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Wordly Possessions
Alumnus Returns World’s Largest Collection of African Literature to Rightful Place

In 1961, Bernth (Ben) Lindfors ’59 was in the right place at the right time.He and his wife, Judith Wells Lindfors, also ’59, had taken a break in their graduate studies and traveled to Kenya, where they taught in a boys’ boarding school for two years. A scholar of British and American literature, Ben began frequenting bookstores in Nairobi and buying books by African authors that caught his eye. His casual interest soon became a ferocious obsession. Once back in the U.S., he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Nigerian novel—only 30 such novels existed at the time, compared to well over 600 today. His array of books continued to mount, and over the course of 40 years he assembled the world’s largest collection of colonial and post-colonial African literature written in English.

As the Lindfors approached their retirement from academia recently, they decided it was time to return the books to their rightful place—Africa. The vast collection—valued at more than $400,000—comprises more than 12,000 books, interviews, videos, posters, manuscripts, and cassette tapes, as well as 350 complete runs of academic journals, many now out of print. Among the treasures are hundreds of rare first editions signed by such noted African writers as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Nadine Gordimer.

To house their library, the Lindfors chose the Pietermartzburg campus of the University of Natal in South Africa, where it will form the core of the university’s new Centre for African Literary Studies, scheduled to open this year. Bibliographer Hans Zell, an expert in African publishing, was asked to value the set, which he described as “a rare and quite unique collection, unparalleled in the world.”

Ben Lindfors was gripped by African literature at an opportune time in history. While the civil rights movement was spurring the development of black studies programs in U.S. colleges and universities, country after country in Africa was becoming free of colonial rule. A torrent of new literature about Africa began to emerge, written by Africans from an African perspective. World events brought home to Americans the realization that the United States was woefully ignorant of most of the world, Ben says.

The 1957 launch of Sputnik made us realize that we were behind in science, and also that we didn’t really know much about the rest of the world,” he says. “The government decided it needed specialists in languages such as Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. Africa was also a focus of interest because in the 1960s there was a great rise in nationalism in Africa.” Ben himself studied Swahili as part of his graduate program, thanks to a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship awarded through the National Defense Education Act.

His interest in the written word launched a career as a professor of English and African literatures at the University of Texas, Austin, beginning in 1969 in its fledgling African studies program. During his career, he wrote nine books and countless articles and was awarded numerous grants, honorary degrees, and fellowships, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright. The founding editor of the journal Research in African Literatures, Lindfors has been credited with helping to establish the study of African literature as an academic discipline in the West.

He didn’t start out trying to amass his own huge collection. “I just bought books because I liked them,” he says. “But I became a ‘bookaholic’ because I felt it was unlikely that any institution in the United States would have these materials in their collections. So it was much easier to pick up my own copies on visits to Africa.”

One of the Lindfors’ primary goals in returning the books to Africa was to correct the geographical imbalance in the study of African literature. “African scholars do not have adequate access to the materials they need to research their own literature. That’s criminal,” says Judith.

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