Conference Report: Archives of Post-Independence Africa

Conference Report: Archives of Post-Independence Africa, June 2012
by Jos Damen & Benjamin Soares

The ASC along with CODESRIA and the University of California African Studies Multicampus Research Group (MRG) organized an international conference, Archives of Post-Independence Africa and its Diaspora, which was held at the Gorée Institute on Gorée Island in Senegal, on June 20-23, 2012. The conference originated in a University of California initiative to rethink the field of African studies and strengthen ties with colleagues and institutions on the African continent through an African studies research group directed by Peter Bloom and Stephan Miescher from UC, Santa Barbara. Additional sponsors of the conference included, among others, the Institute for International Institute for Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam , WOTRO, and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Dakar.

The three-day conference attracted students, scholars, archivists, and librarians who presented papers (in English and in French) and attended workshops on the nature of the colonial and postcolonial archive, archival absences, alternative archives and sources for history writing. These sources included various forms of paper ephemera, film, photography, and various types of digital media. Several contributions focused on the study of heritage, monuments, festivals, and museums as texts and historical sources. While some of the papers and workshop presentations addressed the practical issues of conservation, curating archival collections, and access to archives, others considered more theoretical questions such as what constitutes an archive and what kinds of historical sources can be used as a basis for post-independence and contemporary histories of Africa and its diaspora. Malian scholar Manthia Diawara (New York University) and Senegalese historian Ndèye Sokhna Guèye (IFAN, Université Cheikh Anta Diop) delivered keynote addresses, and Percy Hintzen (Florida International University/UC, Berkeley) and Anne Hugon (Université de Paris I) served as the conference rapporteurs.

During the conference, Jos Damen (ASC) and Stefano Bellucci (IISH) organized two workshops about archives, including archival methods, the role of non-state archives, and new developments in archiving such as encoded archival description (EAD). They emphasized the importance of the preservation of cultural heritage. Workshop participants presented numerous examples that included the preservation of a Senegalese prison archive, privacy issues related to medical archives, and how the context for digitizing archives can be subject to significant political and cultural variation.

In order to showcase African festival culture as an anchoring site for post-independent archives, Dominique Malaquais (CNRS, Paris) presented The First World Festival of Negro Arts (dir. William Greaves, 1966), followed by commentary by Manthia Diawara. This film documents the First World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN) that was held in Dakar and had revived 45 years later in 2011. While some found the film’s representation of African arts and festival culture antiquated, its important documentary role as a record of the fanfare of the independence era was widely appreciated.

Although the largest contingent of participants at the conference came from the University of California’s different campuses and from Senegal, other participants came from Cameroon, Canada, Congo, France, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Switzerland, the UK, and Zimbabwe and included many from CODESRIA’s extensive networks. The ASC was represented by Jos Damen, Mirjam de Bruijn, and Benjamin Soares, as well as by former ASC visiting fellow Abdoulaye Niang (Université Gaston Berger, Saint Louis). 

Shortly before the conference took place, rebels in northern Mali had divided the country in two, helping to put the spotlight on the Mali’s cultural heritage. During the conference, a brief roundtable discussion focused on the unfolding events in Mali with contributions by Mirjam de Bruijn, Benjamin Soares, and Susana Molins Lliteras (University of Cape Town). As they explained, Islamists in northern Mali had destroyed ancient tombs, and many feared for the safety of precious Arabic manuscripts in such places as Timbuktu. Molins Lliteras, a researcher involved in the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, a project between South Africa and Mali, gave information about the status of various manuscript collections.  In addition, Benjamin Soares published an editorial in the New York Times about the crisis in Mali shortly after the conference.

Gorée, a UNESCO-designated world heritage site, provided an idyllic setting for thinking about African history with many of the participants booked for their accommodation in beautiful historic homes on the island. Indeed, the setting was so pleasant and conducive to good humor that it was almost possible to forget the ongoing electricity cuts on the island – apparently unheard of before on Gorée -- that began on the first day of the conference and lasted until the very end. The major inconvenience of the lack of electricity, air conditioning, and lighting aside, the Gorée Institute managed to hosted and provide excellent catering for dozens of participants with great aplomb. At the close of the conference, some of the young local residents of and visitors to Gorée vented their anger and frustration with the authorities for not restoring electricity fast enough by blocking access to the Dakar ferry and throwing stones at state authorities. The brief standoff ended after technicians arrived to fix the problem. Some of our Senegalese hosts explained how frustrated many people were since the dire economic situation of the country had not improved after the hotly contested presidential elections in April, and the conflict on Gorée was perhaps a symptom of the broader malaise. 

The conference received some welcome media attention from the television channel Africable, available in a YouTube video, and in a blog post by one conference participant. Various publications emanating from the papers presented at the conference are being planned, and the different partners are exploring ways to continue the discussion about this very important and timely subject.

Program and abstracts: Conference Website