by Kate Kellaway
Muhtar Bakare believes in the quietest of revolutions. He thinks what we read can change us. He has lived and worked in Nigeria all his life and passionately believes everyone has the right to tell their own story.
His own is remarkable. He gave up his position as a bank executive to start an independent publishing house because no one was publishing fiction. Did people shake their heads over the brave folly of his enterprise? “Definitely! But setting up a publishing company was always going to be a challenge. And it still is: we have no distribution network and there is blatant piracy – infringement of intellectual property. People have to struggle against this, which can inhibit the power to be productive.”
But nothing seems to inhibit Bakare. He cites his voracious reading as a spur – he studied architecture at university and was fascinated by politics and economics. This showed him the world was “ruled by ideas and I was concerned Nigerians were not contributing enough to their production”. He became a banker because finance was “part of the way the world was structured” and he understood its influence. But he maintains that, even as he joined, he knew he would one day leave to become a publisher.
His wife still works in banking. They have two children. Did she approve his career move? “I am lucky – she is my soulmate. Her passion is for finance and she loves what she does. But she understands my need to follow my passion.”
Bakare is no impractical idealist. Bakare has a capitalist vision: “Africa must participate in a global marketplace not as aid recipients but as producers on equal terms.” It dismays him that “so many brilliant Africans are involved in aid rather than international trade”.
In 2004, he started Farafina (a Bambara word that translates as “Africa”) a highly regarded online magazine from which his company would grow. (Nowadays, he is managing director of Pearson Nigeria and he no longer runs Farafina, but is still a shareholder and director.) He made contact with writers including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who recently championed Bakare in the Guardian for his “humanist, widely read, pan-African” integrity. Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, was his company’s first novel too.
Why is it so important for Nigerians to tell their stories? “The history of our country is short and turbulent” and because there are more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, the forging of a national identity is contentious. “They all struggle to be heard. Respect comes from understanding each other’s stories. But we shout over each other and forget to listen. If we listened, we would find that what the other person was saying is an echo of what we are saying ourselves.”
He believes Africa is often misunderstood outside the continent but adds: “Africa is also not well understood by Africans.” His mission is to encourage empathy. He thinks Nigerian education tends to be slanted: “The story of the hunt is written by the hunter. We would feel differently if we heard the lion’s side of the story.” And would he publish it? “That is what I try to do,” he says and laughs. But he is serious too.