“In from the Cold War”: a colloquium on Eastern Europe, Africa and cultural diplomacy during the cold war

AiW Guest: Iolanda Vasile

This week, AiW Guest Katarzyna Kubin continues her series examining the relationship between Africa and Eastern/Central Europe with this guest piece by Iolanda Vasile about the colloquium “In from the Cold War: Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Cultural Diplomacy during the Cold War”, organized in Bucharest, Romania in June 2016.

When in 2013 on arriving to Angola I was welcomed in my native language of Romanian, I knew there was a story behind it. At that time, I was doing research for my PhD on the role of women in the liberation movements in Angola, focused on the 1945-1961 period. I was surprised to find that the daughters of one of the women I interviewed for my research were fluent in Romanian, because they had studied in Romania in the late 1970’s under a bilateral agreement. Inspired by their story, some months later, I searched the archives of the Securitate[1] in Romania and was able to trace some of their steps in the country. A world of intertwined networks of collaboration between the Romanian Communist Party and African countries seeking independence in the 1960’s and 1970’s was revealed to me.

From the National Archives of Romania, to those of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as other undocumented personal encounters, the official macro history of the Romanian Communist Party could easily be challenged by the micro histories awaiting discovery. For example, Ceaușescu’s and his wife’s visits to numerous African countries during so-called “friendship visits”[2] were thoroughly documented in thick photographic albums with green and red covers; each carefully noted with the name of the country and the year of the visit. The extent of documented detail was impressive (e.g. information about the gifts offered to African leaders and their cost, official joint declarations, the photographs published in the Scânteia, the official state propaganda newspaper), but also not surprising given the personality cult around the Romanian dictatorial couple.


With no clear agenda regarding relations with African countries, Ceaușescu saw a possibility to distance the Socialist Republic of Romania from the USSR’s sphere of influence through relations with the newly independent states in Africa. Such an “active support and solidarity with the fight of the African peoples and the final liquidation of colonialism, against the racist policy and apartheid, against any forms of domination and oppression”[3] would also give Romania the appearance of a more Westernized country, while positioning itself as a brother in socialism, open to African and Arab students to come for education and training. Romanian experts were also to be sent to African countries to grow the potential for Romanian economic investment. The goal was to develop a collaboration that was based in direct contact between citizens, who interacted outside of the official sphere of the state and government, but that was still shaped by the authorities.

For me, exploring this history more deeply meant spending increasing time looking into the past through the photographs that I discovered in the archives. At a certain point, I felt the need to share this research with fellow researchers, as well as with people who had seen and experienced these histories first hand. I was thus motivated to organize, together with several colleagues[4] who work on similar topics, what became the one-day colloquium titled “In from the Cold: Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Cultural Diplomacy during the Cold War.”

cerefrea-colloquiumThe colloquium took place on 17 June 2016[5] in Bucharest in the Centre Régional Francophone de Recherches Avancées en Sciences Sociales (CEREFREA – Villa Noël). It was organized by CEREFREA in partnership with four other institutions: the National Archives of Romania, the Portuguese Embassy in Bucharest, the Camões Institute for Cooperation and Language from Portugal, and the L’Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF BECO). It brought together as presenters 15 researchers from Romania, Serbia, Canada, Mozambique, Cape Vert, Portugal, France, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were affiliated with a range of universities and research institutions such as the Bucharest University, New Europe College, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, Belgrade University, Waterloo University, Coimbra University, Nova de Lisboa University, Paris-Diderot University, L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Université Sorbonne Paris Cité, and Kinshasa University. We also had the great honour of having in the audience for the opening session the Ambassador of South Africa in Romania, H.E. Mrs Thenjiwe Ethel Mtintso.[6] The Call for Papers for the colloquium received a positive response. The colloquium focused on Sub-Saharan Africa’s relations with Eastern Europe, but the proposed papers were diverse, ranging in topic from the broader transnational histories to the artistic, educational, cultural and economic exchanges that took place in the mid-1900’s. Papers that were presented focused on Mali, Mozambique and today’s Serbia, as well as on the international conferences that helped shape the struggles for independence in Africa, and on the relations between the regions of Africa and Eastern Europe.

The main goal for the colloquium was to foster a community for those working on issues related to the history of relations between Africa and Eastern Europe, and to help establish a network that could continue working together after the colloquium. This proved all the more relevant since many of the colleagues presenting papers have been pursuing their research as independent researchers, rather than within the frame of structured and institutionalized projects.

Given the existing research on the relations between Eastern Europe and Africa it seemed fitting to gather in Bucharest, a location that is decentralized from the more prominent discussions around these topics, which are taking place through major transnational projects based in the UK[7]. Since CEREFREA, the main supporter of the colloquium, funds research in social sciences in Eastern Europe, we initially thought that the colloquium would be an encounter of primarily Eastern European researchers. For this reason, most of the grant was reserved to support researchers from the region, but the biggest challenge proved to be identifying Eastern Europeans working on related topics. We actively contacted the Centers for African Studies attached to universities throughout the region, but still most of the proposals for papers were from researchers based outside the region. It is an issue to overcome, also with future events. Given that the colloquium covered a vast geographical area and, consequently, included a diversity of languages, the event was bilingual, in French and English, a solution that we believe could be implemented in international conferences in general.

photo_cerefrea-colloquiumThe photographic albums that I was researching and which originally inspired the idea for the colloquium, also served to close the event. We organized a small photography exhibit titled “Zona libertada da humanidade’[8]: Ceaușescus in Angola and Mozambique,” which included 37 photographs of Ceaușescus’ visits in Angola and Mozambique, selected from among hundreds in the archives.


Read more about the colloquium here

This piece is part of a series curated by Katarzyna Kubin for Africa in Words.

Iolanda_for bio_Africa in Words.jpgIolanda Vasile is a PhD candidate and Junior Researcher at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra (Portugal); Portuguese Language Lecturer for Camões Institute at West University, Timisoara (Romania). Co-founder and member of Plus East cultural association, focused on promoting Eastern European countries in Portugal.



[1] The Archives of the Political Police in Romania. I do not yet have a clear picture of the relations between the foreign students and the authorities or the Securitate in those years. Nevertheless, in this particular case, one of the women was very vocal in criticizing how some of the foreign students were treated while in Romania.

[2] The official state terminology at the time.

[3] ANIC. CC al PCR. Secția Cancelarie. Dosar 23/1987. Protocol nr. 9. The meeting of the Political Executive Committee of CC of PCR, April, 10th 1987, pg 7.

[4] The brave colleagues who embarked on the adventure of organizing the colloquium include: Caio Simões de Araújo, Bogdan Cristian Iacob e Damiana Otoiu. Damiana is currently coordinating the project: “Museums and Controversial Collections. Politics and Policies of Heritage-Making in Post-colonial and Post-socialist Contexts”, while Bogdan is coordinating the project: “Turning Global. Socialist Experts During  the Cold War (1960s-1980s)”.

[5] The colloquium was made possible thanks to a grant from the Centre Régional Francophone de Recherches Avancées en Sciences Sociales  (CEREFREA – Villa Noël) and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie, Bureau Europe Centrale et Orientale in Bucharest. The Camões Institute for Cooperation and Language, and the Portuguese Embassy in Bucharest also provided financial support.

[6] I would like to express my gratitude to all the participants of the colloquium, for their openness and feedback. Special thanks to the co-organizing fellows who ensured a very smooth organizing experience.

[7] For example: the “Red Africa” project, organized by the Calvert22 Foundation. Groundbreaking research is being developed within the project “Socialism goes Global”. See also:  Monique de Saint Martin, Grazia Scarfo Ghellab, Kamal Mellakh (dir.), Etudier à l’Est. Expériences de diplômés africains, Paris, Karthala, coll. « Hommes et Sociétés », 2015,300 p.

[8] “Liberated zone of humanity”, in relation to a banner that appeared in some of the photos.

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching

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