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Where is the ‘African’ in African Studies? 0

We need to put the ‘African’ in African Studies, not as a token gesture, but as an affirmation that Africans have always produced knowledge about their continent.

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” in some cases and “deliberately silenced” 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.

“Knowledge about Africa for purposes other than its exploitation”

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 theauthoritative 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 the . 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 concerns that African Studies was firmly cemented on a foundation of institutional racism. Furthermore, in a 1972 lecture at the ASA 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”.

More recently, in a 2006 keynote lecture at the 49th annual ASA meeting in San Francisco, California, Nigerian feminist scholar Amina Mama demonstrated that producing knowledge about Africa is an ethical dilemma as much as it is an epistemological consideration, for Africans and non-Africans alike. She asked: “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?”

For Mama, Africanists in America had been complicit in advancing a colonial patriarchal order by dismissing the intellectual agendas of African scholars. She 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 inequities in which Africans are often dissed and dismissed. This has been corroborated by a recent scholarly article 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.

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.

Continue reading on African Arguments

by Robtel Neajai Pailey

Photo Credits: Getty Images

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