The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Conference - Monday 2nd November 2009

Impressions of the XVII International Conference of Ethiopian Studies

Given by -

Reviewed by - Dorothea McEwan

At the beginning of November 2009 a veritable feast of conferences was to be had in Ethiopia. It started with the 17th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, from November 2nd to 5th, in Addis Ababa, Akaki campus. It was followed by the 8th International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art and Architecture, from the 6th to 8th, in the Goethe Institute in Addis Ababa. At the same time a conference on the Falasha by the Society for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry (SOSTEJE) took place in Gondar University from the 5th to 7th, and a conference in Dessie about Lij Iyasu from the 8th to 10th. Spoilt for choice or rather, madly annoyed that it was impossible to attend these conferences one after the other, as they were so far away from Addis Ababa, that one would have missed the last day of one conference and the first day of the other. All in all proof of everlasting fascination with Ethiopian culture and history!

Here I want to share my impressions of the first conference, by far the largest in numbers of attendants. It was rumoured that there were some 500 Ethiopians and 100 European/American/Asian participants. Although originally supposed to be in the University of Addis Ababa, the conference was relocated to a campus outside town, in Akaki. The new campus was really very much suited to host such a large conference, the auditorium maximum, the seminar rooms, cafeteria, spaces for bookstalls, all worked very well. One drawback was that everyone staying in Addis Ababa had to congregate at three stops in Addis to pick up the conference coaches in the mornings. This was well organized, except for the fact, that once in Akaki, you could not easily nip back into Addis, and the ride took approximately one hour. For the return journey at night one had to wait for the coaches to arrive. The logistics for transporting such a large group of people proved quite something. The President of the University of Addis Ababa, Professor Andreas Eshete, opened the proceedings, welcomed by the Minister of Culture and Tourism, H.E. Ambassador Mohammed Drir and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, H. E. Ato Seyoum Mesfin. Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, head of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, was responsible for the overall organisation.

Dancers and musicians at opening ceremony
Dancers and musicians from the National Theatre performing after the opening ceremony
Photo © Anne Parsons

An ambitious and challenging programme of lectures was on offer. Morning plenary sessions covered history, anthropology, development studies, education and women's participation in public decision making. These were followed by panels on: Anthropology and Sociology; Development and Environment; Education and Fine Arts; History; Archaeology; Law and Politics; Linguistics; Philology; Literature; Philosophy and Religion; Indigenous knowledge and cultural landscapes in Southern Ethiopia; Continuity in the making of Ethiopian archives, from the ancient and medieval periods up to 1931.

It lies in the nature of such conferences that one cannot attend all panels, as they run in parallel, i.e. are timetabled against each other. This is a pity, as many of the topics and presentations were exciting and offered insight into new research. Perhaps the next conference, which will take place in 3 years and might take place in Southern France, could find a different mode of presenting research findings. What really was a problem was that some lecturers did not turn up to give their lecture, which provided those who wanted to hear these lectures with a problem: could they go next door, as it were, to cram into an already full seminar room to attend a similar panel or not? As most of the Anthropology lectures happened at the beginning of the conference, the last two days were underused, there simply was no longer enough choice of lectures.

IES birthday cake being cut
Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis (Director IES) and Richard Pankhurst at the Sheraton buffet dinner cutting the cake celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies
Photo © Anne Parsons

The evening programme was varied, but also not without its problems. An evening of music, timetabled for the National Theatre, did not take place, as the President of Ethiopia Girma Woldegiorgis had invited everybody to a buffet dinner into the Sheraton Hotel at short notice. This was a sumptuous affair, the address by the President an accolade for the conference. Other evening programmes were not as appreciated, an evening in the Sheraton nightclub 'Gaslight', termed 'Cultural event', was anything but, although a reception in the Japanese Embassy was a fabulous affair.

Personally, I enjoyed the History panel lectures, lectures on ecology and agriculture. Other participants from the UK fanned out into different panels, so that we could exchange views and discuss various topics. The organizers have to be congratulated on having made such a large conference possible. It cannot have been easy and it cannot have been cheap. All these considerations lead me to conclude with a suggestion, that using the services of a professional conference organization might be the answer to sorting out many hitches, which every conference inevitably throws up. All in all it was a clan gathering, old friends met and renewed friendships and this was as important as the latest scholarly research findings from around the world, which happily will be published in the Conference Proceedings.

First Published in News File Spring 2010

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