In May 2011, I was awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to carry out work on the Congo-born novelist and intellectual Valentin Yves Mudimbe. During the academic year 2011-12, I completed a 100,000-word monograph on this author, VY Mudimbe: Undisciplined Africanism, which will be published in 2013.
As part of this award, I also organised a sixth-former conference at the University of Warwick, ‘VY Mudimbe: Past and Present Africa’, which offered a number of workshops in which Mudimbe’s work was discussed against the background of recent African developments in the fields of literature and music. This event took place on March 15 2012 in the Wolfson Research Exchange. Two local sixth form colleges, in total forty AS and A2 students and their teachers, were invited to take part: The Tile Hill Wood School & Language College (Coventry) and the Blue Coat School (Coventry). The main objectives of this event were threefold: firstly, to present the life and work of VY Mudimbe to a non-specialist audience and examine the impact of his thought on contemporary culture from sub-Saharan Africa. Mudimbe is a difficult writer as his work is informed by a number of demanding thinkers such as Sartre, Lévi-Strauss and Foucault. The most challenging aspect of this exercise was therefore to identify the more accessible elements of Mudimbe’s work and show that some of the recurring themes explored by the writer, such as, for instance, ethnicity and race, negritude, the impact of capitalist modernity on Africa, and the birth of new religious and cultural manifestations, can contribute to a better understanding of past and present Africa; secondly, to introduce the students to a number of key literary and musical exponents from Africa and the Congo via a brochure sent in advance to their respective schools and a number of short talks that I presented in conjunction with Nicolas Martin-Granel who was especially invited for this event. N. Martin-Granel is a specialist of Congolese cultures from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, Paris); he is also editor in chief of the peer-reviewed journal Études Littéraires Africaines (ELA) and a foremost expert of Sony Labou Tansi's work (see: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xizn9f_sony-labou-tansi-sauvetage-d-une-oeuvre_news). In these sessions, excerpts from texts by Mudimbe (his interview of Léon Gontran Damas at Howard University in 1974), Sony Labou Tansi (L’Anté-peuple, 1983), and Henri Lopes (Une Enfant de Poto-Poto, 2012) were read and analysed by students and staff; Songs by Zao, Franco, and Tabu Ley Rochereau were listened to, translated and commented upon; thirdly, to generate, on the part of the students, a series of mini presentations in French in which they were given the opportunity to express their view on the studied materials and also reflect on the cultural and political implications raised by the documentary Benda Bilili (Renaud Barret and Forent de la Tullaye, 2010), a film which explores the links between economic hardship, globalisation and the production of local music by Kinshasa-based musicians. At the end of the conference, the students were asked to fill in a questionnaire. Their positive responses demonstrate that the objectives of this one-day conference were fulfilled. The main challenge here was to disseminate information about a thinker who is rarely discussed beyond academic circles. Given the remit of this sixth-form conference, we were not able to engage with the deeper epistemological questions of his work but we were nonetheless able to take on board and illustrate, by way of other creators, what Mudimbe has achieved as one of the foremost African intellectuals of the postcolonial era.