(This is a summary of the research project I will be undertaking as a student at the African Studies Centre, Leiden University, the Netherlands.)


In policy debates on Sub-Saharan Africa, the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity in Africa has been seen as a problem to be overcome, rather than as a resource to be harnessed. Not enough study has been done into the positive sides of language and culture and into how cultures and languages are perceived and used by Africans today. Ideas on cultures and language that go back to colonial times are still prevalent.

Two separate research avenues are part of this project: one dealing with language, the other with culture.


The plan is to establish an observatory of indigenous African language use as an online resource, showing how Africans use indigenous languages in a number of key domains. These will be domains where language policy and practice intersect:

  • Education (at various levels);
  • Language(s) of instruction and communication in the police and military;
  • Legal: language(s) allowed to be spoken in court, language(s) allowed for reporting and written deliberations;
  • Sub-national governance: languages used for debating and reporting in city, county, district or provincial/state legislature meetings;
  • Healthcare: language(s) used for reaching out to young or expectant mothers;
  • Surveying: language(s) used for major surveys like the Demographic and Health Surveys;
  • Media: language(s) used in mass media.

Phasing (tentative)

Pilot phase: Initial database design and exploration of web interface and hosting possibilities – September 2017 to May 2018.

Data collection: March 2018 to March 2019.

Initial publication(s): towards the end of 2019.

Institutionalisation, seeking a permanent home for the observatory: early 2020.

How you can help

Information needed for the observatory is available, but not accessible through one database. Collaborators are needed to help establish and test the best database structure and web interface and to provide information on individual languages.


Culture here is seen as the value system that serves as common point of reference for a people. Cultures the world over have been characterized in terms of dimensions such as Individualism versus Collectivism or Indulgence versus Restraint. These dimensions have been developed through research by Hofstede, Minkov and others. Today, they are widely used in cross-cultural training and international management consultancy. They are based on how people self-report on their values through surveys such as the World Values Survey.

These surveys will be re-analysed for Africa at the level of ethnolinguistic groups, in order to establish if and how individual groups are different from or similar to the national averages.

For several countries, data will be compared to data available through ethnographic literature, expert interviews and focus group discussions.

This should contribute to a vision of African cultures as a dynamic resource and to more explicit attention for culture in policy debates on Africa.


A field visit to Ghana took place in September/October 2017.

A field visit to Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa and Swaziland took place in February/March 2018.

Target completion: June 2018.

How you can help

(Pointers to) literature on changes in value systems in different cultures or ethnic groups in Africa are always welcome.


Several outcomes are targeted:

  • A web-based information source for information on African languages (the observatory).
  • Publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
  • A Master and a PhD Thesis at Leiden University.


Prof. Dr. Maarten Mous, Leiden University Centre for Linguistics.

Dr. Akinyinka Akinyoade, African Studies Centre, Leiden University.

CONTACT (This blog – not yet the observatory. A URL for the observatory will be added later.)


Education in Africa in the 21st Century: what is the greatest challenge?

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog. On 8 February 2017, a blog post was published called ‘What is the biggest challenge for African education in the 21st Century?

African little girl is learning Amharic language
Only 10% of African children are educated in their mother tongue.

In the post, I argue that mother tongue education has been proven to be more efficient than education in other languages. It is also more efficient to become proficient and literate in the mother tongue before starting to learn a second or third language. Unfortunately, in Sub-Saharan Africa only 10% of children are educated in their mother tongue.

The post then discusses the obstacles to implementing mother-tongue education on a larger scale, including neglect of local languages and resistance due to lack of prestige for local languages.

I conclude that in spite of this, the only way forward if education is to become more efficient and accessible for all is to expand local-language education in Africa, not only at the primary, but also at secondary and tertiary levels.

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 élite, 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…


From tribe to nation?

African tribesmen. Source: Smithsonian Library
African tribesmen. Source: Smithsonian Library

(This post was first published on Africa on the Blog in May 2013.)

In her recent postVera Magero addresses issues related to tribalism and tribal identities.

For me, this gave rise to several thoughts, that I would like to examine more in-depth in this post.

Firstly, I would like to look at the notion of tribe and tribal identity for a moment. For me, the word ‘tribe’ denotes a band of primitives, living at the outskirts of civilization. So, I decided to look at what my friend Google had to say about the topic. Indeed, there is controversy there because the word tribe is problematic, to say the least. After all, it was introduced in colonial times not always with the best interests of the so-called tribesmen in mind.

This article in Pambazuka, and especially the comments to it, nicely highlight both sides of the coin.

On the one hand, Anengiyefa Alagoa comments: “I totally agree that the use of the word ‘tribe’ has a definite connotation of primitive savagery, and I have for a long time refused to use it. The Basques and the Catalans are minority ethnic groups in Spain, but they are never referred to as tribes. Neither are the Bretons of France or the Welsh of Great Britain. Tribes seem to exist only in Africa, in the Amazon jungle, or in Papua New Guinea. Native Americans and aboriginal Australians were also referred to as tribal people because they were perceived by the white settlers to be savage and primitive.”

On the other hand, though, Gerlad Businge points out that: “its use in Africa is not as negative as it is in the US. In Africa, everyone belongs to a social grouping with a common heritage, practices etc and such kind of grouping, whatever word is used should not result in a bad description of any one or a group of people. I think, just like we have taken on English as our national language (it does present a lot of benefits), let us accept the word tribe without going along with the tribal connotation it alludes to in the west. I have no problem being referred to as of a particular tribe, so long as that description is not made a standard basis of judging me – my abilities, my situation, the opportunities I should get etc.”

So – this may be a cultural thing. For Africans, the word ‘tribe’ may have a different connotation than for Europeans or Americans. Being European myself, I am clearly emotionally closer to the point of view of Alagoa. For Africans, it makes things more complicated – because they cannot use the word ‘tribe’ when writing for a European audience in the same way they would if they were writing for an African audience.

In her post, Magero points out that she was first taught her ‘local dialect (mother tongue)’ and only then Swahili and English. She feels this is one of the reasons why Kenyans ‘instinctively self-identify by our tribes rather than the country’.

Ok – when I grew up in Amsterdam, I was first taught my mother tongue (Dutch), and only later started to learn English. But what is wrong with that? And if it is not wrong for me – why would it be wrong for Vera? Call me eurocentric if you will, but I believe that cultural identity and language are very closely related. Being securely rooted in a specific cultural and linguistic identity is, in my perspective, important for anybody’s sense of being grounded in society. I am not alone in saying this. That giant of African literature, Kikuyu author professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, has argued long before me and much better than I can that a renaissance of African languages is a necessary step in the restoration of African wholeness.

It goes beyond Africa: different languages represent subtly different ways of looking at the world and its problems. In order to retain and expand the ability of humanity to deal with the problems facing it, preserving linguistic diversity is just as important as preserving species diversity.

But of course, there is a difference between Vera and myself. Vera grew up in a country where her mother tongue was not the national language. I grew up in a country where my mother tongue was also the national language. In Vera’s country, five years ago people killed each other partly based on tribal stereotypes (and let’s hope it won’t start again after the elections of the 4th of March).

Is that because of Vera and the way she was raised? Or should we look for an explanation in an entirely different direction?

I believe that for any modern country to succeed, a certain amount of internal cohesion is necessary. This cohesion must be based on a shared (dominant) cultural identity. Language is an important element of such a shared identity. In Africa, due to the colonial history, most countries lack this shared cultural and linguistic common identity.

What that means, is that loyalties in African countries are not to the state, not also to the tribe or people but, much more narrowly, to the extended family, to the clan, or to another instrument of sharing favours and patronage, such as the political party. In such countries, national wealth is not governed and redistributed by a democratic process. The system of checks and balances that exists in other countries depends on people feeling loyal and committed to the state. That feeling is lacking in many African countries. That means that any system of checks and balances fails. The result is that small élites, based on clans, on tribes, or on narrow economic interests, take over. It leads to corruption and to dysfunctional states (which in turn leads to a loss of any feeling of loyalty to the state).

Under the best of circumstances, the different power élites in these societies reach some sort of understanding or accommodation, so that there is a certain amount of peace and stability in the country. That does not mean there is no corruption, or that there is any real development – it simply means that people do not kill each other on any large scale. But when there is a power struggle between the élites, they mobilize their followers, they stir up ethnic sentiments – and there is fighting. And then people like Vera Magero start to do soul-searching to find out what it is, in their own attitude and upbringing, that may have caused this. To Vera and people like her I would say: there is nothing wrong with you! These mechanisms can and will work anywhere.

This, in my view, is the tragedy of so many African countries and this is also, I think, what is holding Africa back in its development.

So – where to look for a solution? Forgive me for looking at Europe for this. In the part of  Europe that is now the European Union, there were 15 independent countries in 1880. Today, there are 27. Large multi-ethnic states, like the Austro-Hungarian empire have disappeared and many much more homogeneous nation states with one dominant national language and culture have appeared. Some of these countries, such as Malta, are quite small, with less than a million inhabitants.

For Africa, I think that there is only one way forward. New forms need to be found to manage a transition away from the national boundaries that were dictated by the colonial powers over a century ago, in complete disregard of ethnic realities.In Europe, this process took seventy years. A huge price was paid in terms of human lives and suffering. That is partly why Europeans have never dared to propose such a development path to Africans and why Africans themselves are shy of thinking in this direction. But in some parts of Africa, the colonial borders are losing their meaning. Some Africans are starting to see that a radical re-thinking of the current states is necessary. Starting a debate along these lines is, I think inescapable: the taboo on a rational discussion on this topic has to be broken.


(This post was first published on Africa on the Blog in February 2013.)

On 30 January 2013, Shell Nigeria was convicted by a Dutch court to pay compensation to Friday Akpan, a farmer in Akwa Ibom state of Nigeria, for damage that he suffered from oil spills many years ago. The court judged that according to Nigerian law, Shell Nigeria had been negligent in this case by failing to take action to stop sabotage of its installations. In four other cases brought before the court, Shell was acquitted.

The verdict marks a climax in a long process, that was coordinated by Environmental Rights Action (ERA – Friends of the Earth Nigeria) and Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands). A climax – but also a bit of an anticlimax. The magnitude of the oil spills problem in the Niger delta is well document, among others by a UNEP investigation in 2011. In fact, there is little doubt that if oil spills of this magnitude would occur in North America or in Europe, the media would be up in arms and would force all concerned to address the issues much more urgently than is currently being done. Compensation for one farmer is a drop in the ocean. Still, the verdict is hailed as a partial victory by environmentalists in Africa and Europe as well.

But this victory begs one question: why was it necessary in the first place to collect money from Dutch individual donors (myself included) to make a Dutch court pass judgement on a Nigerian company, applying Nigerian law, for crimes committed in Nigeria? Would it not be much more logical and much simpler to take Shell Nigeria to court in Nigeria itself? Shell Nigeria turns over around 1.8 billion euro a year in profits to its parent company. Surely, it has the money to make a positive difference in the Niger delta?

Those who know a little bit about Africa in general and about Nigeria in particular may think my question is naïve. And indeed, ERA has considered this issue. The Guardian has quoted a spokesman for the group as saying: “We considered all the options and the history of litigation in Nigeria before deciding to take the case to Holland. We could not have confidence in the judiciary in Nigeria because, coming from our experience, when the judiciary gives a judgment, the enforcement of that judgment by the executive becomes a problem. Shell is a very stubborn company, and in Nigeria, in some situations, it is more powerful than the Nigerian government.”

Of course, I will continue to support the decision by ERA to work with its Dutch counterparts in bringing this matter before the Dutch courts. It seems to be the only peaceful way still open in order to call attention to the environmental tragedy in the Niger delta and to force Shell to mend its ways.

But – what does this say about Nigeria as a nation? This July, Croatia will be the 28th country to join the European Union. The process of joining the EU was held up for years, in part because the EU felt that the rule of law was not yet strong enough in Croatia. Europeans have learned, after centuries of fighting, that the rule of law is essential. No state can command the respect and loyalty of its citizens if it does not manage to protect the rights of those citizens through a sound legal system. Clearly – in Nigeria, as in so many other African countries, the state fails miserably in this regard. I think this means that one of the greatest taboo questions in the discourse about Africa needs to be asked now, with greater force than before: can a country like Nigeria ever work? Would it not be better for everybody (except the ruling kleptocratic élite) if, by peaceful means rather than by force, Nigeria would be broken up and split into different, smaller and more coherent countries? That will mean a difficult debate and an even more difficult transition – but perhaps time has come to consider this alternative as the least of all evils.

Let’s look at South Sudan

My posts are published now on ‘Africa on the Blog’.

On 27 July 2016, a post was published entitled ‘Let’s look at South Sudan‘. In it, I look at the sad situation of South Sudan. I point out that the Dinka and Nuer languages are both part of the Kitara dialect continuum. However, this is clearly no guarantee that brothers won’t kill each other.


I point out the analogy with the war in Bosnia in the 1990’s and suggest that a similar solution might be needed: one in which the international community steps in not only militarily, but also in terms of civil administration, so that effectively the country is put under Trusteeship. This is what has happened in Bosnia and I support the call of others for the same. That way, perhaps the situation five years of now will be a little more hopeful.