June 26, 2022

African book clubs bring together readers from all over the world

She grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and at the age of 17 moved to the UK, where she is now studying chemical engineering at the University of Bath. Looking for a way to feel more connected at home, Lawal discovered an online book club, the Happy Noisemaker, based in Nigeria.

“I thought the people there would be like me and that I wouldn’t feel so foreign,” she told CNN.

In February, Lawal joined the club, run by 28-year-old screenwriter, podcaster and blogger Jola Ayeye. Hailing from the blog she runs, Ayeye launched the focus group last November, using Zoom’s monthly meetings to provide a platform that celebrates literature by African women or writers.

In a year of isolation, reduced physical contact with friends and working from home in Lagos, Ayeye says she wanted to fulfill her ambition of building a network of book lovers. “I love to read and I want to share it with as many people as possible,” she says.

Lawal says the book club gives him a chance to relax and chat with people outside of his bubble. “All I do is go to college and see my family – it gets boring and difficult. It’s nice having fun with people,” she says.

Celebrating African women’s literature helps Lawal feel connected to her heritage. “Reading them reminds me that I still have a role to play in Nigeria. It makes me feel more connected,” she says.

An international readership

Based in Cape Town, Tumi Sebopa, 29, works in marketing. Like Ayeye, she brings readers together through a monthly literary meeting. She created Inception Book Club (IBC) over four years ago to create a space for women to discuss everything from literature to career prospects.
IBC switched from in-person chats to online video calls last April, shortly after the South African government announced a lockdown.

With over 90 members, Sebopa says the transition from IBC was not easy at first because members craved the privacy of face-to-face interactions. “I think personal connection is the only thing people lack,” she says.

But by creating online access, IBC and Happy Noisemaker are bringing together readers from all walks of life, from young teens to those in their 40s, from Nigeria to Dubai to the United States.

Jola Ayeye launched the Happy Noisemaker to foster a community of readers during the pandemic.

Ayeye says that Happy Noisemaker tends to attract Nigerian-based women or members of the Nigerian diaspora. “I really appreciate that anyone, anywhere can join in, there’s a gift in there,” she said.

Sebopa agrees. In one of its recent discussions, the IBC hosted prominent Zimbabwean author, playwright and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga to discuss her flagship novel “Nervous Conditions”. “Because it’s virtual, it gave us the opportunity to engage with writers from across the continent,” Sebopa said.

Feel connected

Eno-Obong Essien is a 29-year-old doctor based in Philadelphia. As a child, she left her hometown – also Port Harcourt – to study in the United Kingdom and in 2009 began her medical training in the United States. “The longer I stayed abroad, the more I felt like I was leaving home,” she says.

In 2017, she joined the Port Harcourt Book Club (PHBC) in order to reconnect with Nigeria, attending group meetings during her annual visit to her parents. “By joining a book club, I felt like I kept my roots at home,” she says.
Eno-Obong Essien is a member of the Port Harcourt Reading Club.
Created in 2014, the PHBC is organized by the English teacher Awolanye Banigo. In March 2020, as the government announced lockdown restrictions in major states, its discussions of the books moved to a virtual platform.

Last year, Essien was unable to travel to Nigeria, due to the pandemic, but she was able to connect with the PHBC community through Google Meet. “It has helped me overcome the isolation because I am able to immerse myself in stories while still feeling like I am at home,” she says.

Find solidarity in times of pandemic

Sebopa and Ayeye say their book clubs have made conversations about loneliness easier during the pandemic. “Being part of this community is more than books – you sit there and realize that you are not alone,” explains Sebopa.

Ayeye says literature has always acted as a portal to new worlds, inventive ideas, and fascinating characters. “I find it amazing that you can open a book and be completely somewhere else,” she said.

She believes that a few months of mediating in the book club discussions has made her a better listener and a person more open to understanding people’s thoughts and emotions. “It taught me compassion and helped me see things differently,” Ayeye says.

“It made me appreciate what writers give to the world,” she adds. “By creating stories, they allow people to take a break from the world they are in right now.”