African Poetry Digital Portal: an online archive for the continent’s poetry

An ambitious international project to establish a portal and archive for African poetry from across the continent has won $750,000 in backing from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. The African Poetry Digital Portal, based at the University of Nebraska, involves poets and librarians from across the African continent and will also be supported by others, including Oxford’s English Faculty and the Bodleian Libraries.

The growing international network of supporting bodies currently includes partners from Ghana, South Africa and Togo as well as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and the Library of Congress in the US. The aim is to collate African poetry in digital, including audio and visual, form drawing on different oral traditions as well as contemporary poetry performed in ‘slams’ and readings. The funding, which covers three years, will allow the project to create a digital archive of poetry, drawing on the resources of the participating libraries, such as the Bodleian, as captured in a range of texts, from early translations, through anthropological studies, to more conventional poetry collections.

‘It is a massive undertaking,’ says Oxford English Professor Elleke Boehmer. ‘And very much a multi-directional project, with poets and artists participating and interested readers everywhere being able to access the archive. It will justly make the rich resources of African poetry global news.’

Oxford is going to help by digitising poetry in a range of resources held in the Bodleian, including the Rhodes House Library African collections, and by encouraging dialogue about African poetry. Professor Boehmer says: ‘Hopefully this will create a permanent archive, accessible to all. This is very much a project in which the Global South and the Global North are equal partners.

'Poetry is central to cultures across the continent and to African philosophy and politics...At Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, he was greeted and his achievements enumerated by a Xhosa praise singer. As this shows, poetry is embedded in the literary, political and philosophical traditions of Africa.’

The project commences work in the forthcoming academic year and currently has funding until the end of the 2024 academic year.