West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

The British Library celebrates West Africa: A region that spans 2,000 years, 1,000 languages and 17 different countries – the grass may indeed be greener in West Africa. YOU might have heard of the 17 countries that make-up the West African region and that the region is plague by never-ending conflicts and hunger.

West African region

Nevertheless, have we got news for you? West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, a major new exhibition at the British Library is showcasing/celebrating the cultural vitality of the West African region – not warfare. The British Library is considered to have the second largest number of items cataloged in the world and it’s open to anyone who’s eager to explore its collections. It features an online gallery which contains over thirty thousand images from different medieval books. They also organize a lot of various exhibits.


Its thousand years of history, from centuries-old drum language, protest songs, informative religious manuscripts to the great manuscript libraries of the early Middle Ages, through to colonialism and independence. The exhibition likewise offers an insight into the centuries-old written heritage, as well as the ancient oral traditions of West Africa, both of which continue to influence and motivate in the present day.

Power of words

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, is conveyed through rare texts, recordings and manuscripts of the time. This is an extraordinarily exhilarating exhibition, like no other you have ever read about or seen before. Hundreds of fascinating stories from the region’s 17 nations tell how West Africans have harnessed the power of words to build societies, drive political movements and human rights issues, and sustain religious belief and fight injustice.

Furthermore, it shed light on the colonial era and the slave trade controversies including a generation of enslaved West Africans who advocated for the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century. This is an exhibition with depth and feeling, in addition to the excitements and unusual objects the spectators would see. It explores in such detail the vibrant cultural history of this multifaceted and captivating region, even if they haven’t always been given their due by the rest of the world – until now.

There are many, many things to like about this display. Watch out for several key bits and pieces including, a poem from the 17th-century Islamic scholar Nana Asma’u, which illustrates women’s active public role in Islam; a room dedicated to the music and activism of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and a striking carnival multi-coloured regalia newly designed for the exhibition by Brixton-based artist Ray Mahabir. This retrospective will open you up to new things and to what you think you know, but in a different light. My only grievance is, you’ll need to see West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, twice to get the full gist.