Decay, despair, disease, and corruption: these are the recurrent images of Africa bandied around the world. As cultural critics and scholars, we are inclined to lament the stereotypical and reductionist version of African realities that passes for truth. And yet, despite being keen observers of the African world, we too are often implicated in a preoccupation with what ails the continent on any given day. We are usually more attuned to Africa’s pains than to its pleasures. This is not so much because we subscribe to the reductionist view of Africa, but because it seems almost irresponsible to devote our energies to a subject as mundane as pleasure when we could be busy responding to whatever deficiencies have been most recently observed somewhere in Africa, or somewhere about Africa.
Those of us who make it our business to offer a defense of African peoples and their ways of life consider as always suspect the pointless indulgences entertained by prominent African figures. With good reason, the pleasures enjoyed by rulers of diverse ideological temperaments are viewed with barely concealed disdain. Think of Mobutu Sese Seko’s palatial home at Gbadolite, Houphouët-Boigny’s massive cathedral at Yamoussoukro, or Jacob Zuma’s constantly expanding country home at Nkandla. In the pleasure-unpleasure nexus, then, our attention tends to be firmly fixed on unpleasure and displeasure, notably the unpleasure of the populace at large. And when we do reflect on pleasure in Africa, we do so with apologies for setting aside our usual engagement with the very serious matters that as well-informed researchers of the African continent we see as our true vocation and calling.
Pleasure tends to enter into the record of African studies, then, mainly when it serves an acceptable social or political agenda. But we cannot claim to have a complete understanding of any society, no matter its failures if we ignore its experiences and rationales of pleasure. In the African Studies Review forum titled Africa/Pleasure: An Agenda for Future Work, we explore pleasure simply as one of many facets of African life, and not as a spectacular exception to the norm of African humanity. As we state in the introduction to the forum, even in very dire circumstances, one cannot rule out an occasional incidence of pleasure. Those pleasures may be fleeting and accessible only to the few. But they should not be dismissed, nor should we underestimate the role that pleasures of any variety play in enabling those who are otherwise distressed to reclaim some sense of their humanity.
To be sure, there are several subjects adjacent to the question of pleasure that already attract our attention in African studies research, including discussions about African popular culture and experiences of leisure. But a study of the object that triggers pleasure is not quite the same thing as a study of the pleasure that is triggered. Indeed, no source of pleasure is persistently pleasurable. For the unemployed, for example, an abundance of free time is not inherently pleasurable. We rarely inquire what pleasure means or has meant to Africans, what instigates or does not instigate pleasure, the circumstances under which pleasure can be had, and what is at stake in the practices of either policing pleasure and or commodifying pleasure.
Even as we acknowledge the important work undertaken by scholars, such as Rachel Spronk, who have researched pleasure in specific settings, the introduction to this forum revisits the lengthy history of a deeply entrenched aversion for pleasure research among scholars in African studies. We then lay out an agenda for expanding research on pleasure in Africa, followed by five articles each offering a case study but also an approach to studying Africa/pleasure that can be extended to other contexts.
For an understanding of Yorùbá attitudes towards pleasure, Akinwumi Ogundiran’s essay on what he calls a Yorùbá ontology of pleasure relies both on an analysis of mythology as well as the results of archeological excavation around territory long inhabited by Yorùbá populations. Naminata Diabate’s contribution to the forum explores a sexual economy in Abidjan that thrives on promising the delivery of future pleasures. Through an examination of textual genres from three different periods in time, Karin Barber’s article in the forum considers the role of textual pleasure in the constitution of sociality among the Yorùbá. In her paper, Asante Mtenje explains how pleasures arising from gendered play among urban Malawian women can be both an opportunity to undermine and to reaffirm local forms of patriarchy. Moradewun Adejunmobi uses her essay in the forum to show how certain types of Nigerian popular media allow some viewers to find pleasure even in the absence of leisure time.
By calling for a more focused understanding of pleasure in the African world, we are not simply asking for everyone to recognize that Africans too can experience pleasure. After all, an aptitude for pleasure is not limited to any one place or nation. Rather, we are inviting those of us who research Africa to put aside our general avoidance of the subject. We are also asking for an approach to the study of pleasure that does not start and end with censorious judgment.