Cross-cultural awareness in the North and the South

The first keynote plenary was «Working in Both the North and the South: Comparative Experiences» at which two speakers discussed this topic from their different perspectives. Professor Peter Geschiere (University of Amsterdam) and professor emerita Randi Rønning Balsvik (University of Tromsø) covered issues from Cameroon, Ethiopia and Norway.

The perils of belonging        

Peter Geschiere introduced his book on the convergence of North and South, «The Perils of Belonging», as a study of the discourse on autochthony in Netherlands and Cameroon. He discussed how two nation states with a different past and present arrived at the same problem of defining the «autochthone» and the «allochthone». Autochthony (meaning “born from the soil” ) is reflected in Geschiere´s book as a notion of claiming the right of belonging based on prior presence or origin, and used against immigrants who are allochthones (i.e. of origin from another country).

Examining the problem of the escalation of ethno-fascism in Cameroon and Flemish/Dutch attempts to define themselves as autochthones in the 1990s, the author examines autochthony in different times and places. Thus, Geschiere highlights the tension between autochthony and belonging through an Athenian example where Athenians asserted superiority over Greeks on the basis of a myth of being born from the soil. The main question of his research is what such convergence means for the North and the South (Netherlands and Cameroon).

Another topic Geschiere touched upon in his presentation is witch doctors in African politics and spin doctors in American politics . The Northern «scientific transparency» has been represented by spin doctors (experts in public relations) while southern irrationalism and the occult are illustrated by nganga shamans-healers in Africa. Such a dichotomy can bring out the role of «public secrets» in the «transparent» North. «The secret is the heart of American politics. I hope you understand», concluded Peter Geschiere.


Political struggles and the lack of knowledge

Randi Rønning Balsvik gave a presentation on the Ethiopian history of struggle against the political regime. She also discussed the role of Norway in the North-South relationship and awareness. At the beginning of its economic development Norway was an unknown country. It began to give aid to developing countries and the need for a strategy of development became urgent. The lack of knowledge about Asian and African countries led to the creation of the NUFU program (The Norwegian program for Development Research and Education, a collaboration program between universities in Norway and the «South» for three five year periods since 1991).

Balsvik worked as a teacher in Ethiopia in 1963-1966 where she witnessed unacceptable politics towards people. She explained the results and consequences of a continued opposition against the dictatorship by using the example of a person who was imprisoned because he tried to participate as a candidate in an election campaign. Her role as a teacher grew into the role of a tool for her students to prove that such politics were not acceptable. She saw terrible persecution of students and educated people and the absence of opposition, even a loyal one. She highlighted how it was important not to ignore violations of human rights. «Loyal opposition is the core of democracy», concluded her discussion of the Ethiopian case Balsvik. But in the end, the attempts of civilians in Ethiopia to resist and oppose the regime led to a movement towards democracy – a federalization of ethnic states.



The first plenary session of the NFU Conference brought out the importance of cross-cultural awareness in the North and the South. Especially in the presentation of Randi Rønning Balsvik it was stated that one must have knowledge and competence to contribute to the work of humanitarian organizations such as the UN in order to give aid to the Southern countries. However, one should remember that there is always a relative context in defining the North and the South. In the case of Peter Geschiere, the main question was how and why the dilemma of belonging was developing in Netherlands and Africa simultaneously. On the other hand, he showed how the situation can be different for North and South, depending on the perception of traditional knowledge as backward from the perspective of a “transparent, modern” North.

By Mira Sivtseva, student at the Master’s degree program in indigenous studies, UiT The Arctic University of Norway.