The problem of studying Africa as a European

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog. On 17 October, a blog post was published called ‘How to study Africa as a European, in 2016?

zoo2In the post, I argue that solidarity was easier in the time before the end of (formal) apartheid. But things are not so clear now. Many well-meaning Europeans have become disillusioned with Africa. Sometimes, this leads to a new patronizing type of attitude, one that puts the blame for Africa’s problems on Africans in general.

To avoid this, I think a choice must be made. My position is that neutrality doesn’t exist. I want to position myself on the side of those who are resisting oppression and are trying to build an Africa based on authenticity, based on the interests of the peoples of Africa and not based on narrow self-interest. For me, there is no alternative then to try to follow the thorny path of solidarity.

Comments are invited!


Solidarity and African Studies – What does that mean for me in 2016?

A word about my personal background…

My political education started when I was in secondary school, a secondary school in the safe but slightly anarchistic Dutch town of Bussum of the seventies.

This is what called the attention of the Dutch public to Portuguese colonialism in Angola, urging consumers to boycott Angolan coffee.

I was moved by the injustice taking place in the colonies that still existed at the time in Africa, especially in Angola and Mozambique. But I was also moved by the injustice of apartheid and became aware of the unjust minority settler government of then-Rhodesia. Later, my view was broadened, as I became aware of unfair trade relations in the world, as put on the agenda by the Dutch third-world solidarity movement of the time.

During and after my secondary school, I developed in addition a fascination for anything related to the communication between people of different cultural backgrounds. Through a year as a youth exchange student and through contacts afterwards, I gained many useful insights and skills, which I have continued to develop.

In my University years, my focus was on how people can organize themselves in order to gain increased control of their living conditions and of their environment, especially in the Netherlands. However, after my studies, my focus shifted back to Africa. My first job was with one of the larger anti-apartheid organisation that existed in the Netherlands at the time, the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. That period taught me many things, including:

  • The importance of solidarity: it means supporting a movement without necessarilypenning always agreeing with every choice made by that movement. Solidarity in this case means that the liberation movement is seen as the primary actor – the choices of that movement are leading – as a principle, a position of solidarity means that one does not attempt to make choices for on behalf of others.
  • The importance of education: one of my jobs was recruitment and preparation of Dutch teachers who went to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s war of indepence had two key themes: land and education. This introduced me among other things to idealist (but practically unachievable) ideas for educational reform through the so-called ZIMFEP schools.
  • The importance of thorough political analysis: never again did I hear or read analyses as clear as those of the South Africans that I got to know in the period of the anti-apartheid struggle.

My second and third jobs were for the international environmental movement. A key difference between environment and development groups is that the environmental movement’s primary orientation is towards influencing its own society: environmentalists want to improve the environment they themselves live in. By contrast, development organisations are primarily concerned with changing things elsewhere: change in the organisation’s own society is at best a secondary thing for developmentalists. Internationally, within the environmental movement, there is an attitude of solidarity based on a shared appreciation of how difficult stuggles for change wangarican be. This solidarity echoed my earlier experiences in the anti-apartheid movement and made me feel at home. I was then also greatly inspired by meeting some of the leading figures of the environmental movement, such as Wangari Maathai, of Kenya’s Green Belt movement.

My last job led me to do research into internet facilities of Universities and research institutions, primarily in Europe, but also in other parts of the world. There, I became aware of the huge differences that exist between Universities: their organisation, their functions, the facilities they offer.¬† (See for example the description of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in the nineties in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah.)

African studies – why and how?

What does this all mean for how I want do be scientifically engaged with Africa in this day and age? Which are my key points of departure, what is my key focus?

  • Science is not a value-free thought experiment. Scientists should be aware of the role they play in societal debate. That means they should also make explicit which position they choose. For me, that means that I want to choose my position as a scientist in solidarity with people and movements in Africa that fight for their right to self-determination or who want to improve their own environments. (This statement is easier to make than to act upon… In the good old days of apartheid, choosing sides was easy. But who to side with nowaydays? How to avoid a neo-patronizing attitude? Those questions are not so easy to answer – but that is where I want to go.) I feel that if I do not choose a clear position, I risk becoming a scientific tourist, a self-serving careerist or a pawn following the agenda of the government or of others.unescovii
  • The UNESCO General History of Africa shows the history of the continent as a history of oppression and resistance. In a way, the history of Europe can be seen in this way as well. This is also the side I would choose: I want to pay attention to resistance in Africa, from the period of earliest contact with colonisation up to the present day. Up to now, I have read in abundance about the history of the colonisers, much about the history of those in power, much about outside European and other influence, but too little about the own agency of Africans and African resistance.
  • It is important in my view to start from the basics: the colonial period led to a disregard for indigenous African forms of organisation and a disregard for African languages and cultures. That disregard continues to this day. I think it has to be rejected. I believe the ways in which the missionaries and colonialists have sought to categorize and divide African peoples and languages are still with us today. It is necessary to ‘decolonize the mind’ from an essentially African perspective (Prah, Wa Thiong’o).
  • To take this point a bit further: literature (Lonsdale, Vansina) shows that the development of cultural identies in Africa was different from that in Europe. But we also know that these identities have often been portrayed as primitive, inferior and old-fashioned. I believe that the continuing denial and oppression of the different cultural identities in Africa is one of the key factors that inhibit Africans from gaining control over their own living conditions. Of course, the situation is different from country to country, but my interest is in African movements that want to give central stage to own identities, within the modern framework of a globalizing world.
  • Again: I am interested in the role of African languages. I support the plea by Wa Thiong’o for a renaissance of African languages. I also suppor the plea by Prah, who argues for a new approach to African languages, based on research into likenesses, instead of the traditional focus on differences. Prah also argues in favour of education in African languages at every level of education.ngugi
  • This brings me to an interest in the role of education in Africa more in general. It is clear that colonial education was aimed at producing a local √©lite, enstranged from its own background and destined to perpetuate the colonial order. To what extent is that still the function of (higher) education in Africa today? How does, on the other hand, education also help to shape and enable resistance? What is the dynamic for change? Here, I hope to be able to use the analysis of Bourdieu, who sees education as a field of power relationships.
  • Africa is too big for generalizations. In some countries, an own dynamic may have been created over the past decades that makes those countries viable organisational units. In those countries, checks and balances may develop in culturally appropriate ways, so that kleptocratic governance can be kept in check. However, for other countries in Africa that may not be the case – it may never be the case. For those countries, the possibility should be opened up to think again and to envisage new and different states and ways for peoples to work together (Adebajo, Ayittey, Davidson, Fanon, Mazrui…).
  • I still think that all of this is only tentative – a start at collecting my thoughts. I don’t have all the answers yet. I have a lot of respect for the Africanists here in Leiden and elsewhere and I know I need to learn a lot more – before perhaps being able to make a contribution myself…