Many postcolonial regimes are still mired in protracted civil wars and violence, struggling economies, corruption, bad leadership, broken social and economic infrastructure and famine. It is rather dishonest for a country whose main university could be closed for months by presidential decree, whose professors strike year in year out over emoluments, to complain about an overwhelming European or American presence in their studies.
Where are African scholars in African studies?
December 26, 2016
By Yusuf Serunkuma*
A white European friend tells a story of a panel on ‘African sexuality’ he attended in London sometime in 2005. Among other things, the panel discussed intimacy, sexual pleasure, anal sex, marital rape and genital beautification or mutilation—all from what was considered the vantage point of the African. Not only was the panel exclusively white, a large section of the audience was also white. With whiteness symbolically read as being European or North American, it translated not only into foreignness to the topics being discussed, but also privileged grandchildren of colonial masters gazing at Africans. Where were the African academics, at least, marked by their shiny dark or brown skins? Were they invited but failed to get transport? Did these European and North Americans really understand, and accurately and objectively bring out the intricate and many secret details of ‘African sexuality’? These questions sparked off a long-winded conversation, which, despite its liveliness, left one key question unanswered: Where were the African scholars?
With the exception of a few celebrity names—who actually make quite a list—African studies remain dominated, discursively and institutionally, by non-African scholars: African studies associations are not only headquartered in European and North American universities, but also hold their annual conferences in Europe and North America. During these conferences, it is very common to find specific country caucuses (Ugandan, Kenyan, Nigerian or Somali) with majority scholars of European and North American descent. Part of the explanation for this is that African scholars cannot afford to travel to Europe and North America for these sessions. Location may not necessarily be the issue, but the numerical superiority of whiteness in these plenaries (and in publications) has been concern for many non-white academics and their students as they grumble under their breath bemoaning the continued colonization, marginalization and scholarly misrepresentation.
It is also true that ‘leading journals’ in African studies are not only headquartered in Europe and North America, but many are mostly edited by European and American academics. Many times, the contributions to these journals reproduce similar patterns. On the other hand, there are only a few African studies associations or journals on Africa, based on the African continent, managed, contributed to and edited by African hands. The problem is then framed with whiteness being not just a timeless symbolism of continued colonial domination and marginalization of Africans, but also of biased, unrepresentative, inaccurate, and epistemologically flawed scholarship.
Our conversation unfolded against the above backdrop, with the bells of decolonization and the rise of the “African intellectual” ringing nearby. As a self-reflective white male, he was visibly guilty of their continued ‘crimes’ to African studies but did not see a clear exit. Should he back off and let African studies to Africans, or start co-authoring all his pieces with ‘African’ co-authors? Exactly, in the age of decolonization and the rise of the African university, why do white people, these grandchildren of colonial masters, continue to speak for, write about formerly colonized peoples to the point of dominating disciplines? This often translates into defining the terms of the discipline, which are often, the charge goes, Eurocentric. Why don’t they let the Africans write, represent and speak for and about themselves especially on ‘inner’ subjects such as sexuality? Why don’t white folks sit back and listen and learn? How accurate is this knowledge produced by foreigners about people they barely know? In other words, why don’t they heed Spivak?
There are three assumptions behind these charges: First, there exists a world stage of ‘competitive scholarship’ where continents, countries, nationalities, special groups such as women and ‘minorities’ seek not only accurate representation, but also equal participation. Accurate representation and active participation are taken as not only signifying but also granting access to power (respect, resources, pride etc.), which is the envy of the world. It then follows that inaccurate representation, and the absence of participation translates into, symbolically and practically, denial of power and substantive existence, as colonialism defined.
Secondly, presence and participation guarantees not just a leveled playing field, but also objective scholarship, that is, neutral, representative or even accurate. The ‘native’ has to be listened to, since nobody understands them like themselves. Without seeming to essentialize nativity or indigeneity, it is agreeable that there is a certain sensibility, an awareness that comes with belonging, and inhabiting the particular space under study.
The third assumption is that white scholars have actively sidelined African scholars just the way their grandparents who colonized the continent did. In other words, just like their grandparents, white scholars still patronize the native to speak about themselves. An equal presence of Africans in intellectual spaces, with perhaps equal power and learning, will not only point in the direction of complete liberation but also acknowledgement of the African as a free and thinking subject.
Although we should be sympathetic to this tone of conversation, it is my contention that it is improperly framed in ways that are not only ahistorical and essentialist, but also dishonest to current social-political conditions of the African peoples. The invisibility of the ‘African academic’ in African studies is undeniable. However, to demand grandchildren of former colonial masters to leave African studies to African academics—as a way of decolonizing African studies, or ensuring accurate and objective representation is misleading.
Secondly, even to demand equal participation, say through ‘affirmative inclusion’ does not sound like decolonizing the academy. It is actually one way of re-affirming an insubordinate position. The one with the power to invite and recruit does have power to define the terrain of the debate. Instead of asking how to decolonize the academy through more ‘African participation,’ my argument seeks to point to the challenges of representation, and the problem with seeking presence of ‘African scholars in African studies.’ This is not to argue that the concern over the absence is completely misplaced, rather my intention is to reframe the ways in which we approach and think about scholars, and their subjects in our so-called ‘African studies.’ My overall aim is to draw our attention to the history of the present, and how our intellectual history cannot be divorced from the political and economic histories of the present.
Let’s start from the beginning: The category, ‘African’ often remains problematic. Despite the attractiveness of claiming and theorizing the ‘African worldview,’ and ‘African identity,’ (Soyinka 1975, Mbembe 2002) African, as an analytical category (besides its political—as used in international relations—and geographical reference), is vague and difficult. I have never understood ‘African’ in African studies, African literature, African philosophy or African culture. It is not just that African cannot be homogenous, but also ‘African’ cannot be exclusive of other traditions—new and old. Indeed, one of the most eloquent critiques against Mazrui’s (2005) notion of Africa having triple heritage is that he reduced the African heritage to just three (perhaps painfully closing out Chinese and Indian influences whose presence remains most visible in our times). By being open to other traditions and changing in time and space, often in individually stylized forms (Mbembe 2002) sufficiently denies it conceptual and analytical crust. In the age of capitalist expansion, Ahmed Aijaz (1992) argues, the world has become more connected through production and consumption and the opposition of the 99% to the excesses of capital. What then constitutes ‘African’ both as an identity and an analytical category? What are these identities outside geography and the politics of international relations? What is the ‘first intelligibility’ of Africanness? Even in its smaller denominations—Ugandan, Nigerian or Kenyan—it does not make conceptual sense.
Secondly, indigeneity never translates into ‘authentic’ scholarship. Although it is true that inhabiting and belonging accords a certain awareness and sensitivity, it does not follow that to be is to know. Neither does it follow that the outsider is infinitely locked out of these locational and membership acquired knowledge systems and experiences. Claims that Ugandans, Kenyans or women are the best suited to write about their realities have only gained currency with the rise of “bad scholarship,” especially with the decline of philological engagement (Said, 2003). Said’s critique in Orientalism was meant to question bad scholarship, unmasking both the eyes with which (especially European) scholars read the Other, and the politico-economic projects that, sometimes inadvertently, informed their scholarship. Re-introducing his project in 2003, Said advocated a robust process of academic inquiry, which required ‘a profound humanistic spirit deployed with generosity and…hospitality’ where ‘the interpreter’s mind actively makes a place in it for a foreign Other’ (Said, 2003: xix). Said stressed the idea of making space for the foreign other as the most important process of good scholarship. This process, he argued, entailed ‘knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study, and analysis for their own sakes’ (ibid). Here, scholarship becomes an entire body and soul immersion of the scholar. The scholar seeks to become like the community they study. They “deeply” live with, and learn the language and “cultures” of the people under study. Put differently, they become “naturalized” members. The scholar tries as they possibly could to understand the community on its internal logics. Following this schema, knowledge, with all its trappings of power, remains an active process of cultivation and learning, not just experience and belonging. Even language, which is believed to come more naturally to man, comes with conscious learning, not simply birth or location.
Third, the notion of ‘objectivity’ often pitched in this context to mean truthful, accurate, neutral, representative scholarship is one claim that is good for absolutely nothing. Without mixing this up with demands for rigor, all scholarship is biased depending on the questions and vantage point of the author (Foucault 1975, Usman 2006; Khaldun 1967). This is not to argue that the search for facts is a meaningless exercise. Instead, this suggests that facts do not interpret themselves. Indeed, there is neither a singular interpretation nor a singular internal logic. The exercise of interpretation is nothing but a subjective engagement—wound around questions, politics, and different forms of violence. It is the moment. Indeed, all sources, disciplines and the conclusions reached are often political in the sense that they are intended to respond to the present.
If the above grounds are agreeable, that is, abundance or demand for philological scholarship on African subjects by non-African scholars, and the absolute unimportance of any quests for objectivity, why then does the question of ‘African scholars in the African studies’ persist? Without seeking to dismiss the question entirely, we need to establish the intellectual project behind it. Is it objective scholarship? Total liberation? Equality? Despite being widely articulated as a concern for total liberation and breaking with the yoke of domination and marginalization, my contention is that neither of the above explains the persistence of this question, except the “catharsis of visibility:” A symbolism of access to power (resources, pride and respect) on the global academic stage, Africans long numerical presence to be seen as owning their scholarship. However, we can define “African” only in geographic and diplomatic terms (citizenship), which also do not allow us analytical and conceptual depth in the context of the present. If defined as men and women born, raised and educated on the African continent or with African ancestry and with visible identifiable features especially black or brown skin, this will be good but for absolutely nothing. Firstly, it is half analysis since it does not contextualize the general absence of Africans (scholars, power centers, footballers, technicians, inventors, medicine) in all “competitive” global spaces. Secondly, it is not interested in assessing the quality of production focusing entirely on who produces what. Third, it seeks to treat scholarship as an exclusive terrain operating outside politics and economics.
Besides any racist undertones it mobilizes on the part of the African, whiteness remains a symbolically powerful synecdoche for colonial marginalization and domination in all things African. My point is that we need to frame our reflex to this history differently, in ways that seek to appreciate and embrace it rather than angrily bash it to the point of asking present European and American scholars to apologize for it. The critique against the absence of African scholars is often pitched in the language of complete decolonization of the academy, as a search for African knowledge traditions, and full (sometimes, exclusive) participation of African peoples. This is a vanity endeavor. This approach actually dissociates scholarship from the politics of the present—the present inherited from different moments in history. To put it differently, claims for ‘total liberation’ of formerly colonized places remain only but essentialist. David Scott insightfully reminds us that the language of total liberation problematically suggests a story of romantic overcoming where ‘our pasts can be left behind and new futures leapt into (Scott, 2004: 135).’ Scott urges that formerly colonized peoples ought to see their history as a story of tragedy which demands ‘a more respectful attitude to the past, to the often-cruel permanence of its impress (ibid).’ Rather than angry resentment, this history ought to be respected acknowledging that the terrain in which scholarship (and many other fields) is engaged on the world stage was radically reordered by history (colonialism, structural adjustment etc.) both epistemologically and numerically.
At the same time, it is helpful to be mindful of the present challenges of the postcolonial state and how these do not only affect scholarship in formerly colonized places, but other aspects of life. Many postcolonial regimes are still mired in protracted civil wars and violence, struggling economies, corruption, bad leadership, broken social and economic infrastructure and famine. It is rather dishonest for a country whose main university could be closed for months by presidential decree, whose professors strike year in year out over emoluments, to complain of an overwhelming European or American presence in their studies. Such countries produce more raw materials for scholarship (for foreign scholars) than scholars. It does not matter whether these conditions are a legacy of colonialism (Mamdani 1996; Rodney 1972, dependency theorists) or the present political elite is responsible for them (Cooper 2007). As long as this remains the condition on the continent, in addition to an irredeemably reordered scholarly terrain, ‘African’ scholars, at the level of numbers, will remain invisible in African studies.
* Pambazuka.Yusuf Serunkuma Kajura is a PhD Fellow, Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University.
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