Dakar is a celebration, and the Thinking Workshops, launched in 2016 by the economist Felwine Sarr  and historian Achille Mbembe , aim to make their annual event a relaxed, intense and memorable space for debate. “May these days be a celebration of ideas, of mutual listening, of convivial discussions and of relations”, said Achille Mbembe, on 1 November, to a full house in the Institut Français.

Achille Mbembe et Souleymane Bachir Diagne à l’ouverture des Ateliers de la pensée © AFD 2017
Achille Mbembe et Souleymane Bachir Diagne à l’ouverture des Ateliers de la pensée © AFD 2017

Africa: A driving force for proposals

As a moderator for a first panel discussion “Anthropocene and life philosophies”, he set the tone for this second edition, which is ambitiously based on the topic “Planetary condition and life policy”. Achille Mbembe quoted Aimé Césaire and his “advice to always ask yourself the two or three essential questions”, which he defined in these terms:

“To what extent could Africa be the subject of its own pathway, be its own force? What does Africa say about itself, about what it wants, what its project is, if such a project exists? When we say Africa, we are also speaking about its doubles, its many diasporas, and almost by definition the world in general. Every part of the world is global in its own way, but among all these regions, Africa has something which sets it apart: it is the only one which does not rush to impose its own prejudices on everyone. This is an absolutely crucial base.”

And he continued by moving towards utopia: “Is it possible to find a land which is hospitable towards all forms of life, a world where there would no longer be the need to eliminate anyone?”

 

“The duty of humanity”

“The Anthropocene”, a learned term which refers to the geological period marked by the appearance of man and its impact on ecosystem, was debated in a lively and practical way. Africa’s animist cultures and traditions, which situate humans as being deeply connected to their natural environment and its vital force, underpinned most of the debate.

The Cameroonian writer Lionel Manga gave a performance, talking about the “plight of the tree frogs” in the country of the famous tale “Leuk the Hare”, written by Abdoulaye Sadji and Léopold Sédar Senghor and read by generations of Senegalese schoolchildren. Like a storyteller, he stepped into the skin of these frogs in despair over the “latest arrivals of a physico-chemical odyssey which we call life. In these days of the sixth extinction and depletion of biodiversity, where can animals go to lodge a complaint against humans, these bipeds with large brains who destroy the environment?”

Without remaining in the register of indignation at the impending ecological disaster, Souleymane Bachir Diagne  , a Senegalese philosopher, recalled in luminous and composed terms, as he always does, that “humans remain the only being to have consciousness of self-evolution. Consequently, responsibility for the future of the planet is human, and not anything else. Our humanity does not place us at the center of creation, but imposes the duty on us to make the Earth ‘total’, to live as humans together outside nationalisms and with the other living beings.”

 

Rethink the very idea of “development”

The French political scientist Françoise Vergès , for her part, brought the debate to the field of the criticism of the neoliberal growth model, rooted in a colonial time, which began to produce, starting with the transatlantic slave trade and colonies, “disposable bodies”, while promising happiness and fulfilment by destroying natural resources.

This quest for material comfort was combined with environmental destruction that started with the slave trade, she pointed out, and not with the industrial revolution in the 18th century, as is frequently claimed. “Entire societies were thus placed under the banner of lack and absence – absence of history, of culture, of civilization, hence a whole ideology of what we call development and the idea of so-called catching up, with the aim of becoming like Westerners.” She asked the question, which constitutes the essence of the Thinking Workshops: “How to change the nature of this account and move the lines, completely?”

The discussions continued with the arrival this year of contemporary arts in the debates. The Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo asked questions including, “Why did Nollywood (Editor’s note: the enormous cinema industry in Nigeria) not see the Islamist sect Boko Haram coming?”, ready to criticize a creative industry which can dispense with being “intelligent and serve to entertain”. The Cameroonian journalist and DJ Ntone Edjabe, founder of the pan-African review Chimurenga, based in Cape Town (South Africa), spoke about music as “an underexploited or underexplored space for knowledge production”. He questioned the fact that “the thinking of Amilcar Cabral or Frantz Fanon did not touch on music, whereas great Congolese guitarists, such as Franco, have invented spaces for speculation, improvisation – breaks which can last for hours..”

 

Interview (in French) with Achille Mbembe on the importance of culture and music in knowledge.

 

“How are we going to manufacture helicopters?

More questions than answers? Simon Njami, a commissioner for major exhibitions, for his part, made assertions, with his characteristic way of being one step ahead and temperament. “Post-colonial, post-industrial, the only ‘post’ that interests me is the Post Office”, he stated. He proposed to “reinvest the ruins”, whether colonial or not, in order to be more free of them. In his opinion, these ruins can be photos – as archives, references, ruins due to their immediate and instantly outdated nature – whereas words and music are “active ruins, as there is no improvisation, you play something that is there and that you recreate”. Simon Njami, distancing himself from the Thinking Workshops as a space for academic discussions, also recalled that “theory is there to generate action. We have been talking about an Africa that is waking up for so long… The real question now is to know how we are going to make helicopters.”

The debates for the rest of this first day addressed this important question. Célestin Monga, a Cameroonian intellectual and Chief Economist at the African Development Bank (AfDB), had provoked controversy in 2016 when he saw “a slight air of defeat” in the fact that the Thinking Workshops were being held at the Institut Français. It has returned to the same venue this year, this time to widely criticize the idea of the “meeting place for giving and receiving” of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the former President of Senegal, and to propose to put an end to poverty by creating jobs… Members of the public included Hamidou Hanne, a graduate of the French School of National Administration (ENA) who trained in France and is a young 34 year-old columnist who has a lot of influence in Senegal. He found it “interesting to see that the debates at the second edition of the Thinking Workshops were livelier than the previous year, and had invited the same people, while diversifying both the themes and speakers”.

 

The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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