The Africa Center in London has been a home away from home for the African diaspora for decades — a meeting place for high profile and historical events. But the Center in Covent Garden is now causing a split in the local African community.
The African diaspora in London is as spread out as the continent.
But for more than 40 years, local and visiting celebrities, dignitaries and musicians have all flocked to the Africa Center at number 38 King Street. Soul to Soul and other bands ran regular sessions here. And a comedy club and theater group continue to use the performance space.
Cathy Coffey runs a stall in Brixton selling her own African designs. She recalls the center’s popularity.
“There was a great cafe downstairs and Jazzy B was doing Soul to Soul every Friday and it was a great club, a really happening center,” she said.
But the center began to deteriorate a few years ago, prompting the local government council to close large parts of the building for health and safety reasons. The center’s bank balance had deteriorated too. And that prompted board members to make a deal with a South African developer to sell the site.
Board member Godson Egbo says it would cost more than $3 million (2-3 million pounds) to make necessary repairs to the building.
“There are so many things that need to be updated that we don’t actually have the money to do,” he said. “We need a big injection of cash.”
But the board did not account for the community’s strong emotional attachment. And now a group has banded together to fight the sale.
“We’re absolutely confident that the money could be raised to save the center and to create a forward looking center that really encapsulates where we think Africa is going,” said Hadeel Ibrahim, who is leading the effort, backed by a team of architects and influential Africans. .
Even though plans are now on hold for a few weeks, as the board reviews the proposal, trustees still say that in the current tough economic climate, the smartest thing to do is to get rid of the building, take the money, and do what many are being forced to these days – downsize.
“What the deal is, it gives us a big pot of money,” said Godson Egbo. “It finances our future and it enables us to meet our objectives.”
This is a battle between deep emotions and hard economics. But even if the sale goes through, what has been achieved is the revival of the commitment to a cultural home for Africans from everywhere in London.