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Reflection on AfricaNow! sessions honoring Elaine Salo

By Terri Barnes, Associate Professor, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

I organized a session on December 2 at the 2016 African Studies Association annual meeting in Washington DC called “Keeping Feminism in African Studies – a panel in honor of Elaine Salo.” It was followed later in the day by another session organized by Akosua Ampofo, “Honouring Elaine Salo: The African Feminist Forum and Gandhi for come down!” The two sessions brought together about 30 people involved in African Studies in the US, who knew and wanted to come together to remember Elaine. We were honored to welcome Elaine’s partner Colin Miller to the first session.

The speakers in the first session focused on their personal and professional reminiscences of our comrade Elaine. I read out a list of the MA and PhD students that she had supervised at the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town – to show the range of topics that she inspired and supported with her students, and to show that her legacy is ongoing. Takyiwaa Manuh from Ghana spoke about Elaine’s intellectual reach to feminist scholars across the African continent, emphasizing that she was so powerfully immune to the “South African exceptionalism” exhibited by so many. Takyiwaa read out some of Elaine’s emails, showing her commitment to the institutionalization of women and gender studies in the African academy, and also her unwavering willingness to call a spade a spade, and an idiot an idiot, in our crazy world!

Cory Kratz was Elaine’s PhD supervisor at Emory. She spoke about how powerfully Elaine deployed the concept of “personhood” to which she had been introduced in Cory’s partner’s Ivan Karp’s classes.  This was not an abstract notion for Elaine – she took her anthropology into people’s lives, and it animated her portrayals of their humanity. With Elaine the professional was always so warm and personal – Cory remembered travelling to Cape Town with a box of Miles’ favorite breakfast cereal, and how Elaine unhesitatingly gave her a necklace of buttons she was wearing, when Cory admired it.

Sean Jacobs’ contribution centered on Elaine as a Capetonian. They met in Cape Town, where they found each other to be strong kindred spirits. So too, now, are their daughters. Speaking of people forcibly removed to the Cape Flats, Sean connected powerfully with memories of those who won the daily, silent struggles for dignity in the face of the many humiliations that apartheid imposed.

Anne Pitcher shared another memory of Elaine – how readily and enthusiastically she agreed to share her perspectives on Manenberg with a group of American study-abroad students. This was important to everyone in the group and Anne explained how the experience made a difference, in many ways, to them all.

Colin Miller told us how it was challenging to keep up with his dearest love and partner Elaine; she was always pushing forward; restless in some ways. Her devotion to her children was unwavering, unshakeable, a force of nature. He said he and Elaine disagreed about some things – sometimes she pushed to places that felt like a bridge too far. But that’s also how, over and over again, she made such a difference in so many people’s lives.

We then had contributions from people who came to the session; we shared favorite Elaine stories. We remembered her lively intellect, her laughter, her dedication to her students, her generosity with friends. There were plenty of tears and tissues were passed around repeatedly. Nomusa Makhubu led us in singing the South African women’s praise anthem, “Malibongwe” for Elaine.

The afternoon session was an example of how Elaine’s intellectual concerns linked up with and will continue to be manifested on the African continent by feminist scholars for whom empty rhetoric and inappropriate public policies must be called out as unacceptable. Akosua Ampofo outlined the controversy over the decision to erect a statue of Mohandas Gandhi on the campus of the University of Ghana. Students led members of the university community in objecting to the statue because of Gandhi’s documented opinions that were contemptuous of African people during his South African years, and which he did not repudiate in later life. Like the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town, the “Gandhi for come down” movement asks questions about legitimacy, democracy, history, and the role of local knowledge production in public policy making. Wangui wa Goro then outlined the horizontal, collectivist approach of the 4th African Feminist Forum, which in April this year once again brought African feminists together around their statement of principles and actions for women’s power and real peace on the African continent. Both were examples of the values that Elaine’s scholarship and her friendship so powerfully embodied.

In both sessions, we spoke of meals, laughter and music shared in Colin and Elaine’s home, whether in Woodstock and Plumstead in Cape Town; Pretoria; or finally, in Delaware. We shared our continuing shock at Elaine’s passing; we knew of her long battle with cancer, and of its recurrence; but we could not believe that it had taken her so soon.

The Brahms Requiem ends with a beautiful melody and lyric: “the good men do lives after them.” This past week we remembered some of the good that Elaine did. We will find, remember and recognize much more, in the years to come. Those wonderful things will indeed live on and we will cherish them. But oh, how we miss you, Elaine.


December 5, 2016

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