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“A story can speak to our hearts”

Ahead of her event with author Ben Okri at this year’s Hay Festival, Book Aid International Trustee Zainab Umar shared her thoughts on the power of books.

“I’m excited to be in conversation with one of Africa’s most foremost voices, Ben Okri.

In his novel, The Famished Road, Ben takes the reader into the realms of the spiritual and ‘real’ world. His writing invites readers to open their senses and minds to enter the blurring of boundaries in the worlds he depicts. A truly imaginative work, to many this book defies any one genre and sits fluidly between fantasy, magical realism and mythology.

To create the future you must be able to imagine it first.

Equally, like the African symbol of the Sankofa Bird implores – to go forward you have to return to and learn from the past. The role of books and stories in connecting the past and present is well evidenced and so is the role reading serves in firing up our imaginations.

On the power of stories, the highly acclaimed Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, asserts:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

We have been communicating through stories for over 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.

Take, for instance, folktales stories that have given us the ability to transmit the knowledge and tradition of our past to newer generations. I fondly recall traditional Hausa tales told to me as a child by my grandmother. The tales of Magana Jari Ce by Abubakar Imam and Anansi the spider imparted a worldview of West African cultures and many of the stories serve as a hinterland of memories for communities that can contribute to how we reimagine the future.

I’m particularly captivated by the beating out of books on the drum – Ayan – an entire corpus of literature and poetry spoken through the drum language. This genre of storytelling is completely different from the structures and forms of stories that we are taught at school yet it is distinctly West (and Central) African.


On modulating the past and opening up new destinies, fiction has an important part to play in terms of how we understand history.

After listening to Lisa Bu’s TED Talk some years ago, I started the practice of comparative reading where I read in pairs. My natural selection is always fiction, where I read historical fiction which provides understanding in popular imagination of historical episodes. I would complement this with nonfiction dealing with the same events.

My most recent pairing covers the African experience of World War 1: fiction, the international Book Prize winning At Night All Blood is Black by French-Senegalese author David Diop, paired with nonfiction, The World’s War by British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga.

Writing history into the present has an importance on how we understand the present, the past and imagine the future.

Whatever the genres, curating broad collections allows people to hear many stories and provides a wide range of influences that will shape their futures. Something I’m delighted to note that Book Aid International prides in doing is providing a whole range of stories to our partners around the world – including huge amounts of fiction and fantasy.

Reading a book, although a solitary activity, is a launchpad for conversation for readers to share ideas, discuss and debate characters, plots etc. These exchanges enrich our experiences and allows for looking at things through another person’s perspectives.

A study from the Institute for Education suggests that for many people books are, or could become, vital tools of social engagement. “Being connected” nowadays for many means being online on social networks. Whether connecting in person or online, the group conversation around books is taking place and we see this through the thriving Bookstagram community on Instagram for example.

Reading is a link to a community. And communities are the building blocks of nations.


Hay festival is a haven for readers and writers alike, to plunge oneself into the world of fiction, sci-fi, history and other genres. Storytelling, accessed through multiple genres, is so powerful. Life happens in the narratives we tell one another on a personal and national level.

A story can speak to our hearts. It inspires people to act, it fires the imagination and stirs the soul. Books have the power to influence mindsets in reimagining the future.

There’s so much you can do to share the power of books

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