‘Debates on Africa, in Africa, with academics and scholars from Africa’ is how Cologne-based journalist Tina Adomako describes the 2019 conference of the African Studies Association of Africa, which she attended in Nairobi, Kenya, on 24-26 October. Ms Adomako reports from the gathering of scholars who, among others, discussed issues around reclaiming African studies from the European perspective and decolonizing African knowledge production.
Research on Africa is closely linked to the history of “discovery” of the continent. The first seafarers brought stories about the strange and exotic back to Europe; later, expeditions from Europe were equipped to go forth and “discover” unmapped regions on the African continent and to write its history.
These early chroniclers of African histories were often adventurers, at best anthropologists. Those who adventured to Africa to chart the history of the continent were predominantly white men and for decades and centuries, they have defined the views that the world, even oftentimes Africans themselves, have of the continent and of African knowledge.
It is to these early researchers and anthropologists, as well as today’s global media, that we owe the continuing image of Africa as an underdeveloped continent, with virtually no history of its own. European culture, values and categorizations have been the benchmark in the Global North’s studies on Africa. This Eurocentric view has always relegated Africa to the very back rows of development and civilization. It is as if there had been no knowledge and no knowledge transfer in Africa in all the centuries before the white man set foot on the African shores.
It sounds almost unbelievable, that until six years ago African Studies Associations were based in countries of the Global North. The first African Studies Association was founded in the USA in 1957 by white scholars, and for many years had an all-white board. Three years later, the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom was founded to promote African Studies in the United Kingdom.
Although many researchers from African countries have studied and continue to study and disseminate knowledge about African cultures and societies, scholars from the Global North dominated the field, determined the academic discourses and, of course, held their conferences in Europe or North America.
It was not until 2013 that the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) was founded in Ghana, during the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana. The association is dedicated to promoting Africa’s own specific contributions to the advancement of knowledge about the peoples and the cultures of Africa and the Diaspora.
ASAA is currently the only multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary professional association on the continent dedicated to the study of Africa from an Africanist perspective in African-centred ways.
Since then, every two years, an ASAA conference takes place in a different African country. The first conference took place in Ibadan, Nigeria in 2015, with the second conference held in Accra, Ghana in 2017. From 24 to 26 October, scholars and students of African Studies from 45 different countries converged at the United States International University-Africa (also known as USIU Africa) in Nairobi, Kenya for the third ASAA conference.
In her opening address, ASAA’s president, Prof. Akosua Adomako-Ampofo of the University of Ghana, compared the founding of the association to that of a very difficult birth. “On our journey to the birth of ASAA, and over the ensuing years, prophets of doom have declared that this association would not survive. This third conference is the biggest and most diverse so far”, she declared with pride.
The university don shared with the guests the difficulties the association faced within the international academy when they wanted to establish their own African association and to regain the right to interpret Africa from an African perspective. Instead of support, there was much criticism from those who did not understand, or perhaps did not want to understand, why yet another African Studies Association was needed, since, after all, all these associations, whether in the USA, UK or Canada are open to scholars from all over the world.
However, as Prof. Adomako-Ampofo explained: “ASAA’s emphasis from the beginning has been premised on the recognition of the hegemony of European-centred ways of knowing, their impact on our psyche and scientific and social progress, the critical need to re-centre Africa for ourselves, but also the importance of being recognized and valorized as part of the global knowledge production industry.”
The theme of this year’s conference was “African and Africana Knowledges: Past Representations, Current Discourses, Future Communities”.
During the three days of the conference, attendees could choose from over 150 panels and lectures focused around 16 core topics. These were: African International Relations and Governance; African sexualities, Gender & Feminisms; Higher Education & The Academy; Environment, Sustainability and Agriculture; Film and Media studies; Health and Indigenous Healing; Literature; Linguistics; Markets, Development and Political Economy; Representation & Identity Politics; Performance, Music & Theatre; Religion; Science & Technology & Innovation; History & Philosophy; States & Conflict, Peace and Security; Mobility, Migration & Citizenship & Security.
The topic Decolonizing African Knowledge dominated the debates and discourses on all three days. Professor Paul Zeleza, Vice-Chancellor of the USIU University and host of this year’s conference, made it clear that this goal, though at the core of all striving, is not so easy to achieve.
Basically, African scholarship finds itself in a “catch 22” situation. “For us on the continent, it is important to take the lead in discussing African issues, as we are at the center of this experience of being African – African on the continent and, of course, African in the world – and such conferences are the opportunity for us to continue the process of decolonization,” Zezela said.
However, African countries currently spend less than 0.5% of their GDP on education, compared with 2.7% in the US, 1.8% in the EU, 4.3% in Korea and 1.7% on average worldwide. This makes it very difficult to get funding for research and development at African universities and thus to catch up with the global scholarship communities.
At the same time, there are more and more African billionaires, but they rarely set up foundations to foster science and research in their countries, as do many of their counterparts in the Global North, Zeleza criticized. That is why research in Africa is largely funded by foreign philanthropic societies and institutions of the Global North. And these donors are never completely free from their own interests.
Zeleza appealed to the growing number of rich Africans to promote African Studies on the continent – either financially or ideologically; for example, by awarding prizes for excellence in individual fields. He cited Mo Ibrahim, whose foundation annually awards what is probably the world’s highest cash prize for the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership1, and suggested that the foundation could support research at African universities, at least in those years where no suitable winner for the award can be found, which has been the case for the last six years.2
With a view to African demographics, this appeal makes sense. By 2050, Africa will account for over 25% of the world’s population. Today, 60% of the continent’s inhabitants are under the age of 25 years. The continent needs knowledge transfer that prepares its youthful population for the next industrial revolution. “Or will we continue to be pawns, as we were during the first three industrial revolutions? Paul Zeleza asked.
As a result of a longer-than-expected opening plenary, the first day of the conference was a bit chaotic as subsequent panels couldn’t start on time and venues had to be changed.
And for a Diasporan who has spent decades away from Africa there were also some weird moments. One was for example at the beginning of the conference, when all guests were asked to stand up to sing the Kenyan national anthem. Another was the performance of folkloristic dances, which initially seemed out of place in a context which places emphasis on not repeating or spreading stereotypical images of Africa. However, as Dr. Mshaȉ Mwangola, performance scholar and oraturist, explained “Music and dance bring us from the outside to the inside. African studies do not start in the Academy but in the community”.
Music and dance were also very much a part of the final session, with colorful performances by the Safari Cats. More importantly, however, were some of the points Professor Funmi Olonisakin of King’s College, London, made in her closing keynote. Repeating the crux of what the speakers at the opening ceremony had said, she stressed that “engaging Africa has to be on the terms of Africans”. She also conceded that “we’re not yet there because we are not yet an epistemic community that has shown its confidence and its competence about how knowledge ought to be produced, how it ought to be consumed or how it ought to be presented.”
Prof. Olonisakin expressed the hope that by the next 3 to 5 ASAA conferences, the issue of the African Studies Association too would have been resolved and that “there will no longer be the need for an African Studies Association of Africa, but that it will be the African Studies Association, on African Soil, period.
The conference ended with the awarding of the inaugural Pius Adesanmi Prize for Excellence in African Writing 2019. This prize commemorates a great African scholar and writer who strongly believed in centering African knowledge in Africa and whose research was tragically cut short by the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on the morning of 10 March 2019.
The interring of his remains coincided with the awarding of the inaugural prize in his honour, which went to Kagiso Lesego Molope for her novel Such a Lonely, Lovely Road. Coincidentally, a day after the judges had picked her as the winner, she also won Canada’s Ottawa Book Award 2019. The Pius Adesanmi Prize for Excellence in African Writing will henceforth be awarded biennially to coincide with the ASAA conferences.
To sum up, ASAA 2019 was three days filled with exciting encounters, interesting lectures and inspiring debates in Africa, on Africa, with Africans from Africa and the Diaspora. The uniting factor is that all are striving to bring change to Africa. As Prof. Funmi Olonisakin concluded, “change cannot occur unless and until we collectively challenge established approaches and concepts about Africa. We need to define new frontiers of knowledge.”
The next ASAA conference to be held in 2021 will be a chance to show where these new frontiers are heading.
1 The award winner receives US$5 million annually for the first 10 years and then US$200,000 annually for life.
2 The last winner was Pedro Pires, former President of Cape Verde, who won the award in 2011.