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International conference and festival promotes renaissance in African languages|
by Celena E. Kusch
The litany of 20th-century African horrors is familiar, ranging from brutal colonialism and corrupt neocolonialism, to poverty and starvation, AIDS and other pandemics, and racial and ethnic wars.|
According to Dr. Charles Cantalupo, professor of English at Penn State, realities like these have been a too common context for African artistic achievement in the 20th century. African writers, and especially African women writers, have worked with circumstances stacked against them, but in the context of political and economic challenges and social persecution, they have made tremendous achievements, against all odds, he said.
Located in the eastern horn of Africa, Asmara, the Eritrean capital, welcomed the largest-ever gathering of African writers and artists to the capital during a historic conference and festival aptly titled Against All Odds.
From Jan. 11 to 17, Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century brought together more than 250 African and Africanist writers, artists, linguists and scholars from 20 African countries and around the world. Another 500 Eritrean participantsstudents, politicians, business leaders, artists and citizenstook part in the conference and festival as well. Conferees enjoyed speeches by such noted presenters as Eritreas President Isaias Afwerki, Kenyan novelist and playwright Ngugi wa Thiongo and prominent Egyptian feminist novelist Nawal El Saadawi.
The weeklong event also featured 175 presentations, as well as discussions, translation and publishing workshops, plays, concerts, dance performances, griots in performance, art exhibitions and a Big Conversation, including works in more than a dozen languagesall centered around the hopeful future of African languages and literatures.
The momentum of these activities turned a late session scheduled to discuss policy recommendations into an agenda-setting assembly and produced the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.
With the impetus of the conference over the seven days, it became clear that a declaration was required. In the final day, the conference turned into a congress, Cantalupo said.
During the session, the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures preamble was ratified by the writers and scholars attending the conference. Conferees then offered more than 100 recommendations, which were condensed into 10 declarations about the future role of African languages in the decolonization of African minds. According to one declaration, African languages must take on the duty, the responsibility and the challenge of speaking for the continent. Other points focused on shaping language policy in translations, education, research, technology, democracy and gender to meet that goal. The declaration will be presented to international leaders and has already circulated widely through the African media.
Speaking of the importance of developing the Asmara Declaration at the Against All Odds conference, Cantalupo explained, Its not a conference and festival anymore; its a movement to create changes in policy.
Dr. Ronald L. Filippelli, associate dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, agreed that the conference had significance far beyond its considerable scholarly importance.
Indeed, Filippelli said, The conference could prove to be the beginning of a movement in which African intellectuals work out ways Africa can draw upon its vast cultural resources, especially its own languages, to build the strength and resilience necessary to enter the global community as a full partner. This kind of participation by Penn State takes the meaning of outreach to another level. Charles Cantalupo and his colleagues and Penn States Outreach and Cooperative Extension staff should be proud of this accomplishment. I know that the College of the Liberal Arts is proud to have had a role to play.
Recognizing the importance of the conference as a forum, the Asmara Declaration calls for a series of Against All Odds conferences to be held in different parts of Africa and the creation of a permanent Secretariat to facilitate conferences and other initiatives. President Afwerki approved the appointment of the Secretariat during the meeting.
Facing this promising future for African languages and literatures, Cantalupo commented on the important work African artists have accomplished thus far, noting, African writers have paved the way for an even greater African literary movement to take hold. An entire continent of writers, innovators, creators, performers and scholars are finally taking the chance to work, not merely in European languages like their immediate predecessors in 20th-century African literary history, but in more than 1,000 African languages. In so doing, they are engaging a verbal tradition dating back over the course of millennia to create and develop a new African renaissance in the 21st century. Against All Odds recognizes this rebirth of African languages and literatures.
African writers have faced incredible odds almost without exception for the entire 20th century, Cantalupo continued. The Against All Odds conference was an opportunity to emphasize the fruits of peaceincluding a renewed interest in African languages and a renaissance of accomplishments in cultural and artistic production. By taking this opportunity in Eritrea, a country engaged in armed border conflicts for nearly two years, the conference remained true to both its title and its ideals. The project, its supporters and the participants themselves became one with the struggle in coming to the capital of Eritrea to recognize, celebrate and prevail long into the next century and millennium. It was a demonstration of peace in the middle of a war.
Cantalupo, who conceived the idea for this project, serves as one of the conference organizers. Other organizing chairs are Kassahun Checole, president and publisher of Africa World Press Inc. and Red Sea Press Inc., and Zemhret Yohannes, director of Research and Documentation for the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice in Eritrea. Penn State University and Africa World Press Inc./Red Sea Press Inc. sponsored the conference, but they are not in it alone.
The list of those who have provided support for the initiative is equally impressivepartnership comes from such international players as the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank, UNICEF, the British Council and Alliance Franšaise. Conference planners used some of these funds to make a permanent impact on the host city.
Contributions by the World Bank and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Asmara were used to restore Asmaras famed Teatro Asmara, a theatre originally built by Italians at the turn of the century. A Tigrinya translation of a play by Ngugi wa Thiongo was performed at the theatre during the conference.
Additional World Bank funds were used to build an outdoor amphitheater near an enormous centuries-old sycamore tree outside the town of Seghenyetti. The amphitheater will remain as a permanent site for cultural events in the region.
Another memorial of the conference will be a video archive of the entire conference and festival, funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy. Countries, universities, development organizations, corporations, publishers and broadcasters are among the other supporters of this celebration of new frontiers in African languages and literatures.
This historic conference demonstrates the worldwide reach of Penn State, noted Dr. Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. Charles Cantalupo did a remarkable job of mobilizing support from around the world to bring about the conference. During the conference, Dr. Tom Hale, professor of French, comparative literature and African studies, presented a well-received paper and held discussions with many African students and faculty interested in Penn State.
The conference demonstrates that outreach, even on an international scale, is a logical extension of the on-campus teaching and research programs of our faculty, Welch continued. Through Charles and Toms leadership and participation, Penn State has become more attractive to dozens of potential graduate students interested in African literature and has enhanced its international visibility in the study of languages and literatures.
A telling sign of the conferences international impact appears in the attendance list. Both recognized and relatively unknown writers, artists and scholars, students and publishers throughout Africaincluding Eritreans, Somalis, Sudanese, Algerians, Angolans, South Africans and otherscrossed cultural and linguistic barriers to join in conference dialogue, celebration and exchange.
Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century has drawn people together at a key moment in the development of African languages and literatures, Cantalupo commented. African penpoints, not gunpoints, are the most important source of traditional and future social change, economic development and individual self-realization. Against All Odds is a call for action by national, international, academic and corporate institutions and foundations to join in this continued development and growth.
The same call to action that guided the conference is echoed in the text of the Declaration, which states, While we acknowledge with pride the retention of African languages in some parts of Africa and the diaspora and the role of African languages in the formation of new languages, we urge all people in Africa and the diaspora to join in the spirit of this declaration and become part of the efforts to realize its goals.
An outreach program of the College of the Liberal Arts