Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 22, July 1998 


Arusha III': African Writers-Publishers seminar 23-26 February 1998, Arusha, Tanzania

Katherine Salahi

Katherine Salahi is Co-ordinator of the Bellagio Publishing Network Secretariat, The Jam Factory, 27 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1HU, England. Tel +44 1865 794068, fax +44 1865 244584, e-mail:

There were moments on the road to Tarangire, Tanzania's National Park south of Arusha, when the weary travellers being driven from Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Arusha fantasised that it was all a sinister plot to resolve the conflicts between writers and publishers at one fell swoop. By February the unseasonal torrential rains of El Ni˝o had devastated the normally good roads, doubling the estimated travelling time and testing vehicle suspension as well as human tolerance to the limit.

The seminar organisers, the Dag Hammarskj÷ld Foundation and the African Books Collective, wanted to isolate the 30 participants - 20 African writers and publishers, 10 resource people with publishing backgrounds - from distractions during the four-day seminar. Tarangire Sopa Lodge, built in the centre of the park for tourists seeking wildlife, without telephones, generator switched off at midnight, lions prowling, proved an effective if somewhat surrealist backdrop to long-overdue discussions between some of Africa's foremost writers and publishers.

The opening session `Writer and publisher: ideals and reality' began calmly enough with an opening address by Walter Bgoya, the seminar's publisher-director, on the theme `What is a publisher?' When the seminar's writer-director Niyi Osundare took the floor, however, the fireworks began. Authors have been cheated, abused, left in rags while publishers swan around in their Mercedes. Other writers took up the refrain in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile publishers defended their right to make business out of writers, with the proviso that they do it professionally and ethically. It fell to Nigerian publisher Dafe Otobo of Malthouse Press to talk about letting down authors, and how to put it right. Unrealistic expectations and weak enterprises need accounting for as well as out-and-out trickery and double-dealing. `Contracts' was the refrain time and again. Contracts to include transparency and legalise the trust that should and sometimes does exist.

The seminar ranged widely, often controversially, covering themes central to the concerns of writers and publishers: `Encouraging creative writing and supporting writers', `The economics of publishing in the African context', `Marketing and creating markets', `New techniques in publishing and marketing'. Using the draft of James Gibbs and Jack Mapanje's newly revised and updated The African Writer's Handbook as a focus, participants discussed how to choose the right publisher, and the essential questions of rights and agreements, codes of good practice and arbitration of disputes.

And then, after the spontaneous combustion of the first few days the phoenix of a `New Deal' between African writers and publishers arose from the discussions on social responsibility and African writing. As with all charters it is a statement of hope and intention - `Can any code of conduct make a crook a better person?' asked Sudanese writer Taban lo Liyong. The charter, reproduced below, will, one hopes, become an essential guide for Africa's publishers and writers.

The new deal reflected the seminar's underlying message that good partnerships between writers and publishers unlocks their potential for contributing to the complex and challenging cultural development of the African continent. In spite of flat tyres and worse on the journey in convoy back to Arusha, the dialogue begun so energetically in Tarangire continued to flourish.

The seminar report is available from the Dag Hammarskj÷ld Foundation, Ívre Slottsgatan 2, S-753 10 Uppsala, Sweden. Tel +46 18 127272, fax +46 18 122071, e-mail: [end]  [BPN, no 22, 1998, p 2.]

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