Did you know that for 13 years now, 7 November has been celebrated across Africa as International African Writers’ Day? In this interview with Femi Akomolafe, Ghanaian Professor Atukwei Okai , who is the Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) discusses the power of literature as well as sharing his personal triumphs and tribulations as one of Africa’s literary giants. He says: “A re-education of our minds with regards to the necessity of reading, needs to happen.”
New African: You are the Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA); can you tell us more about the organisation?
Professor Atukwei Okai: The PAWA is the umbrella organisation for all African national writers’ associations. The idea was born of the fact that in unity lies true power. On their own, the national associations have little power or influence, but as a continental body, we carry more leverage. Through PAWA, we aim to bring African writers together, and fight for the rights and the interests of writers on the African continent.
It started around 1985 when we (various national associations) set up an international preparatory committee (IPC), charged to establish PAWA. We then made a tour of African countries and went to the OAU headquarters where we met officials and put our case across. We were advised to attend a meeting of African Ministers of Culture that was to take place that year in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. We went there, addressed the conference of ministers and informed them of our plans. They gave us enthusiastic support and PAWA was founded in 1989.
In 1991, the Conference of African Ministers of Education and Culture meeting in Coutonou, Benin, acting on a proposal by PAWA, resolved to establish 7 November, the day PAWA was founded, as International African Writers’ Day, which is now celebrated throughout the continent. This allows African people a moment to pause and reflect on, as well as celebrate the contribution of African writers in the development of the continent.
In 1992, the government of Ghana granted full diplomatic status to the PAWA Secretariat. The highlight of our calendar is the PAWA Annual Lecture where noted African writers come to give lectures.
Q: Sadly, reading is a dying hobby in most parts of Africa today. What do you think can be done to revive it?
Yes, it is sad. Reading is crucial, in fact even critical to national development. How do you develop a country without an educated mass of people? The impressive achievements we see in other societies reflect the investment they have made in education. The lack of interest in reading needs to be seriously addressed and tackled at the highest levels; a re-education of our minds with regards to the necessity of reading, needs to happen. We need to establish libraries and stock them with books so that we can revive the culture of reading in our people.
Government should encourage local publishers to publish more books by providing them with incentives that will make them stay in business. Parents should make sure their children balance the use of technological devices with the reading of books. Literature should be made compulsory and every school must set up a Literary Club.