Movements and communications in academic inquiry


The modernization of transport and its contradictions

Transport routes and the transformation of rural livelihoods

Building spaces of communication

Concepts of space on the move

Movements and communications in academic inquiry

Conclusion: Insights gained through the Symposium

A final set of questions addressed problems of method and concept. How can we know as researchers, or how should we deal with knowledge about movements, transport routes and communications in the history of West Central Africa? The Symposium clearly provided a fruitful encounter between a variety of different disciplines and academic cultures, all rooted in their diverse methodologies, sources and conceptual debates. It was all the more vital during the Symposium, therefore, that as a result of the presentations and discussions individual participants repeatedly reflected on their own approach and potential common ground with others, in accordance with the new questions on the possibility of academic knowledge that have surfaced in recent years.

The contributions by Wyatt MacGaffey in the opening session and by Joseph C. Miller, prior to the conclusion of the Symposium addressed some of these questions quite explicitly. In his presentation "Crossing the River: Myth and Movement in Central Africa," the anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey questioned the myths that underlie scholarly histories. He cited as an example the story of alleged Hamitic civilizers in Africa, which was formerly taken seriously as history. Even today, too much credence is given to the idea that societies can be usefully characterized as matrilineal or patrilineal, and too many historians take at face value indigenous myths asserting that kingdoms were founded by civilizing immigrants. Taking accounts of the origin of the Kongo kingdom as an example, often deemed as evidence for actual migrations, MacGaffey suggested another way of reading them. A myth is "surely a product of its time and place. If we drop the assumption that the historical Kingdom of Kongo, with its capital Mbanza Kongo, is the necessary point of reference; cease to read the migration stories as a kind of bungled history of events; and situate them in the places from which they are reported, a different sense of their import emerges." These stories , among other things, typically "describe transitions, often across a river, leading to the settlement of a new country". "The stories", MacGaffey continued, were by intention "not historical but sociological, sketching an ideally ordered society. ... In that sense, the land across the river provides a space in which to inscribe social theory." It can be concluded that West Central Africa is a particularly conspicuous example that myths of origin have to be seen as a repository of arguments in the political process. As such, they have to be taken seriously, even as a source for historians, but not in the conventional sense of factual memory and often for a much later era than the one they speak about.

In the discussion that followed, it was wondered why "dragons" in academic thought, such as the above-mentioned positivist understanding of migration myths, are apparently only recognized (and duly slaughtered) by subsequent generations and not in the period in which they arise. If, however, it is true that the construction of certain "myths" in research depends on their particular cultural context, then the same must be true for their critique. In more practical terms, it was asked whether a constructionist approach to myth, which is now finding considerable echo in western academic circles, might not be equally appealing for students and teachers in Africa itself, for whom certain oral traditions, for instance, have become essential elements of their view of history. Another concern was that too much insistence on the critique of myth in Africa might perpetuate the stereotype that "African history is all myth".

Quite different from the anthropological theory in the contribution just mentioned, Jean-Luc Vellut makes a foray into ethnographic museums as another production site of "myths" in MacGaffey's sense, a site that has been highly influential in shaping our understanding of place, movement and communication in the Central African past. In his introduction of new exhibition projects at the Belgian Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, with which he stimulated discussions at the Central African Collections in the Berlin Ethnological Museum, several possible methods of overcoming the strongly regionalizing tendencies that used to dominate the presentation of the Musée Royal emerged. One of them, exemplified by a planned exhibition on "Congo: le temps colonial", is a new emphasis on the (often unequal) connections, mutual influences and perceptions between the colonial economies and religions in Central Africa, building on the earlier migrations, long-distance trade, and integration of the "ancient empires" into the emerging global system. The purpose of this is to overcome the former binary distinction between former colonial territories and areas. Another way of deconstructing former mythologies produced by the museum is their historicization. An "exhibition of the exhibition" is planned in Tervuren, i.e., a display of how the collections were presented during the colonial period. This reflective approach to the myths of the past resembles the one proposed for academic theorizing by MacGaffey (above).

The search for a consensus among the contributors regarding some general conceptual issues, even beyond the individual case of Angola, was stimulated by Joseph C. Miller in his wide-sweeping and invigorating presentation that opened the concluding session. Speaking about "Communication and Commercialization in Central Africa: Angola in the Context of World-Historical Processes of Modernity", he proposed a broad sequence of historical steps through which Europeans and Africans effectively consolidated their networks of transport and communication in (Central) Africa. He first of all insisted that this process should be approached as part of world history. He described the trade and communication networks that developed in this part of Africa as materializations of global historical processes of commercialization. Secondly, however, he argued that this process, as any facet of history of the one world, needs to be explored through the multi-centric history of many different, but complementary local or regional worlds, using their distinct but interacting parameters and epistemologies. The world history of transport routes and communication occurred as a result of a multitude of attempts to seize fresh opportunities for local advantage. This pluralist perspective would also help to move history as an academic discipline beyond its Eurocentric origins and overcome established "dichotomic myths". Thirdly and finally, Miller described the history of transport routes and communication as a history of attempts by Africans (and to some degree Europeans) to come to terms with strange, unsettling and accelerating changes, as well as new forms of communication with unknown "others". A central theme in this history, according to Miller, is how these attempts to conceptualize mobility and change drew on the inherited cultural knowledge of the region, and continue to do so.
The concluding discussion of the Symposium, finally, was introduced by some general comments from Wyatt MacGaffey and Maria da Conceição Neto.

Wyatt MacGaffey recommended abandoning all one-dimensional interpretation of narratives about African history. The long history of movement, transport, and communication in Central Africa that was stressed during the Symposium, he argued, makes notions of the boundedness of spatial or socio-political entities appear as myth. But these notions are at the same time real and correspond to a need for identity that only grows stronger with mobility from one place to another. The same applies to communication between languages and disciplines, as undertaken abundantly during the Symposium. "We misunderstand what Africans want to tell us if we do not think in alternatives" was his more general conclusion.

Maria da Conceição Neto, in turn, pointed out the importance of the conference for the historiography of Angola. In her concluding remarks, she was enthusiastic about the opportunities offered by the Symposium: its face-to-face character that enabled full participation in the discussions; the growing interest in the region manifested by the number and multiple origins of the scholars present at the Symposium; the inclusion of young generations of scholars from three continents, attracted by the rich sources Angola can offer on West Central African history; and the presence of the older generation, "the pioneers" of historiography of the region. She also referred to the theme of the Symposium as "a very good choice. None of us will write anymore without thinking about space und communication".

Inge Brinkman,Maria Odete F.G. Bento Ribeiro and Wyatt McGaffey
Inge Brinkman, Maria Odete F.G. Bento Ribeiro and Wyatt McGaffey

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Latest revision: 08.03.2004