Decolonizing the Academy: an informal conference report

The #RhodesMustFall movement started at the University of Cape Town in March 2015. It demanded not only the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from campus, but also the transformation of the curriculum and teachers at UCT, and an environment that made black students feel respected and at home. The movement spread throughout South Africa and fueled a debate across the African continent and beyond, to universities in the UK (where the #RhodesMustFallOxford movement arose), the European continent, the USA and Latin America.
Clearly seeing the urgency for a debate among academics and non-academics that research Africa, the University of Edinburgh Centre for African Studies (CAS) and the Global Development Academy organized the conference ‘Decolonizing the Academy’ on 21-22 April, calling for a collective examination of how knowledge and power are defined, distributed, and denied through the Academy.

The conference focused on African Studies and researching Africa, main questions being: for whom do we research Africa and for what purpose? How do our institutions - be they universities, professional networks, or publishing forums - reinforce unequal access to power, opportunities, and knowledge? What are our responsibilities as scholars and teachers to decolonize our work, on individual and collective levels - and how do we do it? Interestingly, the programme stated the names of the participants without their affiliation or academic title, to level the playing field, as conference coordinator Zoe Marks explained. They were, however, mentioned in the spoken introductions of the participants, reason why we add them in this informal report. Illustrating the necessity of the debate, the conference started with the message that four of the invited speakers from African countries couldn’t be there due to visa refusals.

African Studies
The morning sessions raised a number of serious concerns: student exchange programmes in the USA that appear to benefit Western and white American students more than Afro-American and African students; lopsidedness in racial composition of researchers and students in South Africa; and scholars from other African countries (Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana) that are gaining more foothold in South Africa than black South African scholars.
The afternoon was dedicated to ‘The State of African Studies in Europe’. Roundtable participants were Clara Carvalho, president of AEGIS (Association of African Studies in Europe) and chair of the Centre of International Studies at the University of Lisbon, Barbara Bompani, director of CAS, Ambreena Manji of Cardiff Law School, seconded to the British Institute in Eastern Africa between 2010 and 2014, and Akinyinka Akinyoade, senior researcher at the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL).
Barbara Bompani started off by saying that universities in the South often ask what the need is for these centres in Europe. The answer is very pragmatic, she said. “In the UK, we have to challenge academic establishments about the study of Africa, about how we talk about Africa, and how the media cover Africa. Moreover, Africa should be at the top of the research agenda.”
While she noted the rise of women in the administration of European centres of African Studies - a departure from the erstwhile era dominated by men - she stated that it’s her mission to “have more Africans in our centre”. She also called for more engagement with the African diaspora.
Ambreena Manji emphasized the need to historicize the current debate. “It has already taken place earlier, in African universities, in post-colonial periods. We have to revisit the literature that was written then, by Africans.” She appealed to make the discussion broader than African Studies. “Otherwise you only add to the unwanted geographic Africa–Europe split.”

Colonized legacy
Clara Carvalho highlighted the fact that European countries that are former colonial powers, notably the UK, France and Portugal, have a long tradition of African Studies, and that in some of those countries academia has been troubled with a colonized legacy. Other African Studies centres, particularly in the North of Europe, historically have had a development interest in Africa, she said. “These centres have long been funded by their governments, and do not have such a troubled past.”
She pointed at the ongoing collaboration of European centres for African Studies that biennially organize ECAS conferences in Europe. ECAS meetings bring together researchers from Africa and Europe for cross-fertilization of research ideas and sharing outcomes of various research ventures. But she also called for more (regular) exchange programmes with African universities, not only with exchange opportunities for students but also for professors.

Literature used in African Studies courses
The ASCL’s Akinyinka Akinyoade gave an example of how the African Studies Centre Leiden organizes this: it has a Visiting Fellow programme that invites scholars from Africa to Leiden for a 3 month period of study and exchanging ideas with colleagues in Europe. The ASCL also has partnerships with regional research institutes in Africa, like CODESRIAOSSREA and AERC, and with many universities across the continent. All these collaborations result in co-publications or in individual book publications, in addition to contributions in various ASCL publications - such as the successful African Dynamics series. Akinyoade emphasized that there is a deliberate effort to ensure that these publications and other published research outputs (in journals, books and new media) are added to the list of compulsory and elective literature used in the (Research) Master African Studies courses. In this regard, the ASCL gives a platform to African scholars in terms of research, publication and teaching. To further expand this, the ASCL’s official joining of Leiden University in December 2015 led to the creation of LeidenASA, which brings together all university researchers interested in or working on Africa.
Since then, existing partnerships in Africa have been strengthened and new ones explored as part of the university’s ‘Africa Strategy’ that took off on the same date. 
A representative of Maghreb Studies in the audience felt African Studies appears to concentrate on Sub-Saharan Africa. “Where is North Africa in African Studies?” he asked. Akinyoade responded that the ASCL is gradually doing more research in countries in the North of Africa, and that institutional links are strengthened, e.g. through NIMAR (the Leiden University expertise centre for Moroccan Studies, based in Rabat.)
Part of the audience felt there is “Euro-centricity” in African Studies. “Euro-centricity is biased supreme”, it was said. “It is supposed to be better than indigenous knowledge.” Hence, there was a plea to use local knowledge as well as local languages in research and publications.

Locally relevant
Local relevance of research was often mentioned as crucial. Associate Professor Elelwani Ramugondo, Head of Division of Occupational Therapy at the University of Cape Town and the Vice-Chancellor’s special advisor on transformation, put it like this: “What I do should also reach my own community; that’s just as important and even more important than that it’s read worldwide, say in Japan. For what audience, and for whose gain are we researching? Whose lived realities are we investigating?” She said that we have to adequately involve those who are most affected in whatever we research. “We continuously have to think about who has the right to voice and to interpret, as we take cognisance of the power we hold as academics and as researchers.”
Her colleague Shose Kessi, senior lecturer at the Dept of Psychology of UCT and a founding member of ‘TransformUCT: The Black Academics Caucus’, gave a presentation about her research among black students and their experiences at UCT, using the ‘Photovoice’ methodology. Actually, the students do the research themselves: it is a participatory research method, consisting of photography, telling stories and sharing experiences. “The whiteness of UCT led to the exclusion of these students”, she said. “How did that impact their experiences at university? What does decolonization mean to them? The students had daily experiences of segregation, othering, and inequality. Central question to these students: are you feeling recognized?” The students wrote personal stories, got photography training, and in the end there was an exhibition open to the public. “The social capital of this methodology is the solidarity it creates among students,” Kessi said.

Economic enterprises
Barbara Bompani emphasized it; Clara Carvalho did too, and many other conference participants: government subsidies go down and this makes research institutes, not only the centres for African Studies but entire universities, behave like economic enterprises. As Manuel Ramos of the Centre of International Studies, University of Lisbon, said: “The university of Lisbon is a totally marketed institute, it’s an enterprise. That’s colonialism at university today, and I don’t think it’s possible to decolonize.”
What does this mean for the creativity and independence of research and of researchers? But also: what does it mean in terms of access to the university? Costs of studying are high everywhere, but it sometimes even depends on your nationality whether you can access the university of your choice. (For example, tuition fees for a Master's at a Dutch university are € 1,984 for a student of Dutch nationality or from other EU countries (academic year 2016/2017). For non-EU students the fees lie somewhere between € 11,200 and € 16,400 for a Humanities course, depending on the university). Possible solutions mentioned at the conference are online study programmes. However, Sam Spiegel, director of Research at Edinburgh’s CAS, pointed out that “British universities have the same admission requirements for online courses as for ‘normal’  courses: they cost a lot and there are tough language tests enforced by the UK Home Office.” But this seems to differ per university. At Leiden University there are no requirements to follow MOOCs (massive open online courses). Only if a student wants to receive a certificate, it costs 44 euros, otherwise it’s free.

Accessing knowledge 
Not only the costs of studying and the lack of publishing in local languages form a barrier to accessing knowledge, so does the limited percentage of open access publications, Stephanie Kitchen pointed out. She is the publications chair of the International Africa Institute at SOAS, London. She said that CODESRIA is doing a great job in developing open access publications, and that e.g. Latin America is doing much better than Europe and North America, where the assessment and reviewing processes form huge barriers to be published anyhow.
While these barriers are very real and require massive institutional and long-term efforts to be removed (both the ASCL and AEGIS are fervent promoters of open access), several initiatives were discussed that make publishing for a larger audience possible. 

For example the website ‘Africa is a Country’. According to South African born founder Sean Jacobs, who also teaches media courses at The New School (USA), ‘Africa is a Country’ appeared “when academic periodicals disappeared after pay walls. It complements academic space”. The title is irony but also refers to an imagined African community beyond national boundaries.
Jacobs participated in a Key Dialogue with Zainab Usman (PhD candidate University of Oxford). Nigerian born Usman stated she only realized she was ‘African’ when she moved to the UK. “That notion only hit me then. I question what the label African means. What makes two people in two different African countries ‘African’? The way we conceptualize ‘African’ is elitist. We claim to speak about a lot of people, but how do we know?” And she was applauded for saying this.

Another way of publishing for a larger audience that was highlighted, was blogging. Chambi Chagage, PhD student in African Studies at Harvard University, started blogging in 2009 “to reach a wider, popular audience”. He spoke to the conference in a video message from Tanzania where he is currently doing research. His blog ‘Udadisi’ is both in English and KiSwahili and covers his research about land rights. “Sometimes I still have to write lengthy 100-pages reports about my research”, he said, “but then I also write a poem about it for my blog, making it accessible for the local community. The blog is at the intersection of what some people call activism and academic work.” His future aspirations are to also use voice and photograph in order to convey the message to an even larger audience. And he actively shares his blog on the social media.

A couple of eye-openers (in the category: I knew this, but I didn’t realize it) followed in the session about art and media. Ilka Eickhof, PhD researcher at the University of Amsterdam but based at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo, gave an example of what might even be called ‘re-colonizing’ (not her term): the influence of Northern European cultural institutions funding art production in Egypt. She explained that Egypt’s Ministry of Culture has little to no money for subsidizing art, and the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and similar cultural institutes of Swiss, Danish and French origin have filled that gap. As these institutes are affiliated with their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs, there is a political agenda, Eickhof said. Especially after the Arab spring, these countries used ‘soft power’ to influence Arab societies.

While recognizing the fact that without the funding, a lot of art production would just not be possible in Egypt, Eickhof analysed the following problems with these institutes: a) the persistent giver-receiver relationship, in which the giver is mostly white and the receiver coloured; b) most of the high positions in these institutes are occupied by people from the West. This means that: c) local people cannot make a career in this field, and d) decisions, also about art education, are made by Europeans. “Europe still perceives itself as the normative culture of reference, rather than striving for any real cultural exchange”, she concluded. Hence: “Europeans have the epistemological* power.”

Curriculum review at Oxford
However, all is not lost. There is room for some optimism, as became clear from Simukai Chigudu’s story; Chigudu is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and one of the initiators of #RMFOxford. The movement there arose from solidarity with the movement in South Africa, and as opposition against politics of exclusion in Oxford itself. “There is still a hegemony of Western thought in many subjects taught at Oxford”, he said. “Moreover, there should be more respect and recognition for minorities at Oxford.” Still, a few changes have been introduced: more scholarships for African scholars, a seminar series on Race Relations, and a race sensitivity training for teachers. Plus: the History and Political Studies departments have announced they want a curriculum review, screening along race and colonial issues. Chigudu concluded: “I think #RMF has at least given a sense of urgency to these issues”.

Concluding note
While the conference raised many questions and did not raise all the answers, it offered an excellent opportunity to explore institutes’ but also one’s own ideas and practices, that may even be colonized without one being aware of it. Excellent opportunity also to learn from other persons’ experiences, best practices, new research methodologies, new ways of publishing. At times, conference participants showed strong emotions and this had everything to do with experiences of exclusion. As these emotions were also shown by persons from marginalized communities other than ‘coloured’, ‘black’ or ‘African’, it showed that the discussion is not only about black and white, but that exclusion has many guises.

Lessons for researchers who want to decolonize themselves: don’t indulge in looking inward, be socially relevant to the context you study, reach new audiences, publish beyond existing boundaries and decolonize your mind.

Fenneken Veldkamp, Online Editor, African Studies Centre Leiden, with input from Akinyinka Akinyoade, senior researcher, African Studies Centre Leiden

* Epistemology studies the nature of knowledge