January 21, 2009

Representing Africa: Spatial, Temporal, and Ideological Perspectives

NOTE: I am posting this from Dr. Mavhunga at MIT; its from the H-AFRICA listserv. Its an excellent statement for getting at the keys to African history as well as the importance of not privileging the archive in all cases. This is in response to Cyril Hromnik, another historian who claimed there was no precolonial state institutions in Africa to build on:

"I was thinking that the Hromnik's position is passe. There has been extensive discussion on this in Terence Osborne Ranger's "The Invention of Tradition" and the "The Invention of Tradition Revisited". Multiple trajectories span off from that discussion, notably Valentin Mudimbe's The Invention of Africa and The Idea of Africa. There have been countless other works, among the Pier Larson, Carolyn Hamilton, and many others.

For me, the question seems to be how to how to take that debate beyond cultural and political histories, beyond an Africa defined according to the temporal and spatial frames of political and other elites. Once we get to that extent of shifting the analysis beyond thematics and physicalities that privilege the elites to the experiences and imagineries of Africa from "the gallery" (ordinary people), my sense is that some of these high-end ideologies like "pan-Africanism", "patriotism", "sovereignty", "power" and so forth acquire new meanings or even lose them. The question then is: Seen from the rural village, from the household of a poor person, what exactly is "pan-Africanism", "colonialism", "institutions', etc.?

As I see it, we risk eulogizing the powerful of Africa and silencing the majority by focusing on "important people". The more you get to the villages, the more you see all this amazing innovation at play, with the relevance of the state being only so far as it provides specific individual needs. Otherwise it is dead to them. Upon examining further these grassroots modes of innovation, it turns out that they pre-date the colonial moment; in fact, they are the sociotechnical infrastructure with which people processed colonial rule into their existence and maneuvered their own existence under colonialism.

Instead of giving colonialism (un)godly powers, we need to go well beyond what Mudimbe called "the colonial library", viz. the record of the pre-colonial and colonial that was compiled after all by colonial writers (Europeans or Africans influenced by European systems of classification). I think going to Africa to examine not just "oral traditions or testimonies" but more-so the "practices" would be a very good preparation to then go into the "colonial library" that Mudimbe was talking about and which is written and stored in dusty boxes.

I would not end or worse yet start in the built archive but the archive of practice and spoken word.

Without belaboring the point further, I must insist that Hromnik was giving the "colonial library" (or a lukewarm reading of it) (un)godly powers. His approach is now in the rear view mirror of history and receding fast.

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga
Assistant Professor of Science, Technology & Society Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
E-mail: clappertonm@yahoo.com


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP