There is no Africa in African studies

The experience of studying Africa in London makes the writers question the validity of "African Studies" as is currently taught in Britain.

Duke Humfrey's Library Oxford, UK. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There is no Africa in African Studies. This has become apparent with the year we spent studying the continent in London. We are an intersectional group of African women who are on a search for a deeper understanding of Africa but continue to find ourselves in echo chambers of white noise. We share our experiences with the hopes that it will encourage and add to the global campaign to decolonize university curricula and cultures.

African Studies has a contested origin story ranging from black liberation and civil rights campaigns to the advancement of colonial and neocolonial agendas. For example, at its founding the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), according to its own press release, “immediately became integral in training British administrators and colonial officials for overseas postings across the British Empire.”

The dubious beginnings of African Studies means that the absence of Africa in our British program should not have come as a surprise. The first class of our core African Studies module at the University College London (UCL), a Russell Group university, used Europe as a launching pad both theoretically and literally. The class began with “forgotten” pre-Victorian Africans from London and France who were skilled in European sport, music, and writing. These people were presented as important because their talents were regarded as extraordinary within European societies; they were the exceptions. Within that same class, Africa was described as the “other” and as a land of “gold and monsters.” Instead of focusing on the rich history of Africa and its magnitude of innovation, we were asked to think of “Africa as a reflection of Eurasia,” and were later told that there is no difference between western and African theories. This idea is contrary to the work of numerous African scholars. Imagine, wanting to study Africa only to focus on how Africa is represented and seen by white Europeans?

Using European perspectives unquestionably resulted in the same professor informing us that the Portuguese who established a trading port at Arguin, off the coast of Mauritania, did so because they were interested in buying gold, and that it was Africans who encouraged them to accept slaves as goods. However, the Portuguese were already enslaving Africans and were seeking additional labor for their sugar plantations on the island of Madeira. Such historical revision is detrimental to students who may move on to positions in which they repeat what they have learnt and continue to establish and reinforce the cycle of unseeing and mis-seeing Africa.

When European ideas and perspectives of Africa take the spotlight in African Studies, it infuriates us and causes us to deeply question the validity of the degree we are pursuing. We were not given the opportunity to consider how Africans see and perceive themselves until the final day of our class. This is a remnant of the colonial past and an example of how African Studies today remains paternalistic, thus limiting the agency of people and places we seek to learn about.

Diversity of voices

The curriculum of our African Studies master’s course featured a disproportionately large number of cis-white male voices. For example, 87% of the list of key texts in one of the modules (see the program’s website) are white authors. To discuss Africa through the lens of white academics is Eurocentric and needs to change. With such a one-sided education, we risk leaving university without the language to actualize and conceptualize African visions of Africa.

Universities need to ensure their curricula deconstructs the Eurocentric format of studying Africa. Africa should not be studied through the simplistic categorizations of various “African issues.” There are nuances and intersections which flow together, silencing alternative voices and representations of Africans throughout the diaspora should not be the norm.

A diversity of voices means including the voices of those who—out of circumstance or choice—may not have the privilege of theorizing and knowing through academic publishing. For example, our learning would have been enriched by studying African musicians such as Emile YX? and Blick Bassy whose music is steeped in consciousness and history; spiritual practitioners of indigenous African religions such as Vodu and Ifa, who in their memories and practices enact a large corpus of Fon and Yoruba lifeworlds; and women farmers across the continent whose practices with soils, seeds and climates are theory in action. Western academia may not consider these individuals theorists, but they offer theories and knowledge not always found in journals and books published by a university press.

Due to power and resource inequalities, accessibility, and the gatekeeping of western journals, As a study by Briggs and Weathers found, African academics publish in lower numbers, even while more African scholars are submitting papers. Additionally, according to Smart, the output of “sub-Saharan” African authors in core science and engineering journals between 1986 to 1999 decreased by 22% whereas worldwide there was a 14% increase.

We inherently bias and limit our work when we only use sources we find online through university databases that marginalize Africa. It is time to realize that not publishing in peer-reviewed journals does not invalidate the intellectual ability or contributions of Africans. Professors of African Studies should be proactive in broadening their sources to include Africa-based journalsconference proceedings, African newspapers, magazines and blogs, works of fiction, music, YouTube videos, films, podcasts, and social media as sources of African voices and arenas of authentic intellectual production. Solely focusing on peer-reviewed textual sources disadvantages students and does not challenge the power imbalances and privilege inherent in the Ivory Tower.

Students must push back and demand that African scholarship is the first and central source in African Studies. It is time to center Africa and Africa-based scholars in African Studies outside of the continent.

Whenever we mentioned that we studying Africa in London, we were often met with incredulous looks; why are the shortcomings of the course such a surprise? But, should Africa only be studied on the continent? Are the issues that we see simply a result of Africa being taught and fetishized in Euro-American universities? Do we need to work on a campaign for the end of African Studies in predominantly white institutions? We believe this does not need to be the case. Instead, all persons who are teaching Africa should reflect on and address these issues in their research, scholarship, and instruction.

Students of African descent are currently present in institutions in which they were once unwelcome or perceived to be inferior (see for example the backlash against the UCL eugenics conference). This is just one of the realities we face when we attend predominantly and historically white Euro-American post-secondary institutions. We envisage that professors do the crucial work of dismantling their race and geographical privilege as it shows up in their curricula, teaching practice, and in interactions with students. We already carry the burden of existing and thriving in a world laden with anti-black sentiment and to add extra emotional and intellectual labor only works to make university more challenging.

There is no Africa in African Studies. In the words of American novelist, Ralph Ellison: “I am invisible[…] simply because people refuse to see me.” The invisibility of Africa in African Studies has made the continent into a fetishized area of study.

What we are asking for is simple: we want professors to have greater empathy and listening skills, and to be self-reflexive about their privilege and to work to dismantle it; we want the hiring of professors with diverse disciplinary backgrounds and who empower their students; we want educators who are committed to teaching a politically conscious and relevant African Studies course; professors who center Africa and diverse African voices in their research and teaching; teachers who are aware that criticism is neither a personal attack nor a pointed score; and the centering of Africa in African Studies. Educators who are reluctant to do this, may want to question why and if they are even teaching “African Studies” after all.

This piece is derived from a longer open letter. Please contact any of the authors if you wish to publish the longer open letter as well as to see a selection of readings and resources and to gain access to a Facebook group where academic resources are freely shared.

About the Author

Tofunmi Odugbemi is a challenger and disrupter of spaces. She applies her developed sense of justice, ingenuity, and leadership in areas where academia intersects with the legal world.

Orapeleng Rammala was born in South Africa and raised in England.

Wangũi wa Kamonji convenes the collective Afrika Hai from her base in East Africa.

Further Reading