Last week, I was invited by Eritrean-Ethiopian masters student Miriam Siun of Leiden University’s African Studies Centre to give one of two keynote lectures on the topic, “Where Is the African in ‘African’ Studies?” I took a long-range view, declaring that Africans have always produced knowledge about Africa, even though their contributions have been “preferably unheard” in some cases and “deliberately silenced” in others.
For those who question what constitutes an ‘African’ in the heyday of multiple citizenships and transnational flows of goods, ideas, and people, an ‘African’ has birthplace or bloodline ties to Africa, in the first instance. More importantly, however, an ‘African’ has a psychological attachment to the continent and is politically committed to its transformation.
For those who might wonder about the purpose of African Studies as a field of scholarly inquiry, it is to constantly interrogate epistemological, methodological, and theoretical approaches to the study of Africa, inserting Africa and its people at the centre of that interrogation as subjects, rather than objects.
Whether or not scholars of Africa have lived up to this mandate is worth examining.
“Knowledge about Africa for purposes other than its exploitation”
It is clear that those who produce knowledge about something wield considerable power over it. In this vein, African Studies remains a colonised space rife with misrepresentation, homogenisation and essentialising about Africa.
While the early writings and teachings about Africa are based on colonial expeditions, missionary exploits and anthropological ethnographies, contemporary scholarship is dominated by some non-Africans who have strategically positioned themselves as the authoritative voices in a 21st century scramble for influence, as if Africa were a tabula rasa with no intellectuals or knowledge production of its own. This form of erasure is not only problematic, but also dangerous.
Nevertheless, active demands to decolonise African Studies began long before the recent ‘Decolonise the University’ movement or the #RhodesMustFall campaign. As a case in point, in a 1969 meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA) in Montreal, Canada, in which Africa-based scholars were invited in large numbers for the first time, black American Africa scholars seized the platform expressing concerns that African Studies was firmly cemented on a foundation of institutional racism. Furthermore, in a 1972 lecture at the ASA in Seattle, Washington, Oyekan Owomoyela questioned whether or not African Studies had lived up to its ideal of producing and promoting “knowledge about Africa for purposes other than its exploitation”.
More recently, in a 2006 keynote lecture at the 49th annual ASA meeting in San Francisco, California, Nigerian feminist scholar Amina Mama demonstrated that producing knowledge about Africa is an ethical dilemma as much as it is an epistemological consideration, for Africans and non-Africans alike. She asked: “Can we develop the study of Africa so that it is more respectful toward the lives and struggles of African people and to their agendas?”
For Mama, Africanists in America had been complicit in advancing a colonial patriarchal order by dismissing the intellectual agendas of African scholars. She challenges the “externalisation of Africa scholarship” which uncritically relies on externally generated concepts and methods that transform highly complex processes into overly simplistic, homogenous tropes about Africa. She argues that much of the knowledge produced outside traditional academic institutions is grey matter generated by Africans, who are often shut out of the global publishing industry by editorial gate-keepers.
As Mama and others have shown, publishing about Africa is punctuated with structural inequities in which Africans are often dissed and dismissed. This has been corroborated by a recent scholarly article showing a general decline in the number of articles published by Africa-based scholars in top African Studies journals African Affairs (AA) and the Journal of Modern African Studies (JMAS) over a 21-year period (1993-2013). The authors illustrate that while article submissions from Africa-based scholars have increased for the two Europe-based journals, acceptance rates have declined significantly.
The primacy of journals published by non-Africans is being called into question, however, especially with the advent of African-led publications such as Feminist Africa, founded by Mama, the Journal of West African History, founded by Nwando Achebe, as well as the numerous platforms initiated and executed by the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which regularly publishes scholarship by African scholars in and outside the continent.
Nevertheless, an increase in alternative platforms for publishing African scholars does not exempt non-African publishers, editors and reviewers from addressing glaring citation and publication gaps in the field.
How to put the African in African Studies
In light of these developments, asking where the ‘African’ is in African Studies is timely and essential. As a Liberian who has studied Africa in North America (Howard University), Africa (University of Ghana; University of Cape Town) and Europe (Oxford University), I have discovered that the extent to which the ‘African’ in African Studies is concealed or revealed depends entirely on the politics of the knowledge producer, the ethos of the institution they represent, the pedagogy and methods they employ, and their level of commitment to the continent and its people.
As an undergraduate in African Studies at Howard University from 2000-2004, I was fed a healthy dose of radical scholarship on Africa, including works by Kenyans John Mbiti and Ali Mazrui as well as the Senegalese Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop. We were also exposed to the contributions of diasporic thinkers, such as Guyanese Walter Rodney of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa fame; naturalised Liberian Edward Wilmot Blyden; and Martinican revolutionary philosophers Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon.
Having established the first ever PhD programme in African Studies and now offering both BA and MA degrees concurrently, Howard gave me a firm foundation in the canon of African and diasporic scholars, and more than two thirds of my professors were African academics from Africa.
During my semester at the University of Ghana-Legon in 2002, I was reminded that knowledge about Africa constitutes more than its history, politics and processes of ‘development’. At Legon’s Institute of African Studies, I learned to appreciate Africa aesthetically, through the study of drama, fiction, visual art, and dance forms, produced and taught by Africans.
In a subsequent semester at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2003, I took graduate courses at the Centre for African Studies, where I was instructed by a mostly African faculty whose post-colonial leanings honoured the intellectual contributions of Fanon, Diop, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak.
Oxford’s masters in African Studies, established in 2005, was more traditional and conservative. While a third of my professors were of African descent, our canon was anthropological in nature, consisting mostly of male European scholars. Yet, as a member of the second cohort of the degree between 2006-2007, I also recognised attempts to foreground the work of some Africans, including Congo’s V.S. Mudimbe; Uganda’s Mahmood Mamdani; and Nigeria’s Oyenronke Oyewumi, whose 1997 book The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses is a post-colonial feminist critique of Western understandings of the role of women in pre-colonial Nigeria.
My experiences studying Africa on three continents at four very different institutions made it clear to me that the extent to which the ‘African’ in African Studies is revealed or concealed depends largely on the worldview and political commitments of those who produce and transfer knowledge. Foregrounding the discussion about where the ‘African’ is in African Studies as an ethical dilemma raises the stakes, forcing African and non-African scholars alike to remain self-reflexive, humble, and accountable to the continent and its people.
Or, as Owomoyela has suggested, perhaps a more radical approach to “getting ‘Africa’ back into African Studies is to get African Studies back to Africa.”
This can be achieved when:
These measures and more will compel us to effectively re-insert the ‘African’ in African Studies, not as a token gesture, but as an affirmation that Africans have always produced knowledge about their continent.
By Robtel Neajai Pailey
A Liberian academic, activist and author of the anti-corruption children’s book, Gbagba. She currently serves as a senior researcher at the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute (IMI).