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Association for Anthropology in Southern Africa,
Annual Conference Overview

By Robert Gordon (Univeristy of Vermont)

2000 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

Forsaking the pleasures of a Vermont Summer twenty minutes after handing in my grades I was on a flight to Namibia to attend the Annual conference of the Association for Anthropology in Southern Africa (AASA) held in the capital of Namibia, Windhoek, from May 8 to 13. Certainly in all my years of conferencing this one ranks as one of the most unique.

This was the third AASA conference I have attended since the organization was founded in 1988. Constitutionally opposed to “oppression in all forms” the ASAA has undergone a fascinating transformation from being an organization that derives its membership largely from English-speaking social anthropologists to one that includes Afrikaner and black anthropologists. Now the AASA is encouraging graduate students to participate as well. Mandela’s “rainbow” metaphor struck me as being singularly apposite for characterizing the participants.

Held on the University of Namibia campus under the organizational auspices of the local Department of Sociology the AASA conference drew some 150 registered participants, including a large number of students and “special guests” whose attendance was generously underwritten by the Swiss Schlettwein-Stifftung and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Most of the conferees were drawn from the southern African region but, this year, several participants were from abroad, including the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Finland. The theme of the conference was “The Challenge for Anthropology in the African Renaissance,” and the message the conference sent was clearly that, at least in Southern Africa, anthropology is thriving. Papers, generally available just prior to when they were to be presented, covered a wide range of interests with perhaps a slight predominance on applied and especially medical anthropology. Such concerns are probably reflective of the concerns not so much of the discipline as a whole as of donors in the region. Unlike the AAA or even the ASA, given the concentrated regional expertise of both papers and participants discussion was frequently lively and insightful and almost uniformly of a high quality.

Two plenary sessions were particularly informative. One, “Open discussion: The ethics of doing anthropology,” featured several articulate members of communities who had been the focus of much research including the San. Joram/Useb proved to be especially articulate in expressing the objects and concerns of WIMSA (Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa), an umbrella advocacy group. The discussion was frank, honest and mature, avoiding cheap slogans. It would appear that WIMSA is becoming a major facilitator and shaper of the research agenda of those wishing to work with San and other indigenous minority groups. The other session which drew extended discussion was the film screenings. John Marshall’s “To Hold Our Ground: A Field Report” provoked a heavy discussion on ethics and advocacy. I was also rather surprised to discover that those staple films of so many US anthropology courses, “The Hunters” and “N!ai: the Story of a Kung Woman”, were virtually unknown to our colleagues in southern Africa. Two other films, both locally produced, one on contemporary Herero marriage by Bridget Pickering and the other on the Owambo Efundula ceremony were also shown. The Pickering film in particular showed that Namibian documentary has come of age.

Finally about 50 participants undertook a seven hour bus ride to the Gobabeb Research Station on the Kuiseb River in the Namib Desert where the sunrises were truly spectacular. Here we visited several Nara-harvesting Topnaar communities and we were briefed on their rather testy relationships with the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism which runs the world-renowned Namib-Naukluft Park which and like the Roman Empire is threatening to engulf their Asterix-like neighbors. These, and other problematics led to long discussions in the “beer tent” at the station.

Organizing a conference of this magnitude and on a limited budget requires exceptional initiative, and the organizing committee, consisting of Dr Debie LeBeau and assisted by Prof Pempelani Mufune and Dr Heike Becker, deserve our heartfelt gratitude for organizing such a successful conference. Indeed such are the talents of the organizers that they managed to get Namibia Breweries involved as a local sponsor. That must surely rank as a first in the annals of anthropology conferences!
Next year’s conference will take place in Cape Town from April 10 to 12. It will be organized by Andrew “Muggsy” Spiegel of the University of Cape Town. Start hustling for money now: it will be worth the trip!

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