African and Asian scholars have had multiple trajectories of collaboration. But these links are conventional. They tend to, by structure of form or content, nudge conversations to revolve around either international relations or economic globalization. In the case of India, themes and agendas with African partners tend to be around strategic interests, Chinese policies or Gandhi.
Kojo Opoku Aidoo’s trip to India would’ve fallen neatly along these grooves if the Humanities across Borders programme had not opportunistically invited him to speak at Ambedkar University in Delhi. Kojo teaches at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana and was flying to India for the first time to participate in a conference organized in Mumbai. This conference was on South-South Cooperation: India-Africa partnerships for food security and capacity building on the 23rd and 24th of January. As Kojo’s research revolved around the idea of grassroots pan-Africanism, we felt that it would be wonderful for him to meet Surajit Sarkar of Ambedkar University, Delhi and talk at his Centre for Community Knowledge. We hoped that this connection would lead to a border-crossing.
As a city, Delhi has lived many lives. The forts of the one incarnation rub shoulders with the colonial bungalows of another. Spreading out around these structures are the roar and din of Delhi’s latest wave of urbanization. Nestled in the heart of the old Mughal city of Shahjahanabad, Ambedkar University is steeped in history. A few minutes away from the campus towers the Lal Quila or Red Fort built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in 1639. This fort was the seat of an empire that ruled most of North India till the British took control in the early years of the 19th century. It was the same fort that was at the centre of Indian rebellion of 1857 when Indian soldiers and residents fought a brief battle for independence.
Ambedkar University is a young institution. Started in 2008, the public university now has about 2000-3000 students in various disciplines. The University houses the Centre for Community Knowledge, a unique space in the Indian academic landscape. The Centre is a square room, lined with computers, posters of events and a clock that goes backwards. It bustles with activity as students and researchers come and go, drinking hot cups of chai and talking shop. Started in 2010, the centre’s aims to foster “a reciprocal dialogue between knowledge from the margins and the mainstream, in the absence of which, local community knowledge will continue to lose out.” All of their work revolves around the praxis of community knowledge, a large percentage focused on Delhi. As the coordinator, Surajit Sarkar has shaped the centre from its inception.
Despite his schedule being tight, Kojo arranged to fly to Delhi the day before his Mumbai conference to give a talk titled Intra-Regional Migrations, Seething Xenophobia and Grassroots Pan-Africanism, based on Kojo’s HaB project, Mobilities of Grassroots Pan-Africanism.
The talk, based on work done with fellow researcher Lang Nubour, outlined a number of issues from questions of migration to epistemology. It discussed how after the coup against Kwame Nkrumah, the new right-wing government passed an act that effectively gave all illegal aliens two weeks to leave Ghana. The move was seen as directly targeted at expelling Nigerians. This wasn’t the last expulsion Ghana would see in the years since gaining independence. There still remains a lot of xenophobia regarding Nigerians; a recent article on Ghanaweb stoked fears by asking whether Ghana was on the path to becoming the 37th state of Nigeria. This has to be seen in light of the Economic and Trade Liberalisation Scheme of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol. This creates a situation where Nigerians are the third biggest investors of capital in Ghana and the influx of Nigerians as petty shopkeepers has led to acts of hostility and violence. This is in contrast with the situation of India, China and Saudi Arabia where despite the influx of people and capital, no deep-rooted feelings of ill will have developed.
The ECOWAS protocol contains a central contradiction that promotes the free moment of goods and capital in West Africa but tries to limit migration. Free movement across borders is allowed up to 90 days but permanent migration is still bound up in prohibitions and bureaucracy. Kojo argues that the idea of an impenetrable but indiscernible border goes against the natural understanding of the citizens of these countries. According to him, grassroots pan-Africanism predates any of the formal attempts at pan-Africanism including those of Nkrumah and the African Union. He provides the situation at the Togo-Benin border with its informal currency exchange system as an example.
Before the talk, there had been discussions around pastoralism and the Fulani (a West African ethnic group) to understand what parallels existed between the traditions of India and West Africa. After the talk, in the context of migrations and xenophobia, there were a lot of potential connections that emerged. Internal migration in India is fraught with xenophobic tendencies. In the context of Delhi, this emerges in its citizens’ response to the influx of Biharis. The state of Bihar is one of the more populous but least developed states in India. This had meant that there have been historical routes of migration to urban power centres like Delhi and Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta). While they are treated with suspicion in Delhi, there seems to be markedly less xenophobia in Kolkata. A similar comparison with the migration of people from the North Eastern states of India was discussed. Sadly, there was not enough time to go into great detail but discussions between the Dean of International Partnerships and Kojo on future collaborations between their institutions was a hopeful note with which to end.
The next event to look forward to from the Ghana team will be a methodologies workshop that will build up to an experimental school which will explore community knowledge and grassroots pan-Africanism through an alternative pedagogical system.