Dr Bibi Bakare-Yusuf gave the keynote address at the Uganda International Writers Conference 2017 on March 6th in Kampala.
Bibi the co-founder and publishing director at Cassava Republic Press was the keynote speaker at the Fairway Hotel in Kampala as she addressed publishing industry professionals. The topic of her address would be The Current State of African Publishing: Dare We Hope?
Dr Bakare-Yusuf is informed by her worldview as a feminist who was challenging the world structure where there was a convergence of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy.
She introduced us to the two pillars of her keynote the first being the concept of the archive. The archive is materials that are produced today that would be the archives of the future generations just like those that had been written in the past are the archives that we reference today.
The second pillar of the keynote was based on the contributions of Tanzanian publisher Walter Bgoya who projected in 1997 that there were three scenarios that the African publishing industry faced in the future;
- African publishing plays an insignificant role.
- African publishing plays a moderate role growing successfully through trial and error.
- African publishing plays its full role with societies using its strategic importance.
She doesn’t see publishing for publishing’s sake but in the context of archive for the future. Whilst we were 16% of the world population we are only contributing 3% of world knowledge making us net importers of world information.
At the moment, most knowledge production for the continent is done in London with middlemen in cities like Nairobi, Lagos and Ibadan. This means that an African child grows up knowing that there are four seasons but his actual experience is of wet and dry seasons which creates a cognitive dissonance in them. We all then grow up looking out of the window into the world while the European child saw themselves reflected in the mirror. This has its limitations as you have to see yourself reflected.
When we realise that whatever we produce today will be the creative archive for the future everything changes. We ask ourselves what we wanted the future generations to find that we had referenced about today. Shall we only want them to see lamentations? Do we want them only seeing men harming women? Straight people harming LGBT? Rich harming the poor?
Her work as a publisher thus puts her in a unique position to decide what goes into the future archive. The way that the system works is that with her selecting some people will be left through the selection process.
Europeans want to put out African literature of a certain type that has been called poverty. The truth is that there is poverty. She is more interested in the laughter and joy in the midst of poverty. She has also published books that she personally found objectionable. However for the future archive, we should not put authorial voice on text that are put before us as publishers.
She stated that as African publishers, we should all be producing knowledge. The beauty of the archive is that it was supple with each new addition altering it.
The role of publishers
African publishers are currently in the second stage of their evolution as projected by Walter Bgoya which is one where they play a moderate role growing successfully through trial and error. The future of African writing is collaboration with African publishers with the involvement writers who are the best sellers of their own work.
Publishers need to take note of audience that are changing. Senegalese film director, producer and writer Ousmane Sembene famously stated, “Africa is my audience while the west is my market” where his work was concerned. Today Africa is increasingly the market and with our one billion we shall soon surpass the West.
At the moment there is a whole new generation that is coming up for whom Achebe, Ngugi and Soyinka don’t mean a lot to. To take advantage of this growing market we must cultivate the readers and create the audience. We need to produce quality work. Africans are obsessed with sartorial elegance and it needs to be reflected in the books with covers being very important.
Gone are the days we would rely on newspaper reviews but fortunately there is the Internet out here now. From the Internet we need noise makers which her outfit discovered works when she published Elnathan John’s Born On A Tuesday; while he was considered controversial they couldn’t keep up with demand for the book when it came out.
We meet the audience where they are as this is the future of African writing. Digital media is an opportunity we need to think about with mobile phones and audio books for download.