The portraits of the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Senegalese Mariama Bâ or the Tanzanian and Nobel Prize winner in Literature in 2021, Abdulrazak Gurnah, fill the empty walls between the shelves of Afrothèque, a library in Dakar with exclusive literature from the African continent, its diaspora and the Caribbean. “In the city there are hardly any independent and Senegalese libraries, we have the Goethe Institute, which is German, or the French Institute, and other places financed by foreign non-governmental organizations,” protests its founder, Pape Malick Barros (Dakar, 30 years old). . That gap, that of the absence of a purely Senegalese and Africanist literary corner, is what this young entrepreneur and journalist has tried to fill with the creation two years ago of a literary refuge that aspires to become an alternative proposal in a city with more of three million inhabitants and barely twenty registered libraries or media libraries.
“Nowadays, I try to cover all regions of Africa equally, but inevitably due to proximity and budget, it is increasingly difficult to get closer to the southern area,” he points out with discouragement. Despite the difficulties, Barros insists that Afrothèque, which has a collection of some 4,500 volumes, is a “personal project” that has not received subsidies from any private or government institution. It is financed exclusively by the annual membership of 15 euros paid by its 415 members. “That’s exactly what makes it unique,” he considers.
A journalist by profession, when Barros began to surround himself with books, he assures that he was unaware of what was happening outside his country. Senegal was the only reality for him. “Today I don’t need to get on a plane. I have learned from home about the historical roots and social and religious dynamics of my neighbor Mali, Burkina Faso or Cameroon,” he notes. And it is precisely this experience, that of opening the mind to the world through reading, one of the objectives sought with Afrothèque, where the reader can find everything from the classics of African literature to books on love, science fiction, communication, religion, manga and even educational for the little ones. Most are written in French, although works can also be found in Arabic, English and local African languages, especially Wolof.
I don’t need to get on a plane today. I have learned from home about the historical roots and social and religious dynamics of my neighbor Mali, Burkina Faso or Cameroon
“If you look abroad, the literary reference of our region is, without a doubt, Nigeria,” comments the founder of Afrothèque. Even so, Barros remembers that, in its origins, Senegal carved out much of what is today African literature thanks to three men and a movement: the negritude of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Ousmane Cissé Diop. The current defended the values of African societies and demanded the recovery of their culture.
But “being African and a writer is not easy,” says Barros. The young man affirms that Africans are born and raised in a system that makes them believe that, on the international scale, they are at the bottom. “It’s like at the beginning of a track race, you get injured. You already have to try to win with that damage, without success, of course, ”adds the journalist. For this reason, he wants to promote reading as an engine of change to fight against what Barros defines as “intellectual obscurantism.” “In Africa there is a problem that is more difficult than endemic corruption or political clientelism, which is ignorance”, he adds.
Even so, recognition of African letters is growing. In 2021, the Mozambican Paulina Chiziane won the Camões, the most important award for literature in Portuguese, while the French Goncourt Prize went to the Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, the English Booker went to the South African Damon Galgut and one of the last Neustadt (United States) for the also Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop. “We will be doing something right,” says Pape.
Literature and entrepreneurship
But Afrothèque is not just a regular bookstore, but a place where literature and business converge. Before the library, Barros had previously created Afropreneuriat, a platform dedicated to promoting and disseminating information about African entrepreneurs. Even today, hundreds of young people with ideas of all kinds contact the journalist. He returns a questionnaire with which he subsequently prepares a press release and sends it to different media outlets. Today, the Instagram account exceeds 130,000 followers. “With Afropreneuriat he wanted to show that Africans are capable of innovating, adding value and creating jobs; With Afrothèque, I seek to show a positive image of Africa. Not everything is misery ”, he says.
Some success stories are displayed at the entrance to the bookstore. “This is the first Dakar magazine to bring together restaurants and bars with home delivery. It was born thanks to Afropreneuriat and is exhibited here, in Afrothèque, where people come to read”, says Barros proudly.
In that coexistence that Barros seeks between Afrothèque and Afropreneuriat, the library serves as a space for study and learning about other communication skills, a key tool for future generations, according to Pape. The center teaches public speaking and oral expression workshops, with the objective, says the founder, of reducing the accent of the local language when young people speak in French or English. “If you don’t speak the foreign language with the tone of the language, they tend to think that you are not a credible person. This continues to be an obstacle for thousands of young people,” he adds. Other star activities are the business plan writing courses, other more theoretical courses on financial definitions and exclusive classes with the first steps to start a company with 100,000 CFA (around 150 euros). “We work on all these notions free of charge for our members,” he adds.
Barros does not forget what Cheikh Anta Diop, one of the great historians and anthropologists of Senegal, stated: “Train yourself, arm yourself with science to the teeth and snatch away your cultural heritage.” More than 35 years after his death, his advice lives on at Afrothèque, a haven for African literature and entrepreneurship in Dakar.
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