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African Futures: GHCC Members at the European Conference on African Studies

Published: 13 June 2023 - Rose Miyonga

Last week, the University of Cologne hosted the ninth European Conference on African Studies (ECAS). The event, which brought together over 2,000 scholars from eighty countries, under the theme of ‘African Futures’ was the first iteration of the conference since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and took place entirely in-person on the University of Cologne campus, as well as at various public-facing venues across the 2,000-year-old city. Over four days, 1,470 papers were presented at 245 panels, all centred around the idea of ‘African Futures’. Scholars from a broad range of disciplines were invited to come together to discuss conceptual, methodological, historical, ethical, and empirical engagements with African pasts, presents and futures. What emerged from this was a plurality of ways to conceptualise the future – of Africa and more generally – that led to an extremely rich conference programme, which stretched across time frames and spatial dimensions. Several Global History and Culture Centre students, staff and affiliates contributed to ECAS 2023.

Day One: Space, Violence, and Borders

Warwick PGR Emma Orchardson and Professor David Anderson both joined a panel in the first session titled ‘Spatializing (post)colonial practices and imaginaries in 1950s–1990s Southern Africa’. This panel put an emphasis on space and space-making as an analytical lens to understand political, social and cultural changes in the region during the second half of the twentieth century, and its reverberations in the construction of African postcolonial and post-Apartheid futures. Emma’s paper looked at Malawian President Kamuzu Banda’s rumoured territorial ambitions in southern Africa, specifically his designs on northern Mozambique. Bringing together archival research from across Southern Africa and from Portuguese archives in Lisbon, Emma suggested that Banda’s spatial designs in the 1960s and 70s – which were highly dependent on imagined future scenarios – were key to understanding some of the more contradictory elements of Malawian foreign policy during this time. David’s paper also used spatial ambitions to conceptualise imagined political futures, in this case in Namibia’s Caprivi strip. The paper considered the geo-politics of future-making, and forms part of a wider project on the history of ‘future-making’ in Caprivi, connected to the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC)’s ‘Future Rural Africa’ project, which is funding David’s ongoing research on Caprivi.

April Jackson – a PhD candidate registered at Leicester but jointly supervised by Professor Clare Anderson at Leicester and David Anderson at Warwick – convened a panel on the first day of ECAS. The panel focused on the violence of punishment in Africa, and featured papers covering a wide range of penal structures, including punitive expeditions, incarceration, penal humanitarianism and capital punishment.

The first panel of the day explored exceptional punishments in a multitude of colonial settings, including in French, British, Belgian, and German colonies throughout the continent. April gave a paper during this panel, which was focused on capital punishment in colonial Natal 1843–1910. The second panel focused on punishment in the post-colonial era, and typically focused on incarceration. The panel had a large audience and had a great discussion that included topics like researcher well-being, the merits and disadvantages of judicial sources, and future directions in the field.

Recent GHCC visitor Dr Luregn Lengennhager also presented on the opening day of the conference, contributing a paper to the panel ‘Reconfiguring State Borders and Species Boundaries in Nature Conservation’, which he convened alongside Dr Emmanuel Mogende. Like David’s and Emma’s papers, Luregn and Emmanuel’s paper, ‘Wildlife, Violence and Border Disputes’ took a spatial approach to understanding African pasts and futures. The paper retraced historical border disputes and ongoing violent wildlife conflict along the Chobe river through the lens of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfontier Conservation areas (KAZA-TFCA), and demonstrated how green violence orchestrated by Botswana’s militarised anti-poaching units aggravated – and continues to aggravate – tense relations between people living along the border river and the Botswana government.

Day one also featured Dr Riley Linebaugh’s and David Anderson’s panel on ‘Archival Futures: Questions, Practices and Possibilities in the African Archive’, which sought to respond to the opportunities and threats facing African archives today. Dr Ismay Milford – who is currently working on an AHRC project on Africa’s Cold War alongside Professor Daniel Branch – joined as discussant to the panel, which brought together papers on African archival traditions in Southern Africa, photographs in Senegal, Ghana’s celluloid film archive and Ethiopian manuscripts to explore and imagine our shared ‘archival futures’.

Day Two: Development, Collections, and Memory

Day two of ECAS proved equally rich for the Warwick team, beginning with a morning panel on ‘Past Futures: New Approaches to the Histories of Development as Future-making in Africa’, at which recent GHCC visitor Dr Maxmillian Chuhila and David Anderson both participated as discussants.

In the afternoon session, Warwick PGR Fleur Martin gave a fascinating paper titled ‘Disappearing Acts: How Museums ‘Unmade’ Three African Collections’. The paper, which was part of a panel on ‘Making and Unmaking the Imperial Museum’, discussed the ‘missing’ objects from eastern African collections in Europe, examining how museums and auction houses manufactured ‘disappearances’ of objects into private collections, thereby silencing the historical record. By tracing three nineteenth century imperial collectors in eastern Africa: Count Teleki, Captain Bottego and the James brothers, Fleur’s argued that colonialities endure not solely through the museum proper, but its relational institutions and structures. It also critiqued how auction houses dehistoricize collections from their coercive acquisition conditions, and how museums ‘unmake’ themselves and deny discussion of this history by selling off collections in individual lots to private and inaccessible buyers.

I also presented on the afternoon of day two. My paper, which drew on my recent oral historical research in central Kenya, looked at family memory as a space where history and politics with emotion and experience, a potent space for individual and collective self-imagining. The paper also addressed some key methodological and ethical questions around using family memories to write African histories in the global post-colonial context. By looking at both the content and the context of family memories in Africa, I sought to demonstrate that family memories are a space where history and politics blend with emotion and experience to become a potent space for solidarity, belonging and identity-formation. The panel on which I appeared, ‘Family Memory and African Futures’, generated a lively discussion, particularly around the role on material culture and space in family memory, and the complexity of navigating contradictory testimonies in oral histories.

Day Three and Four: Extraction, Museums and Counter-Insurgency

On the third day of ECAS, Dr Kennedy Mkutu and Evelyne Owino, both of whom are affiliated to the GHCC through David Anderson’s project on water in Kenya, presented a paper on sand in Kenya at a panel titled ‘Shifting Grounds: Contestations around Sand Extraction in Sub-Saharan Africa’, which brought together scholars from a range of disciplines to explore the contestations around sand-mining and trade in the wider sphere of capitalist extraction. The panel provided granular insights into the politics of sand extraction, from a vast range of disciplines. Kennedy and Evelyne’s paper, explored how the devolution of resource governance in Kenya generates new conflict dynamics around sand-mining, and discussed the complexities of these dynamics within Kenya.

The final day of the conference saw two panels organised by Warwick PGRs. Nathalie Cooper convened a panel on museums titled ‘Impossible Histories, Possible Futures: Dealing with Absence in Museum Collections’, which brought together nine scholars over two sessions to discuss the emergent question of archival absence as a central reality for museums with colonial era collections in both the West and on the African continent. Nathalie’s own paper, which concluded the panel, looked at the question of absence with reference to a collection of objects from southern Africa compiled by Henry J. Hodgson in the late-nineteenth century and held at the Horniman Museum in London, and generated a fascinating discussion on the complexities of provenance and repatriation of museum artefacts from Africa held in European collections.

Niels Boender also organised a panel on ‘Colonial Counter-insurgency as African Future-making’, at which both he and Warwick Visiting Research Fellow Dr Sandra Araujo presented papers. Both papers discussed how colonial counterinsurgency shaped decolonisation processes. Sandra’s paper examined the role of colonial intelligence services in Mozambique’s liberation struggle (1964–1974), and the impact they had on the country’s post-independence political landscape. In his paper, Niels presented a key argument from his PhD thesis, elaborating the concept of ‘coercive reconciliation’ as a framework to understand both counterinsurgency and post-war outcomes, specifically in the Kenyan Emergency (1952–1960). Both these contributions to the panel highlighted the deliberate, careful ways that operators during colonial counterinsurgencies attempted to shape the future.

Throughout the conference, what was particularly exciting was, of course, the discussions and connections that the work generated. It was wonderful to hear about the diverse and impressive work of my colleagues here at Warwick, and to explore it in the context of such a rich and thematically stimulating conference. The field of African Studies is flourishing, and the ECAS 2023 highlighted this, and highlighted and strengthened Warwick’s global networks within African Studies. The next European Conference on African Studies will take place in Prague in 2025.

Rose Miyonga is a second-year PhD researcher at the University of Warwick looking at memories of the Mau Mau War in post-colonial Kenya. She is working on an AHRC-funded project supervised by Daniel Branch and David Anderson.