“No Maps, No Borders” – ExTalks Review

Giocherenda, a word from the African language Fula, means ‘solidarity, ‘strength deriving from union’ and ‘interconnection’. ExTalks latest event ‘No Maps, No Borders: An Evening with Giocherenda’ circulated around these ideas, reminding us of the power of human togetherness. It raised powerful questions on the meaning of borders, maps and how we can quantify which spaces belong to whom.

Greeted by ExTalks’ smartly dressed hosts upon entering the University of Exeter’s Streatham Court, I anticipated an evening of friendly, thought-provoking intellectual discussion. ExTalks, a university society just over a year old, was set up for “those who take joy in expanding their knowledge, beyond their course content”. Regularly hosting ‘Ted Talk’ style events, in which external speakers are invited to discuss a chosen topic, ExTalks perfectly satisfies the desire to learn new things and expand viewpoints. The panel of speakers were introduced: Elena Isayev, a historian, practitioner, and Ancient History teacher at University of Exeter; Mustapha Conteh, a founding member of Giocherenda Art Collective and an International Relations and Marketing student studying in Palermo; and Dominique Luton, a mature Exeter University student studying History and Ancient History, with plans to teach key stage three and four history.

Elena Isayey kicked off the talk with an exploration of the meaning of ‘migrant’, and how the term, and the concept of ‘outsiders’, have been viewed historically. She used the example of ‘journey stories’ such as Homer’s Odyssey, written 2000 years ago. In Homer’s age, hospitality was of utmost importance in society. In the narrative of the Odyssey, unknown guests were welcomed with open arms, given gifts, food and shelter without question. How outsiders to a society were welcomed and treated was prioritised over one’s own citizens: nowadays, it seems things are quite the opposite.

Throughout the talk, Elena paralleled the ancient world’s perceptions of immigration to those we hold today: previously, foreigners were viewed as beneficial to society, bringing new skills and ideas. We learnt elements of the etymology of words, exploring how we arrived at the term ‘alien’ for immigrants from the Latin term ‘alius’, which simply meant ‘other’ or ‘another’. The term ‘immigrant’ itself was only born in 18th century America, along with the introduction of passports. Originally, passports were ‘to expire in a status in peace’- that is, they were only to exist during the war and were intended to cease in use afterwards. Indeed, even ancient maps were entirely unlike ours today: maps would depict journeys and stories, rather than places. The talk opened up a fascinating field of thought on how terms such as ‘immigrant’ have taken on such negative meanings. She ended with a powerful point on the refugee crisis of today, how 50% of Lebanon is made up of refugees, whilst they make up only 0.2% of Europe. Elena’s section of the evening set the context for a re-evaluation of how we view outsiders, place and belonging.

Up next was Mustapha Conteh, who introduced his project- the Giocherenda Art Collective. Based in Palermo, the project involves an artistic collective of young refugees who invent, build and animate games devised for sharing through storytelling. Its purpose is of connection: all of these children have lived through trauma, hardship and suffering, and are now displaced from their homes, in the place-less spaces of refugee camps. The project prioritises storytelling, allowing for these refugees’ voices and journeys to be heard and shared. Hearing from Mustapha was inspiring: the work of him and his team gave a glimmer of hope in such a time of despair and brought to light the real events occurring in the often overlooked and forgotten refugee camps of today.

Finally, we heard from Dominique Luton, who discussed a workshop she designed and led for a group of Key Stage 3 and 4 children. It included activities such as a map-drawing exercise, in which the children designed a map of their route to school but distinguished the route through drawing things, which symbolised experiences and emotions, rather than landmarks. The workshop’s purpose was to rethink the way journeys and maps are thought of. The talk perfectly flowed from Elena’s historical information on the context of immigration and refugees, to real life experiences and activity as seen through Mustapha’s project for refugees, finally arriving at Dominique’s UK based lesson, bringing all that we have learnt and considered to a home base. Her section of the talk allowed us to locate the relevance of the worldwide refugee crisis within our own lives, and her workshop depicted an inspiring way of opening up young children’s minds to the notion of borders, place and migration.

Overall, ExTalks’ event was thought-provoking and provided the opportunity to learn new things on a topic not often touched upon within a University curriculum. I would recommend their future events to anyone with a thirst for intellectual discussion, which isn’t too heavy or too abstract, yet is still mentally stimulating. And if you enjoy a more relaxing setting to converse current affairs, a trip to Exeter’s pub ‘Circa 1924’ followed the talk, where there was a chance to discuss the evening’s topics over a pint or two.