An Inspired Archive of African Poetry

Stacia L. Brown
From the July/August 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Africa is my home / an aesthetic sanctuary / a giant fortress of rolling cultures,” declares Ghanaian poet Nana Nyarko Boateng in a recording of her poem “Black List” for Badilisha Poetry X-Change, the world’s largest online archive of African poetry. With recordings and profiles of nearly four hundred poets from thirty-one countries—both within Africa and across the diaspora—the archive is an essential space devoted to the rich and varied landscape of contemporary African poetry. “Badilisha was conceived to prioritize poetic African voices and ensure that Africans have the option of being inspired and influenced by their own poets,” says Linda Kaoma, the archive’s project manager. “We want to offer our audience a holistic and multilayered experience of poetry.”

Established in 2008 by the Africa Centre, a Cape Town–based Pan-African arts and culture organization, Badilisha began as an international poetry festival and series of writing workshops, performance events, and training programs. In 2012 the initiative reinvented itself as an online archive and radio show featuring Pan-African poets, while continuing to host events in South Africa. And last September, Badilisha—which is staffed by Kaoma and two colleagues—launched its mobile site, which now attracts an average of thirty-eight hundred unique visitors each month and is available on both smartphones and feature phones. “Our main target audience is based on the continent, and most people on the continent use their mobiles to access the Internet,” says Kaoma. Indeed, according to Ericsson ConsumerLab, the number of contracts with mobile service providers in Sub-Saharan Africa reached 635 million in 2014 and is expected to grow to approximately 930 million by the end of 2019. “The move to be mobile-friendly was a must in order to realize our Pan-African aims and objectives,” Kaoma says. 

Rather than exposing African poetry to an overseas audience, the project is focused on connecting Africans with contemporary and historical African poets to whom they have not had much exposure. Finding African poetry can be very difficult: Kaoma reports that only 2 percent of the world’s published books are written by African authors. “There has never been an archive of [African poets’] work that is both expansive and easily accessible,” notes Badilisha staff on the website. “This means that many Africans are not inspired or influenced by their own writers and poets—negatively impacting their personal growth, identity, development, and sense of place.” Furthermore, Africa’s long history of colonialism has contributed to a splintered literary culture, with poets writing in a host of different languages and from different political histories. As such, Badilisha hopes to empower artists to engage with the various artistic styles and concerns that have evolved differently for fellow writers of the African diaspora.

The Badilisha website reflects this diversity in African poetry while also making the content easily browsable. With a streamlined, colorful, and ad-free interface, the website organizes poets by name, country, and language, and by themes or emotions present in their work. Dawn Garisch, for example, a doctor and Cape Town resident, writes poetry and fiction that bridges the creative arts and psychology. James Matthews’s work, which touches on sociopolitical and activist themes, meanwhile, was banned in South Africa in the 1970s under apartheid rule. The Badilisha list includes younger Africans—poets such as Nigeria’s Omo Faith Oshodin, a jazz singer and visual artist; and Synik, a spoken-word artist and street performer in Harare, Zimbabwe. Badilisha staff members solicit poets for inclusion while also encouraging writers to submit to the archive.

The initiative also embraces the oral tradition of African poetry, highlighting the voice, rhythm, and language of each poet; all profiles include a bio, a photo, a poem, and a podcast. The podcast features a brief introduction to the poet by Badilisha’s podcast host, Malika Ndlovu, and a recording of the poet reading or performing a poem. For poets writing in non-English languages, the website offers a recording in the original language as well as an English translation. As of now, the archive includes poems written in fourteen languages, including Afrikaans, French, Portuguese, and Swahili.

With its steady growth of contributors, Badilisha is already an important resource for researchers, educators, and fellow artists. In the United States, poets Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani have cited it as a source for their chapbook series of contemporary African poets (the most recent installment, Eight New-Generation African Poets, was published by Akashic Books this past April). In the future, Kaoma hopes to expand the archive’s collection even further and incorporate interviews with poets. “Our plan is to continue expanding the archive to make it as representative of Africa as possible. We want to archive poets from all over Africa and the diaspora reciting in as many languages as possible.”

Stacia L. Brown is a freelance writer and a mother. She lives in Baltimore.