Dr Felicitas Becker, University of Cambridge

 

We are used to thinking of citizenship as something conferred by bounded nation-states, bestowing formalised rights and obligations on rationally-minded recipients. In this sense, citizenship was limited to a privileged few in many parts of the world until the dissolution of empires and the formation of new nation states in the mid-twentieth century. But despite the rarity of legal citizenship in colonial empires, African colonial territories were alive with groups that sought to establish allegiances and entitlements in the places where the dramatic social changes that preceded and accompanied colonisation had deposited them. In particular, African actors often drew on religious languages, Christian, Muslim as well as indigenous, to make these claims. They often combined them with stories of migration that asserted that foreign origins were an asset, not a shortcoming. These eclectic ‘languages of citizenship’ – whose practitioners frequently claimed heavenly inspiration – were constantly on the move, crossing colonial and later national boundaries through the circulation of activists, pilgrims and scholars across oceans and land. The research network starts with the proposition that these trans-regional forms of allegiance, and the debates they provoked between and amongst different claims-makers, constituted important, and rarely-studied, forms of citizenship in nineteenth-and twentieth-century Africa.

In order to investigate these mobile ‘languages of citizenship’, the research network proposes an innovative interdisciplinary approach. It builds upon a growing scholarship of exchanges across regions and oceans in understanding cultural, political and social processes in Africa. In particular, the network seeks to bring together scholars of Atlantic and Indian Ocean Africa, and of Muslim and Christian communities in these regions. These scholars often work in isolation from each other; their cooperation will illuminate the trans-regional sources of religious idioms in Africa, the way they circulated, and their role in allowing marginal groups to claim citizenship. The proposed network forms part of an on-going effort to connect insights from the neighbouring disciplines of history, anthropology, religious studies, and literary and cultural studies. These connections will contribute to a deeper understanding of informal ways of collective claims-making in Africa, and of their important consequences for contemporary politics. The concept of ‘languages of citizenship’ allows the network to consider rhetoric, text and performance, which were important parts of the way Africans debated citizenship. Finally, the network seeks to break out of the conceptual and geographic ‘boxes’ of colonial territory and post-colonial nation-states by studying the trans-regional mobility of the religious traditions deployed in African languages of citizenship.

The network is premised on the conviction that the study of ‘languages of citizenship’ is relevant beyond the academy. In today’s trans-national world, and in Britain’s diasporic constituencies, idioms drawn from many sources not automatically identified as political, such as religious traditions, play an important public role. In both Africa and its diaspora, politics does not merely operate through formal, state channels; informal affiliations and religious loyalties shape citizens’ allegiances. Understanding these forces is crucial to policy makers, public educators and grassroots communities in Africa, as well as to those in the UK concerned with relations with Africa, and African migrants in the UK. Network participants will open their research to public engagement by providing a platform for speakers who straddle the divide between academics and practitioners, and by disseminating their activities through electronic and ‘virtual’ media.

 

Dr Felicitas Becker, University of Cambridge

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