From the pages of private notebooks or the dog-eared copies of rare published editions, the works of modern African poets are emerging with great fanfare thanks to a dedicated handful of writers and teachers building a network of libraries and websites on the internet.
The South African Badilisha Poetry X-change is one such group which recently posted its archive of poems and writings on a “mobile-first” site. It’s considered the largest online archive of African poetry, accessible via mobile phone, in the world.
“We have a rich oral tradition and it’s important that we document what is happening in history poetry-wise,” said Linda Leoma, Badilisha’s project manager. “Africa has a history of a lack of documentation and we really didn’t want this to happen to our poets.”
Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Badilisha aims to reach the seven out of 10 mobile users in sub-Saharan Africa who use their phones to browse the web. Mobile broadband connections in Africa, now numbering 96 million are set to rise to 950 million by the end of 2019″, noted a study by the analyst firm Ovum.
To date, almost 400 African poets from 31 countries in Africa and across the diaspora have been posted in 14 different languages. Users can navigate the site by searching theme, poet, country, language, emotion or by their “Top 10” list, a popular feature curated by a guest poet each month.
Users can actually hear the poet’s voice recite their work,” said Leoma. Some 3,000 visitors log into the site each month.
Among the “Top Ten” writers recently picked by Badilisha is Kwame Dawes, a Ghanaian-born Jamaican poet and the award-winning author of 16 books of poetry.
Last year, Dawes launched the African Poetry Book Fund with a collective of like-minded writers. This year he helped choose Mahtem Shiferraw as the 2015 winner of the Sillerman Book Prize for African Poets. The Ethiopian-American poet will receive a $1000 cash prize and publication next spring of her manuscript “Fuchsia.”
“Every year, we wonder where the new and dynamic voices will emerge from to grab our attention, and this year has been no different,” said Dawes in an interview. Shiferraw’s verse explores with sophistication the complexities of exile and return, of memory and hope through sharply-honed images, and through a vulnerability that is haunting and disarming.”
The book fund has also helped to launch poetry libraries in the Gambia, Kenya, Botswana and Uganda. ”So far a lot of places have been asking to be part of it. The response has been fantastic,” he said.
“People who say the physical book is dead have not been to other parts of the world. Many of these places, because of colonialism and exploitation, have not yet even had the chance to engage in print culture.” He currently teaches in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.