The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Conference Review - Monday 2nd July 2007

16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES 16), Trondheim, Norway

Given by -

Reviewed by - Dorothea McEwan


It is notoriously difficult to convey the atmosphere of a conference to a readership who, although interested in it all, has not participated in the programme. I feel acutely aware of this, but shall, nevertheless, attempt to report on the conference which proved to be a remarkable gathering.

The 16th conference since its inception in 1959 should have taken place in Italy, but proved too complicated a proposition and task for the Italian local committee of Ethiopicists to put into effect. And so thanks are due to their colleagues in Norway who jumped into the breach and organised what turned out to be a superbly managed and wellrun meeting sited in the beautiful campus of the Norwegian Technology University outside Trondheim, the old capital of Norway.

The conference organisers were able to utilise the excellent technical facilities in the lecture halls, and everybody enjoyed the cafeteria, the gardens and most of all the seemingly never-ending sunshine of Norway. The technical equipment and installations for screening films, PowerPoint presentations, not least a room full of computers for the personal use of participants, were very much appreciated. Abstracts of all papers offered were posted on the conference internet site in advance to help participants choose which lectures to attend. Six young students as helpers, guides, runners around were a tremendous help for the smooth running of it all - and they were polite and cheerful into the bargain.

Coaches were laid on from various hotels in downtown Trondheim to ferry us to the University. The local organising committee consisting of Svein Ege, Harald Aspen, were ably assisted by their Ethiopian colleagues Birhanu Teferra and Shiferaw Bekele. They all had worked extremely hard to make it all happen in a very short span of time. On offer were some 200 lectures, all in all some 260 people attended, with the largest contingent from Ethiopia, 62, followed by 28 from the USA, 28 from Germany, 19 from Japan, 16 from Norway, 10 from France, 6 from Italy, 6 from The Netherlands, 5 from the UK, 4 from Israel, 3 from Russia, two each from Sweden, Switzerland and Poland and one each from Spain, Belgium, Finland and Eritrea. Special mention needs to be made of the fact that the organisers were able to raise funds to help 44 Ethiopians attend the conference.

Ethiopian and Norwegian children singing at the opening of ICES16
Photo - © Dorothea McEwan - 2007

A splendid opening ceremony featured speeches by the Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of Addis Ababa University, Dr. Yonas Admasu, and the Rector of the Norwegian Technology University Torbjorn Digernes, who famously wished us a good conference by saying "with 24 hours daylight a lot can be achieved". A specially composed 'Academic Fanfare', conducted by the composer Bjorn Alterhaud and a concert by Ethiopian musicians Alemayehu Fanta, Yohannes Afewerk, Aklilu Zewdie and Indris Hassen and the Trondheim World Music Ensemble under its leader Kjell Oversand raised the roof - a glass roof which could be opened and closed to accommodate the vagaries of the Norwegian weather. Ethiopian and Norwegian children sang and it was they who proudly declared the 16th conference open - a lovely touch!

Music was to feature at two more occasions, an evening concert down by the harbour performed by the Ethiopian and Norwegian musicians, trailed as 'a creative mix between Ethiopian [the Amharic] and Norwegian traditional music' and players, dancers and singers produced an incredibly lively music, vibrant, effervescent sound, which was one of the highlights for me, and a second time after the official conference dinner.

The Ethiopian flag flying in Trondheim, Norway
Photo - © Dorothea McEwan - 2007

There was an official reception by the Mayor of Trondheim in the beautiful ancient Archbishop's Palace, a reception venue today, and a festive conference dinner with drinks, music, dance and fine food - reindeer meat, which went down a treat. There were bookstalls and any amount of refreshments, fruit, coffee, tea - we were well catered for. The museum in town had put on an exhibition and post-conference trips were on offer, a very full programme indeed.

The conference days opened with a general panel to be followed by three sessions of two hours each, parallel panels on History, Anthropology, Politics and Development, Urban Studies-Children-Gender-Human Rights, Linguistics, Music and Fine Art, Islam, EOTC, Education and Film. As I could only attend one session at a time, I cannot do full justice to all the papers on offer. I concentrated on the History panel and the Film panel, with exciting footage of films of the 1930s on show as well as films shot on Muslim pilgrimages or the Lallibelocc, a group of wanderings singers who are believed to share the oral tradition, which condemns them and their descendants to leprosy unless they sing, beg and bless for alms.

Personally I found the paper by James McCann, 'Maize and the Agro-Ecology of Malaria: the Latest Evidence from Ethiopia' the most exciting paper, backed up by new research on the devastation wreaked by the so-called 'maize, the socialist crop', affecting areas hitherto untouched by malaria. Of course, there were very good papers and some mediocre papers, but this is inevitable in a conference. One point which I personally would have liked to hear more about was Eritrea, but it really did not feature in the papers. If politicians have difficulties with talking to each other, this is too bad, but felt this should not be replicated in the academic world.

One point clouding the very tight timekeeping was the lack of space for discussion. Sometimes four presentations were crammed into a two hour panel with hardly adequate time for discussion. A desideratum therefore for the next conference, which incidentally is earmarked for 2009 in Ethiopia, will be to think very hard about the programming. Either restrict offers for papers or open up more parallel sessions. This way, more time would be available for a full exchange of ideas, comments and clarifications.

At the last general panel session one of the speakers echoed Professor Richard Pankhurst's view, "the problem of the conference is its success". Measured by numbers of participants and papers offered, this seems to be so and a longish article in the latest Bulletin of the IES tried to come to grips with the question "what is the conference trying to achieve?" The conference is a meeting place, a shop window of research, of what is happening in academic and private research. It might become a crystallisation point or a point in a crystallisation process to direct research enterprises into certain directions, so that the success of a conference or the conference movement as a whole need not be measured by the quantity but by the quality of papers. Judging by the majority of presentations heard, it is well on its way in this direction.

First Published in News File Winter 2007

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