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London’s Africa Centre – a glorious history

Diaspora

London’s Africa Centre – a glorious history

The history of London’s Africa Centre parallels that of modern Africa and is a fascinating study in its own right. The list of people who have interacted with the Centre reads like a who’s who of African talent. We present edited extracts from the brilliant study done by Sheila Ruiz.

 London’s Africa Centre, which has recently reopened in a swanky new building, was first conceived by Margaret Feeny, who brought a committee of Africanists together to turn the idea of a centre that would be at the service of the newly independent Africa into a tangible reality. The Centre was officially registered as a charity in 1961.

The aim was to bring all Africans living in Britain together, whilst also creating a bridge that would foster non-governmental links and communication between Africans and their new home, Britain. 

The building chosen to house the centre (pictured above) dates back to 1776. It had been an auction room selling, at different times, Benin Bronzes and Boer War artefacts and, in its penultimate guise, a tomato warehouse. In 1962 it was purchased and then converted into the future Africa Centre building, thanks to the help of three willing architects – Lance Wright, Mike Hatrell and Jaime Dealto – who worked and designed to a very tight budget.

In November 1964, The Africa Centre finally opened its doors to the public. The official inauguration was presented by Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, then President of Zambia; Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa, the first Black African Cardinal; and Margaret Feeny, the Centre’s first director. The ceremony took place in the presence of many African High Commissioners and ambassadors. 

Margaret Feeny continuously built very good rapport with diplomats, ambassadors and high-profile figures – both African and British – such as Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the Commonwealth Secretary General, who was one of the members of the initial management committee. 

Crucial African axis in London

It was not long before The Africa Centre gained a reputation for being a crucial African axis in London, providing a platform for African art, culture and political opinion. The latter was a much-needed exercise given the critical juncture in Africa’s history at the time.

Lectures and conferences at the Centre quickly acquired the reputation of being of an exceptional standard. In 1968, Eduardo Mondlane, President of FRELIMO, gave a talk as part of a Conference on ‘The Future of the Portuguese Territories in Southern Africa’; Nigerian publisher Peter Enahoro led a conference on the press in Africa in 1969, the renowned Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney, led a conference on ‘Models of Development’ and Africa’s great historian and philosopher, Professor Ali Mazrui, flew over from the University of Michigan in 1975 to engage in the topic of ‘Africa in World Affairs: The next 25 years’. 

Given the Apartheid situation in South Africa at the time, the Centre became an invaluable platform for public figures and writers from that country. Poets Dennis Brutus and Cosmo Pieterse visited the centre in 1971; and playwrights Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona also spoke to large audiences. Political activist Ruth First, took part in a conference in 1970 and Reverend Desmond Tutu was at the launch of a collection of writings by South African priests, pastors, teachers and other writers in 1973. Nigerian Nobel Prize winning author and dramatist Wole Soyinka delivered a lecture in 1975. 

It was famously selected as the venue for the public release of a statement, in 1980, from Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment on Robben Island. The statement, smuggled out of prison, said: “Unite! Mobilise! Fight on! Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle, we shall crush Apartheid!”

A home for African writers

An agreement with Heinemann Publishers in 1967 led to the launch of every African Writers Series book at the Centre, often accompanied by a reading or an appearance by the author. This included the likes of Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okarra, Pat Maddy, Ousmane Sembene, Len Peters, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Alex La Guma, Kwesi Armah, and Dominic Marasho, to mention but a few.

During the 1970s, under the directorship of Alistair Niven, the Centre also became home to the likes of Ben Okri, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Dambudzo Marechera and other eminent African writers, who would spend a good deal of their spare time there, socialising and giving atmosphere to the place. 

Other writers who visited the Centre during this period included Flora Nwapa (Nigeria), Jack Mapanje (Malawi), Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia), Barney Simon (South Africa), Bessie Head (South Africa/Botswana), Cosmo Pieterse (South Africa), Michael Thewell (Jamaica), Benjamin Zephaniah (Jamaica), Stephen Gray (South Africa), Colin Style (Zimbabwe), Ralph de Boissiere (Trinidad), James Berry (Jamaica), E.A. Markham (Trinidad), Alechi Amadi (Nigeria), Rosa Guy (NY, USA), Ron Heath (UK), and Athol Fugard (South Africa). Renowned author Buchi Emecheta told daytime stories to young children.

The immense African literary talent on show at the Centre was only one part of a great cultural feast it regularly dished up. In addition to exhibitions by artists, many of whom went on the become globally famous, the Centre also vibrated with some
of the best music ever produced in Africa.

The list of bands that performed at the Centre is vast, but some notable names include the following: the Courtney Pine Jazz Quartet; Shirati Jazz; Highlife International; Stella Chiweshe; Bembeya Jazz National, the national band from Guinea-Conakry; Kanda Bongo Man; M’pongo Love; Shikisha; Pat Thomas; Thomas Mapfumo; Bhundu Boys; Remmy Ongala; Angelique Kidjo; Dudu Pukwana; Baaba Maal, who performed at the Centre as part of his first UK tour in 1988; and Diblo Dibala. 

Continued success

Under its next two directors, Nigel Watt and Dr Adotey Bing, the Centre continued to flourish and to showcase not only African but in fact, Black creativity in the round. It attracted the likes of great artists such as Mia Couto, the ‘Black Plato’ CLR James, Amata Ata Aidoo, Dennis Brutus, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Meshack Asare, Lewis Nkosi, Grace Akello, Jack Mapanje, Aminata Sow Fall, Merle Collins, and Nawal El Saadawi.

It hosted educational programmes, symposiums, high-level conferences, dance and music lessons and was the launch pad for a myriad of African- related events such as the Caine Prize for African Literature and Africa at the Pictures in 1990, a film festival organised by the Centre and hosted by the National Film Theatre, which featured a season of African films and seminars attended by African film directors including Haile Gerima, Flora M’mbugu-Schelling and Ferid Boughedir. It also ran its own weekly radio show, Talking Africa, focused on African news and discussions.

The restaurant, at one time the only establishment serving African dishes, and bar in the basement were famous throughout the continent and beyond. On weekends, there was standing room only as government ministers, best-selling authors, top musicians, intellectuals and ordinary folk mixed and chatted on all aspects of life and Africa.

The period while the Centre was closed as the move to its new home was underway left a deep hole in the life of Africans and friends of Africa in London. 

Welcome back Africa Centre, you have been sorely missed!

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