In 2003 while I was only a Masters student at the University of Botswana, I was granted the rare privilege to participate as a fellow in CODESRIA’s Child and Youth Institute held in Dakar, Senegal. Like many of the organisation’s intellectual and pedagogic activities at the time, it was an exceptionally unique experience. For me, like many of the people who participated at the Institute, it was one of their first international encounter and Pan African events – in fact, my first real workshop or conference. While we co-mingled with peers from different parts of the continent and globally, and revered in deep intellectual conversations at the highest level, it was the professionalism and dedication of all the CODESRIA staff that stood out remarkably. In the course of my Doctoral studies at the University of Basel, I visited Dakar intermittently to drink from the intellectual gourd of Francis Nyamnjoh, Jean-Bernard Ouedraogo, Ebrima Sall amongst other distinguished intellectuals who the organisation continuously and tirelessly convened in Dakar. During those visits, I always jumped at every opportunity to visit the CODESRIA offices at the Avenue Cheikh Anta Diop in order to meet and talk with CODESRIA staff, who had left a lasting impression upon me. The meticulous manner in which they carefully and respectfully handled those of us who they saw potential in and were nurturing as the tools of Africa’s future knowledge project was exceptionally admirable. The Codesria gates were permanently open and staff always ready, and available, even when visibly busy, to listen, engage and assist – yet overwhelmed by what could be termed the Blackman’s burden, that is the responsibility to decolonize, promote and give value to African knowledge, the infrastructure and the scholars who produce it.
In 2017 I returned to CODESRIA, where I joined a group of colleagues to make a contribution to Pan African knowledge production as Director of Publications and Dissemination. When I first walked into the corridors, my good friend and brother Ato welcomed me with a profound joke – “Massa, we hear that you are the new Jesus to save us from our sins of publications. I hope that you have brought your holly feet to walk on water.” One year later, Ato toiled with the idea of organising a conference on “Miracles” as if to mock our attempts at dealing with an inherited backlog of over 1000 manuscripts. His focus though was on a continent surviving through miracles, invested in miracles, but also needing miracles to deal with the immensity of its challenges. A string of global crises was deepening the continent’s ceaseless woes, and the ramifications for knowledge production were severe, particularly evidenced through austerity measures, funding cuts and increasing defunding of the knowledge production infrastructure. The term “Miracles” was thus the best way to describe what was needed and the state of the continent’s affairs. My wife, when she wanted to laugh at how much energy we had invested, were investing and still had to invest in the enormous challenge that had befallen us to rescue the continent’s knowledge infrastructure and ecosystem, would say “if you wrote this story as a work of fiction, no one would believe such hyperbole.” Few institutional histories of African knowledge production endeavours abound, making it near impossible to understand and be transparent about how these ‘miracles’ survive.
In a way old man Ansoumana Badji was such a miracle, a man endeared to miracles and who constantly prayed that the miracles of God should bless us. He often emphasized that he had seen it all. In our conversations he told me that he joined CODESRIA as a small boy in 1981 and had dedicated all his life to the mission and existence of the organization, going through its ups and downs, assuming different roles, and with a strong conviction that it will always grow bigger and stronger. In some of the historical accounts of the institution that earned him the title “Professor” – pertaining to the deep institutional knowledge that he commanded – old man Badji recounted the mailroom discussions with Thandika Mkandawire as he engaged staff on how to collectively confront looming defunding from the 1980s global financial crisis, or when they engaged Achille Mbembe to improve local staff welfare, received news of new funding each time Adebayo Olukoshi returned from a trip to Europe or negotiated with Ebrima Sall to preserve the remaining staff benefits. He was, as he described himself – a staff unionist, social activist and true combatant for the ‘local personnel’ and the good of the organisation, as well as a father to many staff who fondly called him ‘Papa Badji’ or ‘Tonton Badji’ and whom he frequently introduced proudly as his daughters, sons, siblings, spouses and parents.
In the year leading up to the 2018 CODESRIA General Assembly, I began to make a series of video recordings documenting staff experiences of organising General Assemblies and the significance of this event to them. Old man Badji, it took a while to get him to talk about the General Assembly because all he wanted to discuss was the history of his life in the organization, his experiences as a local staff member and frustrations of his afterlife as a ‘technicien du surface’. He wanted to be heard and given the opportunity to critically discuss the knowledge of the institution he had accumulated, and his opinions about the ever-shifting states of affair. In the Postcolony, bureaucratic accessories such as cleaners or errand boys – mainly referred to as ‘Planton’ in Francophone Africa and ‘Messenger’ in Anglophone Africa – play an absolutely significant role in the life of every office or organization – buying bread, airtime, snacks, collecting/delivering mail, transacting verbal messages, and many other everyday necessities. It is the totality of this experience, his time in the staff union, age, commitment and dedication to Codesria, and particularly his love for debates and intellectual conversation, that he earned the name/title and occupied the position of Professor, Doyen, or simply put – the Dean, as I so fondly called him.
In the mornings when I arrived at work, just like all other staff, performing the morning routine of distributing greetings and teasing out joking relationships, I often met old man Badji in the corridors near the conference room, in front of Ndofene’s office where we made subversive jokes, and allowed him to recount stories as we laughed. Like everyone else, he carried his baguette jealously in his hand and sometimes under his arm, to participate in ‘ndeki’, the convivial breakfast ritual that brought many stories and conversations together. In the corridor, he would joke about the Serer and the Joola people, recounting popular myths and stories about the Serer people returning to their villages with big bags of bread on top of the reconstructed buses that regularly transported people between Dakar and the other regions. Sometimes the Chief Protocol Marième Ly with whom he had developed a joking Tom and Jerry playful relationship around ndeki would join us as she entered the Codesria building. Sometimes at ndeki, he playfully tried hard to hide away from Marieme, who after catching up with him, would jokingly seize his cup of tea and redistribute his bread to the younger ‘techniciens’. This cat and mouse play was hilarious, and symbolic of the deep friendship, trust and bond he forged with staff over years. As the Doyen and venerable Professor, he always had a story, and something to say about everything, and often insisted that at his age he was not afraid of anyone or anything else, as his focus was on the wellbeing of the organisation. His prayer was for Codesria to grow strong, to grow rich, and for new generations to nurture it with dedication and continue upholding its traditions and principles. And like a true Doyen, old man Badji thought that young people were either too rebellious, too radical or had no respect for traditions, and therefore at risk of destroying what ‘we’/he had built.
During the 2018 interview, when I asked him to talk about his experience of the General Assembly and the meaning for him, Badji said: “Codesria is everything to me. Codesria… it is an entire book. I cannot begin to tell you. Codesria represents everything to me. Codesria gave me everything. When I came here I was a young man. Today, I have worked at Codesria for 37 years. I came single, I got married, I have had my children, [and] I have a son who is starting to work. Codesria gave me everything!” It was probably this that drove his deep loyalty for, entitlement towards and ownership of the organization, at least for the time that I was there. He insisted that every senior manager and new “patron” needed to humble themselves and learn from him and from the staff, who he insisted had built the organisation piece by piece. I often revered him and others such as typesetters Daouda Thiam and Sériane Camara Adjavon, storekeeper Edgard Diatta, librarians Abou Ndongo, Jean-Pierre Diouf and Emiliane Faye, accountant Amadou Diop, membership officer Marie-Ndiaye and gateman or “gardien” Pape Abdoulaye Fall as living archives and symbols of the tenacity, resilience and optimism of the post-independence knowledge project. In the mind of old man Badji, the history of the organisation as stored through the terms of office of every Executive Secretary was firmly implanted. He remembered everyone vividly and assessed them, amongst everything by their intellectual prowess, their commitment to staff concerns, their vision of the institution, fundraising, and especially by their ability to humble themselves and join the cleaning staff and others for tea downstairs, in the mailroom, and printing press – now defunct. For each he had developed a profile, a theory and a prayer. But always, he insisted “il faut prier” (we must pray), as a Doyen would do – he had seen it all. And who needs a Marabout when we have Badji?
The Doyen Professor Badji often reminded me of the characters I had encountered in Cameroonian writer Ferdinand Oyono’s novels Houseboy (Toundi) and The Old Man and the Medal (Meka). In a sterling tribute to Oyono, Shola Adenekan observes, “His second novel, The Old Man and the Medal (1956), evoked the deep sense of disillusionment felt by those Africans who were committed to the west, yet rejected by their colonial masters.” In these novels, the humility, outspokenness, tenacity, unreserved loyalty, curiosity, a mix of political/cultural factors and desire to consume and partake of modernity permanently precarised and bracketed the aspirational nodes, thus radically changing the value and terms of recognition of the characters. For over 37 years, the Doyen Professor Badji remained loyal to his profession and calling as a teaman, having graduated from working as the ‘technicien du surface’ following what he often recounted as an unfortunate situation – an ailment, in which he was stricken by illness impacting his sensori motori and bodily techniques. But it also offered him the opportunity to mentor a new group of young ‘techniciens’, whom he frequently referred to like any gorgui (old man) of his stature would do, as gosses (kids). I was a gosse – just a kid, and he was my father. It takes a skillful kind of narcissism and total disrespect/disregard for African customs to not be intimidated by such elders when they are your subordinate, especially when they are so accomplished, full of wisdom and command such deep/invaluable institutional knowledge/history. It was also this that made accomplished colleagues like Ato Onoma, Parfait Akana and Mamadou Dramé respectfully refer to Tonton Badji as ‘Professor’, ‘Goro’ or the ‘Guru’.
Doyen Professor Badji started work at Codesria when I had not even been enrolled in primary school, and I had gone on from first meeting him at the 2003 Codesria Child and Youth Institute, to obtain a PhD, work as an academic at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and then rejoin him in Codesria’s headquarters in Dakar 14 years later as a senior management staff. Doyen Badji knew a lot about my programme’s enormous challenges, sometimes opined and frequently discussed those who had come to try before me, but mostly observed from a knowing and well-informed distance. He knew the script, and for him I was probably just another character on stage. When I was Acting Director of Administration and Finance, and later Codice, Badji had in spite of my young age and little experience in the organisation engage me regularly as ‘patron’ (or boss); never failing or missing an opportunity to speak out his mind and be outspoken. As he always said, I speak out my mind, I tell you the truth, you will not like it, but I don’t go behind your back. He was committed to improving staff working conditions and benefits, and used every opportunity to be frank about it. I often wondered what it would be like if the intellectual biographies of professors like doyen Badji were privileged, but also what it would mean to nurture and incorporate or integrate intellectuals like him into the scholarship that we were curating. For this to happen, there needs to be a shift, inversion or expansion of what is archived and standardized as the material form of knowledge, and indicators of ad hominem achievement.
When he was not serving tea, the small office at the gate, the mango tree in the yard, the conference room, the storeroom, the courtyard and the carpenter-artist studio in front of the Codesria gate was his office and some of his favourite hangouts, and where he so articulately debated the world; as his ethnographic eye carefully observed and analysed the intricacies and ins-and-outs of Africa’s premier Pan African research organisation. There were times in which I bumped into him changing his clothes in the Interpreters booth that he had adapted into his changing room, and the conference room where he sometimes took a short nap in the midst of the spirits of numerous intellectuals nurtured in that room, and away from the burden of years of seeing, knowing and contemplating. At the end of 38 years of his existence committed to the organisation he had no room in the building to call his office, the sky was his roof and the earth his floor, also reason why he was often itinerant. In the course of day, he would, like antique restorative engineers, carefully clean the tools of his trade as teaman – each cup, teaspoon, saucer, glass, etc. I was always fascinated by the systematic way in which he meticulously wiped and fought his way through the dust in a place in which it was permanently part of the landscape. The brown khaki uniform that had been mandated as work tool for ‘techniciens’ further projected him as a craftsman. I often regarded and admired him as a fine craftsman, therefore deserving of the titles Doyen and Professor. From observing him I quietly learned and drew inspiration about the meticulousness, tenaciousness, resilience and stubbornness required to unapologetically emancipate African knowledge, especially in a world in which, as Francis Nyamnjoh eloquently argues, we have moved from publish or perish to publish and perish. These were also lessons about inclusion and the valuing of every player and contribution, particularly those that are so present but ever absent because they cannot be counted and considered insignificant.
In the global knowledge production ecosystem that we inherited and continue to celebrate, the focus on outputs, publication counts, impact factor and citation indexes, amongst others, means that a hierarchy operates in which some actors are privileged, valued and visible, while others are never or hardly ever acknowledged. The invaluable labour that goes into what I term ‘the back office’ is absolutely critical for any successful production, because without it nothing happens. From 1981 when he started work at Codesria to 2019 when old man Badji retired is the story of how to reimagine the Pan African decolonial knowledge project in a manner in which we de-bureaucratise and de-hierarchise relationships. In our quest for an alternative and authentically African theory of knowledge, we must ensure that we do not devalue, alienate and frustrate what operates as the proletariat or working class of the knowledge enterprise. As archives burn and disappear in various parts of the continent, we have no choice but to ensure that in rebuilding, every ordinary story is included, recounted and accounted for. Everything counts and everything that counts should be counted. As visions and metaphors of and for knowledge decolonization increasingly proliferate and dissipate, the violence perpetuated by decades of knowledge infrastructural ruination requires miracles for emancipation.
During the interview in 2018, old man Professor Badji, the Doyen was worried, despite our reassurances that new practices of collegiality, knowledge production and infrastructure development were creating toxic divisions in the Pan African knowledge project and amongst its foot soldiers, who he insisted must coalesce and operate as a unified collective. New modern developments and neoliberal managerialism had rapidly redefined his job and the role of the tea-man, rendering him redundant and making him a guest/spectator in his own office, as his work was outsourced to private/external contractors. In fact on several occasions, he was present but had to watch as the tea he was responsible for curating was being served from his tea-stand/tent in the courtyard, and at which he could not participate. Like Oyono’s houseboy Toundi he knew and had seen so much that, even though provoked by increasingly failing eyesight, he began to adorn cool dark sunglasses as if to escape and shield himself from the people, the gossip/rumours, the commandement and its issues or better still to foreground his eminence as a sage and an accomplished Don.
In the interview with him in 2018, he emphasized: “Codesria is for everyone. Everyone must wash hands in it. Everyone must participate. Everyone must put their two cents in. If Codesria wins it’s everyone who wins. If Codesria loses, everyone loses. Do not sideline someone.” During the 2018 Codesria General Assembly, Executive Secretary Godwin Murunga organised a special intervention to recognise and honour retiring staff that had dedicated their lives and existence to the service of the organisation. Celebrated at the end of a day in the midst of the assembly, each received a plaque and were all given the rare privilege of a photo-op with former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was a keynote speaker at the event, and idolised by many. At the cusp of the surprise, it turned out, and sadly so, that the Guru, Doyen Professor Badji had embarked on his usual close to 30-40 kilometer long diesel-ingesting public bus ride in the ‘transport commun’ to his home in the Keur Massar area outside Dakar, in order not to be trapped by dusk and therefore prepare himself to be back for work at dawn. This caused him to miss the recognition ceremony and photo-op with the “I am an African” poet and statesman, which several of the retiring staff such as Amadou Diop regarded as one of the best crowning glories of their illustrious career and service to the organisation and the African continent. Gorgui Badji missed everything, especially the distinguished photo-op with President Mbeki that he had so hoped and longed for. Almost like Oyono’s Meka, his plaque celebration, extended wait for recognition, and longing for a frozen moment with former President Mbeki dissipated in the necessity to return home. But gorgui Badji was not Meka and the context was not exactly the same.
Soon after retiring from Codesria, he received a send-off from the staff in February 2020. Four months after that, on June 26th 2020, the Guru, Doyen Professor Ansoumana Badji passed on, in the same year in which Thandika Mkandawire, Manu Dibango and so many others journeyed on. For 38 years he dedicated his life to the organisation, which had given him everything, and was everything to him. Like the towering marginal figure he was, his death passed quietly in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, almost unnoticed by the extensive number of researchers, scholars and intellectuals whose careers and lives he helped nurture, and who drank the cosmic tea that he passionately served them. No special issues of journals, no posthumous festschrift, no dedicated tribute boards, no global memorial services, no celebration. But how does one celebrate such a towering figure? Would he have loved one? How can he be memorialized? How do we curate archives that are so pertinent but grafted in the stencils of many gerontocratic brains? And how do we value such libraries in a world in which text and its numerisation are core elements of value making? From him we can draw many lessons, particularly in the decolonial struggle to emancipate African knowledge.
To introvert and respond to Paulin Hountondji’s critique with respect to the extraversion of African scientific production, we must caucus, coalesce, connect and adopt a new inclusive politics and praxis of solidarity. The stakes for Pan African knowledge production and decolonisation are so high that we cannot afford the luxury of alienation, compartmentalization and the diminution of players and contributions we define as insignificant. Decades of extroversion require that competitive and belittling practices that have held back and divided solidarities need to be substituted for new collective interventions and knowledge activism that treat everyone and all contributions as equally valuable. In a world in which we are struggling for audibility and legibility our first strategy is to ensure that any of our stories that we can lay our hands on be told and valued in order to both dominate and direct the narrative. Once a significant part of that archive is created, we can begin the process of expanding and creating alternatives for the current systems of evaluation, value, acknowledgement and reward that dominate scientific production.
As postcolonial, decolonial and decolonisation scholars (e.g. Nyamnjoh, Mignolo, Mbembe, Oyeronke, Dabashi) continue to emphasise, a knowledge emancipation project should seek to include and expand rather than narrow or provincialise and exclude. In the knowledge production ecosystem every player and contribution counts – drivers, cleaners, editors, writers, distributors, translators, messengers, booksellers, etc. We have a small window of opportunity now. As discussions and negotiations on the terms of engagement around the Africa Free Trade Area advance, it is crucial that Pan African knowledge activists on the continent and globally caucus, compliment their efforts and mobilise to ensure that knowledge circulation across national and regional borders is central to any new economic organisation. It is crucial that the work undertaken by dedicated foot soldiers and comrades like the Guru, old man Doyen Professor Badji does not go in vain. By disrupting hierarchies, advancing inclusive praxis and adopting new politics of solidarity as Tonton Badji highlighted in his conversation, we can gradually begin to move to the place where everyone in the system is not just valued but can also consume what they actively participate in producing, and also dream beyond the borders of the technical surface they are bracketed in.
Let me end this tribute with an anecdote from my first days at work in Codesria in 2017. Full of energy, ideas and passion in my attempt to deliver ‘miracles’, I would sometimes take the broom to clean my desk and re-arrange the books on my shelf, and some fateful day I took the bucket and broom to mop the floor that I had mess up from moving around papers. That was the last day that I ever made such an ignominious blunder. Old man Tonton Daouda rushed to me and held my hands down, asking me to please keep off the broom, bucket and mop, as he called one of the ‘techniciens’ to come do it. I protested and insisted that I could do it; I did it at home and wanted to be involved in cleaning work. It was my own way of honouring the ‘techniciens’ by reducing the burden of their work. The old man held my hand and directed me back into my office, at which point he spoke softly like he always did, “Divine, there is a thing for everyone. I know you can do this, but you have to allow other people to be. When you do this, what are you saying they should do? What do you want them to do with their work?” There is a way in which our entanglements with neoliberal modernity renders insensitive, unwise and emotionally unintelligent as we navigate the world through universal frames of reference. Sages like Tonton Badji insisted that everyone mattered, and that we each in our small or big places contribute to the holistic picture. In the knowledge ecosystem, each of us holds a piece of the puzzle, and therefore equally valuable, else the result is incompleteness.
The greatest challenge we have experienced and continue to undergo as a knowledge community is the inability to be free with our ideas, to be who and what we are and can be, and to not be able to allow the pen to run and smile in our hands like it continues to do for many dominant others. But we cannot solve this violence through exclusion, devaluation and alienation. To borrow a line from the Doyen Professor – knowledge production is for everyone, and no one should be sidelined. Over the past year since he departed from our realm, I have thought hard about what I would write as epitaph on his gravestone if I was given the opportunity to do so: “here lies the miracle Guru Doyen Professor Ansoumana Badji who gave all his life to Codesria and to whom Codesria was everything.”
When Langaa RPCIG first published this tribute on Saturday 15th May 2021, I received numerous comments, responses and outpouring from Codesria colleagues, alumni and those who had encountered Professor Badji, which I think is important to include herein. Williams Nwagwu who was Programe Officer and Head of Codice observed that it was “Beautiful [and a] good way to celebrate Badji” but wanted to know “why authorized?” In bureaucratic institutionalization, everything requires procedure, approval and authorization. Given that I neither sought nor have obtained approval or authorization to write, publish and disseminate this tribute, as should be the case, the reference “unauthorized” is meant for transparency. In his response, Francisco Sozihno, former Deputy Executive Secretary noted, “I hope Badji will see the tribute.” Tiny Diswai, former Director of Administration and Finance called it “heartwarming”, noting “Oh Badji. You rest. You were always so positive and so full of life. Always welcoming with a smile.” Stores manager Babacar Anne, one of those who the Doyen had trained and helped promote from “technicien” to store manager wrote, “Badji my big brother, he spent the majority of his existence at the service of CODESRIA.” Diama Beye, who had been my assistant in the Publications and Dissemination Programme and currently assistant at the Codesria bookstore, noted, “Papa Badji was my father. He gave advice to everyone.” My former colleague Samuel Osime who was Manager Editor for Publications in English remarked: “There’s a song: “…only remembered by what we have done”. The best way to leave indelible footprints in the sands of time is to render consistent, committed and selfless service irrespective of status, stature and station. Badji epitomised this glowingly. He will be sorely missed.” Ibrahima Niang, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HUMA – Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town who regularly interacted with old man Badji observed in his comments that institutions need to acknowledge the little people that serve them. “I called him the seeker who seeks.” Former Membership Officer, Marie Ndiaye, who worked with Professor Badji for decades, and at whose office he frequently sat was very profound. She wrote: “Ansoumana Badji is the last of the Mohicans. Badji met them all: From Kazadi Nduba wa Dille to Isabel Casimiro. Badji worked with them all, from Samir Amin to Godwin Murunga. Badji has followed CODESRIA everywhere: From IDEP to Avenue Cheikh Anta Diop. He was there through every change: from the Council of Directors to the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. He was present at the first CODESRIA institute, a Democratic Governance Institute, alongside the Raufus, the Bayos…. When, one day, the other CODESRIA story is written, the day-to-day CODESRIA life story, the one you will not find in Bulletins, reports, or catalogues, Badji will feature in good place for his service, his dedication and his love of CODESRIA. Badji was a family man, a music lover, a great salsa dancer and a funny, wonderful and caring colleague.” Like my friend and former Managing Editor for French Publications, and now professor at UCAD observed: “Ansoumana was a great man.” We doff our hats to you great Guru, Doyen Professor Ansoumana Badji.
Bio: Divine Fuh is a social anthropologist from Cameroon and Director of HUMA – Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town. He was director of CODESRIA’s publications and dissemination programme from 2017-2020, and a fellow of the 2003 CODESRIA Child and Youth Institute. Divine is founding managing editor of Langaa RPCIG. His research is focused on youth, urbanity and the politics of suffering and smiling, as well as the political economy of Pan African knowledge production and publishing.
HUMA – Institute for Humanities in Africa
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