By Rotimi Fasan
AFRICAN newspapers take centre stage this week in the United Kingdom as the Department of African Studies and Anthropology, DASA, incorporating the Centre of West African Studies, CWAS, of the University of Birmingham, holds its annual Cadbury International Conference on 17th and 18th of May.
The theme of this year’s event which holds in the university’s Edgbaston Campus is ‘African Newspapers Culture’ and it draws participants, researchers, scholars and practising journalists from across Africa and Europe.
Africa is today arguably the world’s home of newspapers going by the rate at which newspapers spring up on the continent. Often of different makes, shapes and aimed at convening diverse or (sometimes confusingly) similar audiences, newspapers are everywhere in Africa.
This is while, in other parts of the world, especially in Western Europe and North America, newspapers increasingly migrate from the real into the virtual world of cyberspace. The hard copy almost literally is still king across Africa where poor or outdated technology seems to have left many a reader locked out of the digital age of the cursor and keyboard. What is more, many of these newspapers and their audiences defy generic classification.
Print, with its interplay of economic forces, is one way we have come to define human communities as we know them today. It may no longer amaze us how people in different parts of a community, to say nothing of the modern world, think and act as one or imagine themselves members of the same world- equal and interchangeable.
The daily events of modern life which shape and -why not?- misshapen our existence and which we have come to take for granted are often by-products of the newspapers we read among other textual products. And while choosing which newspapers we read may be relatively easy, far less so is our definition of what constitutes a newspaper.
Beyond its role as an easy source of both topical and historical information, what is a newspaper? What makes a newspaper a newspaper? Is this question the same as asking what is news? Which are the acceptable definitions of news or a newspaper?
What factors determine the acceptability of these definitions? And are these definitions such easy and transparent propositions for all to see and accept or reject? Even more pertinent, perhaps, are questions of which factors shape newspaper production.
What informs the choice of news items in a newspaper; what principles underlie a newspaper’s mode of address and the type of audience it seeks to convene? How do these audiences read and why? Are these readings similar?
Are newspapers mere business propositions subject to the complex mix of economic and social factors? Or superstructures set up for purely hegemonic ends? Beyond the platitudinous emphasis of its watch dog role, what else do newspapers do in Africa and why?
These and more are the questions that have been agitating scholars, fellows and investigators, in the last two and a half months at DASA-CWAS. This weekend their reflections will culminate in an international conference. From West Africa to East Africa; from Kenya where the 1988 murder of Julie Ward, a British tourist, has been the subject of much media speculation 25 years after to ‘experiences of the world’ (Iriri Aye) in Yoruba newspapers, not leaving out the ubiquitous free readers without whom a visit to the newsstand is never complete in places like Nigeria, scholars explore different aspects of newspaper culture in Africa, including the intersection between the spoken and the written word and how these influence news reception.
As one of the leading spheres of African studies in the Western world, the newly-named Department of African Studies and Anthropology, incorporating the Centre of West African Studies, a unit formerly and simply known as CWAS is not new to conferences of these nature.
Founded by the historian, John Donnelly Fage, the Centre of West African Studies, is one of the oldest such centres in the West. Indeed the Cadbury Conference is just one, albeit an important one, of its summer term’s events which include Africa-focused programmes and presentations by scholars, fellows and postgraduate students spanning six months and culminating in the ‘Crossroads in African Studies’ Conference between September 4 and 6, 2013 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the department. The conference would also mark the inauguration of a new annual lecture, the Fage Lecture, named after the late founder of the Centre of West African Studies, John Fage.
If Professor Fage laid the foundation of this important centre of learning, much has been built on that foundation by Professor Karin Ajike Barber, FBA, rightly named the Asiwaju (Yoruba for leader) of African Studies in Europe by another giant Africanist, the sociologist, J.D.Y Peel. Among this class of Africanists are Professors Murray Last, Graham Furniss and Stephanie Newell. Karin Baber whose first visit to Western Nigeria was to study Yoruba Popular Theatre in the early 1970s studied and taught Yoruba at the University of Ife for many years.
Her penetrating insight, wise and astute leadership, has nurtured a crop of other solid scholars helping to ‘move the centre’ of African Studies in their department: Kate Skinner, her co-convener for this year’s conference; Benedetta Rossi, Insa Nolte, Maxim Bolt among others, including the budding stars like Rebecca Jones, and David Kerr.
When the conferees settle down to their presentations this weekend, they would be doing so knowing they are part of a tradition of African studies scholarship in Europe that has lasted 50 years and is still going strong.