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Africa Knows! transformed into a three-month online event

Covid-19 has transformed Africa Knows! into a unique international knowledge-sharing event: it will now be a three-month online event instead of a physical conference lasting just a few days. Senior lecturer and co-organiser David Ehrhardt is eager to find out how successful this format will be. The first signs look very promising. ‘The papers are flying in; usually that’s a much slower process.’

Of course, everyone had to get used to the change of plans. ‘It’s ground-breaking. But I think it has the potential to be something really special. And this format actually suits two of the main themes, decolonialisation and knowledge, quite well. Discussing these themes “with Africa” in the Netherlands again, well... This format at least minimises some of these mixed sentiments. People from all over the world will now have the opportunity to share their ideas and join in the discussions. The focus has shifted; it’s now about Africa, with Africa, in Africa and with the rest of the world.’ 

The conference, which will start on 2 December, will be the Leiden African Studies Assembly’s final activity in 2020. The event is being organised in collaboration with dozens of African and European knowledge institutions. ‘It was always our plan to decentralise some parts of the programme. But due to Covid-19, everyone can now take part in everything.’

Programme and registration

Africa Knows! is taking place from 2 December 2020 until 28 February 2021. The opening events will be on 2, 3 and 4 December. More information about Africa Knows! is available at africaknows.eu. Here you will also find more details about the programme and you can register to take part.

The organisation has enlisted around 60 students to help get the digital conference up and running. Under the inspiring leadership of the main organisers Marieke van Winden and Ton Dietz from ASC, they are managing the chat groups, compiling the reports and preparing the discussions. ‘The students are really committed to the event, probably because the theme is very topical. Young people are interested in decolonisation. That’s something that we’ve noticed in the lectures.’

Ground-breaking event

Ehrhardt hopes that the conference will be a ground-breaking event that may even contribute to real change. ‘If this concept works, which I believe it will, why not keep collaborating with and talking to each other via Zoom? I really hope that the next few months will lay the groundwork for that. And that we will look back in a few years’ time and see that Africa Knows! was the event that got the ball rolling.’

Ehrhardt recommends everyone to listen to the keynote speakers who will be speaking on 2 December. Mustapha Mekideche, Chika Ezeanya Esiobu and Ndlovu-Gatsheni focus on research topics that are of widespread interest. ‘Decolonialisation is one of those topics. That long shadow of colonialism, how can we turn the tables, how can we make it fairer and when are we going to take seriously the ideas on the subject emanating from Africa.’

A big leap forward

The privatisation of knowledge is another theme that Ehrhardt is also particularly interested in. ‘Educational participation is growing rapidly in Africa, a continent with a lot of young people. There is an increasing demand for scientific knowledge and forms of higher education, which has resulted in remarkable collaborations and initiatives. For example, there is a boom in private schools – from traditional, expensive private schools to religious schools. There are Islamic schools paid for by the Middle East but the Pentecostal Church is also funding its own schools. And what impact is the intensive exchange of knowledge with China having? What’s actually happening there? We’ll be hearing about all these things – real-life stories – during the opening event.’

The third theme is innovation. ‘The big question is whether Africa is gearing up to leapfrog, in other words, use the insights and experiences of others to make a big leap forward. There are all kinds of indications to support this idea, but there are also plenty of contra-indications.’ This theme focuses on breeding grounds of innovation that are often overlooked, such as the large African slums or the informal economy. ‘These days you only need a telephone and an internet connection to work with people all over the world. Africa Knows! is proof of that, but so too are all those places in Africa that are driving innovation.’

Fantastic and fascinating

Ehrhardt hopes that the whole of Africa will join in the discussions about the developments that are being made there. ‘That’s what will really make these discussions relevant. We are also going to invite everyone to submit vlogs and blogs. I have high hopes for this experimental format. Decolonise the minds, that’s what it’s all about. Dutch media continues to hold on to that image of poor, miserable Africa overwhelmed by disasters. But that’s selling Africa short. A lot of fantastic and fascinating things are happening in Africa, and that’s what we’re going to talk about and learn from.’

Text: Marijn Kramp

Read also: ‘It’s time to modernise African Studies’

In January 2020, the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL) kicked-off Africa 2020. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the independence of 17 African countries. How are those countries fairing today? And what is the future of African studies? Read about the kick-off conference

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