CODESRIA Bulletin, Nos 1 & 2, 2008
This issue of the CODESRIA Bulletin revisits a postcolonial turn in anthropology and Africa. Anthropology is a dynamic and plural discipline, in constant dialogue with itself, related disciplines, and the continuity and innovation, vitality and negotiation of evolving local and imported forms of social and cultural reality in Africa. It is in recognition of this that CODESRIA invited ten scholars of Africa – in the majority from Africa – to comment on the position of the postcolonial anthropologist. These scholars in the main take as a point of departure the work of Professor René Devisch. A European anthropologist who applied his understanding of local Congolese lifeworlds to investigate much-overlooked aspects of his native Belgium and the habitus of North Atlantic social scientists, Devisch has displayed an impressive ability to look at local practices through a bifocal lens. This in turn has led to a re-evaluation in academia of local knowledge practices and systems, and their complementarity with regard to universal sciences.
On the occasion of the award of an honorary doctorate granted him by the University of Kinshasa in April 2007 (only the tenth such award in the history of that university), Professor Devisch reflected in his academic address on the very topic ‘What is an anthropologist?’ He looked back at his studies of philosophy and anthropology in Kinshasa – deeply marked by the sociopolitical and intercivilisational contestations of Négritude and African philosophy that were prevalent at the time. From these he drew inspiration for his anthropological endeavours after the 1970s, with the aim of contributing to the decolonisation of anthropology and the anthropologist in order to understand the particular sociocultural contexts from within the rationale and dynamics of the communities involved. Over the years, his primary research interests focused on the Yaka in rural southwestern Democratic Republic of Congo and suburban Kinshasa. Additionally, he benefited from the hospitality of diverse subaltern communities, both rural and suburban, for research stays in his home country Belgium, in southern Ethiopia and Tunisia, and from supervision of African and European doctoral students during their anthropological fieldwork in eight African countries. More recently, Devisch and his colleague Filip De Boeck acted as promoters of the honorary doctorates that their alma mater, the Catholic University of Leuven, granted two African scholars, Jean-Marc Ela in 1999 and Valentin Mudimbe in 2006.