The Challenge of Sustaining Partnerships within the HAB West African Platform
At the launch of HAB in 2017, four West African institutions constituted the West African platform: Institute of African Studies (Ghana), National Institute of Social Sciences (Burkina Faso), Institute of Humanities (Mali) and the Laboratory of Analysis of Societies and Powers / Africa - Diasporas – UGB LASPAD (Senegal). The block enjoyed territorial continuity within an integrated regional community (ECOWAS).
HAB was a unique opportunity to create or boost cooperation among the four institutes and eventually extend the network to others. All expressed an interest in holding periodic meetings in the different countries. These would be occasions to stage events that bring the results of research and exchange closer to the larger campus. Departing from academic-style presentations was a shared desire, so experiential workshops, exhibitions, and interactive podiums were considered more adequate formats. Road trips would offer the opportunity to bring students, teachers, and their research into contact with populations along the way.
In this regard, my own bus trip from Bamako to Ouagadougou to meet colleagues at the partner institution in Burkina Faso (September 2017) was both a self-test and part of the study the Ghanaian team was conducting along borderlands. Bus travel was the closest to living the “grassroots” regional or pan-African experience they explored in the neighborhood, at the borders between Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin. During the overland journey, I was able to talk with people from all over the region, in French, Bambara, and Songhay: a Malian student returning to his campus in Ouagadougou, a Senegalese tailor rejoining his shop after a stay with his family near the border with Mali, a traveling salesman from Gao trading grain across borders.… With regard to HAB, my arrival in Ouagadougou coincided with the announcement of a four-million-dollar grant availed to the University of Ghana by the Mellon Foundation, the main sponsor of HAB. The news sparked envious exchanges about advances made by an established and well-connected university like UGH, at Legon.
The institute leaders organized formal and informal meetings on campus and in town. I met with scholars of different generations, many with impressive achievements and long-term studies of their own. The four-day stay reinforced my conviction that personal contact would play a key role in strengthening partnerships, and periodic visits and rotating events, for example around indigo in Mali and Burkina Faso, would help build a self-driven regional platform. The MoU signed thereafter between INSS Ouaga and ISH Mali pointed in the right direction. It should soon translate into joint fieldwork and scheduled visits between the two neighbors. In addition, future events like the Krokobitey (Ghana) workshop on crafts and ecotourism in 2018 opened up perspectives for transdisciplinary exchanges and discoveries within the region. Still, the major interregional gatherings would take place outside the region, in Dar es Salaam and Amsterdam in 2018, Leiden in 2019, and Chiang Mai in 2020. Such venues limited the numbers of West African participants to a select few. The Covid pandemic cancelled physical meetings. The switch to online platforms drew a further wedge between the (digitally) well-resourced institutions and their less-endowed partners.
Looking back on this period, the activities conducted in the four countries did not coalesce into a dynamic shared platform at the regional level. Does that mean it’s all lost? Not necessarily, as I think of the “Crafts as Method” workshop held in Saint-Louis in Senegal in November 2022. With scholars and highly skilled practitioners coming from Ghana, Mali, Senegal, and other continents, it demonstrated the potential for building a productive West African core around indigo, textile, bead, pottery, for example, to get in conversation with other African regions, Asia, Latin America, and so on. So, while the aftertaste of unfulfilled promise lingers, there is still time for a new momentum in the regional platform.
Mohomodou Houssouba, University of Basel, Switzerland