A KEYNOTE lecture by an eminent Sengalese historian, a panel of African personalities debating if the future of the world really lies in capitalism and a slavery walking tour are all among the highlights of a major conference on Africa in Edinburgh later this month.

More than 1500 delegates will attend the 8th iteration of the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 2019) between June 11 and 14.

The Centre of African Studies (CAS) of the University of Edinburgh is hosting the event on behalf of the association of European centres of African Studies. ECAS has grown to become the largest gathering of Africanist scholars outside of Africa, and CAS is proud to be staging it.

The keynote lecture will be given by Mamadou Diouf, an eminent Senegalese historian, and a panel made up of African personalities from different walks of life who will ponder the question of whether the future is really capitalist.

The issue of whether corporate extraction and mass consumption is driving the planet to the brink of disaster will surely crop up. The equally thorny question of who has the authority to speak about Africa will receive an airing at a number of roundtables and panel sessions.

The range of topics is vast and varied: deep histories, cities, sexualities, borders, peace and conflict, elections, popular culture and much more. In parallel, there is also a whole raft of cultural events, including film, exhibitions (including Uncover-Ed which documents the lives of Edinburgh graduates from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean), live music and a slavery walking tour.

In bringing this exciting menu to Edinburgh, we have been fortunate to secure buy-in from VisitScotland, Marketing Edinburgh and Emirates.

Some will question why such an event is not being held somewhere in Africa. The short answer is that the AEGIS (Africa-Europe Group for Interdisciplinary Studies) research network is a European association and it is therefore appropriate that we rotate these meetings between our members.

To travel en masse to an African location would be attractive, but no less open to question. There is an African Studies Association of Africa and we encourage our members to patronise their conference. Others may pose the question of why Scotland should be hosting such an event. Paris, Lisbon and London, yes, but Edinburgh? As tempting as it is, I will avoid delving into the heated debate about Scotland’s relationship to empire.

Some would argue that such an event is important because Scotland enjoys a close relationship with particular countries – most notably Malawi, which is often thought of as a kind of Presbyterian ex-colony. A better answer is that global citizens – which many Scots hold themselves to be – need to know about a continent which will boast two of the three largest cities in the world by 2075 (Kinshasa and Lagos), and will conceivably be home to 40% of the world’s population by the turn of the millennium.

The conference will no doubt debate the upsides and downsides of that particular story, but it is unquestionable that African narratives are going to loom much larger in everyone’s consciousness in the future. Understanding Africa in all its diversity and complexity is an important first step, for truly “Africa is not a country”.

But getting beyond the deeply entrenched framing of “Africa as a problem” is ultimately as important. African countries have their problems to be sure – some more than others – but in some respects, China, Europe and the United States are beginning to face up to challenges that are not so different.

But amid all the underlying pessimism globally, its also important to recognise the remarkable vitality of a continent where the median age of the population is 19.5 years and falling.

The contrast with an ageing Europe could not be more stark. Nollywood, the Nigerian variant on Hollywood and Bollywood, is a prime example of relentless innovation. It has captured a vast popular audience and has been selectively copied elsewhere.

The same vitality characterises African music, as witnessed by successive mutations within Congolese soukous and its localisation in other regions.

African sport – especially football, rugby and athletics – has been embraced by a global audience for some time now, and African literature is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.

And finally, when we come to the fundamental things in life – food, drink and fashion – there is an enormous richness in diversity. Think Ethiopian cuisine, Swartland Syrah and Ghanaian kente. People in Scotland need to know about, and ideally experience, all of these things, without falling uncritically into the trap of thinking that Africa is the virtuous foil to the North’s own shortcomings.

Not only is Africa not a country, but it is also not the reverse image of Europe. The way out of the trap lies in taking the time to listen to the way Africans talk about their own visions, differences, hopes and strategies.

This inevitably brings us to a shadow that has been looming over ECAS, which is the visa issue. When CAS bid to host the event, we were very clear that there needed to be a substantial African voice, ranging from keynotes to panel participation. The university agreed to fund around 100 Fellows from Africa.

We started the business of raising awareness early and guided applicants as to what they needed to do. However, a significant proportion were initially rejected.

Thankfully, after representations, most of these decisions have now been reversed, and we are hopeful that the great majority of participants will receive their visas – although time is running out. Where participants are blocked from attending, we will enable them to make “virtual” presentations. To re-state the obvious, understanding African realities today is a non-starter if African voices cannot actually be listened to.

Paul Nugent is Professor of Comparative African History at the University of Edinburgh