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Meet the founder of Accra’s one-woman library

What do you do when you have too many books? (Actually, you can’t have too many books; it’s storage that’s the issue, especially for bibliophiles of the peripatetic persuasion.) 

Sylvia Arthur’s solution was to start a library. 

When Arthur, who grew up in London, was working in Brussels in 2011, she would send boxes of books to her mother’s house in Kumasi, Ghana, for safekeeping. 

Fast-forward to 2017, and Arthur had moved to Accra, post Brexit (for obvious reasons). She came across an empty floor on top of a pharmacy her mother frequented; a day later, she had signed a lease. And so the Library for Africa and the African Diaspora was born. 

In creating a home for her book collection, Arthur was set on the idea of a library rather than, say, a bookshop. “Every time I would visit my mom, I would see all these books just sitting there. I felt guilty about it. I thought: ‘It’s a waste when there are people who could have access to these books’.”

If access is one of the library’s founding principles, cultural relevance is another. The lion’s share of books are by authors of Africa and the diaspora — and the African writers are particularly popular with patrons. 

“There is a real need and desire to feel connected to Africa through books, because obviously it’s not so easy to travel within Africa, which is a shame,” Arthur says. “And so people who come to the library feel like they want to read books by their fellow Africans; they feel like they want to travel to those African countries through those books. They also recognise the cultural context in a lot of these books, and I think they appreciate that.”

Sylvia Arthur has made a point of centring literature of Africa and the diaspora in her library

Arthur is trying to change the perception that libraries are a resource only  for people enrolled in formal education. Research from 2010 found that “a typical user of a public library in Ghana is likely to be a young single male from a middle-class background, aged between 16 and 30, currently in school”. 

Arthur’s library is working to attract a broader demographic. “We try to promote reading outside of academia completely. We play music. People are in conversation; as well as reading, they’re discussing ideas. So they make the connection: they see how books connect to ideas, and the outside world,” she says. 

Last year the library ran a campaign called Wax and Books, in which people were asked to wear wax-print clothing when they visited the library. “We took pictures of them reading or being active in the library in their traditional clothing,” Arthur says. “The idea behind that is to decolonise the idea of what the library is and who it’s for, and to show that Africans such as themselves, such as us, belong in the library.” 

The word “decolonise” is much bandied-about these days; for Arthur, the concept of a decolonised library is simple. “We are a library that centres and focuses on the works of Africans and African-descended writers from across the diaspora,” she says. 

She mentions visiting a chain bookstore in the United Kingdom: 90% of the books in its Middle East section were written by people from the Middle East; 100% of the books in its European section were written by Europeans. “The Africa section [was] the complete inverse. Ninety-nine percent of the books in the Africa section were written by non-Africans,” Arthur notes. 

“That is not the reality of the situation that we live in. We know that African writers and diaspora writers are producing and publishing lots of work. Unfortunately, that work isn’t being given the same opportunity to be showcased as other writers,” she says. “So when you come into the Library of Africa and the African Diaspora, African writers are showcased, not just on the shelves, but around the library. Their works are displayed; their images are displayed.” 

Her library works on a paid-for, subscription basis; most of its patrons are expats and repats. But Arthur’s project has grown far beyond the initial library in Accra. It has already given birth to three school and community libraries in the country — at Gem Star School in Ashaiman, Greater Accra, Kumawu in the Ashanti Region and Nsutam in the Eastern Region — all of which are free to use.

Then there’s also the library’s archive — “a connection between the African and the diaspora of ideas that we intend to make through the library itself”, as Arthur describes it. 

“The reason I started the archive was because there’s a big misconception that African literature started in 1958 with the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. And I knew that African literature goes way before that. Trying to access books by Africans on the African continent is a huge problem — even trying to access the contemporary books, let alone the historical books,” she says.

The different areas are named after prominent writers, among them Guyanese academic and political activist Walter Rodney (above left), who was assassinated in 1980.

“I find it very dismaying that the Nigerian writer, Amos Tutoala — his archive is at the University of Texas; Achebe’s archive is at Harvard University,” she says, referencing just two examples. 

Among the papers in the archive thus far are a first edition of Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka; letters by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah; and a signed manuscript by the latter. 

“I think it’s important for us to know that we come from a literary background. And that’s one of the problems that we have in trying to convince people that reading is something that belongs to us — I fear [it’s seen] as very much a white, European or American thing,” Arthur says. 

Most of the archive is stored off site, but Arthur is working towards raising money to buy the equipment so that the collection can be displayed safely and securely. 

To date, Arthur has funded the library and its spin-off projects. In line with the library’s decolonised philosophy, she is averse to the library becoming a nongovernmental organisation (NGO). 

“I think [NGOs] take agency away from the people. I’ve shied away from becoming an NGO because then I would have to submit to the demands of what they want me to do, as opposed to where I see the need being and what I want to do,” she says. 

“The library is run as a business, as opposed to a charity. I think people need to respect literature enough to say ‘I’m handing over this money and these writers’ works and these books are worth me paying for’, even if it’s a small sum.”

The books in Arthur’s library are there to be borrowed, but the archive material must remain on-site. 

Arthur’s intention is to run a residency programme in October — the coronavirus pandemic permitting — which will enable writers from across Africa and the diaspora to stay at the library and peruse the collection. 

She is also listing the library on Airbnb — there are three bedrooms open to any literature-loving visitors, including the Ama Ata Aidoo suite. For now though, our Covid-19-infected world means we’ll have to content ourselves with visiting Ghana through the words of its writers.

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