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Conference: Legacies of Struggles in Southern and Eastern Africa

February 23, 2015


Legacies of Struggle in Southern and Eastern Africa: Biography, Materiality and Human remains

18-20th March 2015

International conference at The British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi
(in collaboration with National Museums of Kenya and IFRA-Nairobi) 

Across southern and eastern Africa, legacies of struggle have gained renewed political traction in recent years. Diverse and unique across geographies and scales, and involving a myriad of different actors, legacies of struggle – whether of anti-colonialist war or postcolonial revolution, or of religious, ethnic, secessionist or nationalist violence and endeavor – are flavouring new political languages of suffering, heroism and celebrated victimhood/survival. They have gestated new kinds of nationalist history and historiography; new local, national and regional forms of state monumentalism, memorialisation and heritage; and new approaches to commemoration and dealing with the remains of the dead. From ‘patriotic history’ and ‘liberation heritage’ in Zimbabwe, and South Africa’s apartheid heritage, to the exhumations and reburials of Rwanda’s genocide memorials; and from renewed celebrations of Kenya’s Mau Mau to the monumentalisation of former guerrilla camps in Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, political historiographies of liberation, survival, suffering and struggle have rarely seemed so all-pervasive, and yet so tense, diverse and contradictory.
Falling under the BIEA’s research theme of Land, Heritage and Memory, this workshop focuses on these legacies of struggle through the themes of (auto-)biography, materiality and human remains. Often political legitimacy remains elusive and hard to secure without personal legacies of struggle to draw upon. Hence biographies and autobiographies have achieved new significance, fostering new historiographical debates across co-existent temporalities, as struggles of the past and of the present fold into each other in constant emergence. The salience of legacies of struggle is not just a question of contested meanings or values; or about the selective celebration and silencing of particular pasts for particular presents. It is about the uneasy metonymic, co-presence of many pasts, in the material and immaterial remains of things, lives and people; and their capacity to unsettle, undo, demand, and animate contemporary politics, defying stabilisation, containment, directionality and narrative closure. If things have biographies through their entanglement in the social lives of people, then political biographies and personal histories too are imbricated, afforded and constrained through the active residues and stuffness of the past. So the middens and detritus of struggle gains attention, and is turned into new kinds of ‘heritage’, museumified yet commemorated; like former prisons, mass graves and massacre sites, or the tree from which Ambuya Nehanda was hung in Harare, or Dedan Kimathi’s clothes and pistol in the national museum in Nairobi.  And of all things, it is human stuff - flesh, skin and bones - which proves perhaps most evocative, most problematic, demanding attention yet defying stabilisation into metaphor or meaning. Exhumations and reburials rebound across region, sometimes to the call of spirits or survivors, but just as often to the trowels of forensic archaeologists or vernacular diggers.
Across eastern and southern Africa legacies of past struggle have become the site of a myriad of new struggles, involving a complexity of actors, and doing stuff in new ways demanding scholarly attention and consideration.
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