When Heritage Hurts: The Fight to Save the Africa Centre in London

By Alex Enahoro

What began as a unifying, multi-faceted enterprise has become the figurehead in a divisive battle between Africans in the Diaspora, with intellectual property pitted against the lure of quick profit, perhaps an age old African fable. The Africa Centre in London, UK has been running for the past fifty years in London's artistic shopping district of Covent Garden, has spurred a campaign amongst the UK's African community and its supporters, to reverse the decision by its Trustee members to sell the property without securing an alternative property for the Africa Centre.

The Board of trustees is comprised of experienced, highly educated and individuals respected in the African artistic and business sectors. Members of the board collectively represent the spirit that created the Africa Centre Trust in 1961, which secured the said property; a spirit that transcended race, ethnicity, politics and, initially, finance, between Africans and Europeans in founding a centre to act as a base for Africans in exile to exhibit their art, and maintain and build new links within their community, against a mainstream that often sought to exclude them. This energy was born out at a time when many African nations such as our own, had just been granted independence and were seeking to embrace the identity our colonial governments had sought to eradicate through forced assimilation. The Catholic Church by donating the Africa Centre its premises symbolized a new vision in African-British relations.

The centre quickly became a meeting point for many artists, journalists and politicians recently exiled from emergent Africa already in a state of rootless despair. The centre with its intellectual facilities, also boasted a thriving pan African restaurant and bar, a ritual feasting place for a growing community with emotional ties to the homeland.

The Centre became a host to many debates, on issues controversial to our many nations and often ignored. Feminism, African socialism, press freedom and the media bias against Africa formed the basis of successful debates. The Africa Centre acted as the platform for the first black female publisher, for music bands, for playwrights banned in their own countries to stage their productions, and in the 1980s, became the hub for the British involvement in the fight against South Africa's National Party, the instigators of Apartheid, a system revoked hardly twenty years ago.

It is also where my father, Peter 'Peter Pan' Enahoro, presented a lecture on 'The Press in Africa Conference'. Considered a pioneering examination at the time the seminar it offered my father a vehicle to express many of the concerns and issues that had alienated and endangered him in our native country. Other notable Nigerians have been attached to the Africa Centre; Ben Okri has launched several publications and partaken in several of its debates; legendary musician Sir Victor Uwaifo played a concert in 1969; Gina Yashere, of Nigerian parents, presented three rounds of the African and Caribbean cabaret in 1996; and artist Sokari Douglas-Camp, became the Africa Centre's first artist in residence in 1987, culminating in an exhibition displayed sculptures celebrating Nigeria's metal and motor industry.

Just this past Christmas, the Africa Centre hosted a party for the cast of the musical Fela, who after staging the production in New York's legendary Broadway Theatre district, congregated at the Africa Centre after its successful transfer to London's equally distinguished West End Theatre. On my last trip to Nigeria over this past Easter period, I was delighted to note advertising for the production at Lagos's Eko Hotel in Victoria Island. At the Africa centre, the audiences of these many lectures, exhibitions, performances and conferences, were not just formed of expatriate Africans, but also of British nationals keen to explore and share the vision for a committed interest and celebration of Africa's development. I had hoped these achievements would herald a new era for African-European commercial interests.

This makes the emergence of the 'Save the Africa Centre' campaign all the more ironic. The need for such a campaign is a regressive reminder of the obstacles that Africa often faces in strengthening its self-image. Initially, it had been announced by the Board of Trustees that the leasehold of the building in Covent Garden would be sold by this December, when property developers Cap Co would take full possession of the property. Passionate members of the Africa Centre launched a Save the Africa Centre in March when knowledge of this became public. Long time supporters of the Africa Centre naturally became instant signatories, which fell on the deaf ears of the Board members, many of whom were personally known to them.

The campaign soon caught the attention of the press, and The Times, a major British newspaper, published an open letter signed jointly by London's Mayor Boris Johnson, Beninese singer Youssou N'Dour, and Sudanese economist & mobile communications entrepreneur, Mo Ibrahim. The legendary South African Anglican cleric and activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, felt so moved he recorded a heartfelt video message to voice his opposition against the Trustees' decision:

'This place is no ordinary building site… It has wonderful, important memories to many of us… You don't think a building can clutch at your heart in a way that that building has. I do remember when you're feeling a little low and homesick and everything seemed so foreign… it's more than just a building. In many ways it embodies the spirit of those who say your continent is not just a catalogue of disasters. Your continent is a home, and there's a great deal of hope for it.'

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo, who was involved in conferences and lectures at the African Centre in the late 1970s and early 1980s, reacted incredulously on learning of the Centre's impending closure during the filming of his own video message with fellow Kenyan novelist Abdilatif Abdalla. Hailing the centre as a historic institution, Thiongo equated the significance as a calamity similar to the possibility of the British Library being shut down.

Having collected over 1,200 signatories, the Save the Africa Centre Campaign team are organising a peaceful protest in London, in response to the leaked announcement that the trustees are speeding up their sale to this Friday 3rd June. The protest attracted press coverage, and has influenced the property developers to delay the sale. One suspects, the board of trustees in a personal bid to eliminate any negative public attention created out of this campaign, have attempted to shield their reputations from any tarnish by finalising the sale. Such an act displays naivety and irresponsibility on the part of the Board members, who are failing in their commitment to protecting an iconic institution that has spanned generations. The opportunity for this British based institution to connect directly with the mother continent is an objective that admittedly needs to be fulfilled, one of the many goals driving the campaign team and their many followers.

The campaign team rightfully recognise the need for a public debate between the Trustees and the Centre's members, many dedicated and industrious individuals who have publicised, promoted and maintained the running of the Africa Centre amidst its recent decline. There has been no campaign equalised by the board members in either fundraising or discussing the survival of the Africa Centre. The board members themselves have shunned media attention. Upcoming African events are being undermined without the obvious requirement of a venue to stage them.

It is now a timeless story of sides initially united, now defecting to form opposition and in battle, playing underhand tricks to oppress the 'undesired'. Many of us on the campaign have speculated that the board members' decision is motivated primarily by profit, a sad echo of today's African expression of materialism. It is also a sad reminder to young Africans in the Diaspora such as myself, that we have made mistakes in neglecting our heritage by not embracing and promoting the differences that distinguish us until a harsh reminder is delivered. That our community has let it get to this stage delivers us a share of responsibility. The opportunity to have used the Centre as a keychain between the UK and our countries of origin, would close with the Centre itself.

But the fact that a renewed enthusiasm and devotion to ensure the continuation of the Centre is being ignored and suppressed by this committee made of a handful of individuals against a catalogue of notable and longstanding African Centre members, summarises a failed leadership. The office of the Rwandan High Commissioner in London revealed that Africa's diplomatic missions in London, had discussed this matter as representatives of the African Union, and expressed their reservations with the board members' abrupt and inconsistent plans for the Africa Centre.

While all these expressed desires and hopes of the campaign have so far been met with opposition and increasing hostility, the renewed energy to preserve this iconic African heritage has been inspiring to me. My father's pioneering achievements and those of other notable Africans in Diaspora, are now intertwined with my generation's continued battle to remain protectors of our heritage, making new connections and forming new bonds amongst our fellow campaigners, in the spirit that the originators of the Africa Centre came to found a Centre with a legacy that touches all us, at home and abroad.

Alex Enahoro

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