By Huda Hassan*
On the evening of March 25, the hashtag #CadaanStudies (“cadaan” meaning “white” in Somali) emerged amongst Twitter timelines as a small collective of Somali academics and writers spoke out, 140 characters (or less) at a time. Initiated by Safia Aidid, a Canadian Harvard PhD candidate, the hashtag gradually became a commentary on the whiteness and privileges prominent within academia. More specifically, the online conversation served as a direct response to the launch of the Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS), a peer-reviewed scholarly journal that claims a particular focus on East Africa—the absence of a single Somali editor, advisory board member, or contributor left many pointing out that the only thing Somali about this journal is its title.
Founded by Rodrigo Vaz, a white male MSc candidate for The School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, the journal was made in collaboration with University of Hargeysa’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. Yet somehow, it lacks any Somali involvement. This fundamental error is one often repeated in academia or any platforms that narrate the black or African experience.
“The content of [our] first issue had, unfortunately, no papers on Somalia…or by Somalis for a simple reason: we received none,” says Vaz on the public criticism SJAS has received. “I take the blame for that. This happened likely because the call for papers didn’t reach as many students and scholars as we would like to. That is something we are working on.”
The content featured in SJAS‘s first issue involves no representation or inclusion of Somalia and its people, but rather material regarding the ECOWAS mission in Sierre Leone, migrant domestic work in South Africa, and the relationship between ethnicity and violence in Kenya elections. (They are currently in the midst of preparing the second issue.) But its description stating that SJAS is dedicated to “covering an academic research area in clear expansion” led many to wonder if this journal was simply created by an aspiring young, white academic hoping to attain credit in an area with growing scholarship that’s still garnering little attention.
“The Horn of Africa and the Somali diaspora are ‘hot’ topics of academic and policy interest, and concern to many states, institutions and organizations for a number of reasons: states and their collapse, civil war and post-conflict society and restructuring, religion, radicalism and terrorism, gender, migration/diaspora, assimilation,” said Aidid, a few days after #CadaanStudies attracted the attention of Somali academics and activists globally. (With 44,995 Somalis reportedly situated in Canada as of 2011, it is currently the country’s largest African diaspora.)
Twitter activism is nothing new. In the case of #CadaanStudies, people used social media to deconstruct the privilege within academia while connecting communities internationally, strengthening the message that black voices will no longer be undervalued in African and Black studies. “The #CadaanStudies hashtag, Safia, and many others are completely right on this… reversing that is our top priority right now,” said Vaz.
#CadaanStudies assembled 1,500 tweets in its first few days of inception and its Storifyhas been viewed around 1,200 times. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that is information and debate [that has reached] more people than [those that] have downloaded most academic articles,” said Aidid on the outreach of her hashtag.
This is a larger conversation about challenging the right for white scholars to frame Somali and African narratives.#CadaanStudies
Vaz, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of SJAS, has yet to take to Twitter to respond to any of the hundreds of tweets directed to him: “My team and I want to show results attached to our words. Replying to the comments about SJAS without concrete measures would be empty talk. Once we have results to show, which should happen very soon—this week—we will upload them on the website and social media platforms. Until then, 140 characters won’t do,” said Vaz.
There is, of course, a long history of white people finding something untapped outside of their own peripheries and attempting to claim full ownership of it. Somali Studies as a field has formal origins in the 18th and 19th centuries, and during its time as an existing scholarly field, it has had an overwhelming presence of white academics who have intellectualized what has always been common knowledge to Somalis themselves. ”
Abdul-Rahman Jama, a blogger and Oxford University student, believes that Somali Studies still maintains a “colonial flavour” in its production of knowledge on account of white academics: “The technique is simple; collect local stories, publish them as exciting new research, publish them, get further funding [and] repeat,” he said. The knowledge that is produced becomes groundbreaking information despite it already being common knowledge to its “subjects.”
“There has been certainly, and unfortunately—for colonialist reasons and legacies—a disproportion of white scholars on many levels of study fields, African studies included. That should change and if SJAS can contribute to that, then I can only be glad,” said Vaz when asked if he recognized the ways in which the mistakes of SJAS thus far were reminiscent of a history of white monopolization in academia.
The conversation revolving around #CadaanStudies went far beyond these fundamental questions, however, when Markus Hoehne, a white German anthropologist and a co-editor of SJAS, discovered Aidid’s initial announcement of her intended Twitter debate via her personal Facebook page. In one of his many responses to the growing concern of SJAS‘s lack of Somali presence, Hoehne insisted that there is a general absence of Somalis in academia because they don’t seem to value scholarship. He went further to claim that this issue would subside if Somalis were willing to do the work.
“To add insult to injury, he suggested the reason none of us could grasp this is because we are Somali, and could benefit from looking ‘beyond your Somali navel.’ So not only was he wrong, he was wrong in the most patronizing and insulting way possible,” said Aidid. She has since then published an open letter, A Collective Response to Dr. Markus Hoehne and the Somaliland Journal of African Studies, which has gathered signatures from over 200 academics, writers, and activists, primarily of Somali or African descent.
“I completely disagree with Markus Hoehne’s remarks. Not only they are disrespectful to all Somali academics in Somalia and Somaliland… they were unnecessary and needlessly provocative,” said Vaz on whether Hoehne’s comments were reflective of the journal. “SJAS doesn’t subscribe to statements made by its advisory board members, whose responsibility and accountability for what they say or do starts and ends with them.”
Hoehne’s comments ignited a further firestorm of debate, including responses from Somali activists, academics and writers, which led to his public response in the Sahan Journal that ran a few days after the same publication ran Somali writer Hawa Y. Mire’s essay: “#CadaanStudies, Somali thought leaders and the inadequacy of white colonial scholarship.”
“It is not just that Somalis are absent from academia. Why are they absent? Who benefits from this absence? Because we know who it benefits and it is not us,” asks Illyas Abukar, a PhD candidate of University of Maryland College Park.
The online conversation has shed light on the continuous and prominent issues that lay within the production of knowledge about Africans and black people. #CadaanStudies challenges us to continuously ask the question: Who is granted the privilege of telling these narratives and why?