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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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