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African Studies remains a colonised space. While the early writings about Africa are based on colonial expeditions, missionary exploits and anthropological ethnographies, contemporary scholarship is dominated by non-Africans who have positioned themselves as the authoritative voices in a 21st century scramble for influence, as if Africa has no intellectuals or knowledge production of its own.

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”[1] in some cases and “deliberately silenced”[2] 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.

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 even 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 two major complaints: 1) that African Studies was firmly cemented on a foundation of institutional racism and 2) that some Africanist scholars were in cahoots with political institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) [3]. As a result, many of these activist-academics withdrew from the organisation. Furthermore, in a 1972 lecture at the ASA convening 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.”[4]

More recently, in a 2006 keynote lecture at the 49th annual ASA meeting in San Francisco, California—whose theme was (Re)thinking Africa and the World: Internal Reflections, External Responses—Nigerian feminist scholar Amina Mama raised important questions about the ethics of studying Africa, demonstrating that producing knowledge about Africa is an ethical dilemma as much as it is an epistemological consideration, for Africans and non-Africans alike [5]:

“What does our research and knowledge contribute to the various contexts and peoples we study? How do our research activities affect those we study? 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, studies that contribute to the good of Africa?...African scholars are not exempt from ethical considerations simply because they are studying African societies.”

For Mama, Africanists in America had been complicit in advancing a colonial patriarchal order by dismissing the intellectual agendas of African scholars. She laments the institutional and financial inequalities embedded in African Studies scholarship, demanding that the ASA support Africa’s radical intellectuals by taking them seriously not only in area studies scholarship but also in global thinking. Mama further 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 inequalities, in which Africans are often dissed and dismissed. This has been corroborated by a recent scholarly article [6] 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. Furthermore, Africa-based scholars were systematically cited less in AA and JMAS and less likely to generalise, further unsettling the assumption that we can make generalisable comments about Africa without falling into the trap of essentialising.

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.

In light of these developments, asking where the ‘African’ is in African Studies is timely and essential. As a Liberian who has studied Africa intently in North America (Howard University), in Africa (University of Ghana; University of Cape Town) and in Europe (Oxford University), I have discovered that the extent to which the ‘African’ in African Studies is concealed or revealed depends entirely on who writes/teaches about Africa, where they write/teach about Africa, how they write/teach about Africa, and what they write/teach about Africa. Essentially, it depends 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 the works of Kenyan scholar John Mbiti, who argues that African cosmologies are cyclical rather than linear in African Religions and Philosophy; Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, whose work demonstrates that ancient Egypt was African and that the North Africa/sub-Saharan Africa divide is artificial and arbitrary; Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui, who examines Africa’s triple heritage—African, Islamic, and Western. We were also exposed to the contributions of diasporic thinkers, including Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa fame; naturalised Liberian scholar Edward Wilmot Blyden; Martinique-born Aimé Césaire, who coined the term ‘Negritude’; Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon whose seminal texts The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks revolutionised how we think about the colonial experience; as well as African-American scholar Molefi Asante, who developed the philosophy of ‘Afrocentricity’. 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.

While a semester abroad student 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 themselves. During a semester abroad at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2003, I took graduate courses at the Centre for African Studies, where I was instructed by mostly African faculty whose post-colonial leanings honoured the intellectual contributions of Fanon, Diop, Palestinian scholar Edward Said (Orientalism) and Indian scholar Gayatri Spivak (“Can the Subaltern Speak?”).

Compared to Howard, Legon and UCT, Oxford’s masters in African Studies established in 2005 was more traditional and conservative, perhaps a function of the university’s position as one of the oldest in the English-speaking world. While a third of my professors were of African descent, our canon was anthropological in nature, consisting mostly of male European scholars on Africa. 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 Cameroonian scholar Achile Mbembe (On the Postcolony); Congolese scholar V.S. Mudimbe, who intentionally cites African intellectuals in The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge; Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani (Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Colonialism); and Nigerian scholar 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 about Africa. Foregrounding the discussion about where the ‘African’ is in African Studies as an ethical dilemma raises the stakes, forcing African and non-African scholars of Africa 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: 

  • A cannon of scholarly literature produced by Africans is established, which would be mandatory reading for all African studies courses across the globe. Said canon must include male and female scholars writing in multiple languages across the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities;
  • Non-African scholars defer to authoritative voices/scholars on the continent, by citing them regularly and actively acknowledging their contributions to the field;
  • Open-access publishing on Africa is the norm rather than the exception, so that Africa-based scholars can access, engage with and critique knowledge produced about the continent;
  • More African scholars (based in Africa and elsewhere) serve on editorial boards of top-rated African Studies journals, as both editors and reviewers, in order to influence the research agendas of these publications;
  • African universities value, support, and validate good quality scholarship about Africa, through the provision of research funding for staff, living wages, sabbatical time to write and publish, and paid subscriptions to relevant journals.

These measures and more like them 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.

* Robtel Neajai Pailey is 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). A shorter version of this piece was originally published in African Arguments.

End notes

[1] The full quote by Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy reads: “There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
[2] Arundhati Roy.
[3] Immanuel Wallerstein (1983). “The Evolving Role of the Africa Scholar in African Studies.” African Studies Review 26 (3/4): 155-161.
[4] Oyekan Owomoyela (1994). “With Friends Like These…A Critique of Pervasive Anti-Africanisms in Current African Studies Epistemology and Methodology.” African Studies Review 37 (3): 77-101. [Originally based on a 1972 lecture at annual African Studies Association in Seattle, Washington, entitled “Exploring the ‘Africa’ in African Studies”].
[5] Amina Mama (2007). “Is It Ethical to Study Africa? Preliminary Thoughts on Scholarship and Freedom.” African Studies Review 50: 1-26.
[6] Ryan C. Briggs and Scott Weathers (2016). “Gender and Location in African Politics Scholarship: The Other White Man’s Burden?” African Affairs (No. Vol.?): 1-24.



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