Academic and author of ‘Against Wildlife Republics: Conservation and Imperialist Expansion in Africa’ Aby Sène, believes pan-Africanism should not be presented in an alienating way: ‘To me, before any theory or ideology, pan-Africanism is first and foremost an instinct, an intense love for global Blackness that includes love towards all Africans across the globe, including the poor and working-class African, the agrarian African, the queer African, the incarcerated African, and so on.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I grew up in several Francophone West African countries and attended French schools in Senegal, where I was born, then Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. And so, the literary works that I was mostly exposed to was from Francophone Africa, and from the post-independence period. The books I read were the classics set in the post-independence period from authors such as Maraima Ba, Aminata Sow Fall, Amadou Hampate Ba, Camara Laye and Ahmadou Kourouma. Because I attended French schools for most my childhood, we also read the classic French literature from Molière, Victor Hugo and Candide Voltaire.
It wasn’t until we moved to Ghana when I was 17 that I started reading more books in English. My Dad is a Pan-Africanist at heart and was fluent in English ever since I can remember. The bookshelf in his office had all the classic anti-colonial and Pan-African thinkers, like Frantz Fanon, Amical Cabral, Nkwame Nkrumah and Chinua Achebe. He also had books from prominent Black writers from the diaspora like like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Maryse Condé and Zora Neal Hurston. But those books never really caught my eye until I started developing my own consciousness on Pan-Africanism and decolonial thought in my 30s.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I don’t know if I can pinpoint to a book that capture my entire life. But I can say that right now, Segou by Maryse Conde is the book for me. My heart, my body, my mind, my spirit all of it are deeply connected to the Sahel where I spent most of childhood years, the best memories. The Sahelian landscape, the family road trips through the region, the kora and desert blues music we listened all of it, I always carry in my heart. The book, Segou, captures so beautifully the images, the themes, the metaphors, the languages and the stories enshrined in the Sahelian landscapes, that it stirs up so many emotions in me. Many are happy ones, others of sadness because of the current events there, and mostly intense yearning for my ancestral land.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I can’t point to a specific text. However, as an African woman, who is in the decolonial environmentalism space, a lot of the discourses on environmental deterioration produced by the west have me extremely rattled and on a heightened alert to push back against anti-African, anti-Indigenous, and anti-poor thinking embedded in the neoliberal and technocratic narratives advanced by western brand of environmentalism.
My heart, my body, my mind, my spirit all of it are deeply connected to the Sahel where I spent most of childhood years, the best memories.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I just read a decolonial methodology paper titled, ‘Reclaiming the First Person Voice’ by tebrakunna country and Emma Lee. Lee is a Trawlwulwuy woman and scholar, indigenous to the settler colony of Australia. That paper has completely changed my mind around what it means to truly unsettle academic writing by centering my voice premised on upon the strengths and assets of experiencing my life as an African woman indigenous to the Sahel that is colonized and weaving that into the theoretical space. Before this paper, I considered that academic writing shouldn’t center my voice and her paper changed my mind about that.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
Definitely how it is written. I wish the subject mattered more than the writing, but that is not the case. You can have someone write a text on a topic that can cause a lot of harm yet write in a way that is persuasive and selling their position as one of moral high ground. We see this happen all the time in my field of environmentalism and wildlife conservation. On the other hand, you can also have someone turn a mundane topic, a taken-for-granted experience into something appealing through the writing, to be able to capture all the intricacies of life.
What was your process for writing ‘Against Wildlife Republics: Conservation and Imperialist Expansion in Africa’?
I’ve had a 5000-word op-ed that I wrote earlier in 2022, in which I wrote down everything I wanted to say about wildlife conservation, including what I already knew about, the things I recently learned about it and what I found out through my research. It was sections of that paper that I pulled from. What was important to me for this particular paper was to make it relevant to Africans in general rather than for people in a specific African countries; I wanted something that spoke from the perspective of Africans across the continent without claiming to be a voice for them. I also wanted to sharpen my language in a way that was authentic to my voice and the rage I feel about the constant alienation and dispossession of Africans by the global biodiversity conservation movement and their capitalist allies.
Why was it important that you wrote on this issue?
This was a commissioned piece right around the time many Africans found out that Prince Harry was the president of African Parks, and Prince Williams gave a speech about UK’s continued commitment to save African wildlife, and his racist comments about African population growth as a cause of ecological destruction. The time was propitious to push back against those dangerous and basically inaccurate narratives about Africans and biodiversity decline. I wanted to set the record straight about several points: 1) the danger of such narratives for Africans. 2) The strong connection between the expansion of capitalism and biodiversity conservation. 3) The real causes of biodiversity decline. 4) And finally, that saving forests, rangelands, wetlands and all the animals that roam on those landscapes depend primarily on the sovereignty of indigenous people to manage those resources. It’s a first a foremost a decolonial project.
What was important to me for this paper was to make it relevant to Africans in general rather than for people in a specific African countries.
As a Pan-Africanist, what’s one thing you wish people knew about pan-Africanism?
I’m always careful not to present pan-Africanism in a way that may feel alienating for folks who have this innate pan-Africanist sentiment but may feel as if they lack the language to express it. There is much difference between Afrocentricity and pan-African and I hope my explanation will not come across as a conflation of both. But to me, before any theory or ideology, pan-Africanism is first and foremost an instinct, an intense love for global Blackness that includes love towards all Africans across the globe, including the poor and working-class African, the agrarian African, the queer African, the incarcerated African, and so on. Then, this love is matched with a total, and uncompromising rebuke of global anti-blackness, to be able to say one dead, one dispossessed, one impoverished or one incarcerated African to sustain this capitalist and (neo)colonial order is one too many. This intense feeling has to be present first and give you a deep yearning for a totally different world, one that pushes towards a revolution. Then comes the political education and consciousness around pan-Africanism as a project of total liberation, sovereignty and self-determination for all African people. On personal level, I want other Africans to understand how incredibly mentally, and spiritually liberating pan-Africanism is.
You are a professor and researcher of conservation and cultural landscapes in Africa & US, what text would you recommend on this topic?
The first one that really shook and validated some of the many uneasiness I felt while working on conservation projects in my home country in Senegal, was The Big Conservation Lie by Kenyan writers John Mbaria and Mordacai Ogada. The book to me is the rawest of its kind. I’ve read a lot about the issues of conservation, but this book is the first one that is in your face about it. So authentic, and it felt validating for me. It allowed to say ‘okay, I’m not crazy. This is real.’
I would love to read and write about the ways African writers globally anthropomorphize their natural environment so unique, beautiful, deep, moving and intoxicating.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
I have so many, but I think of one of my favourite authors right now is Toni Morrison. She’s able to write about Black life in such a beautifully haunting way. Her writing moves through your mind and body so effortlessly, it’s like she speaks a whole different language. In same spirit I also think of Maryse Conde who is also so intricate in her descriptions of Black life and their landscapes in the Carribean and in West Africa.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I wish I had more time to write for leisure. But if I had more time, as an environmentalist, I would love to read and write about the ways African writers globally anthropomorphize their natural environment so unique, beautiful, deep, moving and intoxicating. I’m in awe by that aspect of their writings. It’s truly a testament to how Africans see themselves as an extension of their natural environment. How our stories, memories, imagination are ingrained in our landscapes from the continent to the diaspora. Which is very different than the binary understanding of human-nature relationships of Western culture. Many texts capture this so well, including Tar Baby by Toni Morrison. Segou by Maryse Conde, Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The River in Between by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and many more.
Question from Kai Mora: Who is the person in your life that has inspired you the most?
My paternal grandmother, Sokhna Anta Fally Diack. I’ve never known her in this realm, yet I’m deeply connected to her spirit. She is with me everyday and because of her, I am who I am. She inspires me⎈
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