Monday, June 04, 2007

Words from Africa

I know next to nothing about African languages. I do not speak any of them, and I have never tried learning one. Besides, which one to choose? Apparently, there are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. My whole knowledge about the continent is minimal: I have never been there and am not familiar with African writers. The same is true about my ignorance about Asia, Australia, and Oceania, but whereas these areas leave me pretty much indifferent -- apart from Asian cuisines, that it -- I have inexplicable fascination with Africa. I always read articles and dossiers on Africa in The Economist and Courrier international, I used to search for best African restaurants in Paris and Geneva, and I have been known to respond positively to chat-up lines of African guys in public places. I even once accepted a job offer on the strength that it involved travelling to Africa (unfortunately, the company had downsized before I managed to set foot there).

And of course, I am fascinated with African languages, that is why last Saturday I attended Word from Africa in the British Museum, part of the African festival that London, a home for many people of African origin, has been hosting for several years. The programme promised many wonders: listening to poetry, songs, and story-telling in Tonga, Zulu, Hausa, Swahili, or Somali, and I was anticipating a linguistic feast. Alas, it turned out to be a more of a burned toast experience: haphazard organisation, poor acoustics (in the BP lecture theater! I wonder how it is possible), moderators who had mistaken the festival for a TV reality show, and the worse of all, mediocre performance. I have heard fantastic African artists before (mostly in Paris) and am confident that the continent has many original and talented artists, so when I walked off home, disappointed, I wondered what could be the reasons of that poor show. Lack of money? But surely with increasing interest of Western companies for African markets and resources, one could have easily found several sponsors eager to showcase their involvement. Institutional weakness? (an expression my once-boss would use to describe the lack of efficiency of many ministries and public services in the developing world.) Lack of skills on the part of organisers? Next year, I would be happy to run the show, just in case the BM is interested!

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