Um, and in the sort of social media spaces and, you know, maybe not draw quite so stark a line between oral and written literatures. That's a very kind of mm-hmm.<affirmative> Absolutely colonial imposition absolutely. Thing to do. Absolute. And I'm not a digital utopian by any means, but I also think, you know, like the dismissal of digital platforms or the dismissal of audiobooks, well those are still legitimate forms of reading. Listening to an audiobook is still reading in my opinion. Actually, uh, there's a, this leads on nicely to another question. Were the French and English versions of the BWA anthology in one BMORE two, and what was the distribution method and uptake across the two distinct regions? It was one volume. I should have brought a copy actually, because the way that we did it is like if you hold it one way, it was in English, but then if you flip it, it was in French, so it was kind of half and half and you could sort of just go between them the way you wanted to. Um, the question of distribution's quite interesting, and it goes back to some of the infrastructural barriers that we face. Um, it's fairly well known that affordable, high quality printing is almost impossible in West Africa at the moment. There simply do not exist the infrastructure. You can get high quality printing, but it's really expensive and you can get affordable printing, but it's terrible quality. Um, so actually the anthology as well as a number of BAA's publications, most of them have been published in the uk sent to my house and then I bring them with me to Cameroon when I go. Um, which is a ridiculous situation to be in, but it's the most affordable way to do it. Um, the distribution has been through local bookshops, um, uh, events, festivals, different book festivals in Europe, north America and on the African continent as well as pop-up events and launches. Uh, the distribution, it was pretty decent, I think. I think, you know, like at least maybe, I don't wanna say the number 'cause I might be wrong, but I feel like it's north of a thousand copies have been sold. And in general, booksellers, if you sold more than 800 copies of literary fiction, you're doing pretty well. So it's, it was a good number. It had good traction, but again, it was priced very competitively, very competitively, which I think is really important. Hi, um, my name's Melody. Thank you so much for such an engaging and enlightened and talk. I had a question, and I think it was from one of the lines of the poem that you shared mm-hmm <affirmative>, I think I wrote it down. It was, I think she said, sorry, One moment. I don't need to be home to continue fighting. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>. Um, I think someone said of the Argentine writer, Julio Za, he was displaced and therefore the writing he would write about Argentina was coming from this place of, it's a mythical, nostalgic space as opposed to where he lives. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>, I'm really curious, do you feel like displacement affects, like, not the validity, but just the nature of literary activism when the writer has been displaced either by force mm-hmm.<affirmative> or sometimes by a choice. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>. And I think of course displacement is going to change one's perception. Positionality is central, right? I mean, everything's sort of mediated by your own position, both sort of metaphysically epistemologically, but also physically. But I think in, in the case of Nzi, you know, having looked at kind of her work for a while, it's not actually all that different. I don't think that there's been a huge difference. I think if anything, she's able to be more politically engaged from the safety of Germany than when she was constantly a threat of being imprisoned, which she was in numerous times for a very long time. And I personally wouldn't like to be in a Ugandan prison. It's not something I wanna do. Um, but I think of course it does impact things and I think it goes one of two ways. And I think one of it is, as you say, this sort of nostalgic, romantic sort of vision of an imagined homeland to use almon rescue's term that doesn't exist and never did. But I think the other can be the capacity to be more engaged due to the fact that you're no longer in physical threat, your children aren't in threat, your partner's not in threat. You're not worried about someone coming and assassinating you. So you could engage more, more deeply. Um, and I think that, again, I don't wanna suggest that that's a binary polarity. I think it's probably a sort of messy confluence of the two. Um, what are the potential backlash sort of backlashes that activists face? Um, you mentioned one at the beginning of the tour. Have you come across many others? I mean, is is this a inherently dangerous thing to be doing? I mean, I wouldn't say it's inherently dangerous, but you know, I know more than one person who's been threatened or who's had a stint in prison or who's been afraid or who has left. Um, I think that it's, it's, it's not a case. We always joke, me and many of my collaborators that in a sense being a literary activist is the safest form of activism.'cause we all know that the governments aren't reading literature, but there is a real imprison danger. There are people who get imprisoned and there are people who have to go into exile. So, you know, I think to an extent there is a backlash. But I think to an extent that's also where the sort of medium of the aesthetic and the literary come into play because it is a way that you can interact and reach a lot of people through kind of literary cultures, but also sort of fly under the radar. Yeah. Yeah. Brilliant. Okay. Please join me in giving a huge round of appreciation to our speaker, professor.