The Africa Center London – a glorious history
The history of the Africa Center in London parallels that of modern Africa and is a fascinating study in itself. The list of people who have interacted with the Center reads like a who’s who of African talent. We present edited excerpts from the brilliant study by Sheila Ruiz.
London Africa Centre, which recently reopened in a chic new building, was first designed by Margaret Feeny, which brought together a committee of Africanists to concretize the idea of a center at the service of newly independent Africa. The Center was officially registered as a charity in 1961.
The aim was to bring together all Africans living in Britain, while creating a bridge that would foster non-governmental links and communication between Africans and their new home, Britain.
The building chosen to house the center (pictured above) dates from 1776. It had been an auction house selling, at different times, Benin bronzes and objects from the Boer War and, in its penultimate appearance , a tomato warehouse. In 1962, it was purchased and then transformed into the future Africa Center building, thanks to the help of three volunteer architects – Lance Wright, Mike Hatrell and Jaime Dealto – who worked and designed on a very tight budget.
In November 1964, The Africa Center 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 has continuously forged very good relations with diplomats, ambassadors and leading figures – African and British – such as Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, who was one of the members of the management committee initial.
Crucial African axis in London
It was not long before the Africa Center gained a reputation as a crucial African hub in London, providing a platform for African art, culture and political opinion. The latter was an indispensable exercise given the critical juncture in the history of Africa at the time.
The Centre’s courses and lectures quickly acquired a reputation for being of an exceptional standard. In 1968, Eduardo Mondlane, president of FRELIMO, gave a lecture as part of a conference on “The future of Portuguese territories in southern Africa”; The Nigerian publisher Peter Enahoro led a conference on the press in Africa in 1969, the famous Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney, led a conference on “patterns of development” and the great African historian and philosopher, Professor Ali Mazrui, came from the University of Michigan in 1975 to engage on the theme of “Africa in World Affairs: The Next 25 Years”.
Given the apartheid situation in South Africa at the time, the Center became an invaluable platform for public figures and writers from that country. The poets Dennis Brutus and Cosmo Pieterse visited the center in 1971; and playwrights Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona also addressed large audiences. Political activist Ruth First attended 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 author and playwright Wole Nobel Laureate Soyinka gave a lecture in 1975.
It was famous for being chosen as the location for the public release of a 1980 statement by Nelson Mandela while imprisoned on Robben Island. The statement, smuggled out of prison, read: “Unite! Mobilize! Fight! Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of armed struggle, we will crush apartheid!
A home for African writers
An agreement with Heinemann Publishing in 1967 led to the launch of each book in the African Writers Series 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 name a few.
During the 1970s, under the leadership of Alistair Niven, the Center also became home to Ben Okri, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Dambudzo Marechera and other prominent African writers, who spent much of their free time there, socializing and livening up the place.
Other writers who visited the Center 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), EA Markham (Trinidad), Alechi Amadi (Nigeria), Rosa Guy (NY, USA), Ron Heath (UK) and Athol Fugard (South Africa). Famous author Buchi Emecheta used to tell daytime stories to young children.
The immense African literary talent showcased at the Center was only part of a great cultural feast it offered on a regular basis. In addition to the exhibitions of artists, many of whom have become world famous, the Center has also vibrated with a few
of the best music ever produced in Africa.
The list of bands that have performed at the Center is extensive, but some notable names include the following: the Courtney Pine Jazz Quartet; Shirati-Jazz; Highlife International; Stella Chiweshe; Bembeya Jazz National, the national group of Guinea-Conakry; Kanda Bongo Man; M’pongo Love; shikisha; Pat Thomas; Thomas Mapfumo; Bhundu boys; Remy Ongala; Angelique Kidjo; Dudu Pukwana; Baaba Maal, who performed at the Center as part of his first UK tour in 1988; and Diblo Dibala.
Under its next two directors, Nigel Watt and Dr. Adotey Bing, the Center continued to thrive and showcase not just African creativity, but indeed Black creativity. It has attracted major 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 has hosted educational programs, symposia, high profile conferences, dance and music classes and has been the launching pad for a myriad of Africa-related events such as the Caine Prize for Literature african and Africa in pictures in 1990, a film festival organized by the Center and hosted by the National Film Theater, which presented a season of African films and seminars attended by African directors, including Haile Gerima, Flora M’mbugu-Schelling and Ferid Boughedir . He also ran his own weekly radio show, talk about africafocused on African news and debates.
The restaurant, at one time the only establishment serving African dishes, and the bar in the basement were famous throughout the continent and beyond. On weekends, there was only standing room as government ministers, best-selling authors, top musicians, intellectuals and ordinary people mingle and discuss all aspects of life and business. ‘Africa.
The period that the Center was closed while the move to its new headquarters was underway has left a deep hole in the lives of Africans and friends of Africa in London.
Welcome to Africa Centre, we missed you a lot!