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Searching for Africa in African Studies: An open letter to teachers of Africa at UCL

By Jesutofunmi Odugbemi, Orapeleng Rammala, and Wangũi wa Kamonji

Tofunmi Odugbemi
Jul 29 · 12 min read

Students in the African Studies Masters at UCL (2017–2018) experienced numerous challenges related to the structure, content, and way in which Africa was taught at UCL and resolved to write an open letter to their department outlining these issues in order to open the possibility of having them addressed. Our positionality is that we are women of African descent representing different corners of the continent and the African Diaspora, diverse in our socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and sexualities — we speak from the intersectionality of all these identities. We recognise that these challenges are not limited to the UCL African Studies programme or other Africa-focused classes at UCL. These challenges are present in classes that use Africa as a pedagogic problem and teach Africa ahistorically and apolitically.

After sharing this letter with UCL African Studies, we were dismissed and attacked by professors present. UCL’s administration attempted to host a mediation to alleviate this situation but we felt that the framing of the mediation was insensitive to racial stereotypes of black women. We, therefore, declined to participate and suggested that anti-oppression training for UCL professors as preferable. These events have given us added impetus to publish this letter in a public forum where all scholars of Africa can engage with the issues raised in the letter. We also share this letter in the hopes that it will encourage and add to the campaign to decolonise the university and decolonise knowledge, including but not limited to broadening the diversity of voices represented in the academy.

This letter arises from the challenges we have faced as women of African descent navigating UCL’s African Studies Masters, and therefore uses examples from the Master's programme. However, this letter is intended to highlight challenges which we know to be present in all of UCL and in other tertiary institutions so that all persons who are teaching (Africa) will reflect on and address these issues in their research, scholarship, and instruction.

Teacher Positioning
African Studies has a contested origin story, but many people mark that was made up of mostly white scholars as to the commencement of the field of African Studies. The debated beginnings of African Studies much like many aspects of this field of study continue to be dominated by white voices. Even today at a “global” institution based in London, the majority of the professors who specialise in African Studies are white. It is imperative for instructors to acknowledge and continuously be reflexive about their privilege and the biases stemming from it, especially when they may be teaching from a position of power. This is crucial in order to contextualise that their research and teaching is from a specific perspective that likely differs from that of their students, especially that of students who have lived experiences of Africa. We believe that this is part of what rigorous academic practice is about and it must be modelled by instructors.

It is not the responsibility of students to take on the intellectual labour to teach their instructors about privilege and race, but this is a situation that comes up in classes frequently. For example, in a class in which students of African descent were speaking of how the Eurocentric perspective in their studies perpetuates colonial legacies, the teacher — a white man — exclaimed the importance of students of African descent teaching professors their experiences as a way to enlighten them. In a time where racial equality has taken centre stage and with books, blogs, television shows, podcasts, and a multiplicity of media that is readily available, learning about privilege is now as easy as catching up with the latest news on Brexit. Ultimately, it is lazy and inconsiderate for educators to ask students for classes on privilege and race theory. All instructors must do the work to recognise and dismantle their own race, economic, gender, and geographical privilege in teaching Africa.

Students of African descent are present in institutions in which they were once neither welcome to attend or perceived as equal to their white peers (). This is just one of the realities we face when we attend predominantly and historically white Euro-American tertiary institutions. As students on a Masters programme, we do not expect to be spoon-fed. However, we also expect that professors will 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 and not leave this work to students. Students of African descent already carry the burden of existing and thriving in a world laden with anti-black sentiment and to add this extra emotional and intellectual labour only works to make the university experience even more challenging.

Accounting for Lived Experiences
Academia has come under scrutiny for teaching and conducting research according to Western epistemologies based on the ideals of objectivity and distance. Our university courses approach the study of Africa in the same abstract way. This has been evident in the lack of linkages between what we were learning in classes to currently unfolding real-world events that have obvious links to the course content.

For example, in the same week, as we studied colonialism and nationalism, Zimbabwe’s d’état and the Kenyan elections were unfolding before our eyes. These would have provided interesting material to discuss comparatively had they been brought into course discussions, but not one word was uttered by any instructor of these events which students ended up discussing amongst themselves outside of the module. Since the overwhelming focus in classes is on one-way communication and seminar discussions geared and focused on assigned readings there is an inhibition to the ability of students to actually understand Africa as a living-breathing place. In our opinion, theories about Africa are not useful if they are not grounded in real places and lives being lived. Instructors must understand that Africa is more than just a continent to be read about, dissected, and studied — it is a home and a place where family, friends, and communities live and exist each and every day. A rich learning experience brings these lived experiences and current events to the fore as a way to ground studies in the classroom. For example, many undergraduate African Studies courses will ask students to listen to news and entertainment podcasts (e.g. , ) about Africa as a way of ensuring students are engaging with the very real and existing continent of Africa in their course work and learning.

We have found that the course is taught as though African history and African practices are distant unconnected things that do not impact the lives of students. This raises the question of who this Masters course is designed for. African Studies, being an area studies programme, is a ripe arena in which to challenge notions of academic objectivity and space to experiment with African theories and concepts we encounter in class such as variability, complexity, the power of words and actions, and so forth. Western hegemonic concepts and practices have in no small part contributed to the grand ecological, social, political, and economic challenges threatening the continued existence of the world today. We need new concepts, epistemologies, and ontologies to navigate these challenges, in which Africa has an abundance of. However, our experience has been that such African ways of being and knowing are treated as quaint notions that no-one, at least none of the students, is expected to believe or live, and whose potential is not seriously entertained. The opportunities to question both the present state of the world and demonstrate the usefulness of studying Africa is lost.

The Interdisciplinarity of the African Studies Programme
The African Studies Masters is supposed to be an interdisciplinary programme that offers students the opportunity to study on four different tracks. However, all professors on the programme are anthropologists, the majority with appointments in other departments. This is not to say that anthropology is not useful but to point out that as a discipline, anthropology has particular methods and ways of understanding the world. The instructors currently on the programme have very particular knowledge about certain countries (and specific places in those countries), whereas the programme is about a continent with over 50 countries. This disciplinary imbalance limits the ability of students to learn about a range of places on the continent and to be able to have a productive cross-African conversation. It also limits the ability of the professors to assign relevant material from across the continent. Students in an interdisciplinary area studies programme need to be exposed to multiple methods and academic ways of thinking and working to properly prepare us for a future of engaging with the whole continent using a variety of tools and ideas.

The Master’s programme is built around four tracks — heritage, health, education, and environment. With only cultural and archaeological anthropologists, there is a lack of necessary expertise to offer classes and support to students studying on these different tracks. The only students who are able to complete their track requirements within the African Studies programme without resorting to outside courses are students on the heritage track. It is misleading to promise the possibility of the track-based study of Africa and not be able to deliver. This is becoming a more commonplace practice in the Master's programmes offered by that are attempting to by any means necessary. Students are thus forced to settle for modules offered by other departments where engagements with Africa lack depth, use only a handful of cases about Africa, and where the scholarship and epistemologies on which those classes are based is mostly, if not wholly West-centric.

An Africa-Centred Programme
We understand that UCL is in situated within a European country, but we firmly believe that to centre and re-centre Europe in teaching African Studies does nothing to destabilise centuries of Africa’s marginalisation. The African Studies Masters programme at UCL has Europe as its launching pad and European visions and versions of Africa are subsequently a large component of the courses. The first class of our core African studies module began with how Europe has seen Africa historically, and only when we got to the final class of the module did students finally get a chance to consider how Africans have seen and see themselves. Furthermore, assessment feedback that asks us to take our analysis further by trying to frame and understand African examples and methods of productivity in comparison to Western counterparts continues to invalidate Africa as a place which can stand on its own without constant recourse to the West. This is not only infuriating but causes students to deeply question the validity of the degree they are pursuing.

The insidious impacts of the centring of Europe becomes evident with another example: in a lecture on slavery students were presented with an explanation for slavery that listed forms of African kinship relationships in an evolutionary teleological progression that suggested that African ways of relating to people are steps on a ladder that leads squarely and unidirectionally to (and perhaps are the cause of) chattel slavery. European scholars using their own lenses to understand African relationships that differ from European ones results in the depiction of African relations as predatory (). Not only is this lens criticised for being Eurocentric and othering of various forms of African relations, but it also fails to offer the full breadth and scope of explanation and falls into the trappings of depicting European colonialism as a godsend to a depraved Africa ().

Uncritically using European lenses and scholars who centre Europe has resulted in lecturers diminishing the culpability of white people in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and colonialism. In two discussions on slavery, we were informed that Portuguese sailors sailing down the Western coast of Africa established a trading port at Arguim because they were interested in buying gold and that it was local Africans who encouraged them to accept slaves as goods even though the Portuguese sailors were not looking for slaves. This disguises the fact that the Portuguese had already been enslaving Africans and were seeking additional labour for their highly productive sugar plantations established on the island of Madeira (). That this version of an “almost by mistake” start of the Atlantic Slave Trade was repeated on two separate occasions underscores our point about the lenses that lecturers use. Moreover, it shows how such reformulations of historical motive and narratives paint a distorted incomplete and often dangerously incorrect image of Africa. This is to the detriment of every student in the programme and in these modules, African and non-African. Some of these students may move on to academic positions in which they run the risk of repeating what they have learnt in these classes and continuing to establish and reinforce the cycle of unseeing and mis-seeing Africa.

Such failings are tied to the other significant silences of Africa in the African Studies programme from the dearth of African scholars and scholarship to the lack of engagement with diverse and critical African thought and practice in all its forms. This is seen in situations where students enquire about the presence of African scholars in course syllabi and instructors go on to encourage students to find these African sources themselves and to use them in essays and course assignments. Our point is not for the instructors to help us find African sources to cite, but to push back and demand that these are the first and central sources in our courses versus being afterthoughts or the result of extracurricular research for assignments. Instead of being empowered by African Studies, students of African descent are given the dual responsibility of teacher and student. The programme needs to make a commitment to centre African and Africa-based scholars in African Studies curricula.

Diversity of Voices
Most of the curriculum of our African Studies Masters, as indeed most of the curricula at UCL, features a disproportionately large number of cis-white male voices. To balance this we must ensure that gender and sexual minorities, as well as other African minorities, are represented throughout the curricula and not only in the one lecture devoted to gender issues. The voices of minorities, even within the continent, are often silenced. Beginning with Europe and teaching African Studies as a discussion between varying European views of Africa never allows students to begin to critically think and talk about how Africa sees itself, some of which includes internal marginalisation of minorities. As a result, our education is only one-sided and we leave academia without the language to actualise and conceptualise our visions for Africa.

Diversity of African voices also means including voices of those who may not have the academic and economic privilege of theorising and knowing through textual sources out of circumstance or choice. Many Africans do not publish in peer-reviewed Western journals which are often difficult to access. This is a reality that we have discussed a number of times in class, and which stems from , as well as the of many Western journals (see for example). This is something we were made aware of in a research methods course in which the guest lecturer pointed out that we inherently bias and limit our work when we only use the sources we find online through institutional databases since they marginalise Africa. Not being published in peer-reviewed journals does not mean that Africans are not intellectual or that their intellectual contributions can only be represented through such journals. Africa-based , , , and , , , , , , and are all sources of and arenas of authentic intellectual production.

Statistical table showing the rate of increase and decrease of authors in core science and engineering journals/
Statistical table showing the rate of increase and decrease of authors in core science and engineering journals/
Pippa Smart, 43

Including non-textual sources into African Studies curricula would introduce students to African primary sources and voices. By only using textual sources the African Studies Masters leaves out a significant proportion of African intellectual production by people not able or jump through the hoops of often Western peer-reviewed journals to ensure their voices are heard. Only focusing on peer-reviewed textual sources disadvantaged students and does not challenge the power imbalances and privilege inherent in the Ivory Tower.

Conclusion

What we are asking for is simple:

  1. We want instructors with greater empathy and listening skills who are self-reflexive about their privilege and work to dismantle it.
  2. We call for the hiring of tutors of diverse disciplinary backgrounds and who empower their students.
  3. We require educators who are committed to teaching a politically conscious and relevant African Studies course.
  4. We ask for lecturers who centre Africa and diverse African voices in their research and teaching
  5. We need teachers who are aware that criticism is neither a personal attack or a pointed score.
  6. We demand the centring of Africa in African Studies.

The irony is not lost on us that we are calling for a centring of Africa in an African Studies programme, and yet, it needs to be done.

Tofunmi Odugbemi

Written by

I am a disrupter of spaces. I apply my developed sense of justice, ingenuity, and leadership in areas where academia intersects with the legal world. @tofunm_i

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