Why are conferences in Africa excluding African scholars?

Savage Minds is excited to present this invited blog from Ellen E. Foley, an Associate Professor in International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University. She was also the Program Committee Co-Chair of the recent #DakarFutures2016 conference, which was co-sponsored by the African Studies Association (ASA), the American Anthropology Association (AAA), the West African Research Center (WARC), and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).

The recent AAA and ASA joint conference in Dakar, Senegal was recently highlighted on the True Africa blog under the headline “Why are conferences in Africa excluding African scholars?” As the US academy turns its gaze inwards to questions of diversity and inclusion (sanitized terms for racism, sexism, cis-patriarchy, white settler colonialism, capitalism, heternormativity, transphobia, Trumpmania, xenophobia) it is fair to ask: do American academic organizations take their colonial legacies and institutionalized inequalities on the road when they travel beyond the United States?  Drawing attention to the politics of knowledge production, particularly about Africa, is important if not new.  Francis Nyamnjoh (then head of publications at CODESRIA) nailed it in his 2004 critique of the politics of publishing on Africa.  He highlights “the epistemological imperialism that has facilitated both a Western intellectual hegemony and the silencing of Africans even in the study of Africa.”

But let’s get back to the argument. The author mentions registration fees, airfare, the tally of Africans from African institutions on the program, the national ties of the partnering local host institutions (one pan-African, the other a member of the American Council of Overseas Research Centers), and the use of a French-owned conference hotel in Dakar.  Further evidence of exclusion is the presumed ability of Northern scholars to game the conference RFP ensuring that their abstracts are accepted while the submissions of True African scholars doing True African research are not.  (I’m tempted here to mention my conversation not two hours before this writing with a Senegalese Dean of Université Gaston Berger who issued the same complaint about his (True African?) colleagues who found their way into his edited volume, “You know, they just recycle some stale paper, add a single paragraph related to the volume theme, and then their chapter goes in…”).  But I digress.  The blogger concludes, “Not only does the conference perpetuate exclusionary economic relationships between western and African scholars, it also reinforces the ways in which western academia continues to imagine and create an ‘Africa’ through its own western lens.”

It is enticing to descend into defensiveness or dismissiveness in the face of this kind of critique.  A typical play is to interrogate the social position (e.g. race, class, gender, nationality) of the author followed by a personal attack.   But that sort of deflection is an unproductive foray into liberal politics which atomizes individuals and elides the structural analysis I believe the author was seeking.

So let me try another tack.  Perhaps our starting point should be the theoretical intervention in native and feminist theory (meant largely to address North Americans operating in a US context) which argues that (settler) colonialism is a structure, not an event.  [Those playing along at home can now enter into a discussion about the finer points of colonialism and settler colonialism and how they are distinct yet co-construct each other.]

If one is willing to go down this piste, difficult questions emerge.  If we, and I include myself, operate within and reproduce the colonial structures within which the US academy is embedded, if we all live in the Master’s house (including my interlocutor who has an MA in cultural anthropology from an American university), then what sorts of possibilities do we have for radical politics, decolonial politics, progressive politics, or dare-I-even-say-while-pinching-my-nose, liberal politics?  And can they be brought to bear on, of all things, an academic conference?

As an anthropologist, ethnographer, and scholar of Africa with a commitment to empiricism, I would like to give at least a nod to the actual happenings of the conference (however mediated by my own situated perception) rather than rely on an appraisal of the conference gained from reviewing the online program.  The following occurred before, during, and after the conference:

  • 75% of the paper submissions were rejected, most for lack of connection to the conference theme. Submissions by Very Important White North American Founding Fathers of African Studies were rejected, as were some by scholars based in Africa.
  • A lot of people got mad. Social capital was burned.  See #1.
  • 221 people registered for the meeting, 79 of whom came from African institutions, 12 of whom were Africans based at North American and European institutions.
  • The African Studies Association provided $20,000 in financial assistance to 35 people to attend the conference and distributed 15 free plane tickets donated by Royal Air Maroc.
  • Senegalese hip hop artist Maxi Krézy performed during a paper on Senegalese hip hop in the spirit of self-narration and bending the frame of conference papers as representation.
  • An all-white panel acknowledged their discomfort with their whiteness and disavowed the label Africanist.
  • A panel titled Feminist Futures in Africa? featured iconic African feminists, who had the opportunity to school a young male African scholar who challenged their use of the label feminist.
  • Flash presentations that lasted roughly five minutes allowed us to hear eight riveting presentations in under 60 minutes, causing at least this scholar to wonder if we should put the 15 minute conference paper to rest forever.
  • The Nigerian who was supposed to give “the penis paper” did not come and so your comrade Dick Powis had to give it in his place.
  • Social scientists based at the Université Assane Seck in Zinguinchor organized an all Senegalese panel on post-conflict rebuilding in the Casamance.
  • People complained about the lack of translation.
  • The Europeans noted the absence of Europeans.
  • A graduate student from a Very Important Ivy League University mounted an ultimately successful campaign to have a session added to the program after the period of peer review, largely by arguing that a Very Important African Scholar based at another Very Important Ivy League University would participate. The final salvo of the campaign, and I quote directly, “We have all attended conferences about–and even in–Africa that lacked a strong African scholarly presence. It is our sincere hope that this gathering will not reproduce this gap.”
  • Anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, who was just released from prison, gave a late-breaking presentation on settler colonialism, genocide, land grabbing, and the current state of the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania.
  • The Rector of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop told the assembled crowd at the opening reception that my Wolof was better than that of WARC Director Ousmane Sene. (Self-indulgent I know, but I couldn’t resist.)
  • Some papers were boring.
  • The conference (unwittingly) replicated the theme of the 2015 CODESRIA General Assembly — causing Executive Secretary Ebrima Sall to remark that scholars on different continents have been having two conversations and that this conference was an important step (however small) to bring these conversations together.
  • Two workshops were offered with the explicit goal of “amplifying the voices of African scholars” in order to counter Western intellectual hegemony described by Nyamnjoh.

All this to say the conference was not one thing, but many.  It was both structure and event. Did any of these acts, in isolation or collectively, allow us to decolonize the conference?  No.  One conference cannot historical legacies undo, but it can try to change the pattern, for it is the cumulative effects of our practices that render exclusionary social structures so resilient.   Were we in part replicating colonial structures even as we worked to dismantle them?  Of course.   Will it be better next time?  Depends.  Do we support a politics of engagement or a politics of secession and retreat?  Is challenging gatekeeping about the bodies that get through the gate, taking down the gate, holding open the gate as wide as one can?  Taking a whack at the gate with Mbembe?

Recently I attended a feminist conference at Hampshire College (invitation only, all expenses paid, 30-odd participants, extremely diverse by body count and yet highly exclusionary).  At the conference the great reproductive justice warrior Loretta Ross looked perplexed when the discussion turned to the current paralysis of white students and their uncertainty about how to be in the world, and particularly how to become “white allies.”  Her answer was swift and certain, “Speak the truth.  Shame the devil.”

Were that the truth were singular, and the devil too.   But the world is cacophonous and multi-lingual.  Academics on any continent must navigate and challenge complex and deeply entrenched inequalities on many fronts simultaneously.  This is not easy work, but it is worth work doing.  Some battles will be fought and lost and others fought and won.  And so I leave you with French Marshal Ferdinand Jean Marie Foch, credited with uniting the French, British, American, and Italian armies to defeat Germany in World War I: “My center is yielding, my right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.

2 thoughts on “Why are conferences in Africa excluding African scholars?

  1. Correction: The overlap with the CODESRIA General Assembly theme was actually intentional. Had it not been for concerns about Ebola the ASA/AAA conference would have taken place in 2015, the same year as the CODESRIA meeting.

  2. “It is enticing to descend into defensiveness or dismissiveness in the face of this kind of critique” before doing, what I feel to be, just that is a bit confusing. I don’t see this as another tack, whatsoever– just a more sophisticated version of the same old evasions we’re used to seeing in response to being called in. There’s absolutely no reason the registration fee had to be structured the way that it was for attendees, especially more local scholars. Two workshops to “amplify the voice of African scholars…doesn’t solve that problem. I’m also quite dismayed by the assumptions the author makes about the blogger in question– there are more ways to interface with and be involved with the conference (like working on projects presented on in the conference, or being pressured to present at it, nudge nudge) than learning from its online program. I’m disappointed by the tone of this response, and don’t think the author if this “rebuttal” (can it be called that if it actually, in many ways, traces the way the blogger of the original post was correct?) adequately responded to the concerned raised in the original post. Bummer, Savage Minds.

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