Debating Africa, in Italy

Posted on October 04, 2018

Alois Mlambo, Emeritus Professor in Historical and Heritage Studies, shares his experience of interacting with Italian scholars of African Studies.

Prof Mlambo recently delivered the keynote address at the fifth biennial conference of the Association for African Studies in Italy. Tukkievaria spoke to Prof Mlambo about his visit, and his thoughts on trends in global African Studies. 

Can you tell us more about the conference you attended?

I presented the keynote address to a conference of Africanists, along with invited African presenters from various African countries, including South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana. The Association for African Studies in Italy – or ASAI – held a conference around the theme “Plural Africa, Politics, Knowledge and Social Dynamics in Time and Space” at the University of Bologna last month. As the name suggests, this is a professional association whose members are made up of scholars and researchers working on various subjects and topics on Africa.

Had you been to Italy before? Did you get a chance to have some down time while you were there?

This was my second visit to Italy, having visited first in 2011 to present a paper organised by ASAI in Bologna. The first time, I did not have occasion to travel to other parts of the country. This time round, my wife and I toured Tuscany and spent a few days in Rome before returning home. We found Italy to be a very beautiful country, with a lot of rich history and fascinating architecture. As a historian, I really relished visiting various museums and cathedrals, which Italy has in large numbers in all the cities we visited. A visit to the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome were some of the highlights of the visit.

Your lecture topic – “A century of racial oppression: the colonial encounter in Southern Africa and its legacy” sounds fascinating. How was it received?

The people who attended were people who were already familiar with Africa through being lecturers, professors or researchers on Africa and in African topics. They ranged from historians, to political scientists, geographers and other specialities. They were, thus, a group of people who were gathered to share their on-going research in their fields and people who were very much aware of the complexity and plural nature of Africa. The conference sought to encourage the use of multiple research sources and inter-disciplinary approaches to promote deeper insights on the African continent, and to recognise the ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ of the African people in shaping economic, social and other relationships locally and globally. My keynote address was, therefore, providing my own perspective on these broad objectives of the conference organisers. An email from the organisers sent to me a few days after I returned reported that the keynote address was very well received by conference delegates.

How do you view the state of African Studies from a global perspective? In your considerable experience, and over the duration of your distinguished career so far, have you noticed any shifts in the global approach to African Studies?

In Africa in general, scholars do not normally talk of ‘African Studies’ as a special, distinct and unique field of study, as scholars working in their various disciplines address African issues and topics in the course of their normal activities as scholars. The concept of ‘African Studies’ or ‘Area Studies’ emerged and took root in the United States and Europe, as a study of the ‘other’ which was, initially, designed to inform government policy, whether colonial or other forms of policy. There is some movement in the global North to integrate studies on Africa into the broader fields of studies of the world. In addition, Western epistemology was based on certain assumptions about Africa and a Western-centric view of the world, which resulted in certain representations of the African continent and its people. Over time, some of the basic assumptions about and notions of Africa have been critiqued and challenged, and continue to be subjected to intellectual scrutiny in both the global North and global South, hence the theme of the fifth ASAI conference.

- Author Department of University Relations

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