LAGOS (Reuters Life!) - Tired of reading accounts of Africa through the eyes of outsiders, 14 African writers have set out to document the diversity of their content in a series of books and blogs partly inspired by the soccer World Cup.
The first World Cup to be held in Africa triggered a wave of pan-African solidarity as fans from Dakar to Dar Es Salaam threw their support behind African teams, hoping the home advantage would boost the continent’s chances of success.
But the tournament also highlighted the rich diversity of a continent all too often lumped together by the West as a monolithic block blighted by conflict, hunger and corruption.
“For 400 years, Africa’s history was hijacked by Europe. The great travel books were all written by Europeans. Africans didn’t talk about Africa,” said Alain Mabanckou, from Congo Republic, one of the writers taking part in the project.
“Instead, it was the European who explained Africa to him. Now, we want to know how an African sees a fellow African country,” said Mabanckou, a recipient of France’s prestigious literary award, the Prix Renaudot.
The Pilgrimages Project, sponsored by the U.S.-based Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artistes, involves the 14 writers exploring an African city not previously well known to them and documenting their experiences in 14 30,000-word books.
“It’s great being an African tourist. I don’t stand out and many things are familiar so I can concentrate on details,” Ugandan author Doreen Baingana told Reuters by telephone from Hargeisa, in the breakaway Somali enclave of Somaliland.
“Goats in a city, for example, do not surprise me in the way they would if I were from the UK,” she said, the animals bleating in the background behind her.
The Chinua Achebe Center, named after one of Nigeria’s most famous writers, has teamed up with publishers in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa to put together a body of work meant to improve Africans’ understanding of one another.
The aim is to produce a series reminiscent of London-based publisher Heinemann’s African Writers Series, which was published for more than 40 years and helped bring such authors as Nadine Gordimer and Steve Biko to international fame.
The cities covered range from Nigeria’s sprawling commercial hub of Lagos to Cape Town at Africa’s southernmost tip, from the fabled Saharan city of Timbuktu to Democratic Republic of Congo’s chaotic capital Kinshasa.
“We got the best possible combination of people and a variety of cities that showed the full diversity of the continent — cities in new countries like Somaliland, small cities, megacities,” said Kenyan author and director of the Chinua Achebe Center, Binyavanga Wainaina.
The collection of books, which the publishers hope will be distributed around Africa and beyond, will be launched in four African cities in January 2012 during the next major African soccer event, the African Cup of Nations.
Some of the authors have already blogged about their travels on the project’s Website, www.pilgrimages.org.za.
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Paul Casciato