The Royal African Society, which celebrated its 120th birthday recently, continues to be a catalyst for positive change promoting African voices in the United Kingdom and globally.
You feel a deeply inspiring and immersive connection with Africa every time you speak with Arunma Oteh. And when the reason for this conversation is the 120th birthday of the Royal African Society, which this Nigerian powerhouse now chairs, it’s a delightful confluence and celebration of all things African.
“I’m just fascinated by our origin and who we are,” begins Oteh about the Society over a Zoom call from London a day after the biennial Film Africa festival – 48 films across seven venues in the city from 28 October to 6 November – held alongside the celebrations. Endless weeks of work and late nights have gone into putting it all together, not to mention a gala evening at Aqua Shard on November 2, but Oteh, a former Treasurer and Vice President of the World Bank, a scholar at the University of Oxford and who took over as the Society’s chairperson last year, is thrilled and thoroughly energized.
“What I found about the Royal African Society is that it’s a diamond mine; I don’t think that ‘gold mine’ is sufficient to describe it…Everyday, you discover more.”
She refers to Mary Kingsley, the English travel writer and ethnographer whose two trips to West Africa significantly shaped British perceptions of the continent, and in whose memory the Society was founded in 1901.
“What I love about her is that while others wanted to teach and preach to Africa, she wanted to learn and promote Africa. We’ve evolved over the last 120 years, but really, that being in our DNA, we say ‘how can we promote Africa and amplify Africa’s voice, and how can we make sure that Africa’s space in global conversations remains? I stand on the shoulders of our predecessors who are giants,” says Oteh.
The Society’s objective is to create a flourishing future for all Africans, and promote African voices in the United Kingdom (UK) and globally. In all of these conversations, the idea is to not just celebrate African creativity but also African business, science and technology.
Other activities include supporting the All Party Parliamentary Group for Africa, a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians from both the House of Commons and House of Lords that exists to facilitate mutually-beneficial relationships between Africa and the UK; expanding the Society’s business program; initiating educational programs as well as running festivals. The Society’s African Arguments website (“promoting writers from Africa to air views that you may not hear or see”) has reached over 1.5 million readers, nearly half in Africa.
The recent celebrations were to especially promote Creative Africa, through Film Africa which brought together filmmakers and outstanding storytelling from across Africa and the diaspora for its 10th edition. And the “grand finale” of it all: a gala that was a fusion of African entertainment, film, fashion, food and music. A headline feature of the gala, in the middle of the fashion show – featuring names like Shade Thomas-Fahm, Alphadi and Yemi Osunkoya – was a live auction of art by Sotheby’s.
“We focused the event around Creative Africa. And this is because in the creative sector, Africa is now a global leader. It’s turning into big money, and it’s not just in film, it’s in fashion, food, music and literature,” says Oteh.
“We also wanted to highlight this point in technology and finance. These people are actually leading the way through this kind of creative innovation. They’re finding African solutions to African problems, and we wanted to celebrate that.”
The Society’s programs also include the Africa Writes biennial festival, featuring contemporary African literature and thought, usually held in the summer over a weekend at the British Library. Past headline speakers have included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with son Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ben Okri, Nawal El Saadawi, Alain Mabanckou and Chigozie Obioma.
“The aim is to get the sort of cutting-edge latest African literature coming out. What we’re looking for are the writers who are going to be famous, who are going to win Booker prizes, sort of 10 years hence,” says Dr Nicholas Westcott, who has been Director of the Royal African Society since 2017. “We get a fantastic array of writers, some who are well-known…and the publishers come along too, and it has really impacted our audience.”
One of Oteh’s primary objectives has also been to connect the African business world and titans of industry.
“There is no other organization that goes from business to research and academia to politics to culture like the Royal African Society,” she continues.
“We have this business breakfast that’s most sought-after by city professionals, where you invite an African business or political leader who can share perspectives on a specific issue…One of my goals is to reflect the fact that you have a number of corporate titans who are Africa-based. And what Nick and I and our colleagues on the Council have seen is since we started reaching out to these entities across Africa, there’s been an excitement around participating in the Royal African Society because they see it as an opportunity to be able to present themselves to the diaspora around the world. It’s fascinating what the possibilities are.”
Concurs Westcott: “This [is the] crossover between business, culture, education and public affairs that we can provide; we build linkages, we have a network, we provide a platform. And we work very largely in partnership with others, so they are crucial for us to be able to expand our impact.”
In 2017, the Prince of Wales, Prince William, succeeded Queen Elizabeth as Royal Patron of the Society. The future king was present for the celebrations this year.
“Prince William was able to come and spend time with us; he attended the plenary [of a master class in filmmaking],” says Oteh. “What I admired about him was whether it was [a conversation on] fintech, conservation, banking or trade, he was prepared. And he made people feel at ease and always had something special to say to each person. He said he loves Africa and is passionate about it. He really took a great interest and I think he will follow this up; he wants to know what happens next!”
Africa wants to know too. And so does the world.