This blog post is a reflection on both my personal academic journey, as well as a commentary on various strands of the state of the academic engagement with knowledge about Africa and of Africans. A number of years ago, I was at a crossroads in my career. As a school child, I had chosen to study law, despite at the time, the relative limited career paths it offered. Lawyer. Full stop. My aim was, and remains, to essentially do what I wanted with the discipline… among other things, engage in closer analysis of African pasts and presents, so as to consider what future paths we can take. However, in due course I noticed that the nature of law itself [mostly the dominance and expectations of positive law] was holding me back from these aims. In response, two options presented themselves. Either switch to career paths to African Studies or alternatively, investigate a closer critique of legal knowledge in this regard. This is not really a thriller tale I am writing here, many readers will know that I did not switch to African Studies. However, despite my continued misgivings about the field, you can still find references to African studies in some of my bios. In this blog post, I will explore some of reasons why I was tempted to go into African studies and why ultimately, the temptation fizzled to nothing. As such, the post is essentially divided into two sections. The first comments on the paucity of scholarship on Africa and why this is actually an indictment of the purposes and nature of knowledge cultivation and transmission, generally. Secondly, I explain why African Studies seems to actually exacerbate the horribleness of this paucity rather than mitigate it.

Where is Africa in Your Curriculum?

Not taking into account her Diaspora, Africa’s population has hit the 1.2 billion mark – this is a significant share of the total global population. Yet, most university and pre-university curricula only attempt a cursory coverage of issues connected to the continent. Where coverage exists, it is likely to be derogatory, perpetuating of stereotypes, incomplete or false. There is often a presumed collective certainty about what Africa is, who her people are and what issues actually exist. Africa [or the very inappropriate “Sub-Saharan Africa“] is treated as an undifferentiated mass of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, insecurity, autocracy, and underdevelopment. But in many cases, curricula in the rest of the world pretends that Africa does not even exist. Even in Africa, most already limited education material on Africa is parochial to the country in which learning is taking place. This material is overloaded with a focus on the very recent past, and ignores the rest of the continent. This is a massive gap in our education institutions around the world. How can we learn and solve problems for a world that we do not fully know or understand?

The state of scholarly engagement with African denies the fact, as stated by Zoe Marks, that, “Africa is the key to understanding today’s global political and economic system and its inequalities.” Africa has had a long engagement with the rest of the world in the fields of science, trade, diplomacy, migration, arts and such like. This becomes increasingly noticeable when we do not pretend that Africa blinked into existence at the start of the infernal trade of kidnapped Africans, for the sole purpose of the infernal trade of kidnapped Africans. And even this enterprise and the subsequent invasion and colonisation of Africa has had a profound effect on the shape of the world as we know it today. Both for people on the continent and people outside the continent. To ignore these facts is to engage in policies, recommendations, analyses and legislations for the whole world and our future that will never work. Not only do our analyses stem from incomplete and false premises, we have built an entire faulty and destructive knowledge edifice on top of these premises. It is destructive because we can only provide solutions to problems that we understand properly. These problems include, climate emergency, extreme inequality, legacies of injustice and massive deprivation. By missing out African knowledge [that has been produced and continues to be produced], we miss out the opportunity to properly address these problems.

African Studies to the Rescue?

Ostensibly, African studies emerged as the key place to engage with knowledge production and exchange about Africa. This interdisciplinary field has focused on different subfields within it. For example: history, culture, politics, economy, languages, and religion. However, the field has often been indicted, especially by African scholars, for knowledge extraction, erasure and superiorization. This is because the basis of the field is anthropological and it developed alongside the brutal trade in kidnapped Africans, the destructive colonisation of the continent, as well as subsequent neo-colonial operations which have lured both the United States and China into denigration and exploitation of the continent’s people and resources. In other words, African studies has not been able to escape its anthropological roots and its voyeuristic practices, despite the increasing number of African scholars who have been drawn into the field. Notwithstanding the fact that these scholars have both experiential and intellectual knowledge, their contributions are often considered to be subjective, emotional, not sufficiently grounded in scholarship from the Global North, and a threat to the status quo. This often leads to feelings and actualities of exclusion within a field which they should justifiably call home. Or in my case, abandoning the field altogether.

In other words, the field’s anthropological history and present produce a temporal and material disjunct within it. Fabian calls this the denial of coevalness (2014: 173). He identifies this as an attitude of asynchronicity in which anthropological ethnographers, even though collection of knowledge from subjects of study relies on simultaneous time and temporality, present that extracted knowledge in writing and teaching as if they and the object of study existed in divergent times. ‘The Other’s empirical presence turns into his theoretical absence’ (Fabian 2014: xxxix). This creates a spatial-temporal fiction, that continually narrates knowledge production journeys to a mythical “Africa” as if they were journeys back in time. The African academic is partway out of the past, but the African non-scholar?… She is completely in shadow and cannot be considered authentic knower of her own condition.

These anthropological epistemological temporal manoeuvres disjunct the African from the past and the present. So, accusations of “presentism” ignore the fact that the story of humanity is essentially a ghost story. There is no past lost to time. There is no present to which the past does not reach. We live side by side with yesterday’s ghosts, haunted by the histories they carry… as we will haunt the future. If humanity carries on as it is, our story will eventually become a ghost story only, as they will be no one left on earth to haunt. Only history’s ghosts haunting a desolate landscape. The African non-scholar is already disappearing… under the weight of the silence, beneath the sound of rushing waters, into the arid deserts, behind legacies of oppression and dispossession…

This disappearing is enabled by a massive knowledge-power-resource-history imbalance. The “major” African studies conferences, associations and publications are mostly housed in the Global North. An African scholar journeys towards these with great difficulty, through collaborations that mirror the “painful past” of racialised enslavement and exploitative colonisation. The African scholar has to jump over the barbed wire fence of the visa process, often coming to grief on its metal spikes. Research questions that are only of interest to funders in the Global North become a hurricane that bears the African scholar out of the field. The native [often] English language reviewer-critique on academic papers presents a massive gully into which the African scholar could become lost for all time. The impoverishment of the continent means that the gate of resources is often locked to the African scholar. As for the African non-scholar… she is completely in shadow and cannot be considered authentic knower of her own condition.

Though Hountondji (2009) questions the African-ness of African studies, a parallel can also be drawn between African studies and Black/Africana studies, as these fields seems to be headed in divergent directions. One of the key distinctions between these is one of origins. Black/Africana studies has mostly been inaugurated mainly by people racialised Black, with scholars like WEB DuBois, Frantz Fanon and Carter G Woodson, named as some of the initiators of its thought. Nevertheless, it has not achieved much traction in the continent. This may be because African scholars are reluctant to engage with “race”. There is always the danger in this of extending the United States’ discourse to the rest of the world, rather than thinking through how racialisation has had varied effect on the whole world. This is a barrier to cultivation of African knowledge by Africans in ways that are not subjugated to other areas of academic thought. Nevertheless, Black studies offers more potential for studies from a Black perspective, while some sections of African studies have resembled an intellectual zoo.

Consequently, there have been many critiques of African studies by African scholars within and without the field, ranging from critiques of specific incidents to the field as a whole. Some of these are listed below:

So, Can African Studies be “Decolonised?”

In response, to many of the critiques above, there has been a lot of conversation about “decolonising” African studies. Professor Insa Nolte touches upon some of these in her presidential address at the 2018 ASAUK conference in Birmingham on 13 September 2018. The text of which can be found here. In her address, Professor, Nolte encourages the field to pursue more equal engagement and partnerships with African scholars. She argues quite strongly that the field of African studies must embark on alternative practices and approaches. In essence, engage in more equal collaborations, shift the locations of research, make efforts to re-balance resource and material inequalities between researchers in the Global North and South, etc.

As the years have passed, there is little evidence that the field has taken up these admonitions with much gusto. There has been more talk than action. Even where they have been taken up, the practices have been adopted have operated to preserve the field and not the dignity of the people being studied. This stance resonates strongly with Lewis Gordon’s conceptualisation of disciplinary decadence. Disciplinary decadence describes a discipline, so rooted in colonial practices, that it considers itself complete, self-created, entirely method-dependent, and immortal (2015: 4-5; 2014: 86). This type of decadence specifically exposes a methodological lacuna for disciplines in the Euro-modern academy, in respect of populations objectified at the time the discipline’s method and thought was formulated. This unveils the limits of the Global North’s adoption of “decolonisation”. In essence, we try in vain using diversity measures, to fit historically marginalised populations into the strict dictates of the discipline. In other words, within this intractable adherence to colonial method and logics, ‘non-normative people, become problems, instead of people who face problems’ (Gordon 2014: 81-92). It seems easier to question the legitimacy of people whose “problems” fall outside the sacred method of the discipline, than to question the method and presumptions that underpin the discipline – the soul of the discipline itself.

African scholars tend to hold a more pessimistic view of African studies pretensions to decolonisation. As Robtel Neajai Pailey states, the problem with the Global North’s:

““scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places. Many academics mistakenly maintain that by screaming “decolonise X” or “decolonise Y” ad nauseam, they will miraculously metamorphose into progressive agents of change… 21st-century “epistemic decolonisation” cannot succeed unless it is bound to and supportive of contemporary liberation struggles against inequality, racism, austerity, patriarchy, autocracy, homophobia, xenophobia, ecological damage, militarisation, impunity, corruption, media muzzling and land grabbing.”

In other words, in all our academic ramblings, we must not forget that decolonisation is always a political project that responds to and seeks to end specific untenable conditions of global life. Anything else is merely fairy-tale, delusion and self-deception.

Thus for African scholars, the future of African studies cannot be more important than the future of African people. Or as Rene Odanga explains:

 

Bibliography

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. Columbia University Press, 2014.

Gordon, Lewis R. Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times. Routledge, 2015

Gordon, L. R. ‘Disciplinary Decadence and the Decolonisation of Knowledge’. Africa Development 39(1) (2014): 81–92.

Hountondji, Paulin J. “Knowledge of Africa, knowledge by Africans: Two perspectives on African studies.” RCCS Annual Review. A selection from the Portuguese journal revista crítica de ciências sociais 1 (2009).

Nolte, Insa. ‘The Future of African Studies: What We Can Do to Keep Africa at the Heart of Our Research’. Journal of African Cultural Studies 31, no. 3 (2 September 2019): 296–313.
Pailey, Robtel Neajai. ‘How to Truly Decolonise the Study of Africa’. Accessed 26 August 2022. .

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