Enjoy. Relax. Take a moment to yourself. It’s Friday. Big tune from Uganda. I hear the Congolese influence and rhythm. Do you? Takes me back to the Papa Wemba (Yolele), Kanda Bongo Man (Kwasa Kwasa!*) and Pepe Kalle (Roger Milla*) days.
*Correct Song Title: “Sai”
*My Nigerian and Ghanaian friends would love this. haha. Those days when their teams couldn’t see top.
Guys, do you remember these?! Did you get the pleasure of losing yourself in one of them? If you did not grow up in English-speaking Africa, or have parents who did, then the answer is likely negative. So allow me to open your eyes to a good thing. The Pacesetters African Series. They are a collection of 130 fiction books written by authors from at least ten African countries. Each one is set in the authors’ home country, except for “Meet me in Conakry” where the protagonists journey across west-West Africa. Arguably, one of the greatest Pan-African collaborations ever!! Right up there with ECOWAS. Yes, I said ECOWAS. I will explain in a later post.
I first discovered them when I was 9 or 10 and had just moved to Sierra Leone. Maybe I got my first copy from one of my cousins, I am no longer sure, but I clearly remember street vendors used to hawk them around PZ in the middle of Freetown. I remember because ANY pocket change I ever had at the time? ALL of it ended up in the accounts of those vendors. I was determined to read every copy that I could lay my hands on!
Don’t get me wrong, these books were certainly not Ama Ataa Aidoo literary quality. They were more of the mass produced, Nollywood variety. In fact, with the exception of Buchi Emecheta, I don’t think I have come across any of the other authors outside of the Pacesetter world. However, I enjoyed them, they fascinated me, I got lost in them and simply couldn’t get enough. A hundred Leones I thought, was more than a fair price to pay for first class, immigration hassle-free trips to Ghana, Nigeria, The Gambia, Uganda, Kenya etc..
At a very young age, those journeys nurtured in me an awareness, curiosity and respect for other African people, cultures and nationalities that has endured. I lost my collection in the Sierra Leonean war but as a young adult whenever I would travel to a new African country I would try to recall if I had gone there on Air Pacesetter previously. Nostalgic.
Pacesetters stopped publishing the African series a long long time ago, but it appears you can purchase copies here for a cool 5 Pounds if you are so inclined. I would like to eventually collect all of them for my library but my pockets remind me gently that they are not currently so inclined. So I wait. A couple of my favorites were Symphony of Destruction by Sunday Adebomi and Bittersweet by Yema Hunter.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are fundamentally important to our collective esteem and how we regard each other. The “Africa Rising” narrative, the resurgence of the African middle class in some countries, the active interest of Africans in the Diaspora in the continent are a few factors that contribute to the renewed entitlement struggle for who should write the African story. Of course, for many of us, the answer to this question is quite obvious!
Chimamanda Adiche and others like her are at the forefront of this resurgence. However, sometimes I wonder what the reach is back home? With a robust and ever increasing African youth population, it is becoming more and more important to know what stories that demographic are sharing? What are they collectively telling themselves? How do they negotiate identity? Where and how do they situate their identity within the larger African context? Do they see a larger context?
Literature contains magic that can build that context. It has the power to give the reader a wider and richer perspective outside the readers’ immediate surroundings. As we all work to own the African narrative it’d be a very good thing to have a similar platform where young literary stars rising up from different African countries can create and share.