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E.E. Sule    

The African Writer's Fund

E. E. Sule, who is also a poet, teaches African Literatures and Creative Writing at the Nasarawa State University


This was not going to be just another empty noise from some sympathizer of the poor African writer. I was one of the participants, a credible witness. The African Writer’s Fund was indeed taking off as a reality, with four fellows from different parts of Africa at Popenguine, Senegal. Launched in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city, on January 17, 2007, it emerged like a brave cock with a record-breaking crow heralding a new sunrise for the African writer. It would be different from other similar schemes in aid of the African writer. It would not merely be a cash award tied to some competition for either published or unpublished manuscripts. It has come with an ambitious design to tackle the problems of the African writer practically: from writing to publishing, and from publishing to sustainability. This is TrustAfrica’s African Writers’ Fund, an initiative to restore confidence and pride to the African writer.

TrustAfrica is a new foundation with the aim of promoting “peace, economic prosperity, and social justice throughout the continent.” The organization does not only recognize the role of the writer in this pursuit, it identifies it as integral to any conscious efforts made to emancipate Africa from mediocrity and stagnancy. During the formal launching of the Fund, Dr. Akwasi Aidoo, executive director of TrustAfrica, pointed out two things that distinguished his foundation from others: First, it aims to connect organizations and individuals across borders so that these ideas can move from mere speeches to actions, and be realized as concrete benefits for Africans. Second, its focus on the people and institutions that are often regarded as dissidents in the society though it is undoubted that these people and institutions are in fact the real promoters of cultural identity and patriotism in society. The case of the writer is obvious. An outsider, for instance, who wants to know the folkways of Nigerians, has one viable way of doing that: reading creative writings from Nigeria. TrustAfrica understands that development is built on self-identity, and that the genuine African writer ought to be engaged in the enterprise of self-identification. TrustAfrica feels obligated to prioritize its support for the African writer who, in a way, is really the harbinger of everything good that will come out of Africa.

Consequently, the aspiration of the Fund is three-pronged. One, it aspires to strengthen genuine, independent African writers, who are really in the business of promoting African ideals. The Per Sesh Writers’ Workshop coordinated by the famous novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah, is the channel through which the Fund will identify promising African writers, offer them a nine-month residency during which they develop their skills through seminars. The writers are supposed to produce their debuts with which to kick off their careers as fiction writers of African descent. Two, the Fund recognizes that the writer needs to walk tall with confidence to be able to continue to write. This confidence is predicated on the resources available to the writer. Young writers lose confidence when they know that what they write can only become a book through self-publishing and, given the inadequacies of self-publishing, that the book would probably end as a failure. The Fund promises an intervention by providing support for writers besides offering them practical training in literary craftsmanship, as was going to begin with the four fellows at Popenguine. Travel fund would be made available to the writer who has produced a worthwhile work to tour Africa and interact with other African writers. Also a residency is established in the premises of TrustAfrica where a published author can work on his/her new book. Three, the writer, like every professional, needs to be taken care of. He/she needs to have a social security. The Fund offers this security in two designs namely health insurance coverage and a pension scheme. These two designs would be made available to writers who live on their writings and do not take any regular jobs.

These of course are grand goals and you are entitled to fear that TrustAfrica may falter in reaching them. But TrustAfrica, new and virile, considers the African Writers’ Fund as its major project. The first phase has taken off and is moving on fine. A plan for sustainability is in place. Designed to be independent of TrustAfrica in future, the African Writers Fund is expected to draw resources from sponsorships and partnership from corporations such as communication and publishing corporations; grants from foundations and agencies; contributions from individuals, especially professionals who understand the benefits of the writer in their societies; and public fund raising.

On the evening of January 17, guests at the public presentation of the Fund gave useful advice. All were elated about this new dawn TrustAfrica is bringing to writing in Africa. One of the suggestions was that beyond the public presentation in Dakar, comprehensive information about the Fund should be packaged and sent to all parts of Africa through the media and the Internet. And since it is for every African writer, there should be no partiality, say, toward or against Anglophone African writers, in the administration of the Fund. It is emphasized that any African writer, writing in any language, local or international, living anywhere, should have access to the Fund so long as his/her vision is genuinely African.

Another suggestion was that the workshop and the residency should be expanded to accommodate more people because one of the increasing difficulties of the African writer is lack of the out-of-job time to write. The African writer is burdened with a string of existential problems. He/she must have a regular or salaried job to survive. Most of the jobs in Africa take much of the time that the writer needs to write well. Somebody has to have time to write before he/she is called a writer. Some people argue that the dwindling quality of creative writing in Africa today is hinged on the inability of the writer to pay enough time to his writing. A practical solution to this problem is the provision of residencies for writers who have the temperament to concentrate on good quality works. This is an important aspect that TrustAfrica should consider in deploying the Fund to help writers.

Another important aspect is the setting up of an editorial team that every African writer can have access to. Indeed the editorial team is an organ that is inevitable if the interest of the Fund transcends the mere empowering of anybody who goes by the name of African writer to the production of great African creative works. The logic is this: in spite of the suffocating economic crisis in Africa, some writers do not need to attend a writer’s workshop or residency to write nice works. Residency is not a password for great arts. So a writer who sits in the discomfort of his room and produces a manuscript will send it to the editorial team. The editorial team, which should be made up of highly skilled editors, identifies the greatness of the manuscript and recommends it to an African indigenous publisher interested in publishing creative works. The Fund apart from funding the activities of the editorial team would need to assist the indigenous publishers in such ways as the promotion of a writer’s works, distribution channels, organization of reading tours and any other ways that will be beneficial to both the writer and the publisher.
The argument behind this point is that the ultimate joy of the writer is to see his/her manuscript published and read. Assisting the writer to publish his/her work is what most organizations who want to help writers in Africa shy away from. Today, there are many literary competitions for the African writer in Africa and other parts of the world. We must recognise the paradox that competitions or awards help the writer in a mean way. In Nigeria for instance there are many award winning manuscripts that are heaving faint life from dusty shelves. The serious writer is really not bothered about whether he/she wins a competition or not but about whether his neighbour in the next street has seen his published book and has read the great wisdom he/she has put in that book.

A more cogent argument for the editorial team is that the classics of African literature were works identified by editors employed by the patriarchs of the publishing business in Africa, such as Heinemann and Longman. African literary figures such as Chinua Achebe, Sembene Ousmane, Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ferdinand Oyono, Ngugi wa Thing’O, Flora Nwapa, Nardine Gordimer, Mariama Ba and many more others wrote their famous debuts – and indeed most of their works – in the privacy of their rooms and sent them to editors that recognised the greatness in them. Since some indigenous African publishers do not have good editorial teams, the Fund can assist in setting up one that will work in tandem with the publishers. This innovative engagement with the writing and publishing process may yet provide us with its great surprises as people hidden in some corners of Africa emerge as the new outstanding writers of Africa.

The successful public presentation of the African Writers’ Fund showed that someone has been thinking, in an unprecedented way, about the plight of the African writer, and is willing to explore ways of intervening to assist in some practical ways. It is in this light that TrustAfrica deserves commendation for taking a step that is entirely innovative and amazingly practical. As the coordinators of the Fund, Ms Coumba Toure and Ms Chantal Uwimana, had promised during the launch, the suggestions – and other suggestions that come – will be incorporated into the mission of the Fund in order to make it truly great. With it the African writer can hold on to something, with pride, and write as confidently as he/she can. The African Writers’ Fund comes as a great pillar to support the edifice that is African Literature.
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