STREAM: Africa 90 years on

STREAM: Africa 90 years on

The IAI’s journal Africa was first published in 1928. Over the course of the subsequent 90 years it has consolidated its position as the premier journal devoted to the study of African societies and culture. It has been noted for its interdisciplinary approach (involving humanities, social sciences, and environmental sciences); for its increasing attention to African production of knowledge (highlighting the work of local African thinkers and writers); for its interest in emerging social and cultural trends ‘on the ground’; and for tracing links between local and national levels of society. The theoretically informed analysis of the locally-articulated cultural categories has been – and continues to be – of foremost importance. As the journal prepares to celebrate its 90th birthday in 2018, we ask members of its transcontinental Editorial Advisory Board, with members in Europe, the US and Africa, to offer papers exploring the journal’s distinctive character. They will reflect on its commitment to documenting ‘life on the ground’, and in the process provide state-of-the-art reviews of relevant literature in their own particular fields. At the same time they will offer challenges and provocations as to how the journal might position itself in future.


Erotic transgressions as illicit empowerment: perspectives from Africa

Organisers: Geschiere, Peter, , (University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Hendriks, Thomas, (University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom)
Spronk, Rachel, (University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Many Africanists have pointed at the intimate relationship between power, transgression and occult accumulation in different political-historical configurations in past and present African realities. But while scholars often recognize the importance of sexual imaginaries and gender ideologies in these articulations of power, analysts usually approach erotic transgressions merely from an angle of repression, homophobia and misogyny. Recent ethnographic analyses, however, explicitly foreground the productivity of erotic transgression as a strategy for empowerment, a tool for accumulating capital and a means for providing new agencies. Although these forms of power, capital and agency are usually illicit, the world-making capacities of hedonism are a fundamental dimension of contemporary life. We argue that a closer attention to these often-ignored aspects of erotic transgression is needed to move the exploding field of sexuality studies in Africa into new promising directions.

This panel therefore seeks to further study the ambiguity of sexual and erotic transgression. While the link between sexual dissidence and illicit empowerment seems to be surprisingly universal, the coincidence of erotic transgressions and power in many African realities is expressed through specific inflections and particular modes of action that have long regional histories. On the one hand, we call for papers that investigate the occult dimensions of the sex/power nexus in popular imaginations and discourses, such as, for instance the sexual theft of vital forces or the sectarian accumulation of riches by sodomitic phallocrats. On the other hand, we call for papers that analyze the multiple ways in which public performances of same-sex enjoyment, illicit relations and extra-marital affairs are prosaic mechanisms for accumulating capital in particular social fields, such as nightlife and urban ambiance, that increase situated self-confidence. We not only aim to situate these contemporary imaginaries and practices vis-à-vis earlier pre-colonial “traditions of invention” and broader (post)colonial “logics of extraversion” but also to look for emerging possibilities and situations that allow for socially affirmative and healing expressions of agencies and desires that are often dismissed as dissident and anti-social.

Over the past few years AFRICA published several articles that relate to such perspectives. A special issue is in the making. We hope that this panel will promote further contributions along these lines to the journal.

Work, wealth and welfare

Organiser: Deborah James, (LSE, London, United Kingdom) and Maxim Bolt, (University of Birmingham)

Issues of political economy, viewed through the prism of ‘life on the ground’, have been an abiding concern in African Studies. The pages of Africa have reflected these in various ways, as scholarly concerns have shifted over the decades. Recent special issues on ‘Work Across Africa’, ‘Mutual Help in an Era of Uncertainty’, and ‘Popular Economies in South Africa’ have engaged with these topics, reflecting the resurgence of economic anthropology. How do new promises of abundance and upward mobility relate to prospects of employment (or to post-crash precarity for those on the margins)? How do individuals and groups reconcile their aspirations with the dependency of those who cannot participate in new promises of wealth? How do salaried civil servants, or people accustomed to locate themselves in the formal sector more broadly, join the dots to include participation in the ‘second’ – or what Janet MacGaffey called ‘real’ – economy? How do household members negotiate their small-scale enterprises with their roles of care and reproduction? As they strive to patch together economic lives, how do people relate to state institutions? Is life as fragmented and piecemeal as some scholars make out? This panel invites early career researchers and others to present current work on these themes and reflect on how we can take them forward.

  • Solidarity vs selfishness under novel work regimes, James, Deborah, (LSE, London, United Kingdom)
  • Milling money: redistribution, expenditure, and the politics of (mis)trust in the Gusii highlands, Kenya  Zidaru-Barbulescu, Teodor, (LSE, London, United Kingdom)
  • Modern Industrial Man? Labour and Citizenship in African History, Callebert, Ralph,  (University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada)
  • The meaning of earning money – a case study of young adults, in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, Spiropoulos, John, (University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa)
  • Declarations of in dependence: youth, work and distribution in urban South Africa, Dawson, Hannah, Joy, (University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom)
  • “The Process of Precarity in the Black Middle Class: Race, Law and Property in Johannesburg, South Africa”, Bolt, Maxim, (University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom)
  • The Rise and Decline of the Welfare State in Africa, 1900 to today, Bellucci, Stefano, (Leiden University & International Institute of Social History, Leiden, Netherlands)
  • “Roaming in order to live”: Sharing, uncertainty, and the “zula” economy in rural Namibia, Laws, Megan, (LSE, London, United Kingdom)

Rethinking the Postcolony: 25 Years After

Organiser: Wale Adebanwi,  (University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom), on behalf of the International African Institute

Achille Mbembe’s ground breaking essay, “Provisional Notes on the Postcolony” (1992), which profoundly—though initially provisionally—challenged extant approaches to the analysis of power and subjectivity in Africa, is the most cited article published by AFRICA: The Journal of the International African Institute in its 90 years of existence. 25 years later, the article—which later formed the basis of Mbembe’s On the Postcolony (2001), one of the most influential modern theoretical reflections on Africa—continues to influence the ways in which scholars attempt to account for the contradictions of socio-economic and political formations not only in Africa but in other postcolonial societies. The article introduced the idea and concept of postcolony to the literature. Along with the subsequent book, it also established the postcolony as a heuristic device for understanding and analysing “a given historical trajectory” defined essentially by the “banality of power” which manifests (im)materially in contrapuntal chaos and coherence in the intertwined temporal and spatial continuum of state and society.

As a heuristic device which has become an analytic tradition for mapping and examining the problem of subjection and the (re)production of violence in societies which are emerging from colonial relationships, the “postcolony” is no longer “provisional”. In fact, it has become one of the most critical, even if contested, ways of understanding the manifold challenges of the end of colonisation in Africa, including the distinctive sets of cultural, social, economic and political (material and aesthetic) repertoires which defined, continue to (re)define, and have been (re)defined by the practices of (post)colonial subjection. This panel therefore seeks papers that further engage with the questions of subjection and violence as constituted by state power in combination with society, and the changes and continuities which have emerged 25 years after Mbembe so provocatively articulated these questions.

In this panel, we hope to place Mbembe’s reflections in the longue durée of Africanist scholarship on power, subjectivity and human agency, particularly in the context of what Mbembe (2006) later described as “an African tradition of critical reflection on the politics of life”—which perhaps constitutes the basis of what he pronounced as (humanity’s) “in-common” in his latest work, Critique of Black Reason (2017).

  • On the Theologico-Theatrical: Spiritual Entrepreneurship and Popular Culture in Nigeria Obadare, Ebenezer, (Department of Sociology, Lawrence, Kansas, United States)
  • Elites, Jouissance and the African Postcolony: Between African Ethnography and Fiction, Orock, Rogers, (Department of Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)
  • Confusion and Intimidation – Techniques of Political Subjectivation in Contemporary Kinshasa, Pype, Katrien, (KU Leuven University; University of Birmingham)
  • De la postcolonie et ses éblouissements. Le problème du semblant entre semblables, Tonda, Joseph,(University of Omar Bongo, Libreville, Gabon)


Organiser: Harri Englund, (University of Cambridge)

As an integral element of its commitment to documenting ‘life on the ground’, Africa has always carried studies with a fine ear for vernacular idiom. The International African Institute was previously known as the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. The early volumes contained papers devoted to issues in specific African languages, some of them technical-linguistic, others historical-ethnographic. In the 1930s, SOAS advertised in Africa tuition in seventeen African languages (excluding an indefinite number of ‘Sudanic and Nilotic languages’), while a German merchant offered for sale ‘gramophone records of African linguistic texts’ in six African languages.

What is the contemporary status of African-language research in Africa and more broadly in African Studies? The panel addresses this broad question through papers that range from perspectives on intellectual history to studies on the ever-diversifying linguistic registers in which so much socio-cultural life in Africa is carried. The panel audience is invited to discuss the extent to which expatriate scholars currently share the linguistic competence of their predecessors, along with the factors that may discourage social scientists on the continent from making full use of their own linguistic prowess. The emphasis will be on the insights that language-based research can yield on historical and contemporary developments on the continent. Here the very notion of ‘African languages’ stands to be rethought, not only with regard to languages introduced by European colonialism, but also to the code switching and linguistic innovation that both drive and reflect the vibrancy of Africa, past and present.

Towards a Framework for the Study of Multi-Religious Settings: Taking Multiplicity as the Default

Organisers: Marloes Janson, (SOAS), Birgit Meyer, (Utrecht University), Benjamin Soares, (University of Florida)

Repeated calls to take encounters and entanglements as a starting point for the study of religion in Africa notwithstanding, experts in the study of Islam and Christianity still barely engage in mutual conversations and collaborations. And yet there are good reasons to do so, as many African Muslims, Christians and ‘traditionalists’ are situated in multi-religious fields or habitats, involving complex dynamics of similarity and difference, approach and detachment, divergence and competition. Building upon a recent special section of Africa that proposed a new conceptual framework for the study of multi-religious settings, this panel calls for papers that reflect on the conceptual and methodological implications of a focus on religious plurality. What might the innovative intellectual purchase of such a framework be, and how can it build upon the strengths and help to fix the salient shortcomings in the longstanding, existing approaches to the study of religion in Africa? How does one define ‘religion’ – a problematic and yet apparently indispensable category – as an object of study within such a framework? How to conceive of and engage in comparison, which conventionally presupposes fixed entities, under the aegis of the notion of entanglement? How to conceptualize processes of religious mixing without falling into the pitfall of assuming an essentialised purity, as was the case with much work on ‘syncretism’? Which alternative concepts – e.g. bricolage, assemblage, conviviality, co-constitution – are available to examine dynamics of multi-religious fields? What difference does it make to make multiplicity the default?

BOOK LAUNCH: Quranic Schools in Northern Nigeria, Hannah Hoechner

In a global context of widespread fears over Islamic radicalisation and militancy, poor Muslim youth, especially those socialised in religious seminaries, have attracted overwhelmingly negative attention. In northern Nigeria, male Qur’anic students have garnered a reputation of resorting to violence in order to claim their share of highly unequally distributed resources. Drawing on material from long-term ethnographic and participatory fieldwork among Qur’anic students and their communities, this book – the only full-length ethnography of classical Qur’anic education in Africa – offers an alternative perspective on youth, faith, and poverty. Mobilising insights from scholarship on education, poverty research and childhood and youth studies, Hannah Hoechner describes how religious discourses can moderate feelings of inadequacy triggered by experiences of exclusion, and how Qur’anic school enrolment offers a way forward in constrained circumstances, even though it likely reproduces poverty in the long run. A pioneering study of religious school students conducted through participatory methods, this book presents vital insights into the concerns of this much-vilified group.

  1. Hoechner, Hannah, (University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium)
  2. Soares, Benjamin, (University of Florida, Gainesville, United States)
  3. Hoffman, Leena, Koni,(The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, United Kingdom)


If you have any queries or suggestions please contact Stephanie Kitchen (; Karin Barber (; Deborah James ( For panel and paper submissions please follow the instructions on the website 

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