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In memoriam: dr. Karin Willemse (1962-2023)

It is with great sadness that we have learned of the passing of our former colleague dr. Karin Willemse, who passed away on Saturday 18 March 2023.

Dr. Karin Willemse (1962-2023)

In the late 1980s the anthropologist Peter Geschiere and the historian Robert Ross hosted a fortnightly postgraduate seminar series dealing with the anthropology and history of Africa. Every two weeks approximately twenty hopeful bright and bushy-tailed PhD candidates would gather together in one of the seminar rooms in the Faculty of Social Sciences in Leiden to listen to and discuss papers presented by fellow students and visiting dignitaries. The meetings would take place on a Thursday between 15h00 and 17h00, after which we would all troop off to the ‘Posthof’ for drinks and ‘borrelhapjes’. In this context I was fortunate to listen to, meet and engage with many of the brightest minds in African Studies at the time, the young Achille Mbembe, the venerable Basil Davidson, and the contentious Comaroffs, to name but a few. It was in these gatherings that I first became aware of the fierce intellect, unremitting power and academic insight that was Karin Willemse.

Karin began her studies in Leiden in 1980, registering as a student in Cultural Anthropology at what was then a department known internationally for its specific take on Structuralism, represented by P.E. de Josselin de Jong, Jarich Oosten, Jos Platenkamp and to a lesser extent Adam Kuper. For Karin, however, the emerging school of feminist anthropology, embodied by Carla Risseeuw, Joke Schrijvers, Els Postel-Coster and others was far more inspiring. The fact that these scholars had to conquer a space for themselves at the department must have appealed to Karin’s engaged attitude. The department also had two regional foci, one of them sub-Saharan Africa, represented by Peter Geschiere and Wim van Binsbergen, who worked from a Neo-Marxist perspective. Karin began her anthropological fieldwork in Sudan in 1985 and found her niche with Peter Geschiere with whom she completed her doctoraal (ResMA) in anthropology in Leiden in 1988 with a thesis that was based on fieldwork in Sudan and dealt with the relative autonomy of women in Jebel-Marra, Darfur. 

Following her doctoraal Karin came to be employed as an AIO (Assistent In Opleiding) attached to the interfaculty CNWS research school of Afro-Asian and Amerindian studies in Leiden. Karin prospered at the CNWS. The set-up with PhD students put together in one institute, also physically separate from their supervisors in the faculties of social sciences and humanities, stimulated an atmosphere of being on top of the world. The young cohort would show the world how to change Academia. In the always lively and sometimes intense debates, Karen often referred to, and was inspired by Edward Said’s Orientalism and Clifford & Marcus’ Writing culture. Looking for a new way to present one’s ethnographic data, multivocality and giving interlocutors a voice (Karin was one of the first to use this term) was very dear to Karin. She was an academic rebel and would take that as a compliment.

At the CNWS Karin pursued a PhD degree based on extensive anthropological field-research in Kebkabiya, a town in Darfur, West-Sudan (1990-1995). Karin’s work in Sudan began and was largely framed by the recent establishment of an Islamist government in Sudan, which had come to power just as Karin began her long-term fieldwork. In her research she looked at how ‘two classes of working women - low-class market women and highly esteemed female teachers - negotiated their identities within the Islamist moral discourse on gender’. Focusing on the biographies of two women, one from each class, Karin was able to unpack the multi-layered context in which the women spoke and acted in the context of an imposed Islamic gender regime that was given form in Sudan at the time. Her PhD thesis, which was accorded Cum Laude, was published as One Foot in Heaven: Narratives on Gender and Islam in Darfur, West-Sudan (Leiden; Brill: 2007).

It was in the course of researching and writing her PhD thesis that Karin came to be formally employed at the African Studies Centre (ASC) as wetenschappelijk medewerker (researcher) (December 1994 to December 1995) and as assistant to the Voorzitter (Chair of the ASC) Peter Geschiere (December 1995 – July 1996). She was chair of the Netherlands Association for Gender and Feminist Anthropology (1997-2003). Beginning in 1997 Karin came to be employed at the Erasmus School for History, Culture and Communication at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. At the time of her death, Karin was Associate Professor of History of Africa, and of Gender and Islam at the History department of the Erasmus University Rotterdam, ‘specializing in an analytical methodology of narrative analysis, which she call[ed] ‘con/text analysis against the grain’’.

Following her PhD Karin was selected as fellow-in-residence for two consecutive terms at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) (2005/6 & 2007/8). Here she worked as a co-applicant of the Theme Group Coming to terms with a Shattered World: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Mediations of Violence in Africa, which resulted in the publication Mediations of violence in Africa: Fashioning new futures from contested pasts, edited by Lidwien Kapteijns and Annemiek Richters. In addition, Karin was a successful co-applicant of the NWO project ‘Moving Frontiers: Islam and globalization in Africa’, in which she worked with scholars from South Africa, Senegal and the Netherlands. Based on this and earlier research, she wrote on transformations in the relations between religion, ethnicity, gender, youth and citizenship, with respect to the war in Darfur, the revival of sufism in Khartoum, Sudan, and the construction of Muslim identities in South Africa.

Beginning in 2014 Karin came to be employed as part of the British Museum archaeological Mission in Amara West, North Sudan, based on the Urgent Anthropology Fellowship of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. In this she conducted research into heritage and identity construction in Nubia, North Sudan. As of 2017 Karin initiated and participated in a Winter University collaborative project that organised an annual seminar of voluntary teaching (in particular to staff and PhD students) at Sudanese universities (Khartoum, Dongola) with academics from the Netherlands (Erasmus University Rotterdam, University of Amsterdam, Maastricht University, Wageningen University) and Canada (Calgary University) in cooperation with the Netherlands-Sudan Friendship Society and the Sudanese Expat Association.

In addition, but perhaps most importantly, Karin, who became a board member of the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Afrika Studies NVAS in 2019, was a driving force in propagating African Studies in the Netherlands. In this manner she ensured that her passion and insights in African Studies extended far beyond academia in the Netherlands.

Although Karin was eminently successful and appreciated in her academic career, she suffered heartache in her personal life with the death of her partner and love of her life, Leen Vroegindeweij, in 2006. Karin is survived by her son Arend Vroegindeweij, and we wish him strength in difficult times. Karin Willemse was a kind, warm and accommodating person, a good friend and fine colleague. African Studies in the Netherlands will be so much the poorer without her radiance.

Jan-Bart Gewald, with contributions by Freek Colombijn, Azeb Amha and Sabine Luning

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