Final Conference “University Campuses in Africa and Beyond: Training Grounds, Moral Spaces and Political Arenas”

Thanks to a generous grant from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, Remoboko organised its final conference entitled “University Campuses in Africa and Beyond: Training Grounds, Moral Spaces and Political Arenas” at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin on 6-8 September 2023.

Concept note

A learning and training institution, the university constitutes both a moral space and a social fabric (Nafziger and Strong 2020; Ndofirepi and Cross 2017). Historically, university campuses have been at the heart of social and political imaginations and experiences, and have proved transformative of aspirations, living conditions and power relations across the world. In Europe and America, university campuses offered the breeding grounds for political ideas and aspirations that radically transformed social dynamics, especially in the 1960s; in both colonial and postcolonial Africa, universities emerged as the building sites of the state and the central piece of the political economy of the newly set polities, as they trained the backbone of the state administration (Mellanby 1958; Ike 1977), promised social advancement and even development (Assié-Lumumba 2011; Livsey 2017); in contemporary India, university campuses breed and feed nationalism, exclusionary and identity politics; at the global level, the branching out of universities has become a trend and a model for a knowledge economy that is conquering the world, drawing interest from various walks of the society, but also prompting reconsideration of the added-value of university education and campus experience today (Connell 2019; Guèye 2017; Mellanby 1958; Hauerwas 2007).

While university education can be defined as a social asset, the campus emerges as a political arena (Assié-Lumumba 2011) that often hosts rival and competing ideas and actors working to offer visions of the world, models of social status and even divine salvation. In many countries, as a state institution, the university is at the center of public policies and affects governance, especially since its funding, for example, has implications for both political stability, youth aspirations, economic performance and social coexistence.

Such as a position has turned university campuses into moral spaces, sites of contestations and arenas where various moral agents be they leftist, secular or religious, take roles, acquire influence, and engage in competitions that shape the experience of being student, lecturer, or staff member. What skills and expertise become valued, sought for, and promoted? What social engineering initiatives, moral entrepreneurships and political agendas unfold and mobilize on university campuses today? How are these agents, claims and agendas co-habiting the same space? How is this process affecting life on campus? What forms, tools and ideas of politics emerge in that context? What moral ecology unfolds, especially when morality rests grounded into religiosity and absolute truth-claims? And then, what are the consequences of the secular dismissal of religion and religiosity, when intellectual culture is built on acute skepticism, evolutionism and even atheism?

With such questions in mind, we claim that university campuses offer a site of a critical examination of morality, aspirations and normative orders. In the quest for social becoming, students in particular, have to deal with a conjunction of moral and knowledge economies often at odds with each other, forcing them to be creative and modular, as they navigate the requirements of an academic curriculum, the constraints of everyday life and the expectations of their broader sociopolitical environment. In short, this conference seeks to examine how university campuses in Africa and beyond:

  1. offer training for various skills and know-how which translate into key assets for the social becoming of students beyond the campus;
  2. become a site of moral activism where competing claims of social good and citizenry lead to projects of self-transformation (individual, collective) and/or even conflicts of norms;
  3. feed on various forms of engagements (intellectual, religious, political) while developing their own politics (regional, religious, ethnic, ideological, etc.).

Programme

REMOBOKO at Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

In this workshop, explicitly designed for doctoral candidates and postdocs, the Remoboko research team will present its work, and discuss the methodological difficulties associated with researching a sensitive topic from an ethnographic perspective. Finally, members of the team discuss the challenges of completing their PhDs within a research project.

Presentations

“The innocent spy who came in from the cold: Fieldwork in the Sahel and self-reflexivity”, Vincent Favier

Vincent Favier did a presentation entitled: “The Innocent Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Fieldwork in the Sahel and Self-reflexivity”. Beside the nod to the climatic dimension due to frequent travel between Germany and Niger, this title refers to the conditions and experience of doing Fieldwork in the Sahel from 2019 to 2021. Inspired by Nigel Barley’s “The Innocent Anthropologist”, his presentation outlined the challenges faced by the researcher as a French and non-Muslim in a former French colony dominated by Islam. Balancing between linguistic and academic affinities and forms of political distrust, or even faith-based contempt, Vincent explained how doing fieldwork in such a social environment requires to be strategic, patient, and diplomatic. This particular setting also enables the researcher to reflect on himself, on the individuals and groups he looks at, but, more importantly, on the way these individuals perceive him and the significance of his research project. In an unstable regional context due to terror attacks, French military intervention, coups, accusations of state corruption, and disinformation, being perceived as a spy is anything but surprising, especially when one comes from abroad to ask questions. Self-reflexivity is thus a crucial dimension of research, in any context, not only to assess the epistemological biases but also to gradually break down clichés and engage in mutual understanding.

“Being a Muslim and a researcher: conducting research in a context of religious competition”, Bello Adamou

Bello Adamou presented the topic : Being a Muslim and a researcher: conducting research in a context of religious competition. He began his presentation by discussing his religious identity and his associative background within one of the Muslim Students Association of Niger, section of the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey. Being Muslim, he participated several times in the activities of this association without however occupying a position of responsibility or integrating one of the commissions, during his cycles of Licence and Master. Thus, he mentioned the influence of his research on his religious identity because it requires him to analyze the different groups with the neutrality that scientific research requires. Then, he mentioned the different reactions of religious groups on his research. While Christians and Sufis accepted him without resistance, the Salafis perceived him as a spy on the payroll of the outside world. However, over time the latter group came to accept him as a researcher. Finally, Bello reported attempts by student religious groups to influence his research as they perceived him as a mouthpiece for their activities on campus through his scientific publications.

“A “Yovo” Historian in Benin and Togo: Conducting Fieldwork in Times of Pandemic and Fears of Jihadism Spreading”, Dr. Frederick Madore

Frédérick Madore did a presentation entitled “A ‘Yovo’ Historian in Benin and Togo: Conducting Fieldwork in Times of Pandemic and Fears of Jihadism Spreading”. In the first part of his talk, he offered some thoughts on conducting ethnographic fieldwork as a historian by training. Although a lot of textbooks exist on ethnographic fieldwork, the “field” often presents unexpected challenges, and the research must deal with many gray areas. He also addressed the issue of positionality and reflected on how being a foreigner or a “pseudo-insider” as well as making friends in the field impact the research findings. In the second section, Frédérick Madore gave an overview of the difficulties of doing research in insecure regions – “red zones” –, and how the security context in West Africa can influence the research on Salafism. For instance, many journalists and commentators, in assessing the threat that jihadists pose to countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea, such as Benin and Togo, have pointed out the spread of Salafism and Saudi Arabian-funded NGOs in the region. As a result, a growing number of Salafis are reluctant to talk to researchers and building trust can be a challenge. Finally, he highlighted the difficulties of conducting research in post-colonial archival centers in West Africa, which are often underfunded and disorganized. Historians of contemporary Africa must make do with less written material and usually must rely on oral sources.

“‘Who is your father? What family do you belong to?’ and ‘Patience, I’ll call you back!’: Researching Islam and Muslim Life in Contemporary Sahel”, Dr. Abdoulaye Sounaye

In a region such as the Sahel where Salafi-jihadism has become highly politicized, from below and above, from within and without, what are the challenges of conducting research on Islam and Muslim societies? How to deal with ethnographic discomfort and security concerns? What to draw from those constraints, but also opportunities to engage other dimensions of the work of academic knowledge production? What to learn from the actual contexts and the dynamics that shape it? How to make research and academic collaboration work? These questions were at the core of the public lecture (“Who is your father? What family do you belong to?” and “Patience, I’ll call you back!”: Researching Islam and Muslim Life in Contemporary Sahel) Abdoulaye Sounaye gave on June 13, 2022 at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Halle. Building on his two decade-long experience conducting fieldwork in the region, the lecture was an opportunity to open a conversation on the constraints and forms of social control that field researchers have to deal with, especially when “working at home.” The conditions of ethnographic research on Islam and Muslim societies in the Sahel were discussed, highlighting some of the challenges and the problematic nature of such methodological orientation today. The lecture also drew attention to both ethical and episte­mological concerns, especially with regard to the sensitivity of “Islamic” topics, how researchers (are and) become subject to social control, navigate the “non-sense” of research, and become constitutive of the field.

Religion, Morality and Boko: Students Training for a Good Life. What to look for? How?

Our first workshop on “Religion, Morality and Boko: Students Trainig for a Good Life. What to look for? How?” took place on December 11-12, 2018 at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin.

This is the initial workshop of the Remoboko project. It will focus on the methodological aspects of the project. It will also be the opportunity to introduce the overall idea of the project and the individual projects the three PhD students will be working on. We expect to receive feedback and suggestions from colleagues working on similar and closely related issues. This is important and will help the different project refine their research questions and seek collaborations. Finally, the workshop will be the occasion for all project participants, the group leader, the PhD students and their supervisors, to meet for the first time in Berlin.

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