Historical Overview

The birth of the PAN AFRICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION(PAAA) goes back to the 12th Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) which took place in August 1988 in Zagreb, present-day Croatia. This international Congress, attended by over 1200 anthropologists from across the world had a meager presence of just 12 Africans, coming from seven countries: Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia. This roup of Africans submitted the following statement at the close of the IUAES General Assembly:

It is unfortunate that so few of us Africans could come and that African ethnology and anthropology did not figure as prominently as it should have. This is clear evidence that African Anthropologists are confronted with serious problems. Those of us who are here feel that we need to come together and identify these problems more clearly. For this purpose, we have decided to explore the possibility of forming an association of African Anthropologists. As an initial step a steering committee has been constituted composed of five members from Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal to organize the first conference of the African Anthropologists (PAAA Archives).

Having heard their plea, the President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Sydel Silverman, provided both the moral and financial assistance to this group of anthropologists to kick start a new era in the history of anthropology in Africa. With the initial funding from the Wenner-Gren foundation, a series of activities were initiated that are ongoing today.

On the 4th of August, 1989 anthropologists from 34 universities representing 20 African countries, met in Yaoundé, Cameroon to examine the state of anthropology on the continent of Africa. Organized around the theme “the teaching and practice of anthropology in Africa,” the conference’s presentations demonstrated abundantly that anthropology, as a discipline, was not part of the curriculum of most African universities. During the immediate post-colonial era of the 1960s and ‘70s, the reputation of the discipline had been battered by its association with colonial rule. In fact, at the first Pan African conference of African Scientists held in Algiers in 1973, delegates had called for the banning of anthropology from the curricula of emerging African universities.

While not accusing colonialism for the plight of the discipline, the Wenner-Gren sponsored conference set out to identify the problems facing anthropology and develop strategies to address them. One major problem was the lack of library resources and other teaching tools. Another was the continued reticence of decision-makers to place anthropology on an equal footing with other social and human science disciplines. The result of that reticence was low representation of anthropology in Departments of Sociology, where most anthropologists worked.

When the Wenner-Gren conference came to an end, on the 6th of August,1989, participants established a forum, the Pan African Anthropological Association (PAAA), to support the work of anthropologists across Africa. The Association would meet regularly, promote the exchange of students and staff, create a journal – The African Anthropologist– and work closely with African policy-makers to encourage anthropological research and the use of anthropological findings in addressing development problems.

The PAAA established specific goals and objectives, namely, the fostering of interaction among scholars, the promotion and the enhancement of anthropological research, the stimulation, coordination and facilitation of interregional interdisciplinary research, and ensuring the application of anthropological knowledge in finding lasting and sustainable solutions to problems of development in Africa. To maintain the momentum generated by the first conference in Yaoundé the participants decided to convene the second meeting in 1990 in Nairobi, Kenya to address the role of anthropology in the sustainable development of Africa.

Organised against the backdrop of the failure of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the World Bank, the Pan African Anthropological Association’s meeting in 1990 discussed development in the light of the World Conference on Culture and Development (Mexico Mondialcult 1982). The debate focused on the tension between an[u1] ivory tower approach and an advocacy approach. That is: Should anthropology remain exclusively inside the academy and ignore its usefulness in addressing issues of poverty and wealth creation? Or should African anthropologists use a more pragmatic approach by showing how the discipline can and should be part of the development process?

There was a consensus that anthropology, as a discipline, could only rehabilitate its reputation as the so-called hand-maiden of colonialism, by demonstrating the role it can play in the development process. This was not to exclude the intellectual and academic and scientific approach. Application should be built on good ethnography inspired and strengthened by an analytic framework. African anthropologists could not remain in the academy (ivory tower) while people’s lives were being shattered by policies that did not take into account people first. Indeed, the Arusha Declaration of African socialism and self-reliance in 1967, by Tanzania’s first post-colonial president, Julius Nyerere, (People First), was the guiding principle for future engagements of anthropologists in the development process.

As the PAAA attempted to find its footing in the early 1990s, Structural Adjustment Programmes and austerity measures instituted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, offered an opportunity for anthropology to make its mark. The discipline had to be either useful or be gone. How could anthropology contribute to a variety of development programmes? These discussions went on the assumption that the State would be part of the discourse. The fragile nature of the emerging African states did not leave any room for dialogue. An anthropology that was critical of the State, of the workings of power and political practice, could become very useful precisely for challenging one of the biggest threats to the welfare of so many Africans: the State itself. Will the State pay for its own deconstruction? This was the question [u1]paul: there is nothing particularly western about basic vs. applied research. the tension between basic and applied research is relatively recent.