Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Using technology to find Africa in a world of relation

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What does an African-Arabist have in common with an Indo-Persianist, that is, besides an administrative nightmare at a typical academic institution? Or what about the political scientist who studies the ways in which Gandhi's experience of South African Apartheid impacted his strategies of anti-colonial struggle with the historian writing about African slaves in the Ottoman Empire? They are all engaged in a type of inquiry that seeks to understand a world of relation, a world where peripheries become the center. This world this old but new world of relation has emerged particularly with decentralizing technologies but it also emerges when we go beyond the categories established by imperial interest and listen to native voices.

A group of graduate students in Columbia’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies felt that the time to produce thinking on this world of relation had arrived and that being in a department that brought together such disparate regions and disciplinary variety was the place uniquely positioned to do it. However, the group was very much aware of how the very field of Area Studies in the United States originated from political and economic interests of the intelligence and policy communities as well as the the well-noted limitations of the of the orientalist tradition that often read texts out of context. Accordingly, the students wanted to create an experimental space that could challenge convention by focusing on relation, encouraging the co-production of knowledge, and, importantly, embracing new technologies.

We created Baraza, the meeting space for critical reflection on the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. The name comes from a Swahili word which evokes the sense of a public meeting or council as well as the physical space where that meeting takes place. We chose a word from Swahili because, in many ways, the language, culture and experience of the Swahili embodies the multidirectional exchange and relation that we are interested in investigating. It also reflects an effort to cultivate a different set of central references. The word baraza itself originated from the Persian word bazaar meaning “market.” The word also has cognates in many languages throughout South Asia including Hindi and Urdu.

 The project’s website has attracted over 15,000 pageviews from over 20 countries in its first four months.

We have facilitated a number of barazas, public meetings that bring together thinkers from different disciplinary specialties and regional interest to explore relevant themes. Our first baraza brought me together with a Bangledeshi-American graduate student of Arabic literature and a media practitioner. Another successful baraza put Columbia professor of Iranian Studies and cultural critic Hamid Dabashi in dialogue with Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy in New Delhi about State, Culture, and Human Imagination which was webcast live on our website.

 In the near future, we hope to coordinate a series of barazas with graduate students from universities across our three regions. This initiative will help us in our attempt, following Charles Taylor, to go beyond understanding the other through an act of translation by challenging our understanding of ourselves.

It should be of little surprise that African Studies could play such a pioneering role in such a lofty project. Although the insufficient amount of resources and prestige awarded to the African Studies by many major universities suggests the contrary 
for over a century, methodological innovations and novel approaches have often emanated from the study of the African world. Furthermore, scholars, writers, and artist of and on the African world have often offered a contrapontal fugue to the westernization project, singing a sweet song of conscience and struggle against the raucousness of oppression and destruction.

 An example can be found in George Washington Williams, a pioneer of using oral sources in the writing of history. The African American writer and traveller was the first to actually listen to and record the voices of those colonized in King Leopold’s Congo. Before and for some time after, the world had taken at face value Leopold’s humanitarian claims of saving central African lives from “Arab” slavery and developing their economy, when really Leopold, the Belgians, and their agents were actually enslaving people in the region, extracting all potential value and, as Williams noted, committing “crimes against humanity.” Starting from the decision to listen to an unmediated human voice, the campaign that catalyzed a movement and eventually brought Leopold’s rule to an end used the most modern means of communication to loosen the death grip around the Congo.

One could argue that the scope of such a project is too wide and its engagement too shallow. While this concern may pose a danger, we feel that there are real justifications to study these three regions side by side by side. Far more than the fact of having been colonized, the colonial experience in one place often affected policies in different colonies. For example, a British colonial authority who cut their teeth as young a young administrator in Nigeria might have ended up in Palestine or in India later in their career just as a Senegalese sheikh might visit Mecca, gathering books by authors from all over the Ummah. The itineraries of specific people and much longer standing networks have bound these regions together and caused them to develop corresponding if not similar phenomena

. To be sure, the study of Africa continues to contribute to human knowledge and provides studies of other areas studies with productive research models. However, africanists have much to learn from the study of other regions and traditions as well. With Baraza, we are are asking what are those lessons and what can new information and communication technologies do to help us learn them. What does the digital humanities mean for other humanistic traditions outside of Europe?

 We don’t necessarily know the answers to theses questions or even if these are the best questions to ask. However, we are certain of the need to fearlessly think out-loud and think in the present tense together. If Baraza is able to do that, then the project has lived up to the spirit of the word.

Wendell Marsh is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.