Field brat's blog from the bundu: Archives of Post-Independence Africa and its Diaspora Conference
Posted on August 6, 2012
The brat has, this month, been further than just around the block, ferreting at the Western-most frontier of African Francophonia. The Archives of Post-Independent Africa and its Diaspora Conference (Goree Island, Senegal, 20-22 June 2012), he says in an introductory moment of lucidity, proved that African archives have developed from a sexy intellectual buzzword - via the beady eye of surveying, the tenacity of mining and the alchemy of synthesis - into a form of scholastic gold. This is an observation he does not elaborate on in the blog, and neither does he give any further details of the conference. Instead, he uses flippantly absurd rhetoric to link his extramural activities (what he terms 'life orientation') to the field of archival practice. It's the Stephen Jay Gould approach, he says: give me any two things and I'll prove they're related.
This blog - delving into the Archives of Post-Independent Africa (What does that mean?) and its Diaspora Conference - could go one of two ways. I could bore you with details of my presentation, and hyperbolize the enchanted crowd's upsurge of interest. I could tell you tales of five themes, natter about case-study methods, or dictate, with dramatic staccato, up-to-the-minute briefs of crucial debates. I could illustrate the new 'scramble for Africa', quantify the stakes for intellectual capital, regurgitate the queasiness of cultural anthropophagia, or blow political vehemence through my megaphone. I could invoke, heaven forbid, the Joseph Conrad turn of phrase. I could tampon on about super-absorbing talk after talk to the point where it is impossible to know whether my archive is performing, spatial or absent.
You will be glad to know, after that introduction of enthusiastic gloom, that that is not the way this blog will go, for no reason other than the fact that I have already written about all that and, if so compelled, you could read my report on www.apc.uct.ac.za. Instead, I'll tell you about two other adventures that prove, possibly beyond doubt, that archival theory may be found in the most ordinary of situations.
First up is that wobbly cornerstone - easily forgotten during the citizen's dull plod - of any really meaningful battle: the riot. (This is not the variety that plays itself out in family fun, as in 'having a riot'. Nor is it the kind that brews inside the tortured brain to emerge, via an inky flow, into a novella or worse, free verse. No, this is the real thing between hostile factions, in combat, with weapons.)
It started quite innocently on Goree - as innocently as might be expected on an island notorious for its slave trade, and which has now become quite the spot for Western summer vacationers - where we, the scholars of matters archival, were to spend days debating the records of the rape of the continent, continue on a lighter note over dinner and, later, retire to our air-conditioned rooms in villas where sleep, infused with essence of hibiscus, would remove from our minds all traces of the day's understated lamentation, hopeful extrapolation, concerted pontification and partial consummation. It was on day one, however, that the island - just a few miles of undersea electric cabling from the Dakar mainland - experienced a sudden and tenacious break in power. No refrigeration, limited cooking, no radio or television (no contact with the outside world), no night-lights for homework and a general sense of anger at municipal apathy, took its toll. On day three (the final conference day with still not a spark in sight), as we (the delegates) gathered for dinner on a wide ledge that curved around the bay like a buttress, the children on the beach reached their tipping point and vented their anger against the Dakar municipality, using that mass medium known as the demonstration. The police, chugging in from the mainland by boat, became the symbol for indifference. The stony beach became a ready-made armory. Children pelted volleys of shiny round missiles at the cops who, with a uniformed authoritarian turn, retaliated with belches of pepper spray. Just as soon as it started it was over, all quiet, dispersed, with the police escorting injured children to the clinic. We (the delegates) entertained this display of outrage with a brief discussion and then, the riot forgotten, the festivities continued long after all around us had gone to bed.
Secondly, wrestling is the major sport of Senegal. Champions are elevated to the status of demigods. Dangling from rear-view mirrors of taxis, their cardboard images elbow for space with icons of Sufi saints. It's Sunday afternoon in Dakar, the perfect time for a bit of culture and we (the delegates, now down to a die-hard four) opt for a match at the stadium. Outside, guards in riot gear perform their masculinity against that of the bristling crowd who crush up against the box office (a barricaded hole in a concrete cave that can be shut down at the onset of any trouble), who surge against the queuing clusters to create crushing bottlenecks at gateways, who skirmish ahead to catch glimpses of their heroes arriving in luxury sedans with their entourage of trainers, shamans and bevies of beauties.
From the far-far left the male mascots arrive, their magnificently muscular bodies at odds with the animal drag they're wearing. Each mascot - clad in furry (very furry) garb - has adopted the persona (or 'fursona') of a furry (very furry) wild animal. Spots and stripes and a golden sheen combine with ears and tails to form glam leopards and tigers and lions, given an added glitter-lube appeal with the stylish application of screed make-up. They paw at each other, taking feline swipes and, swooshing the fluff from their eyes, they cut a growling, sashaying path through the thronging spectators, simultaneously butch and camp. A transvestite completes the incongruity of the group, and they form a snaking line, hands on each other's hips, as they formation dance their way forward - crowds part to let them through - into the stadium where they continue, for the next four hours, to cheerlead here and there, wherever they're led by whim or fancy.
The rules of the game seem simple: pin your opponent's shoulders to the ground, or shove him out of the ring. Starting with featherweight, the bouts become increasingly heavy with each round. There is a lot of slapping about, punctuated with an occasional hard-core round of fisticuffs. But this is the less interesting part. Much more mesmerizing - and in stark counterpoint to the nondescript bouts of fighting - are the crowd-pleasing rituals of preparation. Only minimally displays of athletic prowess, these seem primarily composed of ancient griot rites conducted with the gravitas of formal procedure, following strict method and sequence. The wrestlers, in a preparatory preen that takes up to an hour to complete, alternate between dusting their bodies with clouds of powders, washing it off with showers of liquids, and draping amulets around their necks and strapping them to their arms. Each powder is of a different grade or tint; each liquid of a different hue; amulets are adorned then removed from body parts in complex cycles. These performances appear to be acts of spiritual conjuring directed to the gods of the match (which is over in a minute or less). Around the stadium, bright orange banners proclaim the support of a mobile telephone company. Night falls.
Eventually we get to the final bout, with the heaviest of the heavyweights. These are the stars the crowds have come to see. They start slapping at each other in that fey kind of way. Just then (can you believe it!) the lights go out. Momentarily. And when they come back on again the crowd discovers that, during that split-second of darkness, one opponent has sucker-punched the other. The illumination is short-lived and, as the lights go out again, and as the roar of discontent heightens, we (the delegates) slip out, jump in a cab, and spend the night in a restaurant discussing, amongst others, a proposal, for the next conference, for a Mr Archive competition. The criteria for 'special talent', 'personality' and 'general knowledge' are left vague. However, we are emphatic that 'evening wear' be constructed from decommissioned archival paper records whilst 'swimwear', we concede, may be fashioned from a more robust material.
So there you have it: a description of a riot and a wrestling match during the archives conference, apt as both these clashes make for splendid precursors to an archive worth its salt. It's even better with a sudden shift in power. That's when things start getting racy, and that's just the way we like it.
For a serious view of my experience at the conference, see the Archives and Public Culture Research Initiative website
Brenton Maart is an Archival Platform correspondent.