Conference Report: Saharan Crossroads: Views from the South

18 August 2011

Conference Report
Saharan Crossroads: Views from the South
Hotel Ténéré
Niamey, Niger Republic
7-10 July 2011

By Ismael M. Montana (Northern Illinois University)

The West Africa Research Association (WARA) together with the American Institute of Maghrib Studies (AIMS) hosted the second international Saharan Crossroads Conference which took place at Ténéré Hotel in Niamey (Niger) between the 7th and the 10th July 2011.

This second conference with the theme of “Saharan Crossroads: Views from the South” brought together delegates and participants from many of the countries bordering the Greater Sahara from Morocco and Algeria in the North, to Mauritania, Senegal and Mali in the West, and other countries south of the Sahara including, Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana, even South Africa. Up to thirty-six participants including academics, students, artists, professionals, NGO workers and policy-makers as well as participants from the US and several European countries such England, France and Belgium travelled to Niamey to exchange their thoughts about the Saharan-Sahelo world and its environs. The event brought into contact scholars and professionals of West Africa and North Africa, most of whom were visiting the region for the very first time. The Executive Director of the Council for American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), Dr. Mary Ellen Lanes, the Director of the West Africa Research Association (WARA), Dr. Jennifer Yanco, and the Director of the West Africa Research Center (WARC) in Dakar, Dr. Ousmane Sene and Dr. Wendy Wilson Fall of Kent State University and former director of WARC joined the conference participants.

The conference was funded by the generous support of the Educational and Cultural Bureau of the United States, the West African Peace Initiative and the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.

The Saharan Crossroads Conference in Niamey is part of series of conferences organized by WARA and AIMS. The goal of these conferences is to strengthen the cultural, artistic and historical links among scholars and the peoples living within and across the Sahara Desert. The idea behind these conferences began as a workshop held at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2004 where the Saharan crossroads perspective was developed. The first international conference which was held in Tangier, Morocco in 2009 brought together over thirty scholars and artists who reflected on the cultural and historical ties of the people of North Africa to their southern neighbors by way of trans-Saharan caravans and the development of common Saharan identities.

This year, the focus was on both historical and contemporary developments, with an eye to exploring the intellectual and cultural production of Saharan identities in West African countries and their links to North and Northwest Africa. Participants discussed the shared artistic traditions, cultures, and histories that create a strong bond among African countries connected to the Saharan-Sahelo world. By seeking to promote cultural exchanges among the regions of Africa linked by the Sahara Desert in the pursuit of peaceful coexistence and the promotion of peace, the conference did not loose sight of contemporary issues facing the region. Regional harmony and interdependence are demonstrated in countless ways, particularly through artistic expressions such as music, theater, dance, literature, cinema, architecture, and the decorative arts. In putting these diverse common connections at the center of our attention for this event, the organizers of this conference undertook a noble objective of promoting scientific and cultural cooperation among the African countries around the Sahara.

In terms of the program, the conference was kick-started with an opening ceremony that included speeches from the event sponsors, Jennifer Yanco and Ousmane Sene (WARA), and Dr. Mary Ellen Lane who spoke of CAORC’s role in enhancing intra-African educational and research co-operation, and commended the role of the WARA office in Dakar in strengthening this goal in the Western African region. Her Excellency, Ambassador Bisa Williams (United States Ambassador to Niger Republic) encouraged and challenged the conference organizers and participants to capitalize on this historic meeting and foster academic and cultural cooperation between their respective institutions and Niger particularly. Other local dignitaries who welcomed the conference participants included Professor Aboubacar Adamou, former Minister of Higher Education and former Minister of National Education, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Letters and Social Sciences, who is a professor of Geography and a specialist of the Saharan regions of Agadez at Université Abdou Moumouni of Niger; and Mr. Kounou Hassane, Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture, who welcomed the participants on behalf of the President of the Republic of Niger.

Throughout the three-days of the conference, the participants enjoyed high-level presentations and discussions in French, Arabic and English organized around thematic sessions as follows:

Session 1: Saharan Ties of History
Session 2: Crossing the Saharan: Culture and Identity Re-formation in Africa;
Session 3: Patterns in Circulation: Trans-Saharan Artisanry and Design;
Session 4: Religion and Law
Session 5: Music, Arts and Ritual Performance
Session 6: Women, Knowledge and Power in the Sahel
Session 7 Legacy of Slavery in the Central Sudan and Across the Sahara and the Atlantic Divide
Session 8: Culture, Art, and Governance in Muslim Northern Nigeria
Session 9: Architectural Cultures
Session 10: Language and Writing
Session 11: Crossed Histories and Traditions

The program featured the premiere screening of a documentary film by Cynthia Becker (Boston University) entitled “From Slave to Master: Women and Gnawa Possession Trance.” Each of these sessions and the film screening was followed by intense question and answer periods, always continuing till the next session.

Other entertainment features of program included musical performances, folk and Bori ritual dance performed by various local musicians and musical troupes as well as improvised music sessions between Nigerien and Moroccan and Algerian artists. Another highlight of the program included visits to the National Museum of Niger, the artisan markets, and a memorable boat ride on the Niger River.

The conference organizers specifically chose Niger as the ideal venue for the Saharan Crossroads: A View from the South conference, given its central position in the Sahel both past and present as a crossroad linking communities on both sides of the Sahara. The conference highlighted this particular position of Niger as a hub of cultural and economic exchange between the populations of North Africa and West Africa who share the Saharan space. Niamey (the capital city of Niger) was also an obvious venue for the event, given its strong academic institutions such as the Institut de Recherche en Sciences Humaines (IRSH) that houses the Department of Arabic and Ajami Manuscripts from Niger and neighboring Muslim West African countries, Université Abdou Moumouni, and LASDEL (Laboratoire d’Etudes et de Recherche sur les Dynamiques Sociales et le Développement Local).

The conference concluded with the Organizing Committee, Abdourahmane Idrissa (Princeton University); Ghislaine Lydon (University of California, Los Angeles) and Scott Youngstedt (Saginaw Valley State University) reflecting on the quality of the program and presenting awards recognizing the wonderful support of Dr. Mary Ellen Lane, the Executive Director of CAORC; Dr. Jennifer Yanco, the Director of WARA; and Ousmane Sene, Director of WARC for their instrumental roles in fostering academic cooperation in the region.

This Saharan Crossroad Conference: A View from the South in Niamey succeeded in bridging intellectual conversations, building social and professional relationships and carrying forward the Saharan Crossroads initiative. The complete conference program is available at: http://www.bu.edu/wara.

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