ASA02 Panels

The ASA 2002 conference was held in Arusha, Tanzania, from the 8th-12th April. Held as a single-stream conference, participants listened to 75 presentations in 14 panels, as well as to 4 keynote addresses. The following summary gives a flavour of the conference, based on the content of the oral presentations, written abstracts and full papers submitted.

Conference theme and convenors’ presentations

The conference convenors chose the conference theme ‘Perspectives on Time and Society: Experience, Memory, History’ as one that would signal the important convergence of anthropological and historical perspectives in thinking about the relationship of time to history. They also prepared introductory presentations to signal some of the themes they felt apposite for discussion during the conference.

In her introductory presentation, Wendy James signaled the two different ways in which anthropologists have often discussed time, contrasting some scholars’ emphasis on the specific culturally-embedded ways in which time is marked with those who adopt a more rationalist perspective on the common experiential foundations of the category.  Presenting a number of criticisms of both approaches, including their common inability to tackle the notion of historical time, she proposed paths towards a possible synthesis.

In his introduction, David Mills highlighted the very different ways in which histories of anthropology in Africa continue to be told, and sought to historicise forty years of anti-colonial critique. Drawing on both the conflicts between the ASA and the British Colonial Office in the late 1940s and the work carried out by the East African Institute of Social research (EAISR), he argued that critiques of colonial anthropology often overlook the very different agendas of the discipline and its government sponsors.

Keynote addresses

George Abungu delivered the first keynote address of the conference, entitled The museum and its changing audiences in Africa. In it he skilfully explored the diverse range of scientific, curatorial educational and out-reach activities currently being carried out by the National Museum of Kenya, of which he is director.

Richard Fardon, current chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists, gave an intriguing and thought—provoking paper entitled Present problems, past treasures, in which he ranged from a discussion of George Steiner’s work to the paradox of a tiger mural discovered on the walls of a Cameroonian palace.

Johannes Fabian’s impassioned keynote, Remembering and forgetting Africa, used examples of popular Swahili idioms for memory in the Shaba region of Congo to make the point that there is an an important tradition of African historiography and memory-work that should never be neglected or ‘forgotten’ by academics.

The final keynote address was given by Christine Obbo, with the title But we know it all! African perspectives on Anthropological knowledge. In it she carefully weaved her own personal anthropological biography into a history of disciplinary teaching and practice in post-colonial Africa, insisting on the continued relevance of African anthropology today.

1. Time and the ancestors: the material culture of memory

Chairs: Paul Lane and Gilbert Pwiti

This panel was convened by Paul Lane, with the aim of exploring the role of the past and the uses of history, material memorabilia and archaeological remains in African societies. Most of the presentations addressed

the question of how to combine ‘Western’ archaeological and historical insights to local social knowledge and practices.

Paul Lane opened the conference with a paper drawing on his own fieldwork with the Dogon of Mali. He argued that Dogon women invested meaning in material possessions as a way of creating a historical presence to counter the official male lineage histories embodied in domestic architecture. Richard Helm also focused on the role of collective social memory, but this time suggesting that archaeological research on the Swahili coast should be integrated into dominant Mijikenda oral narratives in order to provide a fuller and more accurate record of the past.

Jasper Chalcraft vividly described how the labelling of an archaeological site in Tanzania as a potential World Heritage site conflicted with the local interpretation and on-going ritual use of such sites. Conflicts between archaeologists and local communities were also a theme in Bertram Mapunda’s presentation. Mapunda argued that there was often a public ignorance about the role of academic archaeology, and called for archaeologists to spend more time consulting and informing communities about their work. David Wengrow provided a more comprehensive critique of Archaeology’s focus on the timeless past, arguing from a Middle-Eastern example that archaeological excavation can also result in the destruction of memory, and calling for archaeologists to record and document the material remains of the more recent past uncovered in their excavations.

Finally Ngalla Jillani turned to a different aspect of the materiality of memory, using visual images to look at the way brain shape and size has evolved over biological time.

2. Heritage: imagining the social continuity of the nation

Chairs:  Joy Hendry and Constantinus Nyambondo

This panel, developed from an idea proposed by Joy Hendry, brought together several papers reflecting on the relationship between material culture, memory and state nationalisms.

Joy Hendry’s own paper was an exploration of various different examples of ‘indigenous’ cultural display from around the world, in order to understand the increasingly global discourse shared by those who participate in creating and maintaining theme parks and cultural centres. Audax Mabulla interpreted national ‘cultural heritage’ somewhat differently, to include all the archaeological remains and contemporary indigenous cultural practices found inside Tanzania’s national parks and protected areas. He discussed the various conflicts implicit in managing such resources.

Trevor Stack discussed the ways in which written and oral histories often conflict. Writing about the way in which the inhabitants of the town of Tapalpa (Mexico) tell the story of their town’s past, he suggests that people’s oral histories rarely drew on written historical documents, and vice-versa , leading to two discrete accounts of the town’s past. Frank Pieke’s paper focused less on written genealogies than on the genealogical mentality more broadly in Yunnan province of China, describing how the resurgence of lineage genealogies serves to incorporate local identities within a pan-Chinese nationalist discourse. 

Constantinus Nyamabondo and Peter Forster discussed forms of cultural nationalism more directly. Nyamabondo’s paper discussed Julius Nyerere’s national advocacy of a Ujamaa self-sufficiency policy, and the use of compulsion to achieve these ends, whilst Peter Forster made an interesting comparison of Nyerere’s political philosophy with that of Hastings Banda in Malawi.

3. Grandparents and grandchildren in contemporary Africa

Chairs:  Paul Geissler and  Nakanyike Musisi

Tuesday 9.00 –10.30

This panel was convened by Paul Geissler, who sought to bring together papers exploring relationships between grandparents and grand-children in a number of different African societies. The relationship has been described in many classic ethnographies as a ‘joking relationship’, an intimate relation of privileged familiarity. The panel sought to explore relationships of intimacy, familiarity and equality in contemporary African societies, their meanings, and the changes that sickness and immiseration had wrought on them.

Paul Geissler and Ruth Prince provided a moving and intimate narrative of the views of one elderly Luo woman. Exploring the ways in which Mary described and understood love, they recounted her sense of social change leading to the loss of love between friends and neighbours in her village, though this contrasted with her continuing sense of intimacy with her own grandchildren. Sjaak van der Geest complemented this paper with his discussion of self-representations of age and wisdom in Ghana – noting that old people are often less respected then they assume.

This theme of cross-generational intimacy was also explored by Susan and Michael Whyte, whose presentation successfully suggested ways of making links between individual emotional narratives and larger historical narratives of change. They suggested the notion of inter-subjective time as a way of capturing shared life-worlds and biographical experiences, particularly in the context of the lost AIDS generations, a disease that has put great burdens on grandparents.

Benedicte Ingstaad rightly argued that the categories of both grandparents and grandchildren need to be disaggregated, and drawing on her research in Botswana, suggested ways in which grandchildren could either reinforce or challenge notions of the aged deserving respect and dignity. Finally, Erdmute Alber presented important evidence for increasing conflict between parents and grandparents amongst the Baatombu in Benin, and the implications of that for adoption patterns.

4. Biographies: connecting past and present

Chairs: Bambi Ceuppens and Günther Schlee

This panel brought together a contrasting set of papers exploring the role of individual and social biographies in the creation of political identity and agency.

Roy Dilley skilfully argued that putative lines of ancestry are also genealogies of power that can be evoked in the present. He described his work with Senegalese blacksmiths, showing how non-linear representations of the past are key to the working of magic, and arguing that differences in the way time is represented impact on how people construe and act upon the world.

The reinterpretation of history, and in particular local history, was the concern of Mary Rack’s fascinating paper, which dwelt on the conflicting memories of banditry in the province of West Hunan. For the central state, suppressing local banditry was a key ideological step in the creation of the new communist polity, but the local teachers interviewed by Rack were far more ambivalent about this rewriting of history, seeing such bandits as local heroes whose history were key to the region’s current identity.

Eva Gillies wove a more individual biography, vividly depicting the work and life of her collateral ancestor Johann Krapf, who as an early German missionary to East Africa played a key role in advancing understandings of African languages, publishing the first Swahili-English grammar and dictionary, along with more than 20 other linguistic works.

Bambi Ceuppens challenged assumptions about the constitutive role of social biography in her paper, questioning historians’ interpretations about the role of Flemish nationalism within the Belgian Congo. Instead, she suggested that social memories were far more divided, and that the colonial context was often the over-riding factor in shaping the attitudes of the Congolese Flemish community.

The issue of expatriate identity was also tackled by Petri Hautenemi, who proposed that social memory took on an episodic nature amongst young Somali refugees in Helsinki. Drawing on ongoing research, he described how the young men seek to make sense of their experiences of violence and war, and to forge new lives in Finland.

5. Dance, trance & calendars: forms of time reckoning

Chairs: Chris Knight and Chris Wingfield

This was one of the most lively and provocative of all the conference panels, thanks partly to the stimulating presentations on the origins of culture in Africa by Chris Knight, Camilla Power and Ian Watts.

Chris Knight, the panel convenor, presented his theory of bio-social evolution, arguing that one can bring ethnographic, biological and archaeological evidence together to understand the significance of the first appearance of art in Southern Africa. The use of red ochre crayons for body-painting was evidence, he suggested, in support of the ‘sex-strike’ theory, where women would together withhold sex during a certain period in the menstrual cycle, in order to reward male success in hunting (hunting cycles in turn correlating with phases of the moon). Ian Watts provided extensive empirical archaeological evidence for the use of red ochre across a range of archaeological sites in Southern Africa, whilst Camilla Power explained how contemporary ethnographic evidence from the Khoisan literature about gender inversions equally supported theories of lunar and menstrual periodicity.

Two other papers in the panel trod less controversial ground. Martin Mills described the moments when people and societies step out of time, convincingly arguing from a detailed ethnography of Tibetan Buddhist ritual practice that anthropologists should not privilege calendrical or astrological systems as models for action. Rather we should look to the way in which peoples’ relationship to time ideologies is constituted through social bodies and embodied ritual practice. Jacob Mhando also addressed the issue of the role of calendars in time-reckoning, arguing that local naming practices continue to play an important role in defining particular years and the passing of the seasons.

6. Language, literature, philosophy and time

Chairs: Albert Dalfovo and David Parkin

This panel brought together a number of illuminating linguistic and philosophical perspectives on time in East African societies. The panel sought to address the implications of linguistic concepts of time for the way time is embodied and experienced.

Albert Dalfovo described the way in which Lugbara conceptions of time are influenced by Lugbara grammar, which has no specific form of future tense. This, Dalfovo felt, led the Lugbara to view events in a pragmatic and developing perspective – with people being primarily interested in the potentials of the present and the past.

Pamela Abuya presented a more general paper drawing on JS Mbiti’s analysis of African conceptions of time, comparing this philosophical notion with Western time conceptions. Samuel Mwangi discussed the importance of privileging indigenous time concepts as part of the broader move to value indigenous knowledges within development interventions.

In the final paper in this panel Arturo Casco Saavedra turned from language to literature, presenting a historiographical analysis of Swahili epic poetry, and exploring how a number of important Islamic poets have sought to represent events in Swahili history.

In the lively subsequent discussion, a number of questions were raised about the risk of relativism in any discussion of ‘African’ conceptualisations of time. Albert Dalfovo wittily paraphrased St Augustine to capture the paradox that time-reckoning holds for academic analysis – “If you don’t ask me, I know what time is”.

7. Re-evaluating the legacies of colonialism

Chairs: Yemane Mesghenna and Victor Muzvidziwa

This panel brought together papers investigating the ways in which memories of colonial rule and anti-colonial struggle are sustained or challenged, both in popular and academic accounts of the past.

Vincent de Rooij described the way in which workers on the Congolese Copperbelt in the 1960s moralised about contemporary urban life in their letters to the Mine Company’s journal, and asked whether such letters could be read as an implicit critique of colonialism. Victor Muzvidziwa on the other hand, provided the conference with a detailed analysis of recent academic analyses of ‘African voices’ in the Zimbabwe liberation war, questioning whether such analyses ended up ignoring and therefore downplaying the atrocities committed by the Rhodesian army during the war. Tilo Graetz described the ways in which social memories of forced labour in French colonial gold mines in Northern Benin were mediated by individual’s own experiences of the scheme.

The two final papers in this panel by Richard Reid and Uoldelul Chelati both focused on Eritrea. Uoldelul Chelati explored the history of the Italian colonial relationship on Eritrean society and its implications for the growth of Eritrean nationalism. Richard Reid carefully documented different memories of the historical relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the role of these perceptions of the past in the recent war between the two countries.

8. African modernities

Chairs: Joshua Akong’a and Don Donham

This panel brought together a set of insightful papers exploring the historical and political dimensions of  ‘development’ and economic change in contemporary Africa.

Abbebe Kifleyesus described how eating habits and food choices in contemporary Arggoba society (Ethiopia) are increasingly influenced by changes in the global economy. Jon Holtzman turned this insight around, arguing thatone could use food and eating practices to understanding the changing politics of everyday life for Samburu pastoralists in northern Kenya. Both recognised the value of a ‘food-centred’ model for understanding historical developments.

Nina Johnsen turned from food to medicine, with a detailed exploration of the ways in which Maasai medicine has been represented and marketed to outsiders. Judith Narrowe drew on her own long-term involvement in a development project in Ethiopia to present a lively paper describing the way that people linked their own experience of working on the project to a more personal sense of growth and development.

The final paper in this panel by Donald Donham provided a nuanced and poignant exegesis of a single incident in an East Rand mine compound; describing how it led to the ethnicisation and polarisation of the workforce. He argued that ethnic and national identities offer powerful narratives of continuity that structure social action.

9. Contesting national space: narratives of identity in process

Chairs: Glenn Bowman and Hassan Wario Arero

This set of papers were united by their careful attention to the relationship between spatial dynamics and the creation of national and regional identities.

In a theoretically nuanced account Glenn Bowman described the role of imagined antagonism in the creation and mobilisation of national and ethnic identities. Using the cases of Yugoslavia and Palestine, he described the ways in which selfhood and history can be generated around these moments of oppositional identification. Knighton also discussed the constitutive role of violence, in this case seasonal cattle-raids, for understanding the longue duree of Karimojong (Northern Uganda) history.

Schlee provided a highly detailed account of the role of what he called ‘identity games’ amongst Somali communities in Northern Kenya, describing national and ethnic affiliations both affirmed and sometimes transformed in new political contexts. Hassan Wario Arero also gave an illuminating discussion of the changing ways that the Borana ethnic group conceptualised their relationship with the Kenyan nation-state. Finally, Abdussamad Ahmad described the history of relations between the Gumuz ethnic group on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border and related frontier ethnic groups in the early part of the twentieth century. 

One last paper in this panel, by Pat Caplan, turned the spotlight back onto academics, asking how analytical representations and categories of the Swahili coast are shaped by the political and historical positions from which the authors write.

10. Body images and practices over space and time

Chairs: Aleksander Boskovic and Charles Rwabukwali

This panel, originally proposed by Aleksander Boskovic, brought together a variety of papers addressing the role of representation in shaping social action. The contributions varied from an attention to popular representations of gender and sexuality in South Africa to a discussion of art and its relationship to traditional political systems.

Aleksander Boskovic discussed ‘scientific’ and popular cultural representations of the female body in South Africa, concluding with a focus on the changing, if still racialised, representation of women in the print media. Robert Thornton explored the discourses around the sexual act and sexual fluids in South Africa, and the implications of this for AIDS education strategies. Alexander Lopasic used a set of slides of relatively little known art collections to demonstrate the role of African art and sculpture in emphasising the importance and power of local political leaders.

A rather different set of ideas were explored in the papers by Elizabeth Hsu and Knut Myhre. Elizabeth Hsu presented a rich and detailed ethnography of both Tanzanian and Chinese herbal medical consultations. She compared the spatial order of the two consultation rooms, suggesting that this ordering reflected the structuring of time within the process of medical diagnosis and treatment. On a related theme, Knut Myhre challenged the assumptions of history within Janzen’s notion of ‘African medical pluralism’, using a carefully historicized analysis to argue that there has long been a historical and geographical openness in healing practices.

11. Mediations of memory and prophecy

Chairs: Tadesse Wolde and Elizabeth Tonkin

This panel combined four papers that sought to explore how memory, history and bodily experience are mediated through objects.

Julia Powles presented a vividly moving account of the social memories about eating fish in one Zambian refugee camp, challenging the assumption that the dominant refugee narrative is one of violence. She evoked the experiential aspect of this social memory through the dance of one woman miming fishing with a net.

Bilinda Straight turned from fish to beads, describing the role of bead adornment for Samburu expressions of individual and collective memories of colonialism. Her detailed paper sought to counter any notion of a single Samburu narrative of the past, and rather to demonstrate the way a ‘concatenation’ of objects are used and understood in ways that Samburu assert are their own.

Elizabeth Tonkin sought to compare the role of regional oracles in the histories of Liberia and Nigeria, demonstrating the importance of attending to local oral histories about these oracles. Finally Taiye Fasola presented a detailed and comprehensive history of medicinal herb use, suggesting that the commodification of medical knowledge over time has led to a loss of knowledge about the role of indigenous herbs.

12. Person, gender, and age in work and leisure

Chairs: Paul Achola and  Christine Obbo

This panel brought together a series of fascinating insights into the experiential aspects of time - its rhythms and routines, its demands and its crises – across three continents. Several of the papers attended carefully to the gendering and embodiment of time, describing the phenomenological demands made by time on individuals and social groups.

Monica Heintz cogently demonstrated the relationship between individual and national time, arguing that the imposition of ‘capitalist’ time logic on Romanian society has been at best partial, and that many Romanians refuse to see time as something that is either scarce or to be managed. Grace Nyamongo took a rather different perspective, provocatively and entertainingly arguing that the management of time was essential for a sense of productivity in one’s work and leisure. Eunice Kamaara explored the history of gender inequalities in African societies, and risked controversy by arguing that the Church was key to the reconstruction of productive gender relationships.

Yohko Tsuji described the way elderly Americans were both shaped by but also shaped time, carefully demonstrating their flexible and complex understandings of temporal experiences, and challenging any simple linear construction of time’s passing.

The two final papers tackled the temporal aspects of the AIDS pandemic in Africa in different ways. Mary Wahome presented us with a sobering factual account of the extent of the disease and its implications for prevention strategies, whilst Andrew Irving linked Uganda and the US through two powerful vignettes describing the bodily experiences of people living with AIDS. He argued that individual senses of time become destabilised and radically transformed during and after illness.

13. Ritual trajectories: transformations in ceremonial practice

Chairs: Wendy James and Simon Lubang

Papers in this penultimate panel addressed the key intellectual concerns of the Conference, namely the role of ceremonies and rituals in the shaping of time. One of the common strands running through these papers was the potential for violence and disorder within ritual events, and the implications of this ‘disruption’ of time.

Maggie Bolton vividly described the ritual quartering of sheep at a Bolivian carnival and its role in mediating local, regional and national identities. She suggested that such ritual events are not performed memories, but rather embody and express present political concerns, linking past and present together.  Annesa Kassam and Gemetchu Megerssa presented a carefully detailed paper on the structure of the Oromo age system, and its relationship to historical events.

Andrea Nicolas described the recreation of an Oromo clan assembly in Eastern Shewa, Ethiopia, pointing to the way in which ‘nostalgia’ could be a powerful structuring force in the present, and carefully arguing for more attention to its use as an analytical category.  Persistence and the role of the past in the present was also the theme of Tadesse Wolde’s paper, describing the use by the Gamo people of southwest Ethiopia of religious idioms and practice in resisting the centralising forces of Orthodox Christianity and the Ethiopian state.

Anne-Marie Peatrik described her long-term research on the Meru age-set system in Kenya, calling for a more multi-faceted approach to understanding age-set social systems, combining ethnographic, demographic and historical data. She pointed to the persistence of this strong generational ethos in this part of Kenya, and the risks inherent in the hand-over between age-sets, pointing to the link between such changes and the mass-rape and murder at a Kenyan school in 1991. Finally, Richard Vokes provided important evidence for links between the Kanungu Church massacres of Southern Uganda in 2000 and earlier colonial and pre-colonial manifestations of the Nyabingi spirit cults.

14. Practising anthropology and archaeology - past, present and future

Chairs: David Mills and Mustafa Babiker

This final panel brought together a set of reflective papers on the practice and teaching of Anthropology and Archaeology in post-colonial Africa.

Idris Salim el Hassan’s paper provided a valuable overview of studies of pastoral nomadism in Sudan, historicising the contribution of several generations of Sudanese (and European) anthropologists to this debate. He pointed to the limitations of the current theoretical paradigms for understanding the nomadic experience. Mustafa Babiker complemented this presentation by showing how the persistence of ‘ crisis scenarios’ and the simplistic use of the ‘herder-farmer’ dichotomy limited analytical insights into African dryland pastoralism. Both called for a more historically-aware analysis of agricultural and social change.

Alula Pankhurst also demonstrated the importance of attending to anthropological pasts, in his case through a careful reading of the bulletin of the student-run Ethnological Society at the Addis Adaba University College in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the limited analytical contributions made by the field reports, Pankhurst pointed out the journal’s importance for the intellectual development of this generation of students .

Turning to the present, Oluwole Ogundele presented a wake-up call to Archaeologists. Drawing on his experience of teaching and practising Archaeology in Nigeria, he described the problems the discipline now faced, including the trafficking of objects and its perceived distance from the public, and called for an ‘Archaeology as if people mattered’. Chris Wingfield also discussed Archaeology and its relationship to Anthropology in the context of academic research carried out in the Kalahari, recounting the various anthropological critiques of the multi-disciplinary Harvard Kalahari Research Project.

Finally, Mwenda Ntarangwi presented a reflective paper on the potentials and dilemmas of teaching anthropology to American exchange students who come to Kenya for one term as part of their undergraduate studies, and his attempts to help them deal with their often simplistic understandings of African (and in this case Kenyan) politics and culture.