A 75 year old world class institute with a vibrant atmosphere

A ‘world class institute’ with a ‘vibrant atmosphere’, doing research on a continent that is ‘becoming increasingly important’. That is how Prof. Annetje Ottow, president of Leiden University’s Executive Board, described the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL) on its 75th anniversary celebration on 8 September 2022.

Prof. Ottow especially praised the multidisciplinary approach of the ASCL, covering different topics such as ecology, innovation and culture. It makes scholars from all over the world want to work there. But despite the growing political and economic importance of Africa, the distance between Africa and Europe has widened, she said. ‘Building a better understanding of Africa is crucial, and that is exactly what the ASCL does.’

Great challenges such as climate change and population growth should be tackled by African and European partners together, according to Prof. Ottow. Having a great network, the Leiden African Studies Assembly (LeidenASA) and the ASCL are well positioned to contribute to that. In its Strategic Plan, Leiden University articulates that it wants to build further on strategic partnerships with and in Africa, across the whole spectrum of the university. All the building blocks for another 75 years of ASCL are in place, she concluded.

Diverse insights into the continent
Before Prof. Ottow, ASCL director Prof. Marleen Dekker had spoken a word of welcome to the participants in Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden. She reminded the audience how the ASCL started on 12 august 1947 as the academic documentation division of the Africa Institute, which also had a trade office.

By showing three pictures, she demonstrated the diversity of Africa. One picture showed a banana market on the shores of Lake Kivu, another the skyline of Kigali and the third the launching of an Ethiopian satellite. ‘As we are reflecting on 75 years of work on, with and in Africa, it is fascinating to observe the changes in the work we do, how we do it, with whom we do it, and how we represent Africa’, she said. ‘Similarly, it is also important to reflect on how we present ourselves.’ She showed the different logos that the ASCL has had, ranging from a very traditional one to the current one: a frame with openings, symbolising that research continues to provide new and diverse insights into the continent.  

Categories of ‘Africanists’
In a contribution about the history of Dutch and European interest in Africa, Prof. Chibuike Uche, chairholder of the Stephen Ellis Chair in the Governance of Finance and Integrity in Africa, distinguished three categories of Africanists: the post-15th Century explorers, the post-industrial revolution experts, and the post-Atlantic Charter experts. The focus of the first category was on exploitation. They saw Africans as savages. The second category focused on trade. This era was marked among other things by contestations between traders, missionaries, and the colonial administration in the colonies. It was only in the last category that development entered the discourse of African Studies. 

According to Professor Uche, it has not always been easy to do independent research at the ASC. He attributed this to one of the initial goals of the Africa Institute, promoting trade. This was at least in part why the Dutch Government wanted the academic part of the Africa Institute to join Leiden University in 1955. A compromise was however reached to make it an independent institute with representations from a number of Dutch universities at the time. The trade office continued as the Netherlands- African Business Council (NABC). In 2016, the ASC became an interfaculty institute of Leiden University. ‘Was the ASC right to become separated from the Africa Institute?’ Uche asked himself in conclusion. ‘Yes, because inclusive development needs independent research.’

Researchers kicked out of their offices, into the field
Zooming in on the history of the ASCL's research agenda, Jan Abbink, Professor of Politics and Governance in Africa, said that little research was done until the early sixties. Later, the ASCL went through a process of ‘incredible professionalisation’ and a ‘remarkable organic academic growth’. At the same time, the ASCL had to develop ‘great survival skills’ especially in the early years, to overcome challenging conditions like organisational turmoil, lack of clear research plans and financial dips.

Prof. Abbink noted that a great impulse for empirical research was given by professor J.F. Holleman, the director from 1963 to 1969. ‘Holleman kicked the researchers out of their offices into the field in Africa’, Abbink said. In the nineties, under the late professor Stephen Ellis, the until then rather closed research culture of the ASCL opened up more. Researchers also embraced more risky topics, like revolt and resistance, religion and politics, and environmental conflict.

Under the leadership of Prof. Ton Dietz, who became director in 2010, a new research programme was started, called ‘Africa and Global Restructuring’. Dietz reorganised the ASCL’s research partly in line with the themes of the Dutch development cooperation agenda, Prof. Abbink said. Also under Dietz’s directorship, the ASCL cooperated with the Netherlands-African Business Council again, co-organising the ‘Africa Works’ conferences.

Favourable evaluations
Prof. Abbink highlighted that five external evaluations of the work of the ASCL, the first one in 1998 and the last one in 2017, were all very favourable. Both research and the library always scored well above average. Prof. Uche added that the library was ‘one of the greatest strengths of the ASCL’ and ‘the place to go to for Africans’.

The ASCL nowadays has a crowded visiting fellowship programme and collaborates intensively with African scholars based in Africa. Prof. Abbink described the ASCL as ‘an indispensable resource of in-depth information and of running commentary on Africa and its global relations.’ He ended by saying: ‘We aim to insert ourselves even more in the societal, the policy-relevant, and the intellectual-scholarly discussions that affect our world and shape our relations with Africa, the fascinating and rapidly changing continent that, let’s not forget, is our closest neighbour.’

In response to a question from the audience about critical research, Prof. Abbink admitted that you can’t simply enter every African region nowadays as a scientist. Visiting northeast Nigeria, or parts of the DRC, South Somalia, or the north of Ethiopia, for example, is currently impossible. ‘But that can partly be resolved by digital information, provided by citizen journalists.’ Asked which research question he would most like to address, Prof. Uche said: ‘How the centre of the world can be the poorest.’ Prof. Abbink answered he would like to do research on the power of youth and on urban cultures, among many other subjects. Abbink and Uche concluded by saying that African institutes have to play a much bigger role in defining African Studies. ‘The research agenda lies with researchers in Africa.’

Societal partners
After a coffee break, it was time for reflections from the ASCL’s societal partners. During an animated panel discussion led by Dr Akinyinka Akinyoade, Arie van der Wiel, chair of the ASCL Societal Panel, stressed the importance of disseminating information about Africa in the Netherlands. ‘What should we do to raise awareness of the African case in the Netherlands?’ Paul Litjens, who used to work at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contributed that policy circles insufficiently act on the results of academic research. ‘You have to know how an institute like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs works, you have to sow a seed. That's what the ASCL does and should continue to do.’

In a video message, Angélique Mbundu, director of the iAfrica Film Festival, said film is a good way to show Africa through African eyes as it adds emotion. She considered it a task of the ASCL to connect with young Africans who are critical of their government. Rosmarijn Fens, director of the Netherlands-African Business Council, called independent research crucial to promote trade. She pleaded for equal partnerships instead of help and called Africa very innovative. A discussion followed on the important role of the media, and how to best get across researchers’ results to the media. Arie van der Wiel said he considered this an ‘enormous task’ of the ASCL. Annegina van Randewijk, journalist for the Dutch newspaper Nederlands Dagblad, explained that in her articles, she always seeks to get across the view of African people.  

From ‘African Studies Abstracts’ to ‘Wikis’
After an invigorating lunch, spoken word artist Yero Gaynaako performed about pressing issues in his homeland Mauritania.

Part of the afternoon session was dedicated to the acclaimed library of the ASCL. In the beginning, as a documentation centre, it mainly focused on trade and legal matters, Jos Damen, head of the ASCL Library, said. It grew from 2,400 books in 1957 to 100,000 now. The library adopted an online catalogue relatively late, but was quick in providing open access and building repositories. Although the ASCL is now an interfaculty institute of Leiden University, the library is still open for the general public. It can be called extraordinary that any visitor can still wander between the shelves. Following the library policy plan of 2022, the focus is now on getting more material from Africa. The library even holds hundreds of books in Somali.

In the past, the ASCL was famous for making good abstracts, the ‘African Studies Abstracts’, Library staff member Dr Heleen Smits said in her contribution. It was even the biggest part of the documentalists’ work. But once journals began making abstracts themselves, this task gradually disappeared. Nowadays, the library also contributes to the production of ‘wikis’ and makes historical photo collections available on Wikimedia Commons. ‘Preferred terms’ have also changed over time, Dr Smits said, explaining the work of cataloguing. ‘Slaves’ for example are now called ‘enslaved people’, and the term ‘superstitions’ has become ‘popular beliefs’. New words such as ‘slam poetry’ and ‘remote working’ made their appearance. ‘Snakes’, which first belonged to ‘reptiles’, conquered their own lemma.

The library as gate opener
Dr Gerard van de Bruinhorst, who works on the library’s collection development, described how the library developed from gatekeeper via gateway to gate opener. At first, the library just collected information and decided what fitted the visitor best, then it connected the visitor to relevant information, and now librarians offer active and useful engagement with the information. 90 percent of the academic literature of the library is in English and French. The collection doesn’t automatically represent the African view, Van de Bruinhorst admitted. As an example, he mentioned that there is only one book of Ali Hemed al-Buhry, an influential scholar from Tanga/Tanzania, in the library collection. Van de Bruinhorst called it impossible to build a representative or even a neutral collection. ‘We can’t get everything we want, and we are aware of that.’ The collection isn’t value-free either, as it is influenced by the policy of publishers, among others. By organising acquisition trips to African countries and by adding audiovisuals and fiction to the collection, the library tries to build a collection as diverse as possible, thus adding value.

Dr Andrea Stultiens, who has a background as a photographer, told the audience about her project as an artist to ‘bring an African audience into dialogue with photographs’. She combined historical photos that Paul Julien and Sjoerd Hofstra made in Sierra Leone. ‘By bringing them together, I let the pictures breathe. This way, I call on the viewer not to take things for granted. If it causes a little spark in someone’s head, I know my mission is accomplished.’

Africa Thesis Award
During a special ceremony, Tamia Botes (University of the Witwatersrand) received the Africa Thesis Award 2021 from the chair of the jury, Dr Lotje de Vries (Wageningen University & Research), for her groundbreaking thesis ‘Where have the midwives gone? Everyday histories of voetvroue in Johannesburg’. It tells the story of the midwives in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg: autonomous, self-educated black women who play an important role in the community. Their stories are seldom told or only in a negative way, Botes said. Botes’s research made her rethink her own colouredness, she said. Writing the thesis, she learned to let go of the dominant ways of looking at racial categories, but at the same time understood their impact better. Her thesis ends with: ‘This research report emphasises understanding life not by race categories but because of and despite race categories.’

African Studies: a good foundation
The afternoon continued with a panel discussion led by Dr Karin Nijenhuis, who among other things is chair of the Master African Studies. Five African Studies alumnae participated. Dr Nijenhuis asked the women (‘it was impossible to attract men’) how their careers have benefited from their studies.
‘I learned to understand organisations like governments better’, Dr Blandina Kilama, PhD alumna and currently economic advisor to the President of Tanzania, answered. ‘And I am now able to make a more nuanced picture of situations.’ Femke van Zeijl, an independent journalist living in Nigeria, said the Master African Studies had given her more background. ‘Before, I saw things fragmented, now I have a frame where the fragments fit in.’ Ileen Wilke, who works for a fertilizer development centre in Ghana, said African Studies had given her a good foundation and a great introduction to Ghana. Dr Margot Leegwater, PhD alumna who worked for the ASCL and several NGOs in the Netherlands, currently project leader at a Dutch knowledge platform, said her studies had helped develop her analytical and writing skills. And finally, Dr Lidewyde Berckmoes, now an Associate Professor at the ASCL, told the audience that having been a student in African Studies herself had helped her in her function as chair of the African Studies Research Master’s programme.   

The alumnae said there was some room for improvement in their studies, such as better preparation for the specific contexts and dynamics of fieldwork, which could also help to better indicate potentially necessary aftercare. Asked what they wish for the ASCL in the next 25 years, the alumnae gave different answers. Femke wished for a Nigerian department, ‘Nigerian Studies’, Ileen for more diversity, Blandina for more research originating from the South, Margot for a thriving research community tackling global problems like climate change, and Lidewyde wished that everybody assumes that African Studies are important.

After a concluding conversation on stage between Marleen Dekker and Dirk-Jan Koch, Chief Science Officer at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Special Professor of International Trade & Development Cooperation at Radboud University, the day ended with festive drinks and music.

Mini interviews with attendees of the 75th anniversary celebration: What should the ASCL concentrate on in the next 75 years?

Jenneke van der Wal, associate professor at Leiden University Center for Linguistics
‘Combining the inside and the outside perspective. That’s crucial for a better understanding of Africa in all its aspects. The best way to achieve that is through cooperation between people. Others may ask you questions you never asked yourself. Yes, I’m practicing that myself. By involving experts in Africa instead of an extra Dutch PhD student in a NWO Vidi-project, among other things. And they do ask different questions!’


Yves Van Leynseele, senior lecturer at the Department of Human Geography, Planning and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam
‘The decolonisation of education. That subject is very much alive in Africa and there is still a lot of work to be done. The Netherlands is lagging behind in this area. The ASCL could stimulate and coordinate that in the Netherlands, together with its social partners. The ASCL can influence the curriculum, research calls and terms of reference, among other things in secondary vocational education. We need strategic action on this point.’


Blandina Kilama, economic advisor to the President of Tanzania
‘Strategic partnerships with African institutes. The topics should come up jointly. Your ministry of Foreign Affairs could ask the Dutch embassies in Africa to collect challenges, and you can ask practitioners in Africa and the Netherlands about the difficulties they’re facing. I think, for example, of the Netherlands-African Business Council that needs more financial support, but also of the needs of attorney-generals, national business councils and thinktanks of ministries in Africa. You should support them structurally, not incidentally.’


Tamia Botes, MA in Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
‘Reflect on your own positioning. The ASCL should concentrate more on Africa from within. It can do that through collaboration with African institutions. I see it as a way of making love, but not in the romantic way. Before, I didn’t even know that the ASCL existed. It would serve African students a lot if the ASCL was better known and its collections were better accessible. That can make a serious contribution to the decolonisation of Africa.’


Very first item from the library’s collection
During the ASCL anniversary celebration, special items from the library's collection were displayed. This included the very first item from the collection, ‘Colonial administration by European powers: a series of papers read at King's College, London 14 November to 12 December 1946’. It was published in 1947, the same year as the ASC was born. The booklet contains a series of lectures read in 1946 by ‘authoritative’ representatives of France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and the United Kingdom, on the evolution of colonial policy. The foreword states that ‘in this fluid post-war epoch the major colonial powers of western Europe are being called upon to adjust and re-define their relations with overseas dependencies.’


See more photos of the anniversary day here. Credit all photos: Monique Shaw.

Report: Menno Bosma, Wereld in Woorden global research & reporting