My Newcastle 2023 Conference Experience in Words and Pictures

Between 2016 and this year, 2023, I have attended three international conferences hosted outside Africa. My first conference attendance was in 2016, the year I began my PhD at the University of Ibadan. It was the Fourth Postcolonial Narrations Conference held in Munich, Germany, where I presented a paper on post-postcolonialism. I am still intrigued, looking back, at how it all happened. I remembered this story some days after I had returned to Nigeria from the UK and a kind colleague came to present some documents to me. In his characteristic jovial manner, he offered to shake my ‘oyibo hands fresh from the UK’. I shook his hands and we laughed over it as I took the documents and returned to the house. Once I got back to the house, I recalled the significance of the handshake in relation to what actually happened to me in early 2016.

The story is that in that year, I was privileged to be working on a story project with Professor (Mrs) Felicia Etim, a renowned librarian from the University of Uyo. In the course of the project, she travelled outside the country for an international conference and when she got back to Nigeria, I went to see her. She said to me, ‘Eyoh come and shake my hands so that you will be travelling for international conferences’. In our Nigerian parlance, this means ‘tapping the grace’. I was honoured to shake the eminent Professor’s hands even though I did not think much about the significance. Later in October of that year, I was able, against all odds, to travel to Germany for my first ever international conference. These things work, guys!

I have a few persons to thank for making that first outing possible. Remember that the first experience is usually the most difficult, and so you have to recognise the midwives who helped make the birth of the dream a reality. The first person that immediately comes to mind is Professor Eno Ibanga, former Vice Chancellor of Akwa Ibom State University, currently the Commissioner for Works, Akwa Ibom State. He graciously approved the conference attendance and defrayed part of my flight ticket cost to the conference. The second person I would like to thank is Professor Otoabasi Akpan, the then Dean of Arts, Akwa Ibom State University. He did not only approve that I should attend the conference, he also offered words of advice and encouragement, as well as the steps I needed to take in order for the trip to be a success. The third person that I would like to appreciate is Sir Raphael Edem, an eminent compere and senior special assistant to the Government of Akwa Ibom State. He graciously and most generously bore most of the cost of visa application, as well as guiding me through the visa application process.

What were the gains of attending the first international conference? I would say exposure and connections. Mind you, I used my PhD education grant for the conference as there was no other source of funding then. This was the ‘Kanayo O. Kanayo’ sacrifice that I had to make on my part. The conference was important to me because the Postcolonial Narrations Conference (POCO) is mostly the gathering of PhD researchers all over the world to share ideas on their ongoing PhD work in the field of postcolonialism. Thus, it was important for me to test my idea on post-postcolonialism at this conference because I wanted to use the theoretical construct as a conceptual framework in my PhD research. The paper I presented at the conference was later published in 2019 and has been so far cited six times. Apart from these, I made some human connections that would later prove valuable for my research and career. I met Mr Andreas P. Schmid who has since become such a good friend with whom I could share ideas on any topic of international and cross-cultural concerns. Mr Schmid currently studies for his PhD at Oxford University, nearing completion. The self-sacrificial role he played in the success of my PhD research has been acknowledged in the thesis itself. He sent me tons of books and articles that helped me pull through with the research. He did this even when he was working on other time-demanding projects.

The other persons I met at the 2016 conference whose influence has inspired and changed my life are Dr Adebayo Sakiru, Dr Hanna Teichler, Dr Julia Hubna and Dr Laura Zander. Dr Sakiru is a scholar in a class of his own, speaks softly but his authority cannot be ignored. You cannot but be inspired by the excellence of his scholarship. Dr Hanna Teichler was the one who introduced me to the Memory Studies Association and urged me to become a member. She sent me a soft copy of her first book which I promised to review, but reading a soft copy is not easy in the clime of lightlessness. Hence, I still pray for the hard copy of the book to be sent. Dr Teichler’s mentorship and motivation have encouraged me to remain in the MSA and to continue to do research in the field. I was impressed by the kindness and politeness of Dr Julia Hubna and Dr Laura Zander during the conference. Their welcoming smile is the mnemonic that my memory has recorded to remember them by.

With the encouragement of Hanna Teichler, I was able to attend the 2019th edition of the Memory Studies Conference which took place in Madrid, Spain. This conference attendance was sponsored by TETFUND. May God bless and sustain TETFUND. By this time, I had completed my PhD thesis and decided to present a part of it at the conference using the framework provided by memory studies. Hence, at the Madrid conference I presented a paper entitled, ‘Memoir and Memory: Remembering Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda in Jack Mapanje’s And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night’. The paper was published in 2020 by a Taylor and Francis Journal. During the Madrid conference, I made quite a few valuable connections. One of them is Dr Judith Naeff, an Assistant Professor of Cultures of the Middle East at Leiden University, Netherlands. She happened to be at the panel where I did my presentation and took interest in my work. I have enjoyed invaluable counsels from Dr Naeff ever since. I was so happy to meet her again at the 2023 Newcastle conference. I equally met Dr Chijioke Kizito Ona in Spain. Then he was a PhD student in the US and has gone on to win the 2023 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowship.

The world stood still for Covid-19 in early 2020. All forms of international travels came to a standstill, conferences were cancelled and so was the 2020th edition of the Memory Studies Conference that was billed to take place at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville in the United States of America. It was not possible to have an on-site conference of the MSA until this year, 2023.

My experience at the 2023 MSA conference held in Newcastle, the United Kingdom, was nothing but different, rewarding and memorable. It was different because I got to stay longer outside Africa to experience more of the people and their culture. It was rewarding and memorable because I had a most pleasant conference experience for the most part. I had won, by the grace of God, the Special Gerda Henkel Foundation Travel Grant worth 4000 Euro, to enable me travel for the conference and to stay back for some time to do research in Newcastle University. For this year’s conference, my paper was entitled, ‘Deconstructing Northrop Frye and Conceptualising Africa’s Postcolonial Memory Monomyth in Selected African Novels’. The paper was presented on the 4th of July at the Newcastle University Business School, chaired by Dr Laura Routley, Senior Lecturer in African and Postcolonial Politics in Newcastle University. Dr Routley was kind enough to show me around Newcastle, pointing me to important landmarks and places in and around the University that could be of help in searching for directions, making the best purchases or bargains, and navigating the city and the University complex routes. I equally appreciate the lunch that we shared together, the trip to her office, her help in printing certain documents, her introducing me to a Nigerian lecturing in Newcastle University in her Department. These are all memorable moments for me coming out of the conference.

 I am most especially grateful to Dr Catherine Gilbert, Lecturer in the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University. She was the able host of the MSA 2023 Newcastle Conference who painstakingly guided me through the process of registering for my MSA research stay at Newcastle University. She did all this despite her busy schedule of organising the conference. I am so grateful to Dr Gilbert.

My research stay at Newcastle University was insightful at many levels. I stayed at Windsor Place 2, Newcastle University. The accommodation is close to the Philip Robinson Library where I did my research and it is directly opposite the Hadrian Bridge, which has this timeless verse at its entrance: ‘Listen/Time may sing you/Like spring,/Leaves, where/Ever you are/And spin you/There,/Inside out’. I made a video of this beautiful space in Newcastle University and will share it subsequently on my social media handles. I am happy for the moments I shared with Dr Judith Naeff and other MSA members during our post-conference outing, especially the academic ideas and books that we shared. I was elated to visit the historical site that bears the history of Newcastle City which gave me a glimpse into the life and times of Old Newcastle (notice the oxymoron!) and to enable us see how far the ‘New’ Newcastle has come in terms of human rights and improvements in general human condition. I was equally excited to have met Mrs Peju Ilupeju, a PhD scholar at the University of Lagos, who made an insightful presentation on Yoruba colonial history at the conference.  

The highpoint of my stay in Newcastle University was when I visited the eminent Malawian poet and writer, Professor Jack Mapanje, in York where he currently resides as a Visiting Professor in the University of York. I was warmly received by the revered poet and his dear wife, Mercy. I was equally treated to memorable hospitality in the course of which I asked the great poet some of the questions I have always had in mind while reading his work, And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night; to these questions, he provided some very insightful responses. I promise to publish the proceedings of this interview on my website in due course. I was excited when he read from his anthology, Greetings from Grandpa the poem ‘Imagining Home’. He used this poem to answer one of the questions I asked him about living so far away from home; the reading, in parts, goes thus: ‘If they should ask how/you lasted for so long/wandering in alien lands/after your country of/ birth had spewed you/out of her belly. . ./tell them/true truths: in the land/of the free the lakes are/cold, there are no hippos,/no crocodiles’ (9). By this statement, Mapanje implies that the horrible things that made him leave Malawi are not found in the United Kingdom, which he refers to ‘the land of the free’. Specifically, he compares/contrasts the two spaces and inscribe in them their differing ideologies that inform their politics and the general wellbeing of each citizen. The hippos and crocodiles mentioned in the poem constitute animal imagery that refers to the Banda dictatorship in Malawi that got the poet imprisoned for three years. This reading has been recorded for posterity and will be shared in due course.

If you are a scholar reading this and wondering how to start your journey of attending international conferences, I urge you to do exactly as I did. I found my first international conference online by searching literature conferences for that year. You might have to be patient and look through myriads of online data in order to find the conference that suits your area or discipline. Be patient and be consistent. Make sure you send in an original paper that makes a significant contribution to scholarship. It will be reviewed and accepted. Even if your paper is rejected, do not give up. Find mentorship, get guidance and stay connected by reading the latest published research in your discipline. If you are in literature, language, psychology, history, sociology and anthropology, among other humanistic and social science disciplines, you can join the Memory Studies Association. All the information that you need to be a member is available online. See you at the next MSA conference, inshAllah!

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