Saturday, October 16, 2010

Africa in Irvine

I spent my week-end with a crowd of Africanist scholars from a half-dozen University of California campuses at Irvine, people who know the continent intimately (some of them call it home), and who approach it with a keen sense of personal investment. Their study methods range from archival research to participant observation, from structured interviews to the study of built space, and came from a variety of disciplines: anthropology, environmental sciences, geography, history, sociology. These scholars were contesting the traditional story of the relationship between African governments and neoliberalism, analysing the relationship between Christianity and Shona conceptions of social and material space, investigating the emergence of Addis Ababa as a ‘modern’ city, translating Ahmadou Kourouma’s novels, studying the relationship between the Rwandan genocide and the gender dynamics of the Hutu Social Revolution and looking at the spread of HIV/AIDS through Hausa communities in northern Nigeria.

We heard from faculty who are not only engaged in incredibly timely research in Africa, but who are taking a commendably active role in studying some pressing issues on University of California campuses. James Smith told us about his work on an ethnography of coltan in the eastern Congo region, and described hiking for miles through trees, and suddenly emerging into a mining shanty-town of 20,000 in the middle of the rainforest, in which nobody is sure who is pulling the strings, in which shadowy militias and dodgy companies mix with the Congolese army and regional traders. And Ivan Evans gave us a flavour of his emerging study of the history of student politics and activism at the University of California.

We had the opportunity to speak to a group of UCI arts students, undergraduates and master’s students alike, who had just returned from a trip to Ghana, in which they networked with and performed alongside Ghanaian artists. We collectively marvelled at this group of motivated students who were actually performing the kinds of connections that we were just writing about.

It was a stimulating couple of days, and as the group of us flying back to Oakland made our way to the airport we reflected how nice it was to be reminded that there is a whole community of people out there who are interested in Africa as a place and as an idea. We also complained about the uncharacteristically gloomy southern California weather and the hostility that we felt, as pedestrians, in Irvine.

I’ve always thought that John Wayne is extremely poorly designed for pedestrian access. It’s as though planners constructed the innumerable stairwells, parking lots and barriers in the hopes that anyone who was foolhardy enough to approach the airport on foot would admit defeat before reaching the final crosswalk that leads into the terminal.

The cross light was red, but being good Africanists one and all, we weren’t going to pay any attention to a little thing like that, and we walked across the street. ‘Wait!’ the light squawked angrily at us, furious at our non-complacency. We ploughed defiantly on, and it vented its mechanical fury on our refusal to conform. Only in Irvine...

Just before the plane took off, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House swept regally in, flashing a quick smile before taking her seat. Like Jerry Brown, this member of California’s political royalty flies coach. Unlike Jerry Brown, she’s a genuine progressive, and I’m hoping that she remains Speaker after November 2.

At Oakland we ‘de-planed’ and walked out into the baggage claim area. A sign proclaimed that we were exiting a ‘sterile area’. ‘Hang on a minute’, I mused aloud, ‘I thought we left Orange County an hour ago?’

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