Africa-Asia - A New Axis of Knowledge (First Edition)

The historic debut conference of Africa-Asia, A New Axis of Knowledge was held in Accra, Ghana, on 24-26 September 2015. There were 55 panels in total, grouped into 6 themes: Transcontinental Connections and Interactions; Economics, Aid, and Development; Intellectual Encounters; Arts and Culture; Migration and Diasporas; Asian Studies in Africa and African Studies in Asia. Hosted by the University of Ghana, 300 participants from more than 200 institutions gathered to exchange their ideas and approaches across many subjects on Africa-Asia, sixty years after the historic Afro-Asian Bandung Conference of 1955.

This event was organized partly in response to how Africa-Asia relations are often framed in current debates—almost always in terms of their contemporary relevance, particularly in geo-political and economic terms. As a result, the two continents’ interconnected histories and cultures are often overlooked. Indeed, during the conference, contemporary concerns occupied centre stage. Nevertheless, the panels took care to tease out their complexities, discussing political and economic concerns with nuanced references to questions like experiences of migration, past and present development aid, teaching pedagogies in academic institutions, art cultures, urbanization and so much more. Whenever possible, debates were contextualized into broader histories so that they could benefit from humanistically informed discussions. As such, the Africa-Asia axis is thus placed within multiple temporalities and locations.

Nevertheless, as with most debates in any field in academia, there was still an over-reliance on “Western” categories that delineate geographical borders of the two continents. Terms like “Africans”, “Chinese”, “West-Africa”, “Southeast Asia” were indiscriminately used. Moreover, some geographical areas and themes were neglected in the discussions: North-Africa, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, Islam, and diasporic communities.

Aside from these shortcomings, the event was still significantly successful in that it brought about novel discussions, as a result of colliding two area studies that are often seen as separate fields. For instance, in a French-language panel titled “Towards a comparative history of Christian Missions in Africa and Asia”, three historians, two from West Africa and one from France, working on indigenous responses to the European Catholic missions in Japan and the Western coast of Africa, had the opportunity to share their knowledge and views. These scholars have never met—but the depth of their knowledge on local agencies against a common experienced phenomenon resulted in a fruitful discussion that highlighted the grass-roots forms of agency and their different expressions.

The conference’s effort to historicize and culturally contextualize Africa-Asia with critical awareness of existing colonial perspectives in academia may give this up-and-coming field true intellectual legitimacy and expand its potential to transform other fields of knowledge. The scholarly efforts witnessed during the event have the power to bring out change in how the two continents interact and view one another, and bring about new knowledge and discourses. It is hoped that in the long run, a process of automization of the Africa-Asia frameworks of knowledge will take shape. Hence, it is crucial that the Africa-Asia, A New Axis of Knowledge conference series will continue.

To read the extended report of IIAS’s director on the conference, click here