The 5th European Conference on African Studies, Lisbon – review

The 5th annual European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) was held on June 26-29 this year in sunny Lisbon. A biannual affair, ECAS is the big European Africanist jamboree, organised by AEGIS (the Africa-Europe Group for Inter-disciplinary Studies) and was hosted this year by the friendly and well-organised ISCTE-Instituto Universitario de Lisboa. The ostensible theme was ‘African dynamics in a multipolar world’ but really ECAS 2013 was a big grab-bag of everything African Studies.

The extremely lovely city of Lisbon

The extremely lovely city of Lisbon

To get the obvious out of the way first: it was BIG. 1300 delegates, 177 panels, many with multiple sessions, spread across three days alongside roundtables, film screenings, book launches and publishers’ stalls – ECAS was really hundreds of mini-conferences running alongside one another (and so summarising the whole thing becomes impossible – what follows is inevitably just my view of a small slice of it). Sometimes it became overwhelming, and several people suggested that streaming by topics would have made the conference more navigable – though this might have removed the heterogeneity that sometimes generated useful surprises. Most people I talked to suggested that the quality of papers was patchy, but as we all attended different panels it’s hard to draw any bigger conclusions from this.

However, I do wonder if this is partly linked to a major disappointment that many people were talking about: the lack of travel funding for scholars based in Africa. It was not unusual to see whole panels composed of scholars based in Europe (or sometimes the USA), surely limiting the scope, expertise and priorities of the conference, as well as giving it an uncomfortable neo-colonial tinge. Though there were some notable African scholars there, gossip on the conference floor suggested that only 5% of applicants were awarded travel funding, and that this was due to various European institutions’ failures to procure the funding they were supposed to. Of course money is not limitless, but for a conference as huge as ECAS this should have been more of a priority than it seemed to have been.

Francois Ugochukwu's French translation of Pta Nwana's 'Omenuko' (1933), the first Igbo novel, which was discussed in comments during an ECAS panel

Francois Ugochukwu’s French translation of Pita Nwana’s ‘Omenuko’ (1933), the first Igbo novel, which was discussed in comments during an ECAS panel

One of my main aims for the conference was to track down other people working on literature, and I was fortunate to be speaking on the panel on literature in African languages convened by Sara Marzagora of SOAS – which featured scholars working on Pulaar, Swahili, Yoruba, Setswana, Zulu and Sesotho – and Sara also convened a panel on oral literature. However, aside from this I couldn’t find any other traces of literature panels. I wasn’t sure if priorities in mainland Europe are different from ours in the UK, or if this was just of the nature of ECAS (there were a lot more political, anthropological and historical panels), but it was certainly very different from ASAUK 2012. Nonetheless, the panel on literature in African languages made all sorts of comparisons across different language literatures, and we discussed how the future of the study of African language literature surely lies in exactly this kind of comparative work – and moreover in not necessarily studying African language literatures as a separate (and, implicitly, peripheral) field from Anglophone/Francophone/Lusophone literatures in Africa.

Mafata's 'Mehaladitwe ha e eketheha' (in Sesotho) - subject of one of the papers at ECAS

Mafata’s ‘Mehaladitwe ha e eketheha’ (in Sesotho) – subject of one of the papers at ECAS

It was still possible to find plenty of panels on subjects relevant to literary scholars. Film had a decent outing, as did popular culture; a roundtable on popular culture, featuring Karin Barber, Brian Larkin and Bob White, explored the future of popular culture in African Studies, 25 years on from Johannes Fabian and Karin Barber first opening up the field. Filip de Boeck, chairing the roundtable, suggested that now would be a good moment to re-think ideas about popular culture in the light of the rise of the internet and social media. Karin Barber suggested that the most exciting new directions for the study of popular culture over the coming years would be: the creation of genres, the co-creation of publics, and comparative studies across the continent. Bob White made an interesting point that the study of popular culture is perhaps less ethically loaded than other domains because it’s something we all consider ourselves part of, and which is shared between the West and the non-West. But Karin Barber wondered about this blurring of the foreign and the local. With the rise of Youtube and social media, we in Europe have a sense that African popular culture is more readily available to us – hence the proliferation of studies of Nollywood, which is so much more accessible to us than previous forms of popular culture such as the Yoruba travelling theatre – but we need to beware of assuming that we have access to everything that’s out there.

A major selling point of ECAS for me was the opportunity to find out about Francophone and Lusophone research on Africa. Will these old colonial ties ever lose their resonance in European African Studies? That said, there were plenty of people working outside the obvious boundaries – I met a Dutch scholar working on Angola and a Cameroonian working on Swahili.

I have to say I loved my first ever ECAS; it was full of cross-European friendships being fostered and old ones being re-kindled, and the conversations continued into the night as the delegates drifted out into Lisbon. If the organisers can improve the travel bursary problem ECAS 2015 looks promising.

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7 replies

  1. Thanks for your detailed coverage of this conference – the photos of book covers was a nice touch. Your commentary on travel funding was insightful. Excited to read how African studies addressing indigenous languages and popular culture. Emailed the article to myself and will find out more about the association.

    • Thank you for your comment! I’m very glad it was useful for you. I think there’s so much more that could be done on indigenous African languages – I hope more and more scholars will be working on it in future.

  2. Thanks Rebecca – wanted to be there even more after the write-up! Could you say a bit more about Karin Barber’s comment on the ‘co-creation of publics’ in African popular cultures? Find this really interesting but not sure I have the right end of its stick…

    • Yes, I thought it was a really interesting point too! As I understood it, Karin was saying we should look at not only how new genres are created, but also how the creation of new genres itself creates new publics. She was working with Bakhtin’s idea of the addressivity of genres: new genres are created out of new experiences which old genres cannot contain, and moreover genres are defined by their addressivity, so therefore the creation of new genres and new publics are inseparable. The emergence of new publics in Africa is not just a by-product of new technologies; cultural producers deliberately experiment with imagined and addressed audiences while creating new genres. So, an under-addressed question is how people read and interpret these new genres and their addressed/imagined publics. (That’s my attempt to paraphrase, anyway – it was probably a lot more nuanced than that!)

      • Yes, I agree with Katie, your post made me wish I was there. The panel with Karin Barber, Brian Larkin and Bob White seems to have been specially interesting. And this discussion about genres and popular culture is spot on what is keeping my mind busy right now. Although this debate is often placed in a more recent time frame – after colonial times – if addressed to the 19th-20th transition period is still relevant: in Nigeria, these were times that after new experiences, not only new genres were being created but also, ‘established’ genres were being redefined; for instance, history. And the under-addressed question you mentioned (how people read and interpret these new genres) still remains for that context.

  3. What’s amazing (to me) is how many folk were turned down: apparently half as many people again applied to coordinate panels.

    • Really? That is surprising! A large number of panels actually disappeared on the day because they were supposed to host people who hadn’t got there in the end because of the lack of travel funding. It’s a shame that couldn’t all have been sorted out beforehand so more people could have been accepted.

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