A German association called for fixes for Africa’s problems. It’s one of them.
Where is the ‘African’ in African Studies? Not in the African Studies Association of Germany.
When the African Studies Association Germany (VAD) recently published a call for panels ahead of their upcoming conference – entitled “Africa Challenges“ – I felt too embarrassed to circulate it. It reminded me of the question Liberian academic Robtel Neajai Pailey posed in African Arguments when she asked “Where is the ‘African’ in African Studies?” According to the call for contributions, there seemed to be none in German African Studies.
Reading VAD’s release, I was appalled by the voice that claimed to speak for German African Studies in Germany as a whole. Its portrayal of Africa seems stuck in the previous century. It does not include a single reference to an African thinker (it curiously includes no references at all).
Like VAD’s exclusively non-African Executive Board and Board, I too am not African. I am an academic in Germany who has researched issues on the continent with African colleagues. I choose anonymity for this critique because the hierarchies in German academia, and the associated political positions of power that structure it, continue to define the possibilities of an academic career – which I am not unaffected by.
Africa is a challenge
“Africa is challenging to the rest of the world…it challenges notions of …modernization”. So begins VAD’s call and the powerful, and undoubtedly negative connotations, it carries throughout. There is “Africa” – a homogeneous “it” – and then there is “the rest of the world” that the author(s) considers themselves part of.
“Africa also has historically presented and continues to present a challenge to academic practice,” it continues. The call continues to set up its intent without specifying how “Africa” is supposed to have challenged academia. This is followed by a set of examples for desired contributions that should ideally explore a variety of these so-called challenges. All are negative, ranging from “educational systems which are failing the masses” to “non-functional” this and that.
The paragraph ends with a brief note welcoming proposals “that show that Africa is not only a victim of circumstances but comes up with unexpected solutions for its multiple problems”. It reiterates that “Africa” is indeed a victim, even if not exclusively, and unquestionably has multiple problems. One has to wonder how many German scholars of German Studies would be interested in attending an exclusively African-organised conference in an African country that focuses on the failures of Germany?
The call ends: “Finally, the conference also asks if and how African studies worldwide have been able to address the fundamental problems African countries face?” This is the neo-colonial tour-de-force. That African countries have fundamental problems seems to be a bottom line. That African Studies are in a position to address them – instead of constructively supporting and emphasising the many ways in which African countries do not need German African Studies scholars – seems essential.
In an ironic parting moment, and as if suddenly joined by a different voice, the author(s) then add that: “beyond academic debates, Africa often remains represented in false dichotomies.” This is immediately followed by one as it refers to a supposedly “widespread popular image of a continent that ‘cannot be understood’”. What this apparent image consists of, or where it stems from, remains unclear and uncited. Having presented a rare fine example in just how such false dichotomies are reproduced not outside but precisely within academic debates, and by even naming and calling for them, this offers a rather comical ending.
Preferably unheard, deliberately silenced
African Studies in Germany clearly remains a space yet to be decolonised. But why worry about one medium-sized academic organisation’s not-so-exemplary practice? Because the homogenising and essentialising ways in which “Africa” is portrayed in the call need interrogation. Not only for the old tropes it draws on, but also for what this carousel of antiquated bias does.
VAD’s call is only one small example of widespread violence through language that affects how Africa is imagined, studied, researched and taught. That this violence exists is nothing new. The VAD call reflects the worldview of the scholars who wrote it: authoritative voices in German African Studies. It exposes an approach not yet transformed from a colonial mindset.
Should the conference’s aim – exploring “the challenging nature of Africa” in past, present and future – not rather be the reverse? The VAD call shows well how it is not “Africa” that “is challenging to the rest of the world”. It is rather that the “rest of the world” – or Germany, if you will – is still challenging to Africa. It shows how the perpetuation of binaries pertaining to an outdated world-order fail to accept that the ways people live their lives may follow a different logic. And it shows, too, that African voices within (German) African Studies are still, in Pailey’s words, “preferably unheard” and possibly even “deliberately silenced”.
There is still a long way to go to counter the absence of African intellectual agendas in discussions that concern them first. VAD’s call shows that without them, institutions and scholars will continue to reinforce and advance “a colonial patriarchal order”.
The author requested anonymity.
African studies? The topic is widespread outside Africa. A procession of academics from Europe and the US is “studying Africa” in the belief that this is contributing to knowledge-based planning that the Africans are unable (or perhaps don’t feel they need) to do themselves. These foreign interventions are often in the guise of “capacity building”, a process that includes scholarship inducements that cherry-pick African talent to go abroad to assist foreign institutes with their research programmes. These African researchers will often never go back home. They become part of the brain drain that perpetuates the status quo. Can Africa afford this drain? Perhaps the multitude of European and US academics could be more gainfully engaged sorting out the mess in their own countries as this is contributing to global uncertainty and turmoil?
A more interesting question is why are Africans less interested in understanding their own cultures and societies than foreigners?
If African Universities and Governments took the study of all African affairs, military, political, economic, social etc seriously then the issue would not arise
As Chinua Achebe said, if you do not like how someone tells your story, tell it yourself
I have taken time to read and re-read the piece in African arguments and I have the following submission: 1.the author appears very harsh in his arguments nonetheless attention should be paid to some of the issues he raised. 2. His contention that there seems to be no African in German African Studies programme for the VAD meetings is too sweeping whereas to me what is required is the widening of the scope as well as greater accommodation and promotion of genuinely African perspectives. 3. Perhaps a common problem in African Studies outside of Africa generally beyond VAD meetings is the de-emphasis on African perspectives as popularised and presented by African scholars. VAD has overtime tried to correct this by allowing scholars from Africa to present African position perhaps untainted but then it should be realised that a majority of Africans that participate in VAD meetings from my experience are mostly Africans studying in German Universities in which case it could be said that they have also imbibed the German or European perspectives, perceptions and interpretations. 4. The Institute of Ethnology in Goethe University, Frankfurt where I was at a time on Post-doctoral research stay is way off different in allowing African perspectives. That is not the case elsewhere. For instance my friend that completed his doctoral studies in the Department of Philosophy of the same university was pointedly told that there is no area called African Philosophy which he sought to explore. He was eventually bailed out by a former deputy president of the university who took passionate interest in him and his research. They have since remained friends. Even at that, more of African perspectives should be explored. For instance, I participated in a Colloquium in the Institute where my friend, also from the same country with me asked a presenter on African Political Economy if she had read Claude Ake’s work and she said no. Whereas this is one of the leading scholars on that subject in Africa. I am just curious about what obtain in other African Studies Association in the United states, Canada and other parts of Europe which will give insight into how such a body should be constituted and if including Africans on the Board is necessary. But to me, making African Studies truly relevant to Africa and about Africa goes beyond making Africans members of the executive body. 5. Homogenising Africa Is herculean. I am not sure VAD is doing this but I am aware that it is commonly done. I am also not sure that VAD has given the impression that it has the magic wand to solve Africa’s problems rather it has only provided opportunity for detailed and dispassionate discussion of these issues and problems. 6. I am not sure that VAD should be crucified for the issues raised by the author but generally beyond VAD there is need to promote African Studies devoid of any overhang, allowing Africans say, interrogating African scholars and positions, presenting and critiquing their viewpoints and allowing them wider space rather than perpetuating stereotyped European focus or perspectives on Africa, after all it is all about Africa.