Ten years of commitment to African literature

Article, 01.05.2013

«Si nous nous couchons, nous sommes morts» declared the Burkinabe historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo. If we lie down and give up, we are dead. African authors and publishers will meet in Geneva from 1 to 5 May for the Geneva Book Fair, proving once again that African literature is alive and well, and that putting one's words down on paper is a way of standing tall and proud. The SDC has shown its commitment to this cause through its support for the African Fair for Books, Press and Culture over the past 10 years.

Art and culture are essential elements of a society's identity and development, of which literature is an integral part. More than any other literature, African literature – particularly that of French-speaking Africa – is fighting an uphill battle to be written, published and ultimately read. A lack of government policies in support of literature, combined with market forces, are part of a long list of woes. “This state of affairs deprives us all, and the peoples of Africa in particular, of the stories that concern them directly,” notes Martin Dahinden, Director-General of the SDC. “Obtaining access to its own resources, from raw materials to the land itself, is therefore also an intellectual, artistic and literary challenge for the continent.”

The SDC has always attached particular importance to the role played by art and culture in the process of development and transition. “Artistic expression is an engine of social change, but it also contributes to capacity building and job creation. As part of its strategy for 2013-2016, the SDC aims to spend at least 1% of its budget on initiatives related to art and culture in its partner countries,” affirms Martin Dahinden.

A unique event in Europe
This commitment extends to Switzerland. Thus ten years ago, the SDC joined the efforts of the African literary and academic communities, as well as the International Organisation of La Francophonie, to give birth to an African space at the heart of the Geneva Book and Press Fair.

Over the past ten years, the African Fair has established itself as a unique event in Europe for the promotion of African literature. A dialogue between African authors and the visitors to the Book Fair is at the heart of the concept. “Since its inception, the African Fair has enabled African writers and journalists to make their voice heard and their vision known. In this tenth edition, we are remaining faithful to this tradition, with great African figures such as the historian and Egyptologist Théophile Obenga and the writer and journalist Boubacar Boris Diop, as well as young talents and diaspora authors such as Scholastique Mukasonga, 2012 winner of the Kourouma and Renaudot prizes,” notes the Swiss writer Pascale Kramer, who organised this edition of the fair with the Congolese journalist, essayist and professor Boniface Mongo-Mboussa. The new team is committed to extending the effects of the Fair beyond its defining moment in Geneva: “We are working with organisers of fairs, literature prizes and media outlets on the African continent, as well as with universities and cultural associations such as Artlink in Switzerland,” explains Pascale Kramer. “This enables us to showcase the authors we have invited beyond the Book Fair's visiting public.” The African Fair is also striving to provide a business platform for publishers who are working to enable African literature to exist, and to make it accessible on the African continent. And last but not least, its bookshop stocks numerous books that are unavailable anywhere else.

«À quand l’Afrique?»
The 10th anniversary of the African Fair coincides with the rerelease of “À quand l’Afrique?”, a collection of interviews between Burkinabe historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo and René Holenstein, currently Deputy Head of Humanitarian Aid at the SDC. 

Ten years after it was first published, the book has become iconic in more ways than one. First, because it keeps alive the memory of one the of the African continent's greatest historians, who died in 2006. Second, because it illustrates how creativity and collaboration can overcome the challenge of publishing in Africa: co-published by nine publishing houses, including several in Africa, the book will be sure to enjoy wide distribution. Lastly because, as René Holenstein notes, “Joseph Ki-Zerbo's vision of endogenous development has had a profound influence on our cooperation programmes, particularly in West Africa.” It also reminds us that development cooperation is first and foremost an intercultural endeavour.

Celebrating 10 years of the African Book Fair and the 10th Kourouma Prize, Friday 3 May at 3.30 p.m., in the presence of

  • Martin Dahinden, Director-General of the SDC
  • Ridha Bouabid, Permanent Representative of OIF to the United Nations in Geneva
  • Isabelle Falconnier, President of the Geneva Book and Press Fair
  • Boniface Mongo-Mboussa, organiser of the African Fair 2013
  • Emmanuel Dongala, 2011 winner of the Kourouma Prize
  • Scholastique Mukasonga, 2012 winner of the Kourouma and Renaudot prizes

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