From 22 to 24 November 2007 the Belgian Association of Africanists organizes an international conference on “Borderlands and Frontiers in Africa”. This conference will take place in Leuven, Belgium. It welcomes contributions from scholars across the humanities and social sciences working in and on Africa, and it especially welcomes contributions by African scholars.
This conference focuses on frontiers, borders, and boundaries in Africa, and especially on the many ways people throughout the continent deal with them. Boundaries are created, maintained and unmade, but at the same time they also constitute a political, social, economic and historical reality. Moreover, despite the supposed rigidity of borders and boundaries, this reality is in continuous flux.
The conference is tentatively outlined as follows.
a) borders, borderlands and the state
Borders can be understood in many different ways. One immediately thinks of political boundaries, about the nation-state and its criterion of territoriality and sovereignty. In the case of Africa, one immediately thinks of the Berlin conference, of the artificial – not arbitrary – boundaries it effected, or the many border issues and conflicts that have risen ever since.
These state borders can be visible or invisible, symbolical or ‘real’, laid down in passports and permits, and in the many procedures that make up the ‘state effect’. One thing they have in common, however, is that each border also creates a borderland, a zone of transition where political systems or economic regimes despite or precisely because of the border cannot be sharply distinguished, where they literally cross over.
Igor Kopytoff argued that these border zones are maintained by their metropoles. Taking his argument one step further, one could state that these borderzones shape and morph the centre. Is a state not recognized by its boundaries? Yet, in these border zones, uncertainty and ambivalence are the rule. This ambivalence may result in insecurity and violence. Also, it limits opportunities, since agents have to deal with different (political, economical, colonial) regimes at the same time. However, it also creates opportunities, as agents can and often do play out these regimes against one another.
This uncertainty and unfixity defy ready-made dichotomies and challenge commonly held assumptions regarding, for instance, the nature and the extent of the state. Most approaches study the state as a monolithic structure, or as a clearly definable body of discipline and control. This colloquium wants to test the limits and possibilities of an actor-oriented apporach of the colonial and postcolonial state. Can we conceive the state as a set of interrelated networks? How do these networks interlink across the neatly drawn maps, organization charts and hierarchies? What is the bearing of everyday life and of the experience of state on conceptions of state? Conversely, how do discourses on state and state power affect everyday life? How do we conceptualize ambiguity? How instable are the state’s boundaries, and how necessary is unfixity to the survival of the state?
b) The political ecology of borderlands
The presence of a boundary also shapes the landscape. Conversely, the landscape is and always has been an important factor in determining the border. Think of, for instance so-called natural boundaries and the tendency to naturalize the state by referring to rivers or mountain chains. Think, again, of the Berlin Conference and the way it often situated the colonial boundaries between Europe’s colonizing powers in arid, less populated so-called No-Man’s lands. Think of dams and other controversial, hugely ambitious projects often located ‘at the fringes’ that definitely affect the political ecology of borderlands. How do features of the border landscape (such as barbed wire fencing, guard posts etc.) affect local interaction and power relationships? Here, the emphasis would be on daily life in Africa’s border zones, on the experience of state throughout the colonial and postcolonial period. Ideology and rethorics notwithstanding, perhaps this state effect accounts for the continuity rather than rupture people experience between the colony and postcolony.
Historically, partly as a result of marginalization and dispossession, the border zones in Africa are often inhabited by nomads and/or pastoralists. But also refugee camps are, for political reasons, often located near the border. Also internally displaced persons, refugees, exiles, camp-dwellers and so on inhabit the ‘margins of the state’. Reversing the perspective, one could also claim that nomads, refugees, or the homeless challenge modernist governance, and received notions such as nation-state. At the same time, important concentrations of often destitute people also have an enormous bearing on the often already pressurized landscape.
c) Shifting frontiers
Typically, the notion of borderlands is applied to for instance the border between Mexico and the USA, or to the Spanish enclaves Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco. Here we witness not only the confrontation between two nations, cultures or even subcontinents, but also between hopes and harsh reality, rich and poor, illusion and exploitation. Sometimes, life in these border zones is the result of a series of conscious choices, a strategy in itself - but often it is not.
But borders and borderlands do not only mark the contours of the state. They also divide civilisational traditions, religions, ethnicities, and as such they cross-cut the borders between administrative divisions or, as it were, overlay the orthodox political map of Africa. With Talal Asad (2004) one can therefore wonder where are the borders of the state? Where does the state ‘end’?
Borders and frontiers, finally, also mark and divide the cityscape. Borderlands are everywhere, often precisely at the centre of power and control. Think, for instance, of the lay-out of colonial towns, or of cities such as Kinshasa, Lagos or Johannesburg. Think of the anonymous border spaces in and around, or under, our urban centres, the transit zones such as airports, streets or subways. Where is the boundary between public and private?
A more elaborate (tentative) list of themes can be consulted at www.borderlands.be. Next to this call for papers, there one will be able to find conference details (such as venue, programme, a list of relevant literature, and so on). Also through this website, papers and abstracts will be circulated. Abstracts and proposals are expected before September 1st 2007. Finished papers are due before November 1st 2007.
Steven Van Wolputte
Faculty of Social Sciences
Africa Research Centre (ARC)
Van Evenstraat 2A
tel: + 32 16 32 54 96
fax: + 32 16 32 59 02
www.africaresearch.be Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Visit the website at http://www.borderlands.be
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