Monday, 13 February 2012

The Answer is ‘Yes’. Now, what’s the question?

 by Ade Solange

The best part of the African Creative Economy Conference? Being in the company of some of the most energetic and inspiring movers and shakers in the arts I’ve ever met.
Arterial Network, the conference organisers, brought together 120 artists, arts managers and policy makers from 36 African countries for its first African Creative Economy conference in Nairobi last month. We packed into the Desmond Tutu Conference Centre in Westlands for four days, addressing an equally packed agenda.
Building regional and international markets for African creative goods and services, reducing dependency, the challenges of north-south collaboration, intellectual property rights, creative economy research in Africa ... just some of the topics covered. The bottom line: how to develop and maximise the economic potential of African creativity.
Movers and shakers? People like Kenyan Joy Mboya, Executive Director of Nairobi’s renowned GoDown Arts Centre, who presented the Keynote session on the creative economy and Africa, looking at the current global picture (in which Africa’s current share of the global economy is less than 1%) and looking forward to the day when “we are ourselves our own market and our work is globally appreciated and sought.”

Who’ll help make that great leap forward? To mention just a few: Thabiso Mashaba, still in his early twenties and the dynamic entrepreneur behind Black Audio Fire Investments, a music and arts development business in Botswana; Sauda Simba, director of Trinity promotions, Tanzania, a musician and arts management consultant, and one of the driving forces behind Tanzania’s newly-launched, state-of-the-art venue, House of Culture.
Equally inspiring was Korkor Amarteifio from Ghana, Director of the Institute for Music and Development, Accra, who shared her ambitious vision for an African creative cities network.
She’s just taken over as Chairperson of Arterial and is moving full steam ahead with her plans to revitalise a low-income part of Accra. Other West African dynamos were Deji Olatoye, of  Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) in Lagos, and Tade Adekunle, an entreprenur and actor, both Nigerian.
I took part in the event as a member of the British Council delegation, (along with Makeda Coaston and Carly Frey from the UK). Our contingent was made up of colleagues from British Council offices and associated projects around the continent, including the above-mentioned Deji and Sauda, David Muriithi from Kenya, Mustapha Khogali and Mewahib Mohammed from Sudan, Juliet Amoah and Samuel Appiah Kubi from Ghana, and Erica Elk  and Avril Joffe from South Africa. 
My mission? To contribute a diaspora perspective and to form partnerships and build bridges for British-African work in Africa. And the response? Well, Oliver Twist would have been jealous. If Dickens’ hungry waif had asked his famous ‘please, sir, can I have some more?’’ question here, he’d been buried by the word ‘yes’.
 “I have a play about diaspora Africans. Do you think people in your country might be interested?” I asked the man behind me in the tea queue at morning break on the first day. “ Oh, yes,” he said. “My name Daniel Maposa. I work in theatre in Zimbabwe.” He immediately beckoned a large, smiling teddy-bear of a man a few feet away. “Have you spoken to Josh? Josh, JOSH! Come over here a minute ... there’s some-one you must meet.”
Josh Nyapimbi, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Theatre Association and director of the Nhimbe theatre project in Zimababwe, joined us, in turn calling over Bjorn Maes, a former actor/director from Belgium and now Africalia’s Southern Africa officer. His funding body supports Josh’s project. ”Sounds interesting,’ they all agreed. Before long we were scribbling ideas on serviettes. “Have you met Elvas Mari, director of the Zimababwe National Arts Council? He’s here too. Make sure you talk to him, ” they advised, as we were called back to the conference room.
Others were just as enthusiastic. “Any good theatres in Nairobi?” I asked the woman in front of me as we queued for lunch a few hours later. “Oh, I have a theatre,” she said, passing me the rice and her business card. Marion van Dijck, Director of the Sarakasi Trust.  “Call me.”
And this was just on the first day. Exhilarating! I’d come hoping to generate some interest in my play, ‘Pandora’s Box,’ a family drama about choosing whether to send kids back to Africa from the diaspora. Before I knew it, I was planning a tour. “We have the same tensions and struggles about living on the continent or elsewhere all over Africa,” said one person. “You’ve hit on a universal theme.” The friendliness, openness and eagerness to do business were quite staggering. During breaks, on the bus to and from the hotel, at the evening social events ... “that sounds great” ... “ why don’t you speak to ” ...“come visit us” ...”I’d love to help.”
I’d felt a bit nervous about presenting my paper, on the role of people like me, living outside Africa. ‘But what are you, British or African?” Farai Mpfunya of Zimbabwe’s Culture Fund, had asked me, baffled, one day. Gulp!
How can ‘Africans abroad’ connect and contribute to African creativity? How can the ‘55th African state’ – the African diaspora – help develop and sell African and African-heritage culture in Europe, America and Africa, and elsewhere? Can the diaspora voice and experience, often a rival to home-grown art and culture, be marketed in a way in Africa that both serves, and benefits from, African creative expression generally?
Yes, was the answer. With open minds and open arms we discussed some of the roles diaspora artists might play, and what approaches, relationships and structures would help maximise our potential contribution.
Four days passed too quickly. Final high point? Ethiopian singer Munit Mesfin’s heart-felt rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Africa Unite,’ as we ate and danced our farewells at a delicious dinner and party on the last night. (Arterial’s hospitality was superb throughout). I cried (not the only one) as she sang the song: it summed up what we were doing.
The gracious and unflappable Mulenga Kapwepwe, a Zambian writer and Arterial’s (outgoing) Chairperson, and South African Mike van Graan, Arterial’s industrious Secretary General, led a team delivering an excellent conference.
Arterial is poised to make an even bigger impact on the global cultural landscape. The organisation is growing, currently advertising for a new Secretary General and a Sustainability Manager to take it forward.
There are chapters in most African countries, and Regional Secretariats throughout Africa. They’re also setting up discipline-specific networks and are interested in exploring setting up a diaspora chapter.

Ade Solanke
Spora Stories


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