On Saving The Africa Centre

The Africa Centre and I go way back. As a child born in London of two (at the time) Ghanaian students, it would actually help to shape the person I have become, instilling me with an idea of Africa-ness away from Africa in several tangible forms.

My mother founded the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research & Development almost thirty years ago. The Foundation has since gone onto bigger things but its humble beginnings were on the second floor of the Africa Centre.

This indelibly embedded Charing Cross and Embankment Stations in my mental map of London. As a matter of fact, make that the entire Northern Line. I was born in Kentish Town (Royal Free Hospital), lived and attended nursery in Tufnell Park and would commute from school (Hampstead) to visit Mom at work at the Centre, getting off at Embankment or Charing Cross and taking in the sights and sounds of The Strand, which is also where I got my first pair of glasses. At the age of seven. Yes: even the geekery that I am so proud of today is tied into trips to the Africa Centre.

Arriving at the Africa Centre, there was so much to look forward to. I was taught to be a courteous kid but it was actually a pleasure going to greet Aunt Susan in the reception, as well as Uncle Martin, the nice English man who had an office in the building and who I would later learn was a publisher of African titles. Any such person is a hero in my books and Uncle Martin – who has since passed on – as such meant (and means) a lot to me. A gentle man and a gentleman. They were all family to me, making the same kind of fuss over me that my parents’ parents and siblings would: squeezing my cheeks, commenting how much I was growing, popping me the occasional sweet… the usual.

Sometimes, I would walk through the reception area to the gallery and look in wonder at all the African artwork. The floor up there always felt sliiiiiightly less than solid and so simply walking up there felt adventurous. Like walking on that shaky bridge in one of the Indiana Jones movies. It wasn’t that bad, but I was young and I had an active imagination. Looking over the banisters, there was a hall in the middle. Writing this, I suddenly remember learning how to do tie-and-dye there, taking drumming and dancing lessons at weekends. Wow. That was ages back. I doubt I remember any of those skills now. The memory is however located somewhere close to where my brain stores feelings of fun though.

From the reception and the gallery, I would pop upstairs to dump off my bag in Mom’s office, and to worry she and Aunt Jennifer – my mother’s gorgeous Caribbean secretary who I had one of my earliest child crushes on.

The first of many.

I digress.

Being a Fante boy, the next order of any visit to the Africa Centre was food. Even though I would later (and in ignorance) frequent the McDonalds and Pizza Hut on the Strand, some of my earliest culinary memories often involved popping my head around the door of Calabash Restaurant and taking in the mixed scents of assorted African dishes. I would always sit down excitedly and order jollof rice and chicken. Always. Jollof remained my favourite African dish for years after that. At least until I moved to Ghana five years ago, where it was too commonplace to remain that special. I’m swamped with the stuff now. I still love it though.

I think there was a club next door to the restaurant but I never went in. That was an adult space. Mom would tell me about all the African men feeling lost in London who would go there to drink at night and discuss goings-on on the continent, formenting distant revolutions. We are very good at “talking ’bout a revolution”, we African men. I wonder how many of them did the really revolutionary thing and made it back home. Not many, I suspect. I don’t blame them. Those were different times… of exile and bleak economic outlooks. Very much in sharp contrast to the Ghana I have returned to: brimming with opportunity and a sense of destiny manifest.

Next I would pop my head into the gift shop. I remember looking fawningly at the marble (or was it enamel?) chess set with the African-looking pieces. Chiefs, queens, queen mothers, linguists and such, instead of boring old rooks and knights. It’s one of my earliest memories of association with something African. Much as I loved my old King Arthur and the Round Table stories, rooks and knights never did it for me after that. That chess set stayed there for ages. I was too young to realize how ridiculously expensive everything was or to know how much cheaper everything there was if you looked in the right places back home.

My longest love affair with any part of the Africa Centre was with its Bookstore. I would walk in, greet the auntie selling books (I sadly forget her name. Must ask Mom) and immediately look for my mother’s book. After fawning over that too, I would head over to the children’s book section. As I grew, I would always visit this place, especially as a undergraduate and later a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental & African Studies. The lady there remembered me years later. She gave me a book, The ‘Brother Jero’ trilogy of plays by Wole Soyinka. I don’t have it anymore but the stories have stayed with me. In Brother Jero, Soyinka really wrote a character who jumped off the page and into my daily life as soon as I moved back home to Ghana. Perhaps my cynicism about religion started with that book in that store.

The only place I never saw in the Africa Centre was its upper floors. My younger brother and I used to speculate what was up there. Maybe that is where the revolution was being commanded from. I think the uncle who owned the Centre lived up there. Uncle Tunde, I think his name was. We met again years later, when I was in university. I should have asked him.

It was in university that I learned that Soul II Soul started out as an event in the Africa Centre hall, before it burst out as a group and then became a movement that would go on to conquer America. I was so proud to hear that. I started out in the same place that Jazzi B started out from. Cool. Funnily enough, the event I would later be part of – Amplified – also started in a small hall in Covent Garden.

History repeating.

I felt a lot of pride in the Africa Centre as an African child. It was inspiring to know that we – as Africans in the UK – owned a building in a place as beautiful and as central as Covent Garden. The Africa Center always stood in such sharp contrast to the ever-so-slightly dingy offices that housed all the other African enterprises my parents would take me to visit during my childhood. I wonder if Nkrumah had a hand in this. It’s the type of thing he would have done. There was a man who understood the importance of such imagery (and of such prime real estate). In the belly of the colonial beast, no less. I hope the Centre’s Trustees don’t sell the building or the land it is on to some soulless corporate entity. Or a soulful one for that matter.

I am devastated to hear the news that the Africa Centre is to be moved from 38, King Street, Covent Garden. As devastated as anyone would be to hear that a close friend has died or that the house they grew up in – in which so many of their memories were locked up – is to be knocked carelessly down by a wrecking ball.

The Africa Centre is to me as iconic as it is nostalgic. It remains to me the centre of London. I make pilgrimages there every time I visit the city and I hope to do so again the next time I am there. Preferably in the same place. I am sure some of the Centre’s Trustees share my memories, so I wish them wisdom and hope they do everything in their power to do the best by the people who look to them in these dark times for hope. People like me, but more so Africans still in the UK.

I commend and entirely throw my weight behind anyone and everyone working to keep the Centre open… and to keep it African. Kudos also to the Save the Africa Campaign for showing how much the Africa Centre means to our generation.

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