Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima

How word, symbol and song shaped history

Gus Casely-Hayford (SOAS and King’s College London), Janet Topp Fargion (British Library) and Marion Wallace (British Library) introduce the cultural dynamism and creativity of West Africa, and explain how word, symbol and song have shaped a thousand years of history.

West Africa 

The vast region of West Africa covers more than 6 million square miles. It has a population of more than 340 million people, speaking over 1,000 different languages. We take a broad definition of the region, looking at 17 nations: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Cȏte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. Nigeria has the largest population of these countries, estimated at 180 million, followed by Ghana, Cameroon and Cȏte d’Ivoire, with between 20 and 27 million each.

Map of West Africa

Map of West Africa by Martin Lubikowski

This map shows the countries and rivers of West Africa in 2015.

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Rather than cover each country in detail, we look at the literature, symbols and music to share stories from the region across history and into the present. We show West Africa’s great creativity over the centuries, and how this dynamic engagement with history continues today.

Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee

Account by Thomas Edward Bowdich (c. 1791–1824) of the Asante kingdom (modern Ghana), which he visited in 1816.

Account by Thomas Edward Bowdich (c.1791–1824) of the Asante kingdom (modern Ghana), which he visited in 1816.

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Cultures of the word

West African thinkers, scholars, writers and performers have for many centuries told the stories of their societies through written and oral literature and music. They have built strong intellectual traditions and engaged with the world around them. They have harnessed the power of words to build societies, create art, drive political movements, sustain religious belief and fight injustice and enslavement. 

Words, whether written, spoken or sung, have played a central role in the history, politics and religion of the region. West Africans have invented and used many kinds of writing and symbolic communication, and they have created numerous forms of oral literature (orature). These art forms are deeply rooted in history and constantly reshaped in the present. Together, they provide a unique insight into the region, past, present and future – as writing and orature continue to flourish and adapt in the age of recording and digital technologies.

West Africa’s vast repertoire of oral literature ranges from epics to praise songs and poetry. The image below is one of the earliest published drawings of griots (story-tellers and musicians) in West Africa. It was the griots and other performers who kept oral literature alive through the centuries. They continue to do so today.

Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima

Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima

This book is an account of Alexander Gordon Laing's travels in West Africa. 

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The written word is very old in West Africa. The region has seen the invention of numerous scripts and symbolic systems, which convey meaning visually and through sound. Scholars have long used the Arabic language to create a vibrant manuscript culture, and Arabic script has for centuries been used for the writing of languages such as Wolof and Hausa. 

The image below, published in a book on Senegal, shows a marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow (identified as such by her lack of jewellery). The author, P.D. Boilat, tells us that she is asking for a good harvest, good health, and a better husband next time.

Esquisses sénégalaises, 1853

P.D. Boilat's Senegalese sketches, published in 1853, includes a series of pictures of people in Senegal, together with detailed descriptions.

PD Boilat's Senegalese sketches, published in 1853, includes a series of pictures of people in Senegal.

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West Africans have used the printing press and the roman script to oppose colonialism and shape society. They have influenced large swathes of the rest of the world, as people in their millions were abducted by slave traders and forcibly transported to the Caribbean, North and South America and (in some cases) Europe. 

Today, writing by West Africans flourishes on the international literary scene. Acclaimed authors including Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are among the best-known of many hundreds producing a huge variety of fiction and non-fiction writing.

Aerial View of modern day Lagos, Nigeria

Aerial view of Lagos, Nigeria

This is an aerial view of modern Lagos - just one among numerous thriving cities across West Africa.

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Usage terms This aerial view of modern day Lagos, a major city in Nigeria, shows how industrialisation has affected this thriving modern metropolis.

The British Library collections

The British Library has rich collections from and about Africa. Our holdings of books and audio-visual recordings are particularly strong, and we have many other kinds of material including manuscripts, archives, maps and photographs. 

These collections form the core of the 2015–16 West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, which features over 200 rare and beautiful items. From the British Library’s collections we have drawn items including original manuscripts, historic film and sound recordings, political pamphlets and contemporary photographs. The exhibition is augmented by numerous loans from institutions and individuals, including sculptures, carvings and paintings, colourful fabrics and modern artworks.

  • Dr Augustus Casely-Hayford
  • Dr Augustus Casely-Hayford is an art historian, who has run a number of degree and MA courses in international culture. He has presented in television and radio, including several BBC World Service radio series on African culture an award winning African art South Bank Show and two series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa for the BBC. Former Executive Director of Arts Strategy, Arts Council England, and prior Director of the Institute of International Art, Augustus Casely-Hayford advised the United Nations and the Canadian, Dutch and Norwegian Arts Councils and has written widely including for papers inlcuding The Times and The Independent and published a book Lost Kingdoms of Africa. Prior to joining in IVA he initiated, and became the Director of Africa 05, the largest African arts season ever hosted in Britain. He is Cultural associate at Kings Culture a research associate at SOAS, sits on Tate Britain Tate For All, Committee, the board of National Portrait Gallery and the African Studies Association and was the Chair of the 2013 Caine Prize.

Janet Topp Fargion, Curator World and Traditional Music, Sound and Vision
  • Dr Janet Topp Fargion
  • Dr Janet Topp Fargion is Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music at the British Library. Her general research interest is the discipline of Ethnomusicology, with a focus on the music of Africa, particularly of South Africa and the Swahili Coast in East Africa. Her research currently centres on ethnographic sound recordings as sources for ethnomusicological investigation. She is an active member of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Archiving Committee of the Society for Ethnomusicology and is chair of the Research Archive Section of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives. In 2015, she co-curated the British Library major exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.

Dr Marion Wallace, Lead Curator Africa, Asian and African Studies
  • Dr Marion Wallace
  • Dr Marion Wallace is Lead Curator, African Collections at the British Library. In 2015, she co-curated the British Library’s major exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. Her research interests centre on the history of Namibia, and she has also written on subjects including West African history and the impact of the digital revolution on African Studies. She was Chair of SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa) 2011–2014.