What does it take to decolonize the VAD (African Studies Association in Germany)?
Abimbola O. Adesoji, Department of History,Faculty of Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University,Ile-Ife, Nigeria
Hans Peter Hahn, Institut für Ethnologie, Goethe Universität
The VAD has the intent to support the decolonial movement and wants to be a proactive partner in this respect. This panel is open to academically grounded suggestions as to how the demands for decolonisation can be implemented within the framework of the professional association.
Since its foundation, the VAD as a scientific association has been committed to the dissemination of knowledge about Africa. Its goals are manifold and ambitious. The VAD aims to promote knowledge about Africa and to promote a more thorough engagement with Africa in the European public sphere. It wants to correct biased views and stereotypes about Africa. Finally, its members intend to influence politics - especially as far as Africa is concerned - and to advise politicians. There is no doubt that the VAD has often failed to live up to these ambitious goals.
However, there have been instances in which it did not – for example, VAD members had an influential position in the antiapartheid struggle. The VAD sees the current increase in right-wing populist positions in Europe as a serious concern with regard to its ambitions, and it is presumably true that knowledge about Africa in the European public sphere is continuously declining. Irrespective of these obvious weaknesses, the VAD must now reflect on what factors determine the image of Africa that the association stands for and propagates. Are there aspects of the structure or activities of the VAD that should be considered as colonial structures? What measures should be taken so that VAD can uncover these and develop in the direction of a stronger “decolonized present”? This panel invites contributors to comment on this question, while considering the goals, and make suggestions on how the VAD can be decolonized.
Like other African Studies Associations elsewhere, the Association of Africanists in Germany has been involved in academic engagement on Africa. However, given that VAD, like other African Studies Associations in Europe, America and Australia were formed outside Africa and draw membership from its environment, the influence of the operating environment/climate and the prevailing perspectives (collectively subsumed under what is called ‘the dominant academic voice in Germany’) cannot be completely divorced from the activities of the Association. This becomes pertinent given that the Association, except in a few instances, is dominated by non-Africans, and given the differences in perceptions, dispositions and interpretations of similar or related findings and situations. Decolonizing VAD therefore requires among other things, taking a more critical look at the environment within which VAD operates, the need for the inclusion of more African scholars and their perspectives via-a-vis European perspectives, a more enriching use of African sources or works produced by African scholars rather than their relegation, and also the need for Africans to show more interest in their own affairs. These and related issues are the concerns of this paper.
The discourse on the decolonization of Africanist knowledges has recently gained ground among academics in Europe and North America. Several panels and/or roundtables at both the 2019 ECAS conference in Edinburgh and the 2019 African Studies Association (ASA-USA) annual meeting in Boston addressed the topic of decolonization from various perspectives. These discussions have taken place in tandem with institutional efforts to re-think African studies and with reflections by the leadership of professional associations on their associations’ histories and role in the decolonization process.
I propose to offer a perspective on the panel topic from my position as an anthropologist who has conducted long-term research in Mali and Senegal and taught a graduate seminar that included a component on the history of African studies and research practices in the USA, as well as from my involvement in re-thinking association practices and engagement as a member of the ASA (USA) leadership from 2017 through 2020.
For a long time, African Studies has been framed in disciplines that do not give it the opportunity to open up and enter into dialogue with disciplines dealing with Western societies, even though the latter are rather present in (pre)colonial and contemporary African realities. Furthermore, there is a reluctance to evaluate African studies on the same scale as studies of Western civilizations. As a result, knowledge of European societies about African societies is reduced to its congruent portion of ethnological and anthropological facts. This disadvantage does not seem to allow researchers in African studies to more widely disseminate knowledge about African societies and cultures in order to facilitate a safe and honest intercultural dialogue between Europe and Africa. Similarly, African researchers do not seem to have the means to claim recognition of Africa in the place of history in view of the political and socio-economic challenges facing Africa.
The present contribution aims to show with specific examples to what extent the decolonization of African studies should be based on integrative and interdisciplinary studies to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge on Africa and the intercultural dialogue.
For many white-positioned African Studies scholars, decolonization seems to be a conundrum. It is one of the areas where the title of this VAD conference, "Africa Challenges", is indeed pertinent. What precisely does this challenge mean for the predominantly white scholars in the German African Studies community? How can their institutions and associations respond to this challenge? How can they become a oeproactive partners of the decolonial movement, if they are themselves deeply mbricated in coloial structures and epicolonial practices? Drawing on the experience of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth, this paper will highlight the importance of sustained reflexivity on the part of those speaking from a white locus of enunciation as a precondition for their constructiv participation inthe decolonial endeavor. Further, it is imperative to give more space to African scholars so that they can pursue the type of research they consider meaningful. Such a move also implies to relinquish control over the knowledge production process in favor of epistemic plurality. As we shall see, the problem with eaving the comfort zone is that things can become really uncomfortable once you have left it.
Rüdiger Seesemann is professor of Islamic studies at the University of Bayreuth and an expert on Islamic brotherhoods in western Africa, especially in Senegal. He is the speaker for the Cluster of Excellence “Africa Multiple”.