Vol. VI, Issue 1 (Winter 1998-99): African Writing Systems

Table of contents


Editorial: African Writing Systems

By Gloria Emeagwali - Chief Editor

Vai, Bamum, Nsibi, Mande and Ajimi are significant West African writing systems of indigenous origin. In Northeast Africa, the now extinct ancient Egyptian writing systems coexisted with the Nubian Meroitic and Ethiopic writing systems.

In this issue of Africa Update, Dr. Ayele Bekerie of Cornell University reflects on the latter writing system. He argues that there are fundamental connections between the spiritual beliefs, language and writing system of precolonial ancient Egypt

This issue also contains a review of Ayele Bekerie's Ethiopic: An African System (Red Sea Press, 1997). The reviewer, David Zerbe, examines some of Bekerie's basic propositions in a provocative analysis. We asked Dr. bekerie to respond to Zerbe's critique and received a lucid and scholarly clarification on issues such as the syllabic nature of Ethiopic; distortions and misceptions in Ethiopian historiography; connections between the Puntites, ancient Egyptians and ancient Ethiopians; and the interconnections between the Agau language, Ge'ez, and Ethiopian writing systems in general.

Bekerie's comments about the Puntites provide insights into the ethnic composition of ancient Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. He points out that the Puntites were regarded by the Egyptians as having the same origins as themselves. Pharaoh Hatshepsut's diplomatic overturesto punt are cited.there is the consideration that the land of Punt should not be restricted to the domain of the Isaak clan of Somaliland, but includes also sections of the Ethiopian highlands. Bekerie identifies this region as lying between Suwakin in the North and the Cape of Guardafui.in the Southeast.

There is also,a clarification of the Kebra Nagast and its significance in Ethiopian history as well as its relevance to the Solomonic dynasty. Recent excavations by Boston University archeologists in conjunction with their Ethiopian counterparts illuminate various dimensions of ancient Ethiopia. Bekerie's research into the cultural and literary dimensions of Ethiopia's scripts are significant for ancient Africa in general and more specifically the history of writing and written documents in Northeast Africa.

We have included in this issue another installment of Haines Brown's series on wireless digital communications in Africa.

We have taken note of forthcoming conferences on Africa in Japan, Moscow, and Latvia, and included as well Shauna Brown's comments on Hollywood's African-Americans. We thank all the contributors to this issue.


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African Writing Systems

By Ayele Bekerie, Cornell University

Cultural Background of Writing Systems

Writing could be simply defined as a representation of speech and thoughts through various forms of sound images or graphs. A writing system, then, is a conventional and principled way of actualizing activity and thoughts, such as languages, natural science, theology, commerce, and aesthetics.

It is our contention that writing systems are more than a technological tool to languages. Most of our understandings of writing systems are generally confined to linguistics and languages. Close and careful examination of writing systems, from Ethiopic to Vai, from Cretan to Meroitic, from Han'gul to Latin, reveals layers of knowledge beyond language and linguistics. It could be argued that the study of writing systems may provide a new approach to knowledge creations, organizations, and disseminations. Writing Systems are, indeed, rich sources of human intellectual activities, such as history, philosophy, social order, psychology, and aesthetics.

The Quipus of the Incas of South America, for instance, show parallel features with some of the thought patterns, organizations, and utilizations of the ancient Egyptian writing system. Further, the Dravidian writing system of southern India also appears to share parallelism in shapes or sign structures with the Easter Island Rongo- Rongo writing system, perhaps suggesting historical continuity between South Asia and the Americas much earlier than the Columbus era.

The Meroitic writing system of the Kushites of the Sudan uses two or three dots as word separators, just like the extant Ethiopic writing system, thereby suggesting a link between the two writing systems in the Abbay-Atbara river complex. The Institute for the Study of African Writing Systems was established in order to systematically compile, categorize, analyze, and interpret the various forms of writing in Africa. Writing systems are not only facilitators of speech and communication, they are also tools in the creation and utilization of knowledge systems, such as philosophy, astronomy, and numbers.

There were many different writing systems in Africa. The writing systems were and still are, a reflection of various philosophies [thought processes] found in African cultures and civilizations. Language, to an African mind is part of your spirituality. Spirituality is a way of life based on a society's belief systems and moral values as they relate to a higher being. Your spirituality cannot be separated from your being. Egyptians believed that God is everything and everything is God as did many other Africans, not the idea that God is just in everything. Spirituality is also the relationship between you and your ancestors. When a person dies, the "spirit" returns to a higher being. Your ancestors then become your link with that higher being. Symbolism is a way of expressing that spirituality through individual aspects of your culture. Therefore spiritual symbolism implies your relationship with a higher being and your ancestors who are parts of the higher being through the individual aspects of your culture in everyday life. Much of the texts written by Egyptian scribes were attached to an Egyptian spiritual belief system.


The Egyptian Language

The language consisted of approximately 121 bi-literals, 75 tri-literals, and various determinants and phonetic complements. The bi-literals were individual symbols which expressed two sounds and the tri-literals were individual symbols which expressed three sounds. Phonetic complements were monoliterals found in front of and/or behind multi-consonantal signs in order to provide clarity and also to complete the meaning of the word. They normally repeated sounds already found in the word, but had no separate sound value.

Special attention was given to the aesthetics of the language. The sentences were not written with one individual symbol after another. All words took a quadrangular form which some scholars call the square principle; the symbols were placed in an imaginary square and the upper ones took precedence over the lower. The language was generally written from right to left except for occasional specific purposes. The determinants were symbols which had no sound value and were used at the end of the word to decipher the meaning between two words with the same symbols. The determinant normally came at the end of the word and demonstrated the meaning of the entire word. Many of the determinants which were added to the words (sometimes more than one per word) did not seem to be relevant to the word's meaning to most European scholars, but I will show that there is a connection between the language and the spiritual beliefs of the people who spoke the language.

These symbols, "Medu Netcher" [Mdw Ntr], cannot be understood without understanding African spirituality and African spirituality cannot be understood without understanding Medu Netcher. The language had to be deciphered in two ways; first it had to be transliterated from symbols to orthographic text and then translated into English.

Ethiopic Writing System

Ethiopic is an African Writing System designed as a meaningful and graphic representation of knowledge. It is a component of the African Knowledge Systems and one of the signal contributions made by Africans to world history and cultures. It is created to holistically symbolize and locate the cultural and historical parameters of the Ethiopian people. The System, in its classic state, has a total of 182 syllographs, which are arranged in seven columns, each column containing 26 syllographs. Ethiopic is a knowledge system because it is brilliantly organized to represent philosophical features, such as ideography, mnemonics, syllography, astronomy, and grammatology. To view the Ethiopic numeric system visit the following site: http://www.library.cornell.edu/africana/Writing_Systems/Geez.html

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Ayele Bekerie, Ethiopic, An African Writing System

(Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1997. Pp. 176, $18.95 paperback)

Reviewed by David S. Zerbe

As the title of the book suggests, this study examines the origins and history of the system of writing called Ethiopic, from which the first language in Ethiopia formed was Ge'ez , today the liturgical writing system of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This fact, however, is never articulated in the text. Nor is there a discussion as to how other offshoots of the Ethiopic system of writing were established, such as Tigre, Tittering, or Amharic, and these are but two of the deficiencies in this text. The introduction establishes the conceptual framework of the study.

The conceptual framework is based on "locational theory." Ayele Bekerie postulates that the roots of the writing system of Ethiopic, as a system of knowledge, is an endogenous creation. What is theorized by Bekerie is that there is an endogenous flavor regarding causality between the Ethiopic writing system and Ethiopian civilization itself, i.e. that both are indigenous to Africa, and that the Ethiopic writing system is an effect of the establishment of an indigenous Ethiopian civilization, indigenous to Africa and not from South Arabia. Ayele Bekerie in fact refutes the South Arabia historiographic paradigm, which hypothesizes that the roots of Ethiopic as a writing system are contained in the Sabaean civilization's writing system, which emanated in South Arabia from the area of what today comprises the state of Yemen, and according to some historians was transplanted through commercial activity across the Red Sea to what is today the Eritrean coast and Ethiopian hiqhlands.

From this theoretical model, Ayele Bekerie commences with the first of a four chapter text. He attempts to examine Ethiopian historiography in the context of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. Bekerie argues that the genesis of Ethiopian civilization itself is not of Semitic origin, that this is in fact a synthesis of 19th century Eurocentric historiography, which still remains in place today. The argument continues that Ethiopian civilization is a result of the migration of the Puntite peoples of Upper Egypt southward, and is therefore indigenous to Africa.

Besides secondary source information which shows commercial relations to have existed between Egypt and the "land of Punt" from 2743 BCE, there is no primary-source data, no linkage to the claim of Puntites establishing themselves in what is today Ethiopia, and no mention that Puntite and Sabaean civilizations could have coexisted in the highlands of what is today Ethiopia. Further, he does not establish that the Puntite peoples are the original inhabitants of Ethiopia and, if assumed the Puntites are the original inhabitants of the Ethiopian highlands, Bekerie does not effectively argue that Ethiopic as a writing system had its origins with the Puntites. It is commonly held to be the case in the historiography of the Horn of Africa that the Puntites today are the ancestors of peoples from the Isaak clan in what is now the de facto state of Somaliland.

Regarding Egypt, Bekerie also attempts to link the writing systems of Ethiopic and ancient Egypt, but cannot explain why there is a system of hieroglyphics in Egypt and not in Ethiopia, and consequently he fails to establish a solid link between the Ethiopic and ancient Egyptian writing systems. There is only cursory mention of the relationship between Coptic and Ge'ez scriptures. Even without any evidence or with scant evidence, Ayele Bekerie is bent on arguing that Ethiopic is not of Semitic origin, but of African origin, but does come to the conclusion in the second chapter that the origins of Ethiopic and of Ethiopian civilization itself are to date still indeterminable.

Ayele Bekerie moves forward and discusses in some detail the principles of Ethiopic as a writing system. He establishes this discussion on the premise that the writing system of Ethiopic is actually a philosophy, because the ideographical iconography of the Ethiopic alphabet is conducive in generating knowledge, such as beliefs and concepts. Though he does not address the relationship between linguistics and the philosophical knowledge directly, he establishes that The Ethiopic Book of Henok, written in the BC era in Ge'ez, is not only a religious text but a philosophical one as well.

Throughout chapters three and four, Ayele Bekerie demonstrates the significance of Ethiopic as a writing system through Abyssinian literature, such as the Book of Enoch, and the legendary epic tale Kebra Nagast. This book was written in the time of Amda-Tsion in the 14th century, but this pertinent information is not included in the text. This tale of Solomon and Sheba helped lead to the consolidation of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia until 1974 by claiming that Menelik I was the son of the two, thereby directly relating Ethiopia to King Solomon. The literary and historiographic magnitude of this on the system of personal rule in Ethiopia is neglected. It does show, however, that the Ethiopic writing system in the form of Ge'ez has produced a number of culturally significant works.

Ayele Bekerie concludes the text with the convincing argument that Ethiopic, whether the roots are indigenous to the Puntites and spread to the Ethiopian highlands, or whether Ethiopic as a writing system originated from South Arabia in the BC era and became extinct there, is an African writing system by virtue of the fact that Ge'ez, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Tigre directly correlate with the Ethiopic writing system. To end the tome, the author poses questions for his next work, many of which are not addressed here, such as the relationship between a writing system and a philosophical system of knowledge, why and how 19th century archaeologists discovered evidence linking Ethiopic to Semitic origins in South Arabia, or the process of extinction and resurrection of writing systems.

The text entitled Ethiopic decisively demonstrates that there is a great literary tradition in Ethiopia, and as such the third and fourth chapters carry the strongest arguments of the study. Paradoxically perhaps, the greatest strength of Ayele Bekerie's argument is also its greatest weakness, other than clinging to the notion that Ethiopic is not Semitic in origin. Though thoroughly demonstrating that through Ethiopic there has been a rich cultural, literary, and religious tradition among the languages associated with Ge'ez, such as Tigre, Tigrinya, and Amharic, this is only true among the Christian highlanders of Tigrinyan, Tigrean, and Amhara ethnicities.

Implicit in Ayele Bekerie's study of Ethiopic is the historiographic misconception that the Ethiopic writing system itself is representative of all Ethiopians, which is a fundamental weakness in the argument, for the Oromo, Somali, Afar, Gojjame, and even the Maji linguistics are not of Ethiopic origin. They are of Cushitic, Nilo-Saharan, and Omotic linguistic origin, respectively. As such, they do not conform to this linguistic and cultural model, for the aforementioned ethnic groups combined comprise over 50% of present-day Ethiopia's population. As such, the Ethiopic writing system, a system imposed on the predominantly Muslim Somali and Oromo peoples through the system of imperialist Amhara personal rule from the 19th century, has ended with the EPRDF government in Ethiopia, from 1991 to the present. Ethiopic, even if not Semitic in origin, certainly is not of Cushitic, Omotic, or Nilo-Saharan origin.

Prof. David Zerbe is a graduate of Central Connecticut State University and the American University at Cairo.

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From: Ayele Bekerie, Cornell University

Thank you for inviting me to send you a rejoinder to the review of my book by David S. Zerbe.

First of all, I commend Mr. Zerbe for taking his time to review the book. The review seems to concentrate on paradigmatic issues that are addressed from the perspective of the old school. According to this school, the origin of the Ethiopian civilization, its writing system, its classical language are presumed to have external origin. True to the old school, the reviewer continued to divide the Ethiopian people by identifying the Ethiopic writing system with the "Semitic" people of the northern part of Ethiopia, thereby continuing to pursue a racist divisive theory, between the so-called Semitic and Hamitic peoples of the Horn of Africa.

Contrary to the claim that "imperial Amhara's imposition" of their language and FIDEL writing system (a modified and expanded Ethiopic writing system developed for Amharic) on non-Amharas, the people of the south, just to cite one example, chose Amharic after 1991, as their official language together with FIDEL. In other words, Amharic is no longer the imperial language; it is a language the majority of the Ethiopian people opted to have as their official language. Besides the diverse ethnolinguistic groups in Ethiopia, they do have constitutional rights to use their languages as major modes of communication and commerce in their geo-cultural regions.

It seems to me that apart from presenting a general description of the format of the text as well as some critical and valuable comments, the review does not thoroughly interrogate the "history and principles" of the Ethiopic writing system, which is the central defining theme of the book. This point became apparent to me when Mr. Zerbe referred to the Ethiopic writing system as an "alphabet." The Ethiopic is not an alphabet; it is a syllabic writing system. As a matter of fact, I suggested a term "syllography" in order to reflect the syllabic feature of the system. I wonder how such a critical distinction ended up being overlooked by the reviewer.

In Chapter 1 on "The Arabian Peninsula in Ethiopian Historiography," I clearly stated my positions:

"The most critical question that must be raised is: What is the logic of beginning a history of a people from a source other than their own? Are Ethiopians incapable of making their own history? A history of a people that begins with an external source is quite problematic. It would not be the history of the Ethiopian people, but the history of South Arabians in Ethiopia. A history of a people cannot begin from outside or by outsiders. History records the material and spiritual cultures of all peoples. All people make history. All people are of history." (p.38)

This is the principle that I followed throughout the text. The purpose of my study was to investigate the historical data regarding the Ethiopic writing system, primarily from within and to present an interpretation of the history, fully cognizant of the languages, the cultures, and experiences of the people of Ethiopia.

In one of his critical comments, Mr. Zerbe wrote: ". . . Ethiopian civilization is a result of the migration of the Puntite peoples of Upper Egypt southward, and is therefore indigenous to Africa." The "migration of the Puntite peoples of Upper Egypt" was not my idea. I see migration, in the African context, with its varying and vast ecological zones as multidirectional and the initial migration was probably from the south to Upper and Lower Egypt.

Punt is a term the Ancient Egyptians reportedly used for the people of the south. The coastal region of northeast Africa, roughly between today's Red Sea port of Suwakin in the north, and the Cape of Guardafui in the southeast, was known to the ancient Egyptians as the land of the Punt, the land of spices, incense, and deities. "The Puntites were regarded by the Egyptians as having the same origin as the Egyptian themselves. The physical characteristics of the Punts from the wall-picture of Deir el-Bahri, based on studies made, differ little from the Egyptians' physical attributes. Zayed (1990) attempted to limit the geographical locale of Punts to Somaliland; he cited the similarity of the term BARCHI or headdress both in Somali and ancient Egyptian language. Zayed perhaps did not know that round seats with three legs are also called BARCHUMA in the Amharic and Oromo languages of Ethiopia." (p. 53)

At least from the time of the V Dynasty, there was a reference to the Land of the Punt. "In the XVIII Dynasty, Pharaoh Hatshepsut sent Nehasi to Punt with five ships. He was accepted by the Punt king Perehu. All Godly fragrant woods of God's land was presented by the Queen to Amon." (p.53) The Godly fragrant woods, such as incense woods are found on the highlands of Ethiopia. In other words, the land of Punt cannot be restricted to the "Isaak clan" in Somaliland.

Regarding the question of pictographic writing systems, Mr. Zerbe was quick to point out my "failure to establish a solid link between the Ethiopic and Ancient Egyptian writing systems." While it is true that comparable pictographic writing system to Egyptian hieroglyphics are not yet found in Ethiopia, the Ethiopic writing system definitely displays pictographic and ideographic properties. (Please see the part on the "Description and Analysis of the Major Properties of the System, pp. 82-96, particularly Table 13 on p. 85.)

According to Mr. Zerbe, the epic tale of KEBRA NAGAST (THE GLORY OF KINGS) "was written in the time of Amda-Tsion [1312- 1342A.D.] in the 14th century." King Amde-Tsion was not the "restorer' of the Solomonic line of rule. Saint Takla Haymanot in the reign of Yekuno Amlak (1268-1283) is recognized in Ethiopian history with gratitude and reverence as the "restorer of the Solomonic line of rule," with its capital moving out of Aksum to Shoa, in the central part of present day Ethiopia.

It is important to note here that Ethiopians as sovereign and free people had cultural and economic relations with various peoples and states of the ancient as well as medieval world, including the Israelites, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, Nubians, and Yemenites. These relations partly involved significant cultural exchanges and adoptions. The mythology of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon should be seen in the context of cultural exchanges.

In his concluding paragraph, Mr. Zerbe wrote: "Implicit in Ayele Bekerie's study of Ethiopic is the historiographic misconception that the Ethiopic writing system itself is representative of all Ethiopians, which is a fundamental weakness in the argument, for the Oromo, Somali, Afar, GOJJAME, and even the Maji linguistics are not of Ethiopic origin." (Emphasis added.) First of all, as it is stated at the outset, Ethiopic refers to the Ge'ez writing system. The book is not about Fidel or the Amharic writing system. Fidel and Amharic language are now widely used by choice among the peoples of southern Ethiopia, whose indigenous languages include "Cushitic, Nilo-Saharan, and Omotic linguistic groupings!!"

The Oromos have opted to use Latin script for Orominya and the script is widely used in the Oromo region. As I stated in the book, the Oromo language could have found a sounder script in the Ethiopic system for the system has already addressed the question of explosive and implosive sounds that are found in most Ethiopian languages, including Orominya and Amarinya (pp.94-96).

As to the Gojjames, I am not sure if Mr. Zerbe has the information right. Gojjam is one of the most important centers of Ge'ez and Amharic literary traditions and scholarship. Gojjam is also home to the Agaus, one of the most ancient peoples of Ethiopia. The Agau language is believed to be older than Ge'ez and yet it contributed quite significantly to the development of both Ge'ez and Amharic languages. A quick glance of Table 21 (Major Centers of Quine [Poetry]) would have prevented the hasty and wrongful generalization.

To conclude: The Ethiopic writing system's elaborate and complex knowledge properties, such as philosophy, linguistics, and aesthetics, which are indigenous only in Ethiopia, and the arduous processes associated with the creation and perfection of a writing system, make the external hypothesis very difficult to accept. Moreover, the system is truly self-sustaining and autonomous production. All the components of the knowledge were produced within the country -from goat skins to inks to ideas. Finally, Ethiopic is of African origin.

Professor Ayele Bekerie is in the African Studies Program at Cornell University

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Africa and the Net

By Haines Brown, CCSU , Emeritus

This article continues the series on wireless digital (vs. analog voice) telecommunications in Africa that began in the summer issue of Africa Update, with a brief discussion of high-frequency radio. Although not likely to be the principal mode in the future, HF radio may continue to have some use, and it provides a useful context for a discussion of newer higher frequency communications.

HF (high frequency) radio, which refers to frequencies below 30 MHz ("short- wave"), has the advantage of reaching a great distance with little power and of being independent of land lines and expensive satellites. A computer coupled with a HF radio transceiver becomes a node in a wireless network able to cover great distances. Such a wireless transmission of data has long been investigated by radio amateurs, and thanks to their effort the technology is mature.

Put simply, a "modem" converts the digital language of computers into an analog form that can be transmitted by FM radio. By techniques such as PACTOR, the computer's ASCII data bits are placed into "packets" with a coded address that enables them to be forwarded automatically from one network node (transceiver) to another, with automatic error correction. These data packets are carried by an e-mail protocol such as SMTP or UUCP. Such a network of HF client stations is able to transmit data transmission at 1200 or 2400 baud.

There are at least eight current projects using this means: Bushnet, WFP, MAF, DHA/OCHA Geneva, DTS, WaveMail-Shumperlin, and IFRC/UNHCR. Bushnet is the best known of them, and it would be worthwhile to describe its services, perhaps in a future article.

HF wireless networks have two major handicaps which limit their use. An important one is their slow speed of data transmission. While 1200 baud might suffice for e-mail, it is not good for much else, and so the major use for HF wireless networks is as an alternative to surface mail and telephone.

Another serious limitation is that a HF data network is expensive. While the air through which the radio waves travel would seem to be free, in fact it is not. To reduce a potential saturation of existing bandwidth, a charge is imposed based on volume (Kbytes sent rather than time on the air) that aims to reduce demand to the point that the quality of service (no delayed or dropped IP packets) remains satisfactory. This reliance on market forces means that high urban demand forces rural users to pay for access and in effect subsidize the more affluent users in cities. In fact the charge reduces demand well below the point at which bandwidth saturation becomes a danger, and this means the price is artificially high and the system can't take off.

Furthermore, HF equipment is expensive, and so while e-mail by itself is perhaps affordable for some, HF radio data transmission is not used for much else. A radio station (not including the computer) costs $7000, which might be acceptable to major urban institutions, but hardly to rural areas. Further, in some places there are exorbitant customs duties on radio equipment, and the suggestion that tax-free NGOs are the answer has raised the objection that this implies monopoly pricing and control by well-fed bureaucrats.

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Hollywood's African-Americans

by Shauna Brown (Hist 497: African History Through Film)

As early as 1902 films were being made which were reproductions of Black stereotypes popularized in American life and arts. Lawrence Reddick noted nineteen basic stereotypes of Blacks in American society, all of which he said "supplement each other, though they are sometimes mutually contradictory."

The Birth of a Nation was released on March 3, 1915. Without question it has remained the most vicious anti-African American film that has ever appeared on the American screen. It depicted Black men after the Civil War as beasts, arrogant, lustful and villainous. The movie Hallelujah was released in 1929. It was another turning point in American film. Halleujah had an all Black cast but suggested that African-Americans should avoid urban, modern living and remain in rural America.

By the depression decade, the black domestic servant was added. In movies such as Imitation of Life and She done him wrong, Louise Beavers found frequent work as the loyal maid. This set off a wave of films in which blacks were butlers,valets, cooks and domestics.

In Gone with the Wind, African-Americans were shown as liars, devoted field hands and rapists. During World War II, the industry did not present African American cultural themes or present authentic Black characters. It opted for black images that stressed assimilationist values. By the late 1940's, Black images were less demeaning than earlier stereotypes, but still lacked any depth and substance apart from values associated with integration. Sidney Poitier rose to celebrity status at this period. No Way Out, The Defiant ones, A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were some of the relevant movies. in each of these movies his characters were inscribed with assimilist aspirations and middle-class values.

Movies during the 1970's glorified African- Americans as pimps, gang members, drug dealers, and tough guys. Movies such as Shaft, Superfly, Coffy and others featured aggressive, violent black women and men. Success was confined within ghetto boundaries. By the mid to late 1970's, though, African-Americans had disappeared from the vast majority of Hollywood films.They appeared as an afterthought.

Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor played a large part in film in the next decade. In 1982, Richard Pryor acted in The Toy. He played the part of a Black man who was literally bought as a play thing for a spoilt white child. Eddie Murphy represented a loose, jivey, close to vulgar Black man. He was accepted by the audience because he really did not threaten Whites and their feelings of superiority.

Black women rarely had a chance to play important roles.They often ended up playing exotics: Grace Jones as a Sepia Dragon lady in such films as Conan the Destroyer, 1984.

In the 1990's images have moved into two directions with performers like Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Whoopi Goldberg taking on leading roles. We have a movement of African American filmmakers creating a new kind of cinema and now becoming part of the commercial mainstream.

There is more evidence of inter-racial male bonding, with Blacks remaining as supporting roles as in The Last Boyscout, where Damon Wayans plays the sidekick of Bruce Willis. Accomodating servant figures still show up.

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36th Annual Conference of the Japan Association for African Studies

The 36th annual conference of the Japan Association for African Studies will be held on May 29th and 30th, 1999 in Kyoto. This year's host will be Kyoto University's Center for African Area Studies, the only center in Japan devoted exclusively to the study of Africa. Kyoto is a particularly attractive venue for the conference, being one of the world's most beautiful cities and a major cultural and historical center. Kyoto university is one of Japan's oldest and most prestigious universities and should host an exceptionally fine conference. Overseas scholars are welcome to present papers on any subject related to African studies. Proposals for presentations should be sent to the organizing committee before February 26, 1999. Visiting scholars are also welcome to attend and meet their Japanese counterparts, even if they do not choose to present papers.

For more information contact the conference organizing committee chair, Professor Jiro TANAKA, <JAAS99@jambo.africa.kyoto-u.ac.jp> or visit the Kyoto University Center for African Area Studies website at <http://jambo.africa.kyoto-u.ac.jp/>.

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Arica at the Threshold of the New Millennium

8th conference of Africanists, Moscow, 28-30 September, 1999

The Scientific Council on Problems of African Countries, Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences and Russian Association of Africanists have come to the decision to convene the Eighth All-Russia Conference of Africanists on the subject "Africa on the Threshold of the New Millennium" on September 28-30, 1999.

During three days besides two plenary sessions the work of the conference is planned in the following sections:

  • Section 1. African Economy: Past Lessons and Future Hopes
  • Section 2. Contradiction of sociopolitical modernization
  • Section 3: Middle East and North Africa Islam and Reforms in Transitional Society.
  • Section 4: Africa and CIS in World Energy and Natural-resource Economy of the 21st Century.
  • Section 5. Africa Towards the End of 20th century. Seen by Historians.
  • Section 6: Personality, Ethos, and Culture at Social Turning-points
  • Section 7. Africa and CIS, a Comparative Analysis.
  • Section 8: Southern Africa
  • Section 9: Men, Women and Children in Africa: New Images and Roles career as one of political cultures factors.
  • Section 10: Literature Studies
  • Section 11: Linguistics
  • Section 12. Africa in the Global Community.
  • Relations between Russia and Africa.
  • Section 13. North and South at the threshold of a New Era

The working language is Russian, however simultaneous translations into English and French will be organized during the plenary sessions and the relevant assistance will be provided in the sections.

The conference will take place at the IAS. Apart from the travel and accommodation expenses the participants

are expected to pay a USD 200 fee. This includes copies of abstracts and a report of proceedings in English as well as translation of a participant's abstracts into Russian.

Please address all inquires to Conference Organizing Committee

Institute for African Studies

30/1 Spiridonovka str.

Moscow, 103001, Russia

Tel: 7 (095) 290 6385, 290 2752;

Fax: 7 (095) 202-07-86

E-mail: dir@inafr.msk.su

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 A one-day conference is being organised under the auspices of Vidzeme University College Valmiera, Latvia with the aim of exploring academic/business interests between Africa and the Baltic states.

Our primary aim is to help bring people together in a formal gathering, to debate, explore and build on activities of mutual interests to the citizens of Africa and Eastern Europe.

The conference is targeted towards Africa and the Baltic states of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.

Our objective is to establish dialogue first within the academia, in the area of comparative studies. Furthermore, it is vitally important to open up dialogue between the regions in the field of business and other economic activity. The Baltic states are keen to join the EEC, so too, are many African states keen to achieve an "Associate" status with the EEC. This leaves all the academic and potentials between Africa and the Baltic states totally untouched and unexplored.

For more information, get in touch with the Chair of the Organising Committeee, e-mail mail oke@va. ou can write to Ms. Baiba Traidase, Secretary-External


Vidzeme University College

Terbatas iela 10

Valmiera, Latvia

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