West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

This exhibition at the British Library gives a different, fascinating approach to this vast region, rich in history, culture and creativity. There is so much to do and see: the exhibition is packed with colour, life and creative energy. If you have any interest in Africa at all, you must visit before it finishes on February 16th.

Having lived and travelled widely in West Africa for many years, it was exciting to rediscover objects that had been so familiar in my every day life; artefacts that illustrate the importance of written words and symbols. I learnt that the candle sticks we used to buy from the potter on the side of the road in Northern Nigeria were actually pottery pen holders for writing on Qur’anic prayer boards!

Pottery Inkpots (Image credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford)

Pottery pen holders (Image credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford)

The page from the Hausa prayer book with its beautiful designs brought back memories of the old Hausa man who used to sit in our garden embroidering handwoven robes following hand drawn traditional patterns that had been drawn on first in black ink.

British Library West Africa Word Symbol Song

Page from a Hausa prayer book (Image credit: British Library)

I found the section on the slave trade was given an added dimension, highlighting how enslaved people took to music and writing in protest; I discovered new voices from some of those who fought against slavery and told their stories. In the 17th and 18th centuries, several women were also making their mark as fighters for emancipation; including Mary Prince.

British Library West Africa Word Symbol Song

Title page of book by Mary Prince (Image Credit: British Library)

Many other women spoke out and their voice echo in other parts of the exhibition. Modern African writing is given a prominent place, with many African novels for sale in the British Museum gift shop.


West African’s lively oral and musical creativity comes to life in numerous videos and audio recordings. In one of them, the strains of the kora form a background to a song recounting the epic story of Sunjata, the founder of the Mali empire. One of my favourite Nigerian musicians, Fela Ransome Kuti is given prominence as a colourful, brave and committed political activist who, through his music, defied and was harassed by the authorities throughout his life.


My love of African textiles which, I share with Toghal, made me give special attention to the colourful section showing how fabric has often been used to convey messages through the type of patterns used. Who would have thought that such pleasing cloth could have such secret warnings!

British Library West Africa Word Symbol Song

“Do not put your gold around the neck of a guinea fowl”

When you visit this exhibition, leave some time space so you can wander through all the exhibits, pause to watch and listen to the many videos and music. I do hope you enjoy this exhibition as much as I did.

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