The American academic and literary critic Charles Larson once wrote that ‘those who say nothing has come out of Africa have not read the continent’s writers’. The same idea seems to have motivated the founders of Bahati Books, a digital publishing firm established one year ago, in August 2015, with the aim of widening access to contemporary African writing.
Its co-founders – Barbara Njau and Kudakwashe Kamupira – established Bahati, which translates from Swahili as ‘lucky’ with the aim of promoting contemporary African authors and increasing the readership of their challenging, moving and fun literature. Barbara and Kudakwashe decided to remove the element of ‘luck’ involved in finding new African writers by creating an online platform that brings together the best in African literature.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remains a favourite of both women; they described to me how her Orange Prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun played a pivotal role in shaping how they saw themselves and the role people from their background could and should play in writing. Another standout writer for them is Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, encapsulates for them the unique challenge that women with psychological conditions face growing up in Africa. (If you wish to explore certain facets of the human experience, such as womanhood and city-life, through African literature, see the bottom of the page for Barbara’s and Kudakwashe’s recommendations. )
Barbara and Kudakwashe oversee most aspects of the business themselves, though they do share differing responsibilities. Given her background in journalism, Barbara looks after the process of editing, helps to form and maintain relationships with authors and oversees the development of the business, while Kudakwashe manages legal side of Bahati’s work, which involves drawing up contracts and keeping an eye on the accounts. They also have a network of freelance website developers and freelance editors, who help with the editing of manuscripts, and from time to time, internship opportunities are offered to those with an interest in what Bahati does.
One factor that distinguishes Bahati Books from the vast majority of the already established Africa-focused publishing world is that it is an online-only platform; that is to say, published works are only available in e-book form. Both women admit there have been challenges, in that for many people reading on digital devices represents the final frontier in our rapidly-changing technological world, despite using email and accessing most of their news on digital platforms. Despite this, more and more people are using digital devices for their reading, and they are confident that the market for reading novels, biographies and other publications will grow significantly in the years to come. After chairing a roundtable discussion recently at Africa Writes, Barbara and Kudakwashe confirmed that one key trait among Bahati’s readership is that it is a prolifically digital one; besides consuming novels on e-book readers, tablets and mobile phones, readers heavily use social media in their day-to-day lives.
Among other trends in contemporary African literature, one particularly significant trend is the large output of diasporic African writing, and both Barbara and Kudakwashe attribute this to what is going on in the world today. They tell me that increasing migration among Africans, not only to Europe and North America, but also within Africa itself, has produced fantastic literature that reflects the notion of a dual identity, a dynamic formed when one lives abroad and it is necessary to form a new ‘immigrant’ identity.
Over the next few years, Bahati wants to continue to attract attention to the myriad experiences, stories, and writers Africa has to offer, and in doing so, continue to eradicate the stereotype of ‘African literature’ as a byword for stories of famine, war, disease, poverty or even safaris. What is more, within five years time, Barbara and Kudakwashe hope to have established an office not only in English-speaking Africa, but also in Francophone Africa, so as to engage with writers from different backgrounds who also have plenty to offer. It seems that the passion and dedication these two young women have shown so far in their promotion of African literature will only lead them on to greater success in the near future.
Advice for Writers and Publishers
Having had to start Bahati from scratch, Barbara and Kudakwashe are in a strong and first-hand position to offer advice to aspiring writers or publishers. To writers, they recommend focussing on writing and re-writing drafts, sending samples to different publishing platforms from time to time, and ensuring that you have an online presence through which your readers can engage with you. To those thinking of careers in the publishing industry, Barbara and Kudakwashe recommend that, above all, you know your market, and understand the opportunities, pitfalls and potentially hidden costs of it. If you are certain that publishing is the path for you, start work on a small-scale pilot project and develop that into a small business. Along the way, attend relevant business and publishing events, do your best to pitch to different potential investors, and most importantly, learn from the mistakes you make.
Bahati accepts online submissions – consisting of a short synopsis, approximate word count and concise biography – via its website. After receiving a submission, Barbara reads the manuscript, and if it is deemed to be strong and at a stage where it could be published, Kudakwashe will form an author contract. Further assistance is provided to authors before their work is published and available to purchase from Amazon, OkadaBooks and DigitalBack Books.
Recommended Reads from Bahati Books:
If readers are seeking interesting literature relating to people in the informal economy surviving and hustling in a bustling city, as they co-exist alongside wealthier individuals – we recommend “Nairobi Echoes” by Stanley Gazemba and “Fool’s Gold” by Marko Phiri.
If readers are seeking literature relating to African womanhood, the unique challenges young women coming of age face in a society which can still be very patriarchal – we recommend “Side Babies” by Zainab Omaki, as well as two anthologies – one called “Nostalgia” by Nduta Waweru and “Stories from the Sun” by Nametso Phonchi.
If readers are seeking stories rooted in ancient African mythology, we recommend “A Coffin of Roses” by Mirette Bahgat which is a story rooted in Egyptian mythology.
If readers are seeking subversive, challenging and captivating poetry about the homosexual and transgender experience of Africans living in Africa – we recommend “…on about the same old things” by Katlego Kol-Kes.