West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song – British Library, London

In 2015, I had a sort of watershed. I was house-sitting for a friend and realised when I looked at their shelves, filled with lots of African literature, that not only did I really have no idea about that, but I had no real idea about what any of the places in Africa were like. other than that some had famine and some had wild animals. 

I wanted to change that and have been purposefully trying to open my mind and imagination further. When I booked some tickets to visit this exhibition, it didn’t even occur to me that I might want to write about it. However, I learnt so much, and so much of what I learnt surprised me, that I hope it surprises you too.

The average Christian in the twenty-first century is an African woman. I learnt that fact when I was a teenager and it was the first time the Western view I have been brought up with was totally revoked. For me, this cloth-print and the dress emphasises all these links between identity and religion that are unknown in the UK. The print was designed for the first conference after the Ghanaian Methodist Church became independent from the British Methodist Church in 1961. Along the bottom are elephants and palm trees, which are common symbols of the country.

Next to the outfit were some hymns from the collection that you could listen to. Ranging across a century of historic recordings, they really clearly showed how meshed together different cultural traditions are. All the examples came from the British Library collections, including this one:

If the music and costume from Christian areas of West Africa astonished me with their vibrancy, it was nothing than compared to the areas of the exhibition that showed the diversity of Muslim belief in the region.

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These women are learning Arabic in a school run by the mosque in Timbuktu. This part of a much larger area that looked at the manuscript traditions of Arabic script in West Africa. I did not know for example, that some West African languages are written with Arabic letters. It’s obvious when you look at the pan-Saharan trade routes, but was still news to me.

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British Library illuminated Q’ran page produced in southern Niger

The geometric illuminations on the Arabic manuscripts do remind me of early medieval carpet pages. I though, that’s because people love patterns and repetition. The act of writing out the pages was meditative and an important process.

I could go on to discuss the vibrant oral cultures, the touching discussions of slavery and West Africa, the legacy we find all around us today, the incredible women who were and are leaders and creators in the countries of West Africa in the past and today. Yet, for me the nature of faith was presented so profoundly, that’s what I keep returning to.

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… This really matters.

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