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  • “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!).

    Persevere

    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?”

    More

  • 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».

    More…

  • 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.

  • “We’re all connected through literature”

    “We’re all connected through literature”

    “We’re all connected through literature; we’re all connected over generations through ancestry, through culture, through history, through so many things. I think when people come here, that’s what they take away most[ly], a feeling of connection beyond anything else. And if that’s what I’ve been able to do, then I’m happy with that for sure.“

    In the Wake of the Library of Africa and the African Diaspora’s inaugural symposium in April, AMAKA speaks to founder Sylvia Arthur to learn about her lifelong love for reading and her unexpected journey from book collector to library founder and activist. 

    Read more…

  • Talk: Global Studies Summit at the Community College of Philadelphia

    Talk: Global Studies Summit at the Community College of Philadelphia

    June 14, 2022 | 2 pm GMT | Online
    “Archiving Global Black Lives”

    From the Community College of Philadelphia website

    With a focus on the upcoming Juneteenth celebration, the Black Studies program will be curating a virtual Juneteenth series focusing on art, culture and resistance within the African Diaspora.

    This series will provide participants with a more holistic grounding in the interconnectedness of global Black identities, the specific and complex issues that various communities face, and how they cultivate Black joy and celebrate Black beauty and life. It also allows for cross-continental conversations and reflections as participants will learn from community leaders, educators, artists, and activists and consider how they can approach similar issues within their own respective communities. Through film screenings, panel discussions, virtual tours, and presentations, participants will explore the themes of Jazz and resistance; food justice, African traditions and foodways; archiving global Black lives; cinema; and Black speculative art with speakers from Philadelphia, Brazil, South Africa, and Ghana.

    Find out more and check out the full programme here.

  • Talk: Literaturhaus Zürich

    Talk: Literaturhaus Zürich

    April 28, 2022 | 10:15 am GMT / 12:15 pm CET | In Person | Venue: Debating Room (3rd floor), Literaturhaus Zürich, Limmatquai 62, 8001 Zürich | Language: The interview will be held in English.

    Gesa Schneider, Director of Literaturhaus Zürich, talks to Sylvia Arthur, who is visiting Switzerland from Accra (Ghana) in April and May as part of a research grant made possible by Pro Helvetia.

    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. Talks, workshops, film screenings and much more are organized. In addition to her work as a culture initiator, Sylvia Arthur is one of West Africa’s outstanding young activists and essayists. This afternoon she will talk to Gesa Schneider about the development of the house and show the challenges and perspectives for the future.

    Book here

  • Talk: TEDx Ashesi University

    Talk: TEDx Ashesi University

    April 9, 2022 | 11:00 am GMT | In Person
    “The People’s Republic of Books”

    I’m looking forward to speaking at #TEDxAshesiUniversity on Saturday, 9 April and sharing some thoughts on the subversive power of books in disrupting notions of citizenship and nurturing transnational identities.

    If you’re interested in attending, you can find out more and register here.