Africa in Our Lives: Karin Barber

Karin Barber knew she wanted to study Africa when she first set foot in Uganda as a recent high school graduate. Since then, her study of African popular culture, religion, and verbal arts has spanned the continent, most recently focusing on Nigeria for a project on early Yoruba print culture. We look forward to hearing her keynote address this weekend at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

“Creativity, imagination and invention are pleasurable – and these are the hallmarks of African life on the ground, no matter how dire the circumstances.” -K. Barber (submitted photo)

Field of study: African Cultural Anthropology
Hometown: I don’t really have a hometown as my parents were abroad when I was born and I grew up in several places (Sweden, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire). But I have lived in Birmingham UK for the last 30 years so I guess that’s the nearest thing.

What sparked your interest in Africa?

After finishing high school, I did Voluntary Service Overseas (the UK counterpart to Peace Corps) and was posted to Uganda. From the moment I set foot on the tarmac of Entebbe Airport I knew my future was sealed.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I’m a secret playwright. During the years that I taught Yoruba language and culture at the University of Birmingham I wrote and directed 11 or 12 plays in Yoruba – performed by my language students each year. Some years we were invited to take the play on tour to African Cultural Associations and schools and colleges around the country. The plays usually featured the trickster character Tortoise (ijapa) – the tortoise-shell costume was made by my late mother, who was an even bigger theatre enthusiast than I am – and also a Skeleton, a Snake, a Babalawo, several Chiefs, and one year we even had an Ostrich in pink tights who entered to the sound of bagpipes. It was amazing fun.

What is your most vivid memory from the time you spent in Nigeria?

I was there for 11 years, so the memories relate to a big chunk of my life. In Okuku, where I spent three years doing my first fieldwork: on a tranquil early evening after a rainstorm, threading my way through the golden laterite paths between compounds, with woodsmoke rising and the sound of pestle and mortar. On my first trip with the Oyin Adejobi Theatre Company, terrified half to death as I stepped onto the stage in front of an incredibly exuberant crowd. At the University of Ife, where I taught in the Department of African Languages and Literatures: eager, attentive, responsive students with vast repertoires of Yoruba orature at their disposal (one student, a poet, wrote his essays entirely in proverbs). Getting to know wonderful, creative people: among them the writers Akinwumi Isola and Oladejo Okediji, the artists Muraina Oyelami and Agbo Folarin, media poets Tunbosun Oladapo and Lanrewaju Adepoju, actor, playwright, poet and satirist Jimi Solanke… and many, many more. It was a privilege to be in that environment.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

I have just completed a short history of African popular culture, which will be published by Cambridge University Press. This is an attempt to trace transformations in popular creativity across the continent, from as early as the seventeenth century up to the present day, and to understand how popular genres were created in response to changing social, political and economic circumstances. Now that I have finally managed to let this project go, I’m turning back to an archival project I’ve been working on for some years: a study of early Yoruba print culture, looking at Yoruba-language newspapers, pamphlets and books from around 1880 to around 1930. It’s deeply absorbing and reminds me every day how huge the field of Yoruba textuality is, and what a great pleasure it is to add a little more to the very little that I already know.

What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?

I always enjoyed teaching Yoruba language and culture because it was intensive and because at the end of each lesson the students were conscious of knowing more than when they came in. They had to overcome their inhibitions and be willing to risk plunging into the unknown. This released incredible energies. The classes were punctuated by gales of laughter and the students bonded with each other, sometimes permanently so that they continued to call each other by their Yoruba names years after graduation. I also enjoyed teaching a course on African popular culture, especially at graduate level, because the material is so fascinating and so many genres have been brilliantly documented and analysed by scholars.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

“Out of Africa, new things are always appearing”. This is a highly diverse continent, constantly producing the unexpected, a place of originality, and a place where there is just so much to be studied and understood. People will also be very kind to you. Go there once and you will debate no longer.

Why is the study of pleasure in Africa and the African diaspora important?

Because creativity, imagination and invention are pleasurable – and these are the hallmarks of African life on the ground, no matter how dire the circumstances. External views of Africa, especially by media and policy makers, tend to emphasise crisis, disease, dysfunction, destitution on the one hand, and the fragility of “remote” and “exotic” cultures on the other. These are undoubtedly serious challenges that need action. But people’s lives are more than the crises they live through. The resilience and creativity of everyday life might be a good starting point for understanding what is involved in dealing with adversity and building a fulfilling life.

Give us a teaser for your presentation at PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

There’s an infallible source of pleasure which is available everywhere in Africa and the diaspora. It’s absorbing, participatory, can be indulged in anywhere, and is free of charge! What is it? It’s language.

Visit the conference website to learn more about PLEASURE AND THE PLEASURABLE in Africa and the African Diaspora.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

Click here to view more “Africa in Our Lives” profiles.