West Africa: Words, Symbol, Song @ British Library

West Africa: Words, Symbol, Song @ British Library

The British Library launched West Africa: Words, Symbol, Song last week, a major exhibition which will run until 16 February 2016.

Four years in the making, this exhibition is a walk through a treasure trove of west African literature and musical delights, including pieces from over 1,000 years of literary history from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to the complex cultural dynamism of West Africa today.

The exhibition includes rare stories from the region’s 17 nations. Over 200 exhibits give a wider cultural dimension to the rich tapestry of West African history. Go on a journey through the history of the region’s written word – in nearly 2,000 recorded languages, graphic systems and locally invented scripts, some a millennia old.


West Africans invented forms of long-distance communication, for example,  the ‘talking drums’. Listen to a recording of Asante atumpan drums, made by Robert Sutherland Rattray in Ghana in 1921. They also created other sonic systems – ‘talking whistles’, for example – as well as coded objects, such as the Nigerian ‘aroko’ messages, formed of cowrie shells and seeds. It all highlights just how important the power of words, symbol and song as forms of communication are in the creation of societies. Words drive culture, political movements, furthers religious and spiritual belief systems and in more modern times, have been used to fight injustice, giving power to the oppressed.

One of the earliest records of the Vai script, invented in Liberia in the first half of the 19th century. 1851 (British Library Add MS 17,817b)

So what else can you discover? Learn about Mali – purported to be the birthplace of music. Listen to the myth of the founding of ancient Mali in recorded performance. See just how precious literature and books were considered to be in original letters written by 19th-century scholars who fail to return borrowed books to each other. How literature is woven through communities. Wonder at the influence of religion on the region and gaze upon an original saddlebag Qur’an. Celebrate West African writers, artists and scholars including Africa’s first Nobel prize winner, Wole Soyinka. Become enraptured in the vibrant energy and power of song through a fascinating video of the inimitable, internationally-acclaimed musician and human rights activist, Fela Kuti.


The library has unearthed beautiful manuscripts, historic film and sound recordings, books, photographs, and woven and printed textiles including from the depths of its own archives. For some exhibits, this is the first time they have been seen by members of the public.

As the BL team says, “each piece offers a unique insight into a profound and engaging literary culture with centuries-old written heritage existing alongside ancient oral traditions.”

Read further and get prices, times and information about the accompanying education programmes, here.

photo source: writer’s own/ BL

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