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Funding, visa hitches dim Africa's representation at global book fair

Books being showcased at the Sharjah International Book fair in the Emirate of Sharjah, UAE. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Showcasing of African literary works at this year’s world’s largest book fair event has seen a low representation marred by minimal attendance by African writers.

Known as the Sharjah International Book Fair, the event celebrates books, reading culture and creativity around the world, bringing together publishers, writers and collectors of rare books.

This year’s representation by African authors however recorded low attendance as compared to last year when several African authors graced the event.

Adam Shafi, an author from Zanzibar who attended the event lamented that while the East Africa region is a hub of great authors, there is little representation of their works in such book fairs.

“This is currently the largest forum in the world where authors and publishers market their work. Representation of works from the region is still very low,” Shafi said.

The event has emerged the largest book fair in the world in terms of buying and selling copyrights in 2022. 

Blaming the low attendance of publishers and authors from the region partly to the current visa ban on travellers from 20 African countries to the United Arab Emirates, Shafi said the move had locked out literary giants.

On October 18, the United Arab Emirates banned visa applications from nationals of Uganda, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Liberia, Burundi, Republic of Guinea, DRC, Gambia, and Senegal. The visa ban was also imposed on travellers from Guinea Bissau, Rwanda, Dominican Republic and Comoros.

“The travel ban has been attributed to Ebola outbreak, locking out many African countries. Travel expenses are also a big limitation to many authors,” Shafi said. 

While countries like Kenya and Tanzania were not affected by the ban, travel expenses, he said, remain a challenge to most writers. Coupled with the coordination of the event that showcases more of Arabic literature, the move might be one of the reasons most writers from East Africa were locked out. 

“While most books being showcased here are in Arabic, the common languages in East Africa are English and Swahili, making it hard for authors from the region to showcase their work,” he said.

Shafi’s book titled, Vuta Nikuvute, for example, has been translated to Arabic, which has given him an opportunity to attends such literary events. 

Lack of funding and overdependence on foreign aid by publishers and authors from East Africa, Shafi says, is also another reason to blame for the collapse of coordinated regional literary events to promote reading and writing in the region. 

“We have a lot to do as East African writers to promote our work. The biggest challenge is lack of funding for literary works within the region, a reason we rarely come together to collectively market our work.”

He blamed the collapse of a vibrant literary association, the East African Book Development Association, which brought together publishers and authors from the region, to lack of local funding.

“When the sponsors pulled out, we could no longer sustain the association and it collapsed. Currently, the national outfits in the region are struggling with little funding,” he said.

But despite the low representation from African countries, this year’s edition has recognised 90-year-old Sudanese historian Yusuf Fadl Hassan as the Cultural Personality of the Year.

Dr Hassan, who has authored more than 30 books, was recognised for his efforts in promoting research and documenting movement in Africa and Asia.

“An eminent researcher, he has chronicled Sudanese heritage, led teams of researchers, served as the president of Khartoum University, and also as editor of publications,” Sharjah Book Fair Authority said in a statement.

Linking his documentation of movement between the two continents, Dr Hassan said the close ties of the Arab world and its people influenced on the history and demographics of Sudan.

“When I was studying and doing my research in Sudan, I found more spoken narratives than written records, passed on from our forefathers, one generation to another. It’s the narrative that I delved into much more than written history,” Dr Hassan said.

Last year’s event attracted a considerable representation including celebrated South African comedian, writer and the American show host Trevor Noah and Tanzanian writer and novelist Abdulrazak who is also the 2021 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Currently based in the UK, Gurnah’s universal tales of the trauma of exile, loss and uprooted lives has resonated with readers around the globe while Noah’s The Daily Show has resonated with people from all walks of life for several years.