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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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Ways of Knowing Africa – the Cluster’s third New Year Lecture


For the third time, the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence staged a New Year Lecture as the official kick-off for the Cluster’s events of the new year. On 13 January 2022, Peter Simatei Tirop, Professor of Comparative Literatur and Director of the African Cluster Centre at Moi University in Eldoret Kenya, delivered the lecture entitled “Ways of Knowing Africa: African Literature and Shifting Imaginaries”. 

Ever since the first event of this kind was held in 2020 the New Year Lecture has already become a tradition for the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence. Each year, the event marks the beginning of the Cluster’s annual activities by inviting a renowned speaker to give a lecture on a topic close to the Cluster’s agenda. For the third New Year Lecture in 2022, Peter Simatei Tirop, Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the African Cluster Centre (ACC) at Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, was invited to speak to the Cluster’s members and affiliates as well as the interested public.

The event took place on 13 January 2022 and due to the pandemic had to be conducted in an online fashion as Franz Kogelmann, the managing director of the Cluster of Excellence and organizer of the event, explained during his brief welcoming words to the approximately 100 spectators who had tuned in on Zoom. After mapping out the chronology of the event he cleared the way for the next speaker in charge of delivering the welcome address: Yacouba Banhoro. 

Welcome Address

During his welcome address, the Professor of History and Director of the African Cluster Centre at Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, emphasized that although the pandemic had been a major obstacle for the Cluster activities during the past months the Cluster’s ACCs were still very much committed to the Cluster’s goals of Reconfiguring African Studies. Banhoro went on saying that the pandemic may be viewed as more of an opportunity than a problem as it had facilitated the Cluster to move forward with its transdisciplinary research on an international level. Using online tools various collaboration activities, fellowships and scholarly exchange were carried out in spite of the Covid-19 underscoring once more the relevance of the Cluster’s Digital Research Environment and various means of online meeting formats. 

Introduction by Akosua Adomako Ampofo

For the introductory words the Cluster had invited Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Professor of African and Gender Studies, Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Accra, to speak to the audience. The Spokesperson of the Cluster’s Advisory Board took the audience on a biographic journey of Peter Simatei Tirop’s academic life and publications talking about his commitment to the intersecting fields of Postcolonial Studies, Anglophone Literatures and Diaspora Studies. She summarized that Tirop’s research focus was on negotiations of diaspora, migration, gender and popular culture and explained that the scholar aims to understand how diaspora and diasporic identities work within and against and around national identities.

“Ways of Knowing Africa

For the New Year Lecture itself Peter Simatei Tirop had chosen the complex topic “Ways of Knowing Africa: African Literature and Shifting Imaginaries”. First, the Professor of Comparative Literature scrutinized the politics of knowledge production in relation to Africa and reflected on the role that specifically African Literature plays in “knowing Africa”. Aware of the complexity of the subject, Tirop acknowledged that his thoughts on the matter could only give a general idea of the topic. Quoting Harry Garuba, Tirop explained that literature is indeed capable of teaching about Africa. He pointed out that African literature, at least in its written form, had gone through a number of interrelated phases with shifts in topics and style. In response to possible criticism on his approach to colonial African literature, the director of the ACC at Moi University pointed out: “Modern African literature especially has a complex symbiotic relationship with colonialism (…) The specificity of African literature, its distinctiveness, is marked in part by its relation to imperial history.“ He went on to talk about the different positions of writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o on the role of African writers and their works in postcolonial times and described decolonization as a “cultural and political project of African Literature in the early phase of the immediate postcolonial period”. Moving on to today’s literary works, Tirop pointed out that third-generation African writers like Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole or Dinaw Mengestu seek to address emerging identities in the transnational and cosmopolitan locations and diasporic spaces from where they were created. The ACC director explained: “While the task of the pioneer African writer was to reclaim community from within the boundaries defined by colonialism, contemporary writing, written as it were from transnational locations grapples with realities generated by fluid, overlapping and sometimes conflicting spaces. “ 

For the last part of his lecture Tirop talked about writers of the Indian diaspora in East and Southern Africa. These diasporic literates and their fictional work are witnesses of the relations based on territorial understanding and their individual histories. They narrate questions of history, displacement and cultural identities belonging both to East Africa and “elsewhere”. Peter Simatei Tirop explained: “In this case, diaspora and diasporic identities work within, against, and/or around national identities to construct plural spaces for enacting the difference of the diasporic subject.“ Reflecting on diasporic literature in general and anyone person's often colourful and transnational biography, Tirop concluded his talk by asking, "Where is anyone from these days?" before taking the questions of the audience. 

Lively discussion

The lively discussion that ensued was chaired by Susan Arndt, Professor of English Studies and Anglophone Literatures at the University of Bayreuth. The topics that the audience brought up were mainly focused on the question “Can Africa be known?” and on the complexity of African literature as a vast field. One contributor said “Claiming to ‘know Africa’ was a very western approach” doubting that this endeavour was even possible. Another participant pointed out that the discussion showed that scholars of African Literature were “victims of their own discrimination” and called for scholars of African literature to give it space and let it define itself. 

As for knowing Africa one panellist pointed out that Africa was in fact “knowable” by overcoming over-generalisations and going from generalisations to speaking about certain aspects of Africa. In his opinion saying “Africa is complex” means that we already know certain aspects of the continent, however miniscule it may be. And one of these aspects surely is African literature. Peter Simatei Tirop added: “Literature is not an anthropology text book. We are saying literature relates information in its own special way with its own realities. It’s only one representation of realities. You have to read literature as literature. But we can take certain aspects and see it as representations and get a glimpse of the African life. “

The New Year Lecture can be watched in its entirety on YouTube or by clicking on the video below:

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