Oct 08 2018

Second Africa-Asia Conference in Dar es Salaam. Boundless Circulation of Knowledge

Philippe Peycam

The International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) and the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) were honoured to serve, once again, as one of the principle facilitators of the second edition of the international conference ‘Asia-Africa, A New Axis of Knowledge’ which took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 20-22 September 2018.

The other key partners in this endeavour were our host, the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), and the Association for Asian Studies in Africa (A-ASIA). This partnership stems from a continuing commitment of IIAS to collaborations beyond boundaries of any kinds, which must include academic, cultural, public and social actors, particularly those from the two most populated and dynamic ‘southern’ regions (or continents) of the world: Africa and Asia.

As three years ago in Accra, the event in Dar es Salaam celebrated the existence of alternative circuits of exchanges in which the usual ‘periphery’ became the dynamic agent or vector of new knowledge. Nearly 400 participants joined approximately 100 panels and roundtables held at the UDSM Business School. The events were preceded by two outstanding and very personal keynotes by Prof. Zulfiqarali Premji, from Tanzania and Prof. Oussouby Sacko, from Japan in the university’s majestic Nkrumah Hall.

I must say something about the organisation of the event; it was only possible thanks to the work and dedication of our colleagues from UDSM, especially Dr. Mathew Senga, our main counterpart from the College of Social Sciences. Mathew was aided by a number of organisational committees made up of young UDSM faculty and graduate students who delivered one of the smoothest and most heartfelt events we at IIAS have ever been involved in. I want to thank them all and with them Prof. William Anangisye, Vice Chancellor of UDSM, for his enthusiastic support.

Our symbiotic collaboration with UDSM was not limited to organisational and logistical matters. Like us, they worked hard to raise awareness among scholars, especially within the Tanzanian and East African academic community. And like us, they did their utmost to raise resources to ensure that the event would be as open and inclusive as possible. Together with the IIAS-ICAS team, whom I want to thank for yet another example of their exceptional engagement, our UDSM colleagues worked in unison to shape the whole programme, to organise the panels according to 9 broad themes, to choose the keynotes, etc. It was a real partnership.

The result was an increase in the number and quality of contributions from participants coming from very different horizons. We saw participants from regions that were not present in Accra: from North Africa and the Maghreb, from Central and Eastern Europe, from Southeast Asia, the Middle- East, Western Asia and Central Asia. We saw more participants from francophone African countries – though still too few from lusophone areas. We had participants from Latin America, North America, Oceania, South, and East Asia, and from Western Europe. This Africa-Asia axis of knowledge has become a truly global space, an original method of engagement that inspires even beyond the spatiality of the two continents.

Another special feature of the conference in Dar es Salaam was the number of universities, institutes and even academic journals that went out of their way to support the event and its plurality by funding people in need of assistance. Their collective effort amounts to a clear rejection of the current logic that coerces institutions into competition with one another or that prioritizes narrow quantifiable outputs against the act of providing open and free spaces of intellectual exchanges, one of the essential missions of humanistic academia. Among them were Calicut University, University of Ghana, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Henry Luce Foundation, Michigan University, Réunion University, National University of Singapore, Social Sciences Research Council, Leiden University, IIAS, Andrew Mellon Foundation, the academic publisher Taylor and Francis, Itinerario journal, and of course, University of Dar es Salaam.

There were other organisations whose members worked hard to get their presidents, deans or heads of department, often against tight financial constraints, to sponsor or contribute to the cost of a panel or a roundtable. I cannot name them all but I would like here to pay special homage to our colleagues from University Gaston Berger (Senegal), Airlangga University (Indonesia), Ibadan University (Nigeria), Vietnam National University, University of Zambia, and Kasetsart University (Thailand). In this list of supporting institutions, we saw African, Indian and Pakistani, Chinese, European, Japanese, American, Southeast Asian universities working together to ensure a maximum plurality of participants regardless of institutional, disciplinary or national backgrounds.

For all these reasons combined, the Dar es Salaam event must be seen as pertaining to a novel kind of trans-regional ‘area studies’ platforms, one which saw a first occurrence at the memorable Accra conference in September 2015. Those who participated in one (or both) of these conferences can testify to their transformative appeal. A sentiment, shared by many during the events and after, is that something new and critically important was happening. They experienced firsthand the exhilarating feeling one encounters when we step out of our comfort zone and are forced to reach out to counterparts from totally different backgrounds or horizons, and how this experience can be extremely rewarding, especially when we confront ourselves with an all-different historical, cultural and geographical reality.

This exercise not only helps to better situate one’s scholarship by testing our ideas on new grounds. It also inspires us to draw new, hitherto unseen comparisons, to search for otherwise hidden connections, or simply to fine-tune our narratives or argumentations so that they attain the kind of resonance that transcends particularities. A subtly subversive displacement occurs that can help us embrace any realities in a decentred-yet-connected manner and allow us to shift our paradigms. With it, is the possibility of forging new intellectual alignments, of apprehending new sensibilities, of testing new analytical approaches, transcending hierarchies or categories we had long thought immune to changes. These may be rooted in deep-seated beliefs and mental – ideological – constructions delineated by value systems often imposed by institutions, national narratives, or the fragmentation of knowledge into disciplines.

One kind of unfounded value judgement that the successes of Accra 2015 and Dar es Salaam 2018 swept away is the so-called African ‘disconnection’ from the larger spectrum of knowledge circulation and debates of the world. This derogative conception is equally held toward other supposedly peripheral places like for instance South or Southeast Asia. Before the two African events, we the organisers, were warned about the ‘risks’ we would face – the supposed lack of local academic and intellectual infrastructures; the Ebola pandemic; the fact that this event was unnecessarily taking place in Africa (instead of Europe), in Ghana or Tanzania (instead of South-Africa); that its focus should primarily be on the continent’s exclusive relations with China, or of global security or economic concerns, subjects for which institutional money from northern programs abound. All these disparaging or reductionist comments, many rooted in an antiquated conception of the world in which meanings and concerns should remain the primacy of a few (northern) centres of gravity were brushed aside in Accra in 2015 and in Dar es Salaam in 2018.

What came out of these periphery-turnedcentre events, is that new agencies only emerge if they emanate from truly inclusive trans-regional forums, and that for them to arise free from existing constrains, they need to do so outside the mainstream institutional or geographical circuits. Indeed, by moving away from the traditionally confined and located ‘academic territories’ usually populated by self-defined ‘specialists’ of the two regions, the Africa-Asia events of Accra and Dar es Salaam openly disrupted the implicit restrictive function presiding over academia in the global economic-political order and its hierarchized division of labour. It is in fact at the time when we are all experiencing a deep crisis of the Western-dominated ‘grand narrative’, with human, ecological but also epistemological impasses everyday clearer, that this kind of Africa-Asia forum, by mobilizing multiple ways to ‘be in the world’, can prove its full worth. Not only can it engage critically with the relations of power at the heart of old epistemologies, but it can offer new angles to apprehend the world through a shared, inherently kaleidoscopic language.

For these reasons, on behalf of the Organising Committee, I would like to thank all the participants, individuals and institutions present in Dar es Salaam, who brought to Tanzania such a rich and diverse group of people and such a wide range of subjects of discussion. In a world of shrinking horizons and growing insecurities, their expanding presence and engagement is a testimony to a shared resolve to see scholarship continue to adhere to the universalist tenets of inclusive exchanges and encounters; to believe in what the Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe calls “the articulation, from Africa, of a thinking of circulation and crossings” (Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, 2013, p.8).