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Conference of the African Literature Association, Bayreuth, Germany, June 3-6, 2015 Panel Proposal: Past, present and future on the internet: African/diaspora websites beyond modernity and tradition

Daniela Merolla  (Leiden University) 
Inge Brinkman  (Ghent University)

Theme  This panel aims at exploring how past, present and future are imagined on the Internet by Africans and their diasporas. The breathtaking expansion of the use of Internet in connecting Africa and diasporas has been associated with both hope for change and angst for new forms of inequality and loss.  Internet connectivity in Africa lags behind other continents, but there were 110 times more Internet users in 2008 than in 2000, while the use of Facebook in recent years has exploded. The increasing number of African websites is augmented by sites created by African diasporic communities and individuals (“migrant” or “diasporic” websites).   We would like to investigate the uses of the past to discuss the present and create the future on an array of African (and diasporic) websites, blogs, and facebook pages. The panel (hopefully resulting in a publication) focuses at two issues.   Firstly there is the sheer amount and complexity of the material. Apart from the relationship between multiple media (orality, writing/printing/painting, video, music, and the Internet), there is the interaction of online and local (‘offline’) communities. The first issue then is ’taking stock’: we aim at offering a sound overview of what is going on in terms of online materials.   The second aim is more theoretical. Is ‘taking stock’ possible at all given the fluidity of internet and the theoretical problems that arise when viewing internet as an ‘archive’? The focus on past, present and future also enables us to reflect on issues of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’, hitherto hardly related to new ICT.    

Participants and Abstracts   Daniela Merolla (Leiden University)   Paper: ‘Past for the Future: Cultural Heritage and Personal Narratives on African Websites and Blogs’  

My paper aims at exploring the way in which ideas on past and present ("cultural heritage", "traditions"…) are engaged on African websites and blogs to create new discourses of the self and whether and how the reference to the past interacts with personal narratives and live stories for a cultural and political discourse of the present and imagined futures.   My approach takes into consideration the ‘digital imagination' diffused by African websites in the framework of the cultural productions sustained by other media - intended as writing/printing, theatre, film, video, song and visual expression. What becomes apparent is that the interaction of different mediated productions furthers the formation of the landscape of group identity by addressing and forging communities both transnationally-shaped and locally-situated. African websites are set up and used by different groups, whether belonging to minorities or majorities, and my question is how far and by which means they contribute to express and construct past, present, and future collective identities. The transnationalism clings to the intensifying contacts among and between diasporas and the lands of origin and on the de-territorialising effect of technologically new media. On the other hand, imaginative productions are created and consumed by producers and users who are still located ‘somewhere’ and discourses diffused by African websites are “glocal” as they interact with local offline productions, producers and public.   I intend to propose a comparison with websites and studies published at the beginning of 2000 and to investigate whether the notions of "cultural heritage" and "traditions" are still significant or (and how) are they modified and integrated in new discourses of the present “digital African world”. I will focus on studies and examples from the Maghreb (Amazigh/Berber) and from Ghana (Ewe).  

Inge Brinkman (Ghent University) Paper: ‘Visualising Kongo history on the internet’.

The Kongo kingdom is one of the most widely known political polities of African precolonial history. As of the end of the fifteenth century, interaction between this kingdom and Western Europa and the Americas led to the production of a relatively large amount of written sources, used as the basis for later historical research. In various forms and selections, this material can now be found on blogs, forums, and websites from people born in the Kongo region. In an earlier publication, the political uses of the past were explored for two diaspora Kongo-oriented websites (Ne-Kongo (),  and Luvila (). Presently, I want to take on a wider scope of internet materials: music clips, blogs, forums and websites thereby focusing on the visual materials used to refer to the Kongo past. What selection of the historical images of the Kongo region has been made? Are personal histories related to the wider Kongo past in the imagery? Are specific historical themes emphasized in the visuals? Are precolonial, colonial and postcolonial histories related through these visuals? These questions will serve as the basis of a qualitative content analysis, with Ginzburg’s reference to Warburg’s saying ‘God is in the detail’ as an interpretative strategy.  Ref: Inge Brinkman, Siri Lamoureaux, Daniela Merolla, Mirjam de Bruijn, ‘Local stories, global discussions: websites, politics and identity in African contexts’, in: Herman Wasserman (ed), Popular media, democracy and development inAfrica (London, New York 2010) p. 236-252. Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, myths, and the historical method (Baltimore 1989) p. 22. Ann Biersteker, “Horn of Africa and Kenya Diaspora Websites as Alternative Media Sources,” The Media in Africa, Ed. Kimani Njogu and John Middleton, Edinburgh University Press, Indiana University Press, 2009.

Victoria Bernal (University of California, Irvine) Paper: ‘Diaspora and the Space of Cyberspace: Turning Eritrea Inside Out’  

Websites may appear to be spaces with no territorial location, but the space of cyberspace and its relation to locale is dynamic and complex. The internet is tethered to the earth and to geo-political configurations of power and relations of sovereignty, yet it remains a powerful tool for reconfiguring territorial relations and unsettling distinctions between categories of experience. Eritreans in diaspora have used digital media in diverse and shifting ways to participate in national politics from outside the country. The space of cyberspace is elastic; websites connect the diaspora and the homeland online in ways that blur boundaries and reshuffle territory-related distinctions.   Cyberspace can de-territorialize, but it can also re-territorialize. Eritreans in diaspora, for example, created some websites as national space where they in effect relocated themselves within the nation of Eritrea, even writing their posts in ways that sounded as if they were inside the country. Cyberspace can be simultaneously inside the nation and outside it. Eritreans are able to express themselves more freely online than they can when in Eritrea, but at the same time they use websites to extend the nation to encompass the diaspora and the virtual. Through their activities in cyberspace, Eritreans in diaspora have de-centered the nation, shifting its primary locus from the state’s center of power in Asmara, to Eritreans wherever they may be located.  There are parallels and synergies between diasporas as extraterritorial populations in relation to their homeland, and cyberspace as used by Eritreans and other diasporas as an ambiguous space that does not reflect their territorial location, but rather their affective ties or emotional location.   The internet remains an inspiration, stimulating imaginaries of an unbound world where borders are crossed with ease and intimacies transcend distance, where collaboration and community persist on the basis of mutual interest rather than on repression.  

Mineke Schipper (Leiden University, Leiden) Paper. ‘Naked or covered: from a small string to a three piece suit’

When our first ancestors in Africa began to walk on two legs instead of four, they got a completely different perspective on each other’s frontside. Starting from that new situation, humanity has begun to invent clothing and dress codes for men and (gradually even more) for women. Naked arms or legs or breasts are not surprising to those used to them, but to those who walk around completely covered, seeing these body parts may be experienced as shocking. Throughout history cultures and religions developed specific rules to control unruly nakedness, but today we are all confronted with widely varied people’s perspectives on what people consider decent dress. We live in a world of shouting advertisers, provoking fashionista’s, protests against the slightest bit of uncovered skin, and nakedness as a form of protest. In her presentation Mineke Schipper will look into some of the multifarious African internet reactions and comments on the dynamic and complex world of dressing and undressing in our globalized world.  

Abdelbasset Dahraoui (University of Amsterdam) Paper: ‘Websites, home and cultural identity: The example of the Rif and Riffian Diaspora’.
There are Rifian Imazighen throughout the world who believe they belong to the Rif and try to (re)create home in the spaces they occupy. For instance, there are Riffian Imazighen in diaspora who consider Amazigh websites homes because in and through these spaces they can gather, interact, re-articulate their cultural identity, learn the latest news about the Rif area, see the role of the past in the re-construction of their current identity, and discuss and stimulate the use of their native language.

I will deal with the subjects of ‘home and cultural identity’ online. In effect, I will address how these Amazigh websites generate and are involved in dialogues. Through my discussion of  the Riffian  websites, which allow their visitors to access free articles, music, and films, I will argue that the interactions between these spaces and voices within these websites create dialogues, and that meaning and significance emerge out of these dialogues. These websites also provide spaces like chat rooms and discussion forums where participants can interact and share data.
Many Amazigh users of these dialogic websites consider them as online homes. I argue that home online—or the hominess procured online—for many Imazighen is an inspiration created by a necessity to interact and bond in an increasingly fragmented and chaotic world. Home online is also an idea projected by diasporic Imazighen into Amazigh websites to help to alleviate uncertainty, and sustain and assist them in the process of (re)articulating their cultural identity.

David Kerr
(University of Birmingham) Paper (proposed title): ‘Bongo Boombap: Tanzanian rap, the internet, music traditions and future realities’

Since the mid 1990s and the liberalisation of telecommunications in East Africa, there has been a growth in the number of internet users in Tanzania. This has seen a proliferation of internet cafes and an increase in the number of internet service providers (National Bureau of Statistics 2011, 52). For those with access to the internet or mobile phones, technologies such as blogs, email, Twitter and Facebook have eased connection and communication to both inside and outside the country. These new mediums for communication have been enthusiastically embraced by many musicians in Tanzania as a means through which to publicise and disseminate their music.

Conversely the internet has offered Tanzanians in the diaspora greater connectivity with ‘home’. Through websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds Tanzanians in the diaspora are not simply able to stay in touch with developments in Tanzanian popular music but to actively engage with shaping Tanzanian musical space. This paper looks at a blog / Facebook page ‘Bongo Boombap’ established and run by the Tanzanian rapper KBC currently based in London. It will explore how the presentation of contemporary popular music by ‘Bongo Boombap’ blog seeks to engage with notions of an ‘authentic’ musical tradition to imagine a future for Tanzanian popular music, and how an online space is seeking to generate the production of music offline.   

Ann Biersteker (University of Michigan) Paper: ‘Eight Years of Change in Horn of Africa and Kenya Diaspora Websites as Alternative Media Sources’

Eight years ago I wrote a paper in which I considered the ways in which the Internet websites of Horn of Africa and Kenyan diaspora groups (broadly defined to include exile, transnational, emigrant, expatriate and refugee communities) provided alternative media sources. I argued that these websites provide alternatives to Kenya and Horn of Africa based media as well as to U.S. and European media and I discussed the ways in which these web-sources provide alternatives to Internet, print and broadcast media, to news and opinion media, and to arts and entertainment media. I considered how these websites are alternative media in the sense that they include what is excluded by other media sources and in the sense that they demonstrate creative use of technology. I also considered how these websites are alternative media in the sense that they challenge the views presented in other sources and in the sense that they provide services for and work to organize and mobilize diaspora communities. My focus was on how these websites meet the local needs of diasporic communities as they engage with transnational global diasporic and non-diasporic communities. In this essay I will review my earlier work to consider how these websites have changed over the past eight years in terms of content and design. I will consider which websites have survived and how they have changed as well as which have disappeared and which types of new websites have emerged. I will also discuss the ways in which these sites have engaged with new media including Facebook, YouTube, and blogs but also with opposition radio, and the ways in which these sites have become aware of their historical value and established archives.   

Mirjam de Bruijn (Leiden University) Paper: Voice4Thought. Online Art-Science intersections.

The initiators of the Voice4Thought project (V4T) will present this online artistic-academic project that aims at reflecting on world issues with and by engaged voices. As indicated on the project's website, "the project has as one of its mayor qualitative methodologies the biographical method. This method is combined in an amalgam of ethnographic methodologies. The V4T project takes biographies of engaged people as its starting point. The portraits of these persons are an entrance point into their lives, their environment, and the problematics as the research CTD puts central, but this time through the eyes of the V4T. The Voice and Thoughts of the V4T are often multiple, and an interesting reflection on his or her society. These voices make us rethink our premises and ideas about Africa".

This project is part of the research programme ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’ under the direction of Mirjam de Bruijn, in which the relation between new ICTs, regions in conflict or political oppression, socio-political change are central.

We will discuss the Voice4Thought project as an example of the interaction of art, science, and activism on the Internet aiming to create alternative ideas and futures of/for Africa.     

Past Events

See: Final Conference Network “Multimedia Research and Documentation of African Oral Genres: Connecting Diasporas and Local Audiences”

Conferences and Meetings of the Network Multimedia Research and Documentation of African Oral Genres: Connecting Diasporas and Local Audiences

Conferences and Meetings of the Network African Oral Literatures, New Media, and Technology

Last Modified: 11-02-2015