In September 2021, the Director-General of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Audrey Azoulay, named Accra as the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2023. Last Monday, April 24, 2023, the long awaited declaration finally took place, and Accra was installed as the Book Capital of the whole wide world. Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo, Madam Audrey Azouley, and Accra Mayor Elizabeth Sackey were on hand to do Accra the honours.
The World Book Capital is an initiative of UNESCO which recognises cities for promoting books and fostering reading for a year, starting on April 23, the World Book and Copyright Day. Cities designated as UNESCO World Book Capital carry out activities with the aim of encouraging a culture of reading in all ages and sharing UNESCO’s values. There is no financial prize for being nominated as host.
According to UNESCO, Ghana’s capital won this prestigious accolade following the positive evaluation of Accra’s bid by the World Book Capital Advisory Committee. UNESCO says that Accra was selected for its strong focus on young people and their potential to contribute to the culture and wealth of Ghana. Accra’s proposal said the city would use “the power of books to engage young people, as an effective way of skilling up the next generation”.
That is not all. Accra also made some extraordinarily bold declarations in its proposals. For example, Accra proposes a “broad programme that targets marginal groups with high levels of illiteracy including women, youth, migrants, street children and persons with disabilities.” Accra has also promised to implement measures to “reinforce school and community infrastructure and institutional support for lifelong learning in order to foster the culture of reading”.
There is more, but let’s stop to catch our breath and congratulate Accra for winning this privilege, and more importantly, for dreaming this extensive vision.
Accra deserves this honour, standing as it does, on the shoulders of giants. This city has been home to a multitude of literary titans; too many to name or count. In recent years, Accra has seen an increase in the number of literary activities such as book festivals, book launches and public readings on a scale not seen since the early post-independence years. However, to be brutally honest, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (the authority of the City of Accra) itself has not got a track record of promoting literary events or even supporting them.
However, as the President said, the selection of Accra is catalyst for future investments. “For us in Ghana, the Accra World Book Capital is more than a reading campaign. It’s an opportunity for government and international partners to leverage the diverse linkages to culture and education to deepen our collective actions to make progress of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals,” the President said.
In that sense, we must embrace this new opportunity and make the most of it. While looking forward, it is important to take a backwards glance to ensure that we are set fair and square on our forward march.
I have not seen Accra’s proposals and the full line-up of its activities for the year, but one would hope that measures to honour Ghanaian writers would be near the top. Apart from Efua Sutherland for whom the Children’s Park is named (of which more soon), there is hardly any monument to Ghanaian literature or writers anywhere in the city. The city authorities can redeem themselves by doing some simple things such as naming some important and relevant streets, buildings and institutions after famous and notable writers and other contributors to the development of literature and books such as publishers and booksellers.
As you would expect, last Monday’s function upped the ante even further. The President gave a stirring speech as did our UNESCO august guest, and our host, the Mayor of Accra. No one doubts that these dignitaries are sincere in what they said, however, when it comes to implementation, all stakeholders must open their eyes wide. To begin with, it is a pity that the book stalls that were erected at the venue, the Accra International Conference Centre, were dismantled almost immediately after the official event. Given that it was a holiday, not many people got the opportunity to sample or buy books. This means that most of the publishers and booksellers who bought space to display their books went away without any financial or moral satisfaction. One would have thought that the Book Capital of the World would keep book stalls open for at one week.
As I mentioned already, Accra has not honoured its writers. The Efua Sutherland Park, which has been named after the redoubtable “Aunty Efua” for her commitment to both children’s rights and literature, is an undeveloped eyesore. It only comes alive during the annual flower show and other such events. There is nothing there that celebrates books or children.
The Accra proposals promise to make books available to marginalised communities in the city. How it plans to do this may be in some document that has yet to be published. but here are a few ideas. Between 2010 and 2019, the Ghana Association of Writers made a demand at every opportunity for the government to buy 1000 books of all books published in Ghana that pass an agreed quality threshold. The book industry must support and amplify that demand during the year. The City authorities can erect book kiosks around public places such as taxi ranks, lorry parks, and markets to bring books to the masses.
The proposals also make a lot of play about books and youth development. This should not just be a pie in the sky kind of promise; while other stakeholders are expected to be inspired by this assurance, the City cannot rely on others to fulfil the pledges on which it won its bid.
Naturally, the nation’s capital expects the entire nation to rally to its cause, which is something the President alluded to in his speech. This is an honour for Ghana, but Accra must show the way. For now, we must congratulate the City but also caution it not to break the hearts of its book lovers and those to whom a lot has been promised. For now, it is Accra and books in a happy embrace. We shall return to this subject again and again.
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