On Saturday 15th March, the School of Oriental and African Studies opened the doors of its Brunei Gallery to the public for the University’s third annual African Development Forum. Following 2012’s offering of ‘Africa-Driving its Own Growth’ and 2013’s ‘Africa’s Next Generation: a Bright Future?’, the organising committee for 2014, all current students at SOAS, decided on a theme of ‘Creative Africa’. Co-chairs Sarah Anne Bedford and Angelica Jopson admit that when the team’s work began back in October, they were considering a whole range of different themes – even terrorism in Africa had made the shortlist. But when one committee member, who hoped to draw attention to what individual Africans were doing for themselves, suggested ‘Creative Africa’, they didn’t have to think twice about going with her idea.

Fast-forward five months and a crowd of people, young and old, male and female, gathers in the sun-streaked atrium of the Brunei Gallery for an afternoon of intelligent, impassioned debate. Having welcomed us with programmes and bars of fair trade chocolate, smiley event organisers directed attendees to a subterranean lecture theatre. We were leaving behind the gentle March sunshine but there was no portent in that. This was not to be, like so many attempts to talk about Africa in the self-styled Occident, a descent into a heart of darkness.

Indeed, one of the panelists, Flat 9 founder Mathilde Dongala, enthused about just how uplifting this look at the African continent was, reminding us that “‘Creative’ is a very energetic, positive word.” And the optimism that Dongala called attention to was not purchased by focusing on creative output at the expense of discussions of politics or the state of African economies. It was, rather, an optimism born of the transformative work that the creative industries can do within those more ‘important’ spheres of public life.

The panelists considered how African art, design, and entertainment could be used in the construction of stronger economies, the destruction of oppressive regimes, and the reinforcement of cultural identity. According to SOAS’ own lecturer, Dr. Kwadwo Osei-Nyame, it is in service of the last of those three projects that African creativity should be put to use.”Much of what is wrong with our continent”, he declared, “is a lack of awareness of what we are as a people.” Critically engaging with this view, as well as those put forward by other speakers, were a highly-informed audience and Master of Ceremonies, Ikenna Azuike. A former City lawyer, Azuike has made a name for himself as a razor-sharp satirist and he held the floor with a demeanour that was 1 part David Dimbleby, 2 parts Russell Brand. The unanswerable questions that he and members of the audience put to the expert panelists and their criticism of suggested plans of action made clear just how many challenges are yet to be overcome if we hope to make African creativity pay.

The formal discussions were brought to a close after three hours of fast-paced debate but conversations started in the lecture theatre spilled over into the drinks reception. Delegates even swapped email addresses and picked up business cards. It clearly thrilled Angelica Jopson, who went into organising the forum with two hopes: firstly, that members of the audience would be able to implement some of the ideas and strategies discussed in their everyday lives and secondly, that the conversation about African creativity would continue. Chatting away over the modern Ghanaian beats of the Ni Kwartey Band to Jopson and fellow committee members, all decked out by African StyleHub, I realised something wonderful. It struck me that the force with the potential to drive out dictators and lift tens of thousands out of poverty – the force of African creativity – has as its principal goal delight. What the African Development Forum 2014 was offering its delegates was a foretaste of a continent driven by delight.

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