• The necessity of curiosity

    The necessity of curiosity

    I recently had the pleasure of giving a presentation and workshop on my National Geographic Society project to a group of schoolchildren aged between 13 and 16. There were, perhaps, 60 students in total, three groups in three different parts of the world: one in Europe, one in the Caribbean, and one in Africa, Ghana, to be precise. I mention Ghana because it’s relevant to the story.

    My presentation lasted about 30 minutes and was followed by a Q&A. I say ‘followed by’ but, in fact, there were a few Q&As throughout the talk, which was energising for me as a speaker.

    But while the children in the group from Europe were full of questions and anecdotes relating elements of the talk to experiences in their own lives, those in the group from Ghana were silent. Even when asked directly if they had anything to say about what they’d heard, nothing was forthcoming.

    I must admit I wasn’t totally surprised. My experience of working with children and young people in Ghana over the last six years, in both formal and informal settings, has taught me that this seeming indifference – part deference, part lack of confidence – is standard.

    I was, however, disappointed. After all, my talk was about African women and was, in large part, about issues they could relate to. What was equally disheartening was that the teacher also had nothing to say.

    This inability/unwillingness to speak up, or lack of curiosity, is often put down to culture. Yes, African children are taught to respect and, even, revere their elders, but to the extent that it prevents them from engaging with them on any level that challenges them, even a little, is detrimental. This runs through all sections of society irrespective of class, education, etc. It’s a classic case of children being seen and not heard or, in this case, taught and not learned from.

    I’ve seen this behaviour even with adults, the belief that their role in relation to someone older than themselves, even by only a few years, is one of subservience, or unquestioning agreement.

    We are doing our children a disservice by not encouraging them / actively discouraging them from being curious. Culture is, of course, important, but so is the opportunity and ability to question things around us. Inquisitiveness is integral to a rich, dynamic, evolutionary life.

    One of the slides in my presentation read, “Everyone has the right to be heard.” It was in relation to women of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of their location, having the birthright to tell their story and for it to be given the space to be heard.

    But it could also be about children. My hope is that we can come to a place where we are not suppressing their natural curiosity, intentionally or otherwise, in the name of culture or anything else.

    Main image: Me teaching creative writing at Gem Star School in Accra, Ghana, January 2019.

  • News: Forbes Africa Feature

    News: Forbes Africa Feature

    I’m happy to be featured in the February/March 2023 issue of Forbes Africa magazine in an article titled, “Re-telling The African Story”:

    “We live in the Age of Story. Every brand, every political manifesto, is built on narrative architecture. Now Africa is reclaiming its own stories, and harnessing generations of storytelling craft to reconfigure the ways in which it is represented and perceived.”

    You can read the full story in the Feb/Mar issue of Forbes Africa, available here.

  • To Go or Not, Togo?

    To Go or Not, Togo?

    At less than 40 miles and just over an hour by road, the distance between Grand-Popo and Lomé is so short, it’s possible to live in the quiet Beninese fishing town and work in the bustling Togolese metropolis, as thousands do everyday, traversing the border. Yet the process of crossing the frontier, of leaving Benin and entering Togo, and vice versa, is so fraught with frustration, it unnecessarily lengthens the journey and dampens any enthusiasm for the fallacy of frictionless travel, the reality of a borderless ECOWAS region ultimately betraying the dream.

    Nevertheless, we arrived in Lomé by bush taxi at around 8.30 on a Saturday morning, when the hustle and bustle of commercial activity was nearing its peak and the taxis, taxi-bikes, and trikes were vying for supremacy on the city’s streets.

    Our schedule was unusually tight. We were due to meet seven women who’d been selected by our fixer, Charles, all of whom, he assured us, were eager to talk. But soon after sitting down with the first, it became apparent that it would not be possible to speak with them all, that each of the women deserved the time and attention that would enable them to tell their stories and do them justice. 

    Here’s a snippet of the stories we heard:

    • Madam Kouevi: A rebel spirit who came of age in an era of strict gender conformity, she spoke of how she had dreams of becoming a mechanic or a soldier, but her father and brother forbade her from pursuing these male careers and she became a trader instead.
    • Madam Djan: Born in Togo of Ghanaian Krobo heritage, Madam Djan, “at least 75 years of age,” has clear memories of Togo’s independence because she was “this tall and hadn’t yet grown breasts,” but decries the state of the country and the lack of progress since.
    • Madam Ayabavi’s parents were actively involved in Togo’s struggle for independence. Her mother, who was one of a group of women activists, was brutally abused by the authorities. Now in her 90s, Madam Ayabavi believes her life then was better than her children’s lives now.
    • Madam Ameyo: Describing marriage as suffering, the mother of 10, with four children who have pre-deceased her, says life has taught her many painful lessons. When asked what her advice to young women would be, she warned, “It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad marriage.” 

    These are just a small selection of the stories that Togo’s senior women have to tell. 

    With a coastline of just 32 miles and a population of just over eight million, Togo is one of the smallest countries in Africa, as well as one of the narrowest countries in the world. Sandwiched between Ghana to the west and Benin to the east, we travel through Togo to get from our base in Ghana, to one of the four countries that are part of this project, Benin.

    Yet Togo is not one of the countries supported by our grant, and we would like to take advantage of our proximity to the country and our contacts to incorporate Togolese women’s stories into the oral archive.

    Support us to include Togo as part of this project. Donate to our crowdfunder at Your contribution will enable us to interview more women with fascinating stories to tell to get a more complete picture of the many ways in which #africanwomenarehistory. Visit

    Image by Seth Avusuglo

  • Talk: On the Liberating Power of Literature

    Talk: On the Liberating Power of Literature

    “For most of my life, I’d been reading outside myself, conditioned by the (education) system and society, in general, to read only books and authors that were deemed “classics” or part of “the canon.” When I began to read more narrowly, my perspective began to change, as did my understanding of language and the way in which it is used to impose or reinforce the dominant worldview through the soft power of literature.”

    Thank you, Prof. Patrice Juah, for the invitation to speak to students of her Voices of Colour class at CIEE in Spain.

  • “Leave the Burden and Carry the Joy”

    “Leave the Burden and Carry the Joy”

    For the past three weeks, I’ve been in Benin, West Africa, working on my project to create A Women’s Oral History of West Africa supported by the National Geographic Society and Sennheiser. In 2022, I became a National Geographic Explorer. Over the next two years, I’ll be travelling along the coast of West Africa, from Benin in the east to The Gambia in the west, documenting the stories of African women aged over 60 because this region, from which I hail, has the lowest life expectancy for women on the continent, just 60 years old. Nigeria, the West African giant, has the lowest life expectancy for women in the world, only 54 years in 2022.

    Since beginning the fieldwork for the project last October in a coastal village near Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou, I’ve interviewed close to 30 women about their lives, their stories, their journeys. I’ve listened to many narratives about childhood and adulthood, marriage and widowhood, aging and death. But over the last seven days, the stories I’ve heard from women of various ages and backgrounds can only be described as traumatic. 

    From a woman whose husband left for work one day and never returned, to another who gave birth to 11 children and has outlived all but two of them, the West African women I encountered have endured tough times that have significantly shaped their lives.

    For the first time on this phase of the trip, there were tears. It reached a point where, after a second woman broke down while telling her story, I thought, “I don’t want to make another woman cry,” for her sake but also for mine.

    Yet, after almost every conversation, the women and/or their family members said the session had been therapeutic, that they had learnt something about themselves. One woman said she’d never had the opportunity to think about her life and what happened to her before, and our conversation had made her want to consider these things in more detail.

    There were also elements of joy.

    For example, in Togo, I interviewed a woman who, after being engaged in local organising for much of her life, and now approaching 70, is contemplating running for political office in 2025 because she wants to see change in her lifetime, and she believes she will. She doesn’t think her age is an impediment to her ambition.

    I spoke to another woman who has dedicated her life to safeguarding girls and women by providing them with educational and economic opportunities so they can be self-sufficient and lead full and free lives. She is determined that no woman should be exploited because of her social or economic circumstances.

    All these women are the embodiment of resilience, not in spite of, but because of their vulnerability. If you’ve suffered and you’re still here, you’re here for a reason. Finding that reason is key.

    When starting out on this journey, I never imagined how mentally and physically taxing this work would be. Many times over the last seven days I’ve wanted to stop – not quit, just take a break.

    I’ve had to lean on the shoulders of friends, one of whom urged me to, “leave the burden of what I’ve heard behind and carry the joy forward.” 

    And that’s a privilege I have: to leave the burden and carry the joy. 

    Every conversation has reinforced my purpose and, if the women can persevere, so can I. My challenge is learning how to jettison the bad and leverage the good so the vital work of documenting African women’s stories can continue.

  • Lessons from 2022 (Part 1)

    Lessons from 2022 (Part 1)

    As I look back over the past 12 months, two milestones, in particular, stand out. 

    The first is the completion of the mudLIBRARY, a newly-built eco-library constructed entirely from rammed earth and sustainable materials, a collaboration between ArchiFair, an Austrian architectural NGO, Hive Earth, a Ghanaian rammed earth construction company, and the Library Of Africa and The African Diaspora (LOATAD). Finally handed over to the people of Nsutam in Ghana’s Eastern Region at the end of November 2022, the library is the culmination of four years of planning, delays, and, above all, teamwork.

    In brief, this is how it happened:

    • In August 2018, I read an article online about a Chief who was appealing to the government, NGOs, the general public – anyone! – to build a library in his community to “help raise the standard of education” and to “sponsor the brilliant but needy students in the locality who […] have their visions truncated due to poverty.” I was moved by the article and considered various ways I could help but, ultimately, I put it to the back of my mind.
    • Independent of this, towards the end of 2018, my friend, James and I launched a campaign called #BookDropGhana to encourage visitors to Ghana in the peak month of December to bring a book with them to donate, which we would then distribute to schools and communities across the country (more on this campaign in a future post).
    • In January 2019, Joelle from Hive Earth contacted us at the Library Of Africa and The African Diaspora to ask if we knew of a community that was in need of a library as the company was looking to do a philanthropic project with their partners, ArchiFair. She suggested LOATAD come on board to assume management of the library and #BookDropGhana provides the books.
    • I immediately thought of Nsutam and the Chief who, by now, we were already working with doing small literacy activities in the community.
    • Within weeks, we all visited Nsutam to meet with the Chief and members of the Traditional Council. A few months later, Hannah from ArchiFair came over from Vienna and the rest, as they say, is history. 

    And it almost was!

    The team from ArchiFair was due to start construction in July 2020 but, of course, Covid hit and the build had to be postponed. They rescheduled it for July 2021 but, with the pandemic still wreaking havoc, they again had to put plans on hold. It wasn’t until July 2022, a whole three years later, that the team from Austria finally arrived in Ghana and got to work, fulfilling a pledge we’d all made years earlier to the people of Nsutam.

    There were many times, over the years, when we were all discouraged about the project, whether it was the pandemic, fundraising, or securing book donations. Contact between our three organisations waned. We didn’t know when, or if, it would happen. But none of us gave up.

    Here’s what I learnt from the experience:

    Patience is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity 

    Putting an idea to the back of your mind doesn’t mean forgetting about it. It means incubating it until the time is right. After reading the article about the Chief, I wanted to act immediately, but wasn’t in a position to do so. After we came together with ArchiFair and Hive Earth, we all wanted to move quickly, but circumstances put paid to that. The right time to implement an idea may not be when you have it, but many months or, even, years later. This is exactly what happened when I started LOATAD – idea, circa 2011; established, 2017.

    Think big, Start small

    To borrow a phrase from a well-known supermarket chain: Every Little Helps. While I didn’t have the resources to fulfil the Chief’s wish to build a community library, I did have access to books and knowledge about setting up a library that I could freely give. Start with what you have and go from there.

    Test the waters

    Our first engagement with the community in Nsutam was sponsoring an inter-schools reading competition organised by the radio station that did the news story on the Chief. The station asked us to donate 100 copies each of two books so that all the competing students could have a copy of their own to read. The contest was an overwhelming success and the competitive spirit spurred a love for reading. This investment cost us a little over £150, but the impact on the children, the school, and the community was incalculable. 

    Collaboration is everything

    No one individual or organisation can do it all. The Chief had the land, but not the resources to build; ArchiFair and Hive Earth had the expertise and the will, but not the community to apply them to; we had the books and library management experience, but didn’t have construction skills. Somehow, we all managed to find each other and make it happen. Collaboration is key. A good team has complementary skills which they apply towards the same goal. (I must also mention that when we were in desperate need of more books, my good friend, Athena, rose to the challenge and mobilised her network to donate 1000 books to the cause!).


    It would have been easy to be discouraged to the point of inaction by the constant delays caused by the pandemic, but all of us were committed to doing what we had promised. Moreover, the dedication of the ArchiFair team, whose construction schedule was severely impacted by unseasonal rains meaning they were away from home for much longer than expected, was inspirational to us all. 

  • Talk: A Masterclass on Social Change

    Talk: A Masterclass on Social Change

    September 7, 2022 | 2 pm GMT | University of Ghana, Balme Library
    A Masterclass on Social Change

    From the organisers:

    In partnership with IFED Global, Peace First, a global incubator for youth-led social change, is holding a masterclass designed to ignite the urgency and creativity of young people across Africa towards sustainable community development.

    In the flagship session in Sub-Saharan Africa, we intend to host a masterclass with aspiring and existing changemakers between the ages of 16 -30 in Ghana. The goal of the Masterclass is to activate youth voices, renew the spirit of active citizenship and promote a culture of service within Africa’s Youth.

    Register here.

  • “We have as much to teach as we have to learn”

    “We have as much to teach as we have to learn”

    I wrote a short essay for the Pro Helvetia blog on my recent research trip to Switzerland. Click the link below to read:

    “In April 2022, I travelled to Switzerland with a keen sense of purpose and an open mind eager to learn how to better my organisation’s practice. If I’m honest, it seemed odd to be travelling to a European country renowned for its wealth to learn how to run my African library sustainably. After all, how much could the literary scene of an affluent, educated, Central European nation have in common with that of my own?”


  • Talk: 30 Minutes with Sylvia Arthur: litafrika

    Talk: 30 Minutes with Sylvia Arthur: litafrika

    August 23, 2022 | 10:15 am GMT / 12:15 pm CET | Online

    litafrika: poetry from a continent
    30 minutes with Sylvia Arthur
    Strauhof Zurich, live broadcast

    The “Library Of Africa and The African Diaspora” (LOATAD) in Accra, Ghana, is a library, but also an archive, a museum, a writing residency, and a research facility: It is dedicated to the collection and visualization of authors from Africa and the diaspora from the late 19th century to the present. The director and initiator Sylvia Arthur from LOATAD is on this afternoon and gives an insight into the house and her work. In English; as a live broadcast.

    As part of the exhibition «litafrika: poetry of a continent».


  • Talk: The enduring legacy of Ralph Ellison

    Talk: The enduring legacy of Ralph Ellison

    August 6, 2022 | 6:30 pm EST | Online

    I’m honoured to be giving a presentation on the enduring legacy of iconic African-American writer, Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) and his contemporary relevance/resonance at The Eighth Annual Ralph Ellison Foundation Gala on 6 August 2022 at 6.30 pm EST.

    The Gala, on the theme “Hope and Healing,” will take place online and will feature talks, readings, and performances from scholars, writers, and artists from around the world.

    Find out more here.

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