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New publisher brings Africa books to France

By Paul Nolan

New publishing company Afromundi says it will be viable within five years, defying experts who say that an ideals-driven company is a mistake in the current climate. Its first publication is a book by journalist and Africa expert Jordane Bertrand about 50 years of African independence.

I went to visit 36-year-old founder Jerry Sanghami in his new, shoebox-sized offices in the working-class Paris district of Belleville, to speak to him about setting up the company and what he hoped to achieve with Afromundi.

I first met Jerry at a dinner party where he told me about his new business venture and the risks he was prepared to take to create a new publishers that would confront the issues of contemporary Africa, whilst aiming at a non-specialist readership. Although there is a slew of academic books about African history, very few are available for the general readership, he said.

“There were plenty of books I wanted to read, but I couldn’t find them,” he said. 

The idea first came to him in 2005. Since then he has quit a lucrative position in the hotel business, retrained in finance, marketing and law, sold his apartment and drawn up a business plan, which lead to the business turning a profit in five years' time.

He sought advice from friends, family and industry figures before making a financial commitment and says he is fully aware of the risks.

“There are plenty of companies founded every year and very few survive,” was the advice he received from the experts, but he believes that Afromundi is unique in France.

Although the only book on the market for the moment is on 50 years of African independence, Afromundi has other books lined up that should be available shortly, including one on mixed race.

Also in the pipeline are books on the Capoiera Angola, a martial art combining elements of dancing, combat, and music brought over to Brazil during the transatlantic slave trade and an ambitious photography project about the sapeurs, the self-confessed "dandies" of Congo-Brazzaville.

One of the few adornments in the very spartan offices is a poster of US President Barack Obama. Even though Sanghami said he was not particularly interested by his story at first, he was impressed by his impact in poorer urban communities.

“I was amazed at the symbolism of his election. Young people from poor areas were proud of him. Before this guy went into office, few people believed a black man could have so much impact.”

Sanghami is a fan of British and American writers and was hoping to bring some writers to the attention of a French audience.

One of Jerry’s biggest inspirations has been Paris’s most famous publishing house, Présence Africaine even though he believes it is not living up to its reputation.

“When you read a book by Présence Africaine, you know they are doing a great job in publishing. They are very professional, they have traditions, they are symbolic. The problem is that maybe they are linked exclusively to Africa and maybe they should have thought about younger people like us. Today we have evolved and we want more books about our day to day lives and our yearnings. They have to do something soon as tomorrow it will be too late.”

Présence Africaine still holds the exclusive rights to the works of the some of the most influential African figures over the past 50 years, such as African-Martinican Aimé Cesaire, the Senegalese poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor and first president of Ghana and Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. But its website states that it is no longer accepting poetry or theatrical scripts.

 I also had the opportunity to speak to Jordane Bertrand the author of Histoire des independences africaines et de ceux qui les ont faites (History of African Independence and those that were involved).

 “One of the main goals of this book is to be accessible to the general public," she said. "It is not a book at all dedicated to specialist readers. The history of independence in Africa is a very exciting story. If you begin to read what happened in Ghana, for example, which was the first country to become independent in sub-Saharan Africa. Afromundi is doing something that maybe the big publishing houses are not doing.”

 She also spoke about the role that music played in the struggle for independence.

 “There are not that many people who know that Bob Marley participated in1980 at the celebration of the independence of Zimbabwe.”

Afromundi is still in its early stages and only time will tell if it will be able to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Présence Africaine or whether the experts are  right and that it is just another pipe dream.

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