Highlights from the Opening of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) Conference 2017

By: Angela Okune

The opening ceremony of the 2nd biannual African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) conference set the tone for a rare opportunity to not only celebrate and discuss how to center African epistemologies and knowledges, but also to importantly reflect on what it means to be African and work in/on Africa, especially in the face of globalization and global politics.

CIHA Blog Co-Editor and ASAA Conference Program Chair for Africa, Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo welcomed the audience of approximately 260 academics and practitioners, with 142 from Africa. Professor Ampofo highlighted the hegemony of Eurocentric ways of knowing (not to mention capital and products!) and asserted that while venting may have therapeutic value, we must restore our educational systems so that young people can know African histories and be proud of it. She emphasized that Africa’s long-standing democratic consolidological (Schmitter and Santiso 1997) endeavors and development, which have a teleological foundation are nonetheless assessed with questionable tools imbued with implicit biases in the Global North and asserted that academics have a role in reclaiming African histories so that young people know about the ancient empires of Songhai, Timbuktu, Kongo, etc.

In his official opening address, Nana Kobina Nketsia V, Omanhene of Essikado Traditional Area raised a poignant question (echoing our friend and colleague, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o), “Is your mind the product of your ancestors or someone else’ ancestors?” Whose experiences are you bringing to the table? Culture is a protective skin for any people of a society,” Nketsia went on to explain “…and we must find an authenticity—a ‘human-beingness’ centered on African perspectives that use our cultures to design our world.” Nketsia urged the academic audience to “think about the knowledge you produce and how you apply it. Don’t just leave it on the shelves! Africa has been talking for too long….”

This appeal to the “humanity in us all” also emerged in several other panels throughout the day. However, in one panel, a member of the African Diaspora cautioned that such a move appealing to our greater humanity could (and has) been taken up in some contexts (such as in #BlackLivesMatter vs #AllLivesMatter) as a reductionist move that ignores the systemic or institutional oppression of particular bodies/groups of people. While agreeing with the Ubuntu principle that our lives inextricably linked, he stated that when there is a problem “we have to also identify it.”

Keynote Speaker, Elizabeth Ohene, a Ghanaian writer/reporter/politician gave the audience engaging material to discuss and reflect on during and after her talk. She opened by engaging with current debates over Ghana’s history and accusations about it being re-written: “What we write today will be the history of tomorrow!” She then highlighted an issue, which we at CIHA Blog write about frequently, namely, the misrepresentation and skewed portrayals of the continent by Western media:

“When I worked with the BBC, I used to get really angry that every item about Africa that the BBC reported, would start and end with some music or drumming or dancing. Every one! It could be a report from a refugee camp or somewhere in the Congo it could be an AU meeting, whatever the report, the BBC or any of the news organizations would find some music to illustrate it. I complained regularly and loudly that this was an example of them not taking African stories seriously. Then I get back home and within weeks, I had to accept that indeed every event starts and ends with music. [laughter from audience] That is how we define ourselves. But is that a deliberate decision? Is it something from tradition or is it something that has evolved as part of the African story? Don’t get me wrong, I love dancing/music. I do not miss any opportunity to sing or dance. But I am just raising questions about when/how/why it became/is/should be such a core fact of ‘Africanness’.”

Ohene went further on traditional attire:

“No tribe has a more dramatic attire than the Zulu people of South Africa. What they call their traditional attire is lion/leopard skins with a spear. But all human beings, all tribes at a certain time wore animal skins and carried spears. And the Zulu people should not appropriate that as their traditional attire… I am suggesting that the definitions that we have given ourselves may be influencing our participation on the global stage canvas. It is crowded on the stage and if you position yourself to be called for the interlude (music and entertainment), you may not feature in the main agenda!”

Finally, Ohene strongly asserted:

“When it comes to reporting about the continent, we usually have a feeling that we are unfairly portrayed. But I’ve always held the view, even when I worked for Western media, that it does not really matter what the foreign media says about Africa. It is far more important what Africa says about itself.”

We look forward to the last day of the ASAA conference tomorrow (Saturday).

Follow the conversation on Twitter at #ASAA and via @ASAAConference and @CIHABlog!