West Africa: Celebrating A Glorious Heritage

The album artwork for Fela Kutis Sorrow Tears and Blood designed by Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977. On display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song / Courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu and British Library
The album artwork for Fela Kuti's 'Sorrow Tears and Blood' designed by Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977. On display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song / Courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu and British Library
Patricia Whitehorne

One thousand years of West African history and heritage have been brought to the fore in a new major exhibition at the British Library in London. West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is a mesmerising collection of artefacts and media from the region’s 17 nations. Co-curator Marion Wallace says the idea for the exhibition, which took four years to plan, was to dispel the perception that West Africa only has a tradition of the spoken word.

Loved by over 40s
A bowl and lid engraved with nsibidi characters, on loan from the British Museum. On display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

Literary Heritage

Evidence of early writing can be seen on one of the first exhibits on display. A wooden bowl and lid dating back several centuries from an area that would now be southeastern Nigeria is engraved with nsibidi symbols – a graphic system that was used for general communication. Arabic was also widely used for writing texts, following the spread of Islam to West Africa from the North in the 8th and 9th centuries. Important manuscripts such as amulets, which were popular in pre-colonial times, were written in Arabic. It was believed that the small pieces of parchment inscribed with a blessing conferred power and protection for the owner. The literary culture can also be seen on boards which were used to teach people verses of the Qu’ran. Written in locally produced ink, as one verse was learnt it would be washed off the board and replaced by a new one. The method has survived the over the ages and some children today learn the Qu’ran in the same way. The printing press was brought to West Africa in the 19th century when missionaries arrived in large numbers, and locally established printing enabled the widespread publication of the Bible and its translation into local languages. One of the most intriguing items on display in the collection is the first translation of Bible scripture into Yoruba, the Book of Romans, translated in 1850.

A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow, from ‘Senegalese sketches’ by P D Boilat, 1853. On display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

The Importance of Music

The exhibition vividly captures — through a range of audio recordings and video clips — how music, song and performance were vital channels for expression, storytelling, commentary and protest. Excerpts of music by the Maroons – the runaway slaves in Jamaica — and images of dance in the Americas reveal in their style and rhythms how strong connections remained, despite the uprooting from their West African homes and enslavement. Instruments were highly important too. They were symbols of status and power, and drums were used to replicate the region’s tonal languages and communicate across long distances. The drum, or atumpan player, for example, would be responsible for relaying messages from the king. A pair of atumpan, or ‘talking drums’, are included in the exhibit and there is the opportunity to hear how a drum would have sounded, courtesy of a 1921 recording made in Ghana. Another significant musical item is the akonting, and a replica of this now rare stringed instrument was specially commissioned and handmade for the exhibition. It is possible that the akonting could be the predecessor of the banjo. It originated with the Jola people of The Gambia, many of whom were taken to work on plantations in America’s south during the transatlantic slave trade years.

Edward Wilmot Blyden, ‘Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race” (London: W B Whittingham, 1888, 2nd edition). One of the major works of Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), a pioneer of Pan-Africanist ideas. On display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

Political Protest

Words, symbols, music and literature became the tools of West Africa’s elites, intellectuals and ordinary people to assert their views and challenge colonialism. The printing press, introduced by the missionaries, helped to facilitate a new critical voice. Pamphlets calling for the rights of Africans and newspapers in different languages began to flourish in the mid-nineteenth century, giving rise to a new pan-African sentiment. As West Africa entered the 20th century, political leaders emerged who fought for independence and an end to colonial rule. Some of their writings or articles are on display, along with cloths with woven tributes and recordings such as Kwame Nkrumah’s independence speech in Ghana. The embodiment of music and performance as revolution comes in the form of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. His music and outspoken criticisms of civil war — and what he saw as corruption in his native country post-independence — led him to be beaten and imprisoned. A snapshot of his life in video and a letter to General Babangida are among the items on display in a booth dedicated to him, illustrating why he is considered to be one of Africa’s most influential musicians and political activists.

The album artwork for Fela Kuti’s ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’ designed by Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977. On display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song


In addition to the ‘Fela’ area, the visitor can spend time becoming immersed in two other booths – one featuring footage from the Notting Hill carnival and the other extracts from West Africa’s contemporary comedies and short stories. There are also other activities and a programme of events that are running in conjunction with the exhibition. The West Africa Learning Programme — which offers workshops and resources to schools for children of all ages — is another important strand, and one that Marion Wallace believes will be the legacy. There are no plans to tour the exhibition when it ends in February and many of the items will be returned to the vaults of the British Library. It is anticipated that there may be an argument that the rightful homes of the exhibits are the West African countries that they portray, but Wallace says that countries hold their own collections. West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song gives an invaluable insight into the history of a vibrant region that has shaped societies within and beyond its borders. The exhibition’s millennial history starts with the early writing style of nsibidi, and concludes with perhaps the most appropriate sign of our times. The last item on display is in fact a Twitter post of a poem #benokriwild released, line by line on the digital platform, by Nigerian-born writer @BenOkri.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song can be seen at the British Library until February 16th 2016.

British Library, Euston Road, London, UK, +44 (0) 1937 546546
By Patricia Whitehorne

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.