Human knowledge of our planet, and by extension any part of it, is necessarily derived from imaginaries. This is not to say that our knowledge is simply made up and untrue. Rather it is to acknowledge that our knowledge is culturally and technically mediated. We simply cannot know of places we have never been or scales too large or small to be perceived by our senses, except through images, maps, stories and related forms of abstraction and representation. We must, in short, imagine them.
Africa, perhaps more than any other region, has been imagined as an unproblematically bounded and undifferentiated entity. There is, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie teaches, a Western tradition of storytelling about Africa. This tradition is the basis of many stereotypes --"stories you may have heard about Africa" -- that are repeated, disseminated, and amplified so as to drown out other stories. But there are of course many other traditions of storytelling, in Africa and its diasporas, which imagine Africa in very different terms.
Imagining Africa, as we shall learn, never happens in a realm of pure abstraction. It is a historically contested human activity, deeply entangled in material struggles, repeated displacements, and collective remembering. It is an activity that happens at diverse and interconnected scales and locales, as the people's everyday lives interact with mediated abstractions like economic development, global ecology, urban youth culture, the Internet, money, religion, and imaginaries of Africa itself. It is an activity that continues to emerge from the movement of people and encounters between them. It is an activity that has real and meaningful effects. For all these reasons, anthropologist James Ferguson reminds us, we need to arrive at more nuanced understandings of the ways in which Africa is imagined, by whom, and with what kinds of effects. In this course, we will practice modes of enquiry that are multi-faceted and ethnographically informed, and also consistently connected to the question of what we mean by Africa and why its realities matter.