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Enter outlaw scholars with tattoos n’ nose rings



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The world sometimes reveals itself in strange ways. The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria), in Dakar, Senegal, just finished a week’s intellectual feast.

Nearly 350 scholars were in the house. There were also some grey-haired, bearded wise folk – among them former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – at hand to bring gravitas to proceedings.

Mbeki intrigued everyone with a brief reference to how the Kagame-proposed African Union reforms were “likely to weaken, not strengthen” the continental body, and desisted from saying more. But from his presentation, it was clear what he meant, and that looked like one of the meaty moments at the conference.

But by the end of the next day, I wasn’t sure. Often, with events like these, the revealing stories sometimes are not on the original agenda – or are there, but haven’t been given prominence.

One of the most remarkable things is that over five days, except for a breakout session on “Post-Independence South Sudan: Political and Economic Challenges,” the subject of conflict didn’t consume a major pan-African scholarly conference.

Just 15 years ago, conflict would have been a big issue on a continent blighted by war. While many scholars spoke about food security and agriculture, I didn’t hear the word “famine” uttered.

While conflict is still a big deal on the continent, and millions still go to bed on an empty stomach, this shift has happened because it’s also true that this is the most peaceful period in Africa in nearly two generations. And famine imperils far fewer people.

And then you begin to fully appreciate how youthful the continent is, and the cultural mutations in that demographic, when you have very young scholars, some with tattoos, mohawk haircuts and rings in the nose, presenting abstract things and dropping words like “epistemology” and “decoloniality.”

There were times when fellows like that were part of the group providing the interlude music.

And it was fascinating, the subjects through which this crop of new scholars sought to understand and explain African realities. Consider these: “Tozoluka: Transnational migration and the navigation of new subjectivities by Congolese car guards in urban South Africa.”

From Sierra Leone: “Marginal Youths or Outlaws? Youth Street Gangs.” “Internet Nationalism: Virtual Space, Imagi-Nation and Neo-Biafran Identity in Nigeria”. “The African Woman and Make-Up Art: Cosmetic Face in the Era of Globalisation.”

So you have research on car guards, street gangs, virtual/digital nationalism, make-up and hair. Also, football is big.

There was a whole session on it with topics like: “Transnational soccer fan identities and cultures in Zimbabwe”; “Local Patterns of European Football Reception and Status Identification in Eldoret, Kenya”; “Chelsea Fandom in Zimbabwe: Localising the Global”; and “European Football Fandom: Nightlife and Patterns of Entertainment on Nairobi’s Ngong Road and Lang’ata Road.”

They are right to strike out in these very new directions. Just watch the Trending Topics on Twitter one hour before a Premier League match, and one hour into it. Sometimes all the top 10 trending topics can be from a single match!

It may be a foreign football league, but if you can figure why Africans obsess about it, you will understand what really is in their hearts and minds.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]

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