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  • on 09.10.2015
  • at 04:06 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

We want to boost African Studies on the Continent, an interview with Professor Grace A. Musila 0

Stellenbosch University in South Africa plays host to one of Africa’s important literary and cultural scholars, Prof. Grace Ahingula Musila. Recently in Kampala for the second East African Literary and Cultural Studies conference, TIA’s Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire sought her for a chat.

Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire: You have been described as ‘a great young African cultural scholar’. This comes at a time that we can say is of a sort of recovery from the pain of seeing the best African literary and cultural scholars emigrate to teach in the US and Europe. Think of leading critic Simon Gikandi and many more. What does it mean to you, to have Africa as your base? To excel at your work while based on the continent?

Professor Grace A Musila: That’s a very generous description. I am flattered that someone thinks so highly of my work. I think it is hard to be an African scholar anywhere, and not take your location seriously, both in terms of the country/continent; but also in terms of the institution, and the kinds of platforms, opportunities or resources that your location makes available or undermines.

At some point the issue of African scholars working elsewhere in the world was a huge problem; often described in the rhetoric of brain-drain; but increasingly, these scholars and their location ‘elsewhere’ have been a strategic blessing in two ways: in building networks of exchange, collaboration and rigorous engagement; and in placing African voices and concerns on those mainstream platforms out there; and compelling the world to take Africa and Africa/ns’ questions and concerns seriously. So, in this respect, I like to see these scholars’ location as strategic resource-pools in a shared struggle to put Africa and Africans on global circuits of intellectual exchange.

But back to me personally: in some ways, my location at a historically white university in South Africa is an intriguing double-location: from outside the continent, I would be considered to be based at an African university; but on the continent, given the uneven spread of resources across the continent’s academic institutions, I am in a privileged position, in comparison to my colleagues at some institutions elsewhere on the continent, but also in comparison to some institutions within South Africa. Unfortunately there is a complicated unevenness between historically Black and historically white universities in South Africa. I am personally alert to this double position of both marginality and privilege; and I try to explore ways of challenging rather than invisibilising this unevenness; and seeking points of synergy with both better-resourced and less-resourced locations in my network.

Still talking about the ‘conducive-ness’ of the African university (or the university in Africa if you like) for literary and cultural intellectual workers like yourself to operate, I’d love to hear your take on the presence of creative writers as faculty/residents of universities in the way Okot P’Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Taban Lo Liyong (shamefully have mentioned only males) were based at Makerere, University of Nairobi, Ibadan etc. in the 60s and 70s. Is the university still a conducive space for creative literary production (in terms of novels, plays, poetry etc.), as it was then?

I think the university is still a homely space for both academics and creative artists – and in fact, many continue to juggle the double role of creative and critical production, comfortably – although, admittedly, there have been attempts to create a split between the two kinds of intellectual labour. These splits have played out in intriguing generational tensions between younger writers outside the university and older academics in universities, perhaps most visibly in the Kenyan context withKwani? Magazine’s initial tensions with some elements in the academy. I have commented on this elsewhere (“The Redykyulass Generation’s Intellectual Interventions in Kenyan Public Life”) so I won’t dwell on it here. But my sense is, this is an artificial tension that has more to do with generational anxieties between the two groups, than with the capacity of universities to continue being productive spaces for writers and broadly, creative producers. 

We must be wary of attempts to set up hierarchies between creative and scholarly production; or worse, attempts to negate each other’s labour. I don’t understand this logic of scarcity. There is enough room in the University for both kinds of intellectual labour and more. Similarly, I don’t understand this culture of needing to be dismissive of the older generation of writers and academics. At some point, it became fashionable in East Africa to be dismissive of the Ngugi’s and Achebe’s of this world; and pretend that they weren’t that great. I find that so sad and pathetic; not because I believe in any holy cows which must not be critiqued; but because this dismissal is not critique; it is lack of imagination and basic meanspritedness. It comes from a place of scarcity, which says, ‘my greatness depends on denigrating the previous generations or dismissing academics or dismissing young writers’, and I just find this pathetic. There is room for all our contributions. Art is about opening up possibilities, widening up the horizons of human potential and human beauty, not narrowing them down.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Makerere University)

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