The Langarchiv ‘Making Sense’ Conference

reviewed by Melanie Horstead

27-28 mai 2021 – Online Workshop

From the single word to the many lexicons and the politics, power, hermeneutics and deciphering of the spoken and written word in all its forms, this ‘Making Sense’ conference gets to the very heart of key questions about making sense of meaning in Africa-focused research. Though it may raise more questions than answers, this journey of reflection is the point of the conference. How do we as researchers come to understand the meaning of authors without objectifying the subject and subjecting it to the meanings we bring to it? And what about the intended audience? How is a source intended to be disseminated, heard or read? Who owns the word? This undertaking was no easy task. The following is a very brief report that cannot possibly do justice to the rich, detailed presentations that all contributors gave, but it at least gives you a small glimpse of what the conference entailed.

Professor Paulo de Moraes de Farias opens the conference in his talk entitled ‘Making Sense in a Globalised Context’. In his presentation he considers how ‘old genealogical links with the Iberian Peninsula have been re-emphasised, or posited in completely new ways, by Timbuktu Arma lineages’. His talk encouraged questions and discussion that ranged as far as the role of a library; what it is and how it is used, and whether universities have or should have the role of authenticators or even ‘delegitimizers’ of the past. The politics of historiographies and narratives are brought into question as we begin the struggle to make meaning in the respective geographical areas’ we work in.

In the first panel, West African sources between politics and Linguistics, Dr Stephen Bulman ‘considers production of knowledge on Sunjata Keita at Nioro, Mali…between 1850-1930’ and provides rich examples of his comparative approach to multiple versions of history in late 19th century and early 20th century Nioro du Sahel. He observes and questions how these ‘historical projects intersect’. Dr Stephanie Zehnle notes that we see ‘a whole world emerging in tackling the history of the myth, document, or source’. Dr Ari Awagana directly addresses the challenges faced in the translation of sources and searches for an understanding of the production of texts. He compares ‘the choices of phonic notation, morphology and syntax of Hâz Mûsā bin Hisēїn with the forms of a text glossed in Old Kanembu’. He describes his experiences in translating from old Kanembu to modern Kanuri (Manga) and elicits interesting ways of quantifying linguistic and historical data. Dr Jeremy Dell introduces the discussion on the conditions in which meanings are produced. He looks at the history of authority and authorship of the xasida written by Shaykh Amadu Bamba. From handwritten copies to the printed form and now online platforms, Dell points out that despite ease of globalised dissemination today, oral versions and productions of these works in Senegal still influence textual culture. Dr Abdulbasit Kassim completes the panel and delves into a ‘meta level’ analysis of his work on West African Arabic and Ajami manuscripts and raises the problem of decline in linguistic training and cultural mistranslation in anthropological research (on Islam). He discusses the limitations of various approaches to texts and looks towards creating a ‘convergence of discursive meanings’. He emphasises how the setting for how sources are read is crucial to the meanings we make. This thought on how we as researchers read sources was echoed throughout the conference. The context of the researcher reading microfilm isolated in a booth is far removed from the way in which the source was originally disseminated and interpreted. What are we missing? What is being lost?

Panel 2: Making & Contesting Meaning in East Africa could be subtitled as what Professor Samuel Nyanchoga calls the ‘politics of remembering and forgetting to remember’. Both Nyanchoga and Professor Felicitas Becker focus on interpretation of slavery in East Africa. Becker grapples with the positionality of the researcher. The texts she studies ‘address slavery as a historical phenomenon in the Muslim world and beyond’ and she addresses the challenges of facing claims in sources that cannot be ignored or sidestepped but which tell us about how the author construes the audience. Becker highlights the awareness of what the researcher brings to what they are reading. Becker goes on to talk about the importance of names and descriptive terms and how different terms used can reflect different hierarchical positions. Professor Samuel Nyanchoga works through the ‘multi-layered cultural and historical landscape’ of the Swahili Coast. He considers how descriptive terms that are assigned to us define us and affect how we interact with society. He considers the creation of multiple identities and a ‘hierarchy of rights’ and notes a ‘plasticity in the use of terms of identity’. He notes that there is a conspiracy to silence the history of slavery, the history from above is contested by the marginalised of the below, however Nyanchoga acknowledges that the entanglement of these histories raises more questions than it answers.

Panel 3: Changing Meanings of Slavery as Official Category and Lived Experience.

The third panel, and following discussions get to the heart of making sense of epistemologies and terminologies. As Dr Benedetta Rossi notes, different groups of people use (the term) slavery, but it means different things (in different contexts) and there are different sets of meanings attributed. In his work on ‘Hearing Recaptive African Voices and Discerning Meaning in Colonial Court Records’ Professor Marcus Filipello works through the distorted historical records and deals with the complexities of agency alongside ‘interpretations of psychoanalytical theory’. He works through the sense of unbelonging and unfamiliarity of spaces,  places and assigned names experienced by ‘liberated’ women in a colonial court. He asks, ‘how are we to sift through the layers of translation?’ As an historian writing about a past that is constantly changing in Sawab Mauritania, Professor Ann McDougall addresses the ‘‘empirical’ impact on knowledge production’. She  asks, ‘what does it mean to write about a past that is itself constantly changing…to create a new present?’ She observes that there is no one vision or view of the haratine people in Mauritania, in different regions there are different terms and relationships, and perhaps of most significance for the conference she found that a source ‘when explored through a different lens, tells a different story’. The confines of a frame or structure (such as the modern slavery discursive frame) contain the source and McDougall probes, ‘what are we not seeing’ and ‘leaving outside’? From the complexities of agency and the sifting through of distorted translation and records to the restrictions of a frame to the perspective of a different lens, we arrive back at the lexicon and the descriptive terms and how these terms affect social life and interaction. Aicha Kolan Kolan applies a socio-linguistic approach to the very names and categories used to refer to people of slave descent in a specific village in Niger. Here how one is named determines how one lives and what one is permitted, and not permitted to do. Even liberated slaves are given specific names according to their rank and importance.

Day 2 of the conference starts with Panel 4: The Politics of Canon and Interpretation: Rethinking Approaches to African Voices and Texts. Professor Cecile van den Avenne investigates ‘how to reconstitute and describe old language practices, to which we no longer have access except through writings, direct or indirect testimonies, of a definitively lost interaction’. In her close analysis of the notebook of European explorer Louis-Gustave Binger, who himself learnt Bamana (Bambara), she looks for the clues between linguistic description and communicative practice. She asks, ‘what do we lean from the reading of this notebook’? How the book is read indeed demonstrates more than just a colonial account and shows traces of real interaction between Binger and people he interacted with. The question of how we read and indeed categorize a text is echoed in Dr Oliver Coates’ presentation whereby he asks, ‘how geographical, historical, and moral knowledge are constituted’ within J.O. Ariyo’s book, Oju M Ri Ni India [What I Saw in India]. Coates looks into the text’s reception history as simply a piece of propaganda and a narrative of wartime Asia and World War Two Africa. Oliver cautions against  such reductionist categorisation and notes that various textual techniques would be lost if the piece was so judged. He argues that it goes beyond not only historical representation but has meaning in various contexts. Dr Augustine Farinola engages in both close and distant reading of textual data in the study of diaries (and consequent essays and lecture series and conference papers based on) the treatises of ‘Philosophical Sage’ Emmanuel Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe. He problematizes the fact that the diaries were never published, there is no canon of work and that interpreters may be able to alter the source to fit their own frameworks. Farinola shows how ‘hermeneutical practices with corpora…can be enhanced through both close and distant reading of textual data as a means of making sense out of primary sources in the humanities’. Included in the presentation is Farinola’s interpretation of Osigwe’s view of allowing African agencies and African voices to be heard. Guided by the Bakhtinian philosophy of dialogism where ‘metaphorical language exists in a state of constant ‘becoming’ within a given interpretive encounter’, Professor Advice Viriri demonstrates how metaphors are powerful vehicles of persuasion in politics in Zimbabwe. He provides a convincing argument about the discourse of othering. “Weevil” and “Gamatox”  became “Lacoste” and “G40”; metaphors which ‘conceptualised…experiences in Mugabe’s autocratic rule’. We are led to question, who owns the metaphor? Who owns the word? Such questions tie back into the presentation of Jeremy Dell on the question of ownership of the xasida of Shaykh Amadu Bamba.

Panel 5: Beyond Interpretation: Decolonising Genre and Accounting for How Audiences Make Sense. Themes of the setting of reading a text or listening to and engaging with the text and the genre in which text is categorised come to the fore again in the presentation of Professor Karin Barber, entitled ‘The Textual Host’. Barber informs us of how ‘early written Yoruba histories relied mainly on oral genres’ which ‘capture and reactivate elements of the past…in a non-linear way’. She considers the final volume in a series of Church Missionary Society’s Yoruba language readers for schools, segmented historical narratives that appeared in early twentieth-century weekly newspapers and in the CMS school readers various local historical narratives were laid out side by side in a patchwork format. This patchwork and unlinear format achieved popularity due to its ‘keeping with long established oral modes’. Barber observes that the segmented accounts of historical events depend on others to actually constitute meaning. In complete contrast Dr Peter Brooke observes how audiences ‘listen in a linear fashion’ to radio broadcasts in his presentation focusing on how Zambian people heard about the Soweto uprising of 1976 via the popular mass medium of radio. He considers the audience and what impact these various radio broadcasts had on the audience. ‘How did audiences choose to source their news and consume it?’

The final keynote speech ‘Les gardiens du silence. Donner la parole à la parole pour raconter le monde’ was delivered by Professor Mamadou Diawara. It would take a separate review of its own to try and do justice to such a gripping, inspirational, and thought-provoking speech. In his abstract, Diawara states that ‘[O]ral narratives have become an essential foundation of African studies. Any story, beyond its object, is endowed with meaning. How do the recipients, recipients of the story, as well as the academics produce it?’ He queries the role of the academic in ‘keeping the monopoly of the production of meaning’, and notes that there is ‘always a risk of projecting what you know upon what you learn from the ones you are listening to’ thus becoming the ‘keepers of silence’. In this way, as Professor Becker stated, what we bring to what we read affects how we read, and the very meanings we make. In the closing discussion and in reflection on the conference as a whole Dr Rossi asks, in reference to Professor Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias’s talk, ‘what happens in the twenty first century when interpretations can be totally globalised?’. Langarchiv PI Doctor Camille Lefebvre notes in her closing remarks that ‘we start with hermeneutics; most of the papers presented question our analytical categories, the ones we use in our research’. She considers the symbiotic shift in putting oral tradition into writing. Who keeps the word? How is ‘authenticity’ interpreted in different cultures of societies? There were of course far more questions raised than answers but what we all came away with was more to reflect on and build on.


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