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 BPN Newsletter Issue No 30, May 2002 


Marketing Africa's Best

Margaret Ling
Margaret Ling, SABDET, 25 Endymion Road, London N4 1EE, UK. +44 (0)20 8348 8463 (tel), +44 (0)20 8348 4403 (fax), email:

A vigorous debate on the Africa's 100 Best Books initiative and its implications for African writing and publishing was launched by Southern African Book Development Education Trust (SABDET) at its seminar programme at the 2002 London Book Fair (LBF) on 18 March.

The seminars, traditionally held on the busy second day of the Fair and organized by SABDET in association with the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF), have had a decisive impact in pushing the African publishing industry up the LBF agenda. This year's two-part programme, 'Changing Times, Changing Africa', focused on new opportunities in the international market for African writing and the strengthening of the book supply chain within Africa, illustrated by Malawi and Uganda in particular.

The first seminar, Marketing Africa's Best, was chaired by a member of the judges' panel for the 100 Best Books, Alastair Niven, and addressed by two other judges, Kassahun Checole and Wangui wa Goro. Isobel Dixon, literary agent with Blake Friedmann, shared her experiences of selling South African writers internationally.

The Africa's 100 Best Books initiative was launched in 2000 by the ZIBF at the instigation of Professor Ali Mazrui and in response to the publication of a millennium list of the 'world's greatest books' including no African-authored titles whatsoever. Around 1,700 nominations were received for Africa's 100 Best from all over the world and in February 2002, after four days of intense discussion of 500 shortlisted titles, the international panel of judges announced their final list of 100 at a ceremony in Accra, Ghana. The list covers creative writing, children's books and scholarly works, and includes titles published throughout the twentieth century and in various languages. In addition to the 100 titles, it was decided to identify 12 titles to represent symbolically the range and depth of the whole list.1

Alastair Niven, the current chair of SABDET who also chairs the Commonwealth Writers Prize Advisory Committee, told the seminar that the 100 Best Books was the most ambitious judging project he had been involved in.

It depended on the judges' commitment and willingness to give up time to meetings extending over several days. It demanded a lot of diplomacy and intellectual stamina. All prizes have their limitations, and in this case there was a preponderance of anglophone judges. But the panel was generous, and we have ended up with a good number of francophone titles - though not enough in African languages.

All of us had to rely on reports to judge titles in languages that we were not personally familiar with. Not enough quality children's books were nominated. Despite all the limitations, it was a very serious exercise, marked by the knowledge and dedication of the judges.

In origin, the project was defensive and assertive: Africa's scholarly and creative reputation had been challenged. Now that the list exists, it's important that it affects educational choices, and leads to more translation and more republication. The final list was a compromise of each individual judge's personal preferences, but at the end of the day, all the judges felt proud of what had been achieved.2

Wangui wa Goro, whose work includes the translation of 100 Best Books award-winning writers Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Veronique Tadjo, addressed the promotion of the published list and its potential to push African literature and scholarship back up the worldwide book and publishing agenda.

The list provides a powerful point of introduction to African literature. The process of identifying the 100 Best is not a closure but an exciting new departure and a new lease of life for literature which needs to claim its rightful place on the world stage. Africa is a centre for global production, but we haven't been good about shouting about our successes.

My personal reflections are that this was an exciting and worthwhile project, and that the judges were representative of the community of interest in African writing. I hope that it will rekindle interest in African literature.

The list is contentious, and debate about it is both predictable and desired. We hope that people will continue to nominate their own preferences.

Looking to the future, what will come out of the list? My personal aspirations are that the books will be marketed, that they will be more widely read and known, that they will be taught in classrooms to give young people access to them, and that they will encourage new writing. Writing must be rigorous to stand up to the readers, and the list will set standards for the quality of both writing and marketing. I hope that it will become a focal point for further research and exploration of African writing. Finally, I hope that it will encourage more and more reading.

Wangui wa Goro urged continuing publicity for the list, especially word-of-mouth. The books should be taken into new markets where African writing was not yet known. Publishers should be urged to translate titles on the list into other languages, to reprint, and to bring out new editions.

In general discussion, many practical points and suggestions were made. It was pointed out that the list in its existing form had some technical limitations. Errors had crept in which the organizers were urgently seeking to correct. It had been decided to list the original publisher of each title, although a particular book might have since been published in many different editions around the world and the original publisher might not even be still in existence. What was needed for marketing and promotional purposes was a list of current publishers and distributors to enable easy sourcing of titles. The African Books Collective and the Africa Book Centre in the UK are both working on this. The idea of a central source of supply located in Africa was floated by Moses Samkange the ZIBF director, and a number of participants pointed to the potential of print-on-demand and e-publishing to make the titles more easily accessible in African countries.

Already, the list is sparking off promotional initiatives. Graeme Bloch, director designate of the new South African International Festival of Books, scheduled to be held in Cape Town in February/March 2004, told the seminar that his advance publicity included a competition for the first township youth group or school to read all 100 titles. The winners would go on TV and attend a writing workshop.

In the US, the list will be highlighted at the 2002 conference of the African Studies Association. Kassahun Checole's Africa World Press is planning a number of promotional initiatives. In Sweden, the 2002 Gothenburg Book Fair's planned focus on African writers will be an opportunity to draw attention to the list. In the UK, SABDET has plans for further promotion in the follow-up to LBF.

The awards will be officially presented at a ceremony in Cape Town on Saturday 27 July 2002, which the ZIBF promises will be the largest-ever gathering of African writers on African soil. A book exhibition will be held in parallel over the three days 26-28 July. The 2002 Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare will follow on immediately afterwards, over the week to 3 August. The theme of this year's Indaba conference is The Impact of African Writing on World Literature.3


1. The top twelve titles in the 100 Best Books list are:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, 1958
Meshack Asare, Sosu's Call, 1999
Mariama Bâ, Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter), 1979
Mia Couto, Terra Sonambula, 1992
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions, 1988
Cheikh Anta Diop, Ant�rioritédes civilisations n�gres (The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality), 1967
Assia Djebar, L'Amour, la fantasia, 1985
Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy, 1945
Thomas Mofolo, Chaka, 1925
Wole Soyinka, Ake: The Years of Childhood, 1981
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat, 1967
Léopold Sédar Senghor, Oeuvre Poetique, 1961
The judges also included a special commendation for the UNESCO General History of Africa, in 8 volumes, which was widely nominated. Although it fell outside the jury's terms of reference as an edited volume including chapters by non-Africans, its International Advisory Committee was two-thirds African, as were its volume editors.

2. The verbatim remarks from the seminar are from notes taken by the organizers. For a copy of the full seminar report, contact Margaret Ling, SABDET.
3. Details of all events can be had from the ZIBF office in Harare, Harare Gardens, P.O. Box CY1179, Causeway, Zimbabwe.+263 4 702104, 702108, 707352, 705729, 704112 (tel), +263 4 702129 (fax), email:; or

the ZIBF London office, David Brine, P O Box 21303, London WC2E 8PH, UK +44 (0)20 7836 8501(tel/fax) email:  [end]  [BPN, no 30, 2002, pp 8-10.]

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