Attendees of the First Sierra Leone National Book Fair. Courtesy of Stephen Ney

The first Sierra Leone National Book Fair took place between December 5 to December 7, 2019, in Freetown, at the 50/50 Hall on Tower Hill. Total attendance over the three days was close to a thousand. While the fair was attended by government ministers and scholars from most of Sierra Leone’s main universities, over half of the attendees were students. Oumar Farouk Sesay, a poet and the coordinator of the Book Fair, had said that he hoped the event would “create a platform whereby we could help younger kids to read and write and create visibility for Sierra Leonean writers.” This hope was certainly realized.

A crowd composed of students, scholars, and community members. Courtesy of Stephen Ney.

At the centre of the Book Fair was the sale of books by Sierra Leonean writers. Publishers represented included PEN Sierra Leone, Winmat, and Sondiata. The largest publisher present was the Sierra Leonean Writers Series, led by Osman Sankoh, who gave a presentation for schoolchildren explaining the work of a publisher.

A sample of new and old books on display. Courtesy of Stephen Ney.

“Meet the author” presentations featuring a dozen local writers were designed to inspire students towards reaching their own potential as writers. Also designed for a schoolgoing audience was a seminar by Joseph Lamin Kamara and Stephen Ney on the interpretation of poetry and preparation for government examinations. Samuella Conteh led workshops with younger children in which issues of rape and other forms violence against women and girls were explored.

Author Joseph Lamin Kamara discussing his first novel. Image courtesy of Karim Bah/Nomoli Media.
“Meet the Sierra Leonean author” panel. Courtesy of Karim Bah/Nomoli Media.

Apart from events aimed at children, there were also several events geared toward adults, scholars in particular. One scholarly forum took place during each day of the fair. “Unpacking Athens” was an interdisciplinary roundtable in which five Sierra Leonean academics responded to the use of “Athens of West Africa” as a moniker for Freetown — a moniker for the city that is vague but has persisted since the nineteenth-century.  From their different perspectives, all five academics agreed that the title is not only misleading but also unhelpful for a forward-looking nation seeking to advance in education and in national consciousness. “The Perils of Afrophone Literature” was a lecture given by linguist Sheikh Umarr Kamarah, Professor and Chair of the Department of Languages and Literature at Virginia State University. He demonstrated the capacity of Krio as a language for poetry of the first order and argued for its acceptance as a national language. The final scholarly presentation was a panel discussion on women writers in the age of new media. It explored challenges faced by women bloggers, pinpointing areas of persistent patriarchy and proposing strategies for success in business and in writing.

Aisha Fofana Ibrahim (standing) chairing a panel discussion on “Women Writing Sierra Leone.” Courtesy of Stephen Ney.

Many participants expressed appreciation for the event. One student said he never knew that Sierra Leoneans have such an array of published works. He said he had only read novels and poems by non-Sierra Leoneans. He said “I did not believe in myself as a Sierra Leonean. This Book Fair has injected a new sense of pride in me as a Sierra Leonean.”

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Osman Sankoh, Umaru Fofanah, Elizabeth L A Kamara, Fatou Taqi, Oumar Farouk Sesay. Courtesy of Stephen Ney.

At the closing ceremonies of the Fair, four great Sierra Leonean authors received the new National Literary Award for 2019: Eldred Durosimi Jones, Yema Lucilda Hunter, Syl Cheney-Coker and Mohamed Sheriff. Part of the Award citation reads “Today, we are honoring four Sierra Leoneans with the first ever Sierra Leone National Literary Awards. We need to commence honoring our literary prophets in our home, for no better way exists for connecting the generations, for building confidence in the nation’s psyche, and for commemorating the great achievements so many have labored to bring forth Sierra Leone Literature.”

In exactly these terms, the first ever Sierra Leone National Book Fair was a success.

This article was written by Stephen Ney and Karim Bah. Stephen Ney has lectured in African literature and writing studies at Fourah Bay College (2015-17) and at UBC Vancouver (2017-19). He has published research articles in Research in African Literatures, African Literature Today, and Social Science and Missions. He lives in Freetown. Karim Bah is an activist for African Liberation and global social justice as well as a writer-campaigner on economic and social justice based in Sierra Leone.  Karim is also a Media and Strategic Communications Consultant and the Director of Nomoli Media – Centre for Social Change Communications.