Reconceptualizing the African Experience with the Socialist Bloc

AHA Session 85
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Nana Osei-Opare, University of California, Los Angeles
Elizabeth Schmidt, Loyola University Maryland

Session Abstract

Between 1957 and 1991, numerous African states and countless more political movements experimented with socialism, and yet Western scholarship and popular media accounts have largely portrayed Africans and African states as passive recipients of these ideologies or worse, as puppets or cannon fodder for communist nations. Such analysis prioritized the “northern” perspective, and thus either ignored or submerged African agency and experiences. This panel seeks to re-center the African experience vis-à-vis the “socialist bloc.” Although we interrogate its limits and contours, we emphasize Africans’ agency within the complicated and uneven diplomatic and personal relationships they had with socialist countries and with peoples originating from the socialist bloc. In doing this, we historicize the “African” experience and offer a multitude of African realities, failed possibilities, expectations, and attitudes in multiple geographic and temporal zones vis-à-vis a fractured “socialist bloc.” Nana Osei-Opare’s paper (re-)centers Ghana’s relationship with the USSR through a Ghanaian perspective at local and government levels. He argues that despite pressures from international and internal forces, the Ghanaian state requested economic and technical assistance from the Soviet regime in specific areas, lambasted faulty Soviet equipment and unqualified Soviet personnel sent to Ghana, and delicately forged its own diplomatic and ideological path during the Cold War and Soviet-Sino conflict. Elizabeth Banks’ paper focuses on the lives of Eduardo Mondlane’s two oldest children, who were sent to school in the Soviet Union after their father, the first president of FRELIMO, was killed by Portuguese Secret Police in 1968. The paper uses Chude’s and Eddie Junior’s education at the Moiseyev ballet academy and an Ivanovo boarding school as an optic to bring broader Soviet-Mozambican relations into view. Ultimately, the paper argues that while it was a symbolic coup to have the teenaged Mondlanes in the USSR, they experienced misunderstandings, disagreements, neglect and eventually apparent disinterest in their fate – which by extension, mirrors an ambivalent interest in the fate of socialist Mozambique on the part of the internationalist Soviet Union. Beatrice Wayne’s paper examines Cuba’s ideological and material influences on Ethiopian politics preceding and proceeding the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974. Wayne engages with the role that Cuban revolutionary texts played in the articulation of Ethiopian student demands for change, the importance of Cuban land as a physical space for training Ethiopian radical activists away from Ethiopian government supervision, and the military aid provided to young revolutionaries, particularly those engaged in the Eritrean Liberation Front. Finally, Marcia C. Schenck’s paper reveals how Angolan students pushed against East Germany’s notions of a model international student, which did not leave room for the complexities of real lives, and how these aspiring post-independence Angolan technocrats negotiated the resulting friction choosing individual responses along a spectrum, including direct and indirect forms of resistance. Collectively, these papers attempt to explore the myriad of experiences Africans and African states had with the socialist bloc, introduce and investigate new sources for interpreting these relationships, and provide new frameworks for understanding these relations.
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