Across the world, books have made a resounding impact. Whether it be contemporary stories depicting heart-wrenching accounts of what it means to be human or stories that transport readers to fantastical realms, books are a celebrated artform with deep-rooted cultural significance. It is often believed that literacy culture and support for books isn’t common in Africa, but countries across the African continent have long histories and current activism in celebrating books and promoting reading culture.
A History of Books that Goes Way Back
In the ancient world, Africa, in particular, played a large global role in the development of not just books but also writing. In Ancient Egypt, the first type of paper was manufactured from the papyrus plant and was integral to the development of writing. Papyrus was used in the form of scrolls as far back as the fourth millennium B.C. That’s more than 6,000 years ago! To write, men and women would take stems from the plant or feathers, dip them in ink, and write stories and history alike. The Library of Alexandria in Egypt was the largest and most significant library of the ancient world. Today, you can find many of these ancient scrolls being celebrated in historical archives, museums, and galleries around the world for their significant impact in the history of bookmaking and record collection.
Libraries and reading were also of particular importance in powerful West African empires such as the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires. The ancient city of Timbuktu was a hub of learning and reading, centered not only around Islamic education, but also the sciences, mathematics, law, geography, and history. Unfortunately, many of the manuscripts and libraries in this part of the world were destroyed by numerous invasions from Arab and European armies.
How Books are Celebrated in Africa Today
Africa continues to have a special relationship to storytelling. Each year in South Africa hosts South African Library Week, a celebration meant to foster a culture of learning and a love of reading. During this week, libraries across South Africa come together through a mutual love of all things bookish. Another well-known festival in South Africa is the Franschhoek Writers Festival that accommodates writing professionals and more in a three-day event.
The Uganda International Writers Conference and the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts are other prestigious events that happen each year in Africa. What is inspiring about the BIFA festival is how it brings together all art forms – including storytelling – in a day of music and celebration.
In Ghana, each year on International Literacy Day on September 8th, the Ghana Library Authority has learning activities across the country to promote books and libraries.
On top of the annual International Literacy Day hosted in Ghana, the country also hosts Pa Gya!. Organized by the Writers Project of Ghana and Goethe-Institut Ghana, Pa Gya! Is a literary festival that brings thousands – writers, literary agents, and publishers alike. Other popular festivals in Ghana include the Accra International Book Festival (AIBF) and Ghana International Book Fair.
Amongst these celebrations is the Time of the Writer International Festival held in South Africa and hailed as one of the largest and most long-running literature festivals in the whole of Africa. Other honorable mentions include South Africa’s Children’s Book Fair, Open Book Festival, the Jozi Book Fair, and Abantu Book Festival.
Africa is loaded with a vibrant and growing community of book lovers who often join in their mutual appreciation for books. While there is still limited access to books, especially in poor and remote areas, we are proud that our work at the African Library Project connects to a long-time history of celebrating books and storytelling in Africa!