Photo by Mohomodou Houssouba, freely licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.
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Mohomodou Houssouba on the ambivalence of the Asia-Africa relationship

6 October 2017

Connecting the launch of the Humanities Across Borders programme and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Bandung Conference, Mohomodou Houssouba analyses the current state of discussion of the Asia-Africa axis in this excerpt.


Early this year, the international Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) at Leiden University launched its new research program titled ‘Humanities across Borders: Asia and Africa (2017-2020)’. As the name indicates, the aim is to go beyond area studies by bringing together interdisciplinary teams and reopening channels of communication and collaboration between the two continents. In this regard, even implicitly, the spirit of the 1955 Bandung Conference remains a landmark occasion on which political leaders, social thinkers, and creative minds came together to chart the future of territories and whole regions, the majority of which were still awaiting decolonization.

 The debate over the Africa-Asia relationship exhibits the same ambivalence. Sixty years ago, Asian and African leaders vowed to build an alternative to the rivalry be- tween the capitalist and communist blocks, by creating a non-aligned movement out of the so-called Third World, thus keeping a critical distance from the hegemonic dis- courses of the day. Since, the two continents seem to have continually drifted apart. To say the least, Asia has emerged as a world player while Africa remains mired in multiple and durable crises. It now serves as raw-material reserve for competing Asian powerhouses.

In this regard, despite Japan’s long reign as the leading Asian economy, the recent debate is largely inspired by the emergence of China as alternative economic partner for Africa – as buyer of minerals, wood and even cropland, in addition to funding major infrastructure and providing credit to cash-trapped states whose leaders are eager to slip out of the fangs of the Bretton Woods lending institutions, draconian structural adjustment plans and litmus tests on democracy and human rights. There is also the role India seeks to play as alternative model for economic progress through democratic rule; that is, a different political, economic and even technological path for countries striving to free themselves from famine, poor health coverage and low digital resources. At the same time, Japan, the former Asian powerhouse, and its apparent Korean successor and stiff competitor in high-tech export goods, play on different registers. Each of these Asian drivers holds its economic forum with African leaders, respectively in Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and Seoul. Thus economic and geostrategic considerations dominate the new Afro-Asian discourse.

The different analyses invariably pose the same nagging question: Why have these countries slipped so far apart and why is this pattern so prevalent in the overall Asia- Africa comparison? In short, what explains the success of Asia and the failure of Africa?

There is no lack of deterministic explanations falling back on culture to account for the altogether divergent fortunes of postcolonial Asia and Africa. To some extent, the images have been sufficiently internalized by the African elites themselves in the face of apparently inextricable crises. But the narrow scrutiny of Asia’s alternative capitalism does not help us much in grasping the underlying social dynamics at play, in hearing the voices of people who experience the massive transformations that are reduced to economic indicators, in sensing the human drama of rapid industrialization and urbanization, the cultural conflicts and environmental losses, and the ethical challenges of being a citizen in a society undergoing massive transformation on a continual basis. Still, the Asian experience exerts an unwavering fascination over a new generation of leaders who readily invoke the ‘Tiger’ trope to legitimate the mix of authoritarian politics and liberal economics they practice. They refer to Chinese and other Asian experiences as illustrating the primacy of economic growth and social benefits over political rights. Among these proponents, the Rwandan president enjoys enormous popularity across the continent because he has been able to secure his country and build its infrastructure after the 1994 genocide. As in the early stages of his Asian models, the strongman is even seen as the key actor of the new breed of free market and eco- nomic nationalism supposed to build wealth and redistribute it through rising income, better education and healthcare, and even cultural benefits. Here, Gaye’s critique of Africa’s political and intellectual elites converges with Paul Kagame’s self-conscious posture as a post-‘Françafrique’ leader whose political and diplomatic agenda is not dictated by Western powers. Instead, his regime will be legitimated not by givers of lessons on political virtue, but rather through the higher living standards the Rwandan population will enjoy in the future. Even now, travel narratives often depict the country as a phoenix rising from its ashes.



As mentioned earlier, the focus on economic development and technological progress is central to the ongoing discourse on Afro-Asian relations. But to what extent does it tell the human story that potentially binds the two continents across time? In other words, what can contemporary African and Asian stories tell us about being human in the world?

The core of the ‘Humanities across Borders’ program is indeed about creating a space for stories to be told and shared from below, on a regular basis and across time zones. It involves four transnational research platforms: East Asia represented by India, Ne- pal and Bhutan; Southeast Asia by Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand; and one in West Africa comprising Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. They will explore five themes or practices of everyday life: 1) work and livelihood, 2) memory, 3) visual and performative expressions, 4) food and health, and 5) language and translation. In West Africa, the program will be run in three countries in 2017.

In Ghana, the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana at Legon co- ordinates the work on memory around the grassroots narratives of the pan-African sentiment in West Africa. Besides political discourse and scholarly literature, the core researcher and students examine regional migration as lived by ordinary citizens. They look at the ways in which migrants settle and get integrated in new settings across multiple borders, the types of relationships they entertain with native populations, the processes they undergo to become locals. They visit markets in Accra known for specialized trade sectors held by different nationals – from northern Mali to neighboring Togo. They will also travel to border towns crisscrossed by people holding several national identity cards, bank and cellphone SIM cards, sharing foodstuff and attending ceremonies and rituals from their homelands.

Hosted by the Institut des Sciences Humaines in Bamako, the core research team on language and translation will focus on the interface between local languages and digital technologies. Multilingualism in Africa and the rapid expansion of Internet access are the starting point for the interdisciplinary investigations. From the digitization of print and analog audiovisual documents to the writing of Wikipedia articles in indigenous languages, there is a broad range of interventions designed to produce and share knowledge in a sustainable way. The researchers will work with learners of all levels and collaborate with language experts and technologists to create high-quality resources that will then become accessible at little or no cost to potential users. It integrates an inventory of new tools for offline data-sharing (Internet in a box, Kiwix, eGranary Digital Library) that enable poorly connected communities to use digital libraries. Furthermore, enhancing literacy in this domain will enable users to tap into abundant material available for educational support as well as personal and professional self-improvement.

In Senegal, the Laboratoire d’Analyse des Sociétés et Pouvoirs/Afrique-Diasporas (LAS- PAD) at the Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis investigates food and health practices for the platform. The core team examines the phenomenon of street food at the intersection of traditional farming, peri-urban gardening, organic and slow food movements, distribution channels, gender aspects of income generation schemes, food safety, and public policymaking. The laboratory will partner with the City of Saint-Louis to raise awareness about the importance of municipal governance in securing quality food supplies for the growing urban populations. In other words, through sound policies, a city can increase local food production, with a higher share of organic products and greater opportunities for women and youth to work under safer and more equitable conditions.

The three themes will be further examined through a polycentric experimental school, which offers spaces to try and test different pedagogical hypotheses and strategies. ... 

This excerpt has been taken from the article titled Beyond area studies: IIAS Leiden’s ‘Humanities across Borders: Asia and Africa in the World’, published in the 1/2017 edition of the newsletter of the Swiss Society for African Studies (SSAS).

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