Heart of Arts

The Expanding Role of African Studies


This is the final interview report with a panel comprising Professors Richard Joseph, Ousseina Alidou, and Ken Harrow on November 19, 2023. For the transcripts:

YouTube: https://youtube.com/watch?v=GN6IcDGTAzE
: https://fb.watch/eLOPycx-MF/)



Toyin Falola


Recognition is one of the undeniable consequences of consistent effort. Whether it be today or tomorrow, people who continually put in the work in whatever endeavor they find themselves will get the recognition they deserve. In most cases, at least. This natural order to life has manifested in the lives of two of the foremost and most committed academics in the African Studies domain—Ken Harrow and Joseph Richard. In recognition of their immense contributions to scholarship on African Studies, the African Studies Association bestowed upon these two professors its highest honor: the Distinguished Africanist Award. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of these two scholars would agree that they are indeed befitting honorees. To commemorate that honor and spread awareness about African Studies as a vital domain of study (especially in how its contributions could affect society), the Toyin Falola Interviews featured the honorees on November 26, 2023.

The discourse on African Studies emerges at a critical juncture, resonating with the global quest to understand Africa’s multifaceted tapestry (forgive the idiom). This discourse transcended mere academic discussion, instead delving into profound themes, from the indigenous pedagogical approach’s significance to the evolving role of feminism in African contexts and the interplay between Black and African Studies.

Professor Ken Harrow’s poignant revisiting of the age-old question, “Where exactly is Africa, and where is the center for Afro-centric discussions?” laid the ground for what was indeed an intellectually stimulating endeavor. What defines Africans? Shall we define Africans based on geography and descent, in which case those who are not based on the continent nor have a direct affiliation with people on the continent would be left out of the definition? Or shall we define Africans based on their ideologies and beliefs, in which case there would be the inclusion of scholars in the field of African Studies?
The African Studies domain needs to be lauded for the commendable efforts researchers and scholars have put into unity and collaboration, especially the easy access pioneers in the field have given to others in the furtherance of African Studies. A good example, as cited by Professor Ousseina Alidou, one of the panelists, is how the work of Professor Ken Harrow on Islam, cultural studies, African women, and feminism paved the way for her research in Kenya, the Sahel, and Niger. This not only shows the beauty of open-access research but also points to how this has greatly contributed to advancements in research and studies in the African Studies domain.

African Studies as an academic domain has been in existence for decades, pushing for the study of and research into African cultures, peoples, development, and communities. Yet, there is always the time for introspection and retrospection for any field of academic study. A time when stakeholders in the field would need to consider the extent to which their field of study has served the interest and development of society. The critical question that three of the heavyweights in African Studies, Professors Ken Harrow, Ousseina Alidou, and Richard Joseph, had to answer was the extent to which African Studies has served Africa.
For Professor Ken Harrow, African Studies as a domain has contributed to research into Africanism and the African people, regardless of the gates that have been perpetually shut against the scholars in the domain. Professor Harrow strongly believes that the conversations, no matter how inconvenient they may seem, must be had. There is a need for open conversations around African Studies, Africans, the development of African societies, and Africanism.

The term “formal education,” which was introduced to the African society during the colonial era, has formulated a misrepresentation of Africans and Africa, one which Professor Alidou believes needs to be revisited and reformulated from a decolonized perspective. She makes quite the case for the influence of the school system on the alienation of African histories and milestones among the African people, citing an example of school children who would be exposed to and know more about authors and scientists from Europe than those from within Africa. African Studies as a domain has been committed to examining and interrogating Africa’s offerings and contributions to humanity and the world at large through different times and spaces, all from a decolonized perspective. It is only when Africa is examined and engaged from a decolonized perspective that we can fully understand what the continent has in the form of contributions, and scholars such as Professor Alidou have been unrelenting in their mission to interrogate Africa’s contributions from a decolonized perspective.

The importance of African Studies as an academic field of study is once again brought to the fore by how the dredges of colonialism have shape-shifted into neo-colonialism and continue to wax stronger, especially in the France-colonized countries of Africa (which are supposedly called Francophone countries). The flow of knowledge within these countries is moderated and tailored toward France, so much so that the body of thoughts (and therefore the types of inquiries and academic endeavors that could be embarked on) are only those that come from France. The control of the flow of knowledge is such that people in these French-colonized countries in Africa hardly know about the body of work by supposedly Anglophone (British-colonized) and Lusophone (Portugal-colonized) countries within the same Africa.

There are contemporary issues with the circulation of knowledge within Africa, specifically issues with the inhibition of knowledge-sharing among African countries, as against what used to be, centuries ago. In the past, even before the present evolution of African states, knowledge-sharing was a very welcome concept, with Nigeriens setting up intellectual locations thousands of miles away, even as far away as Cairo, Egypt. This form of knowledge-sharing, which is supposed to be made popular due to the advent of the internet and its localization of the globe, is now more difficult than ever.

For years, there have been intellectual exchanges on the definitions of an African state, a process that often sees one scholar propound a definition, with other scholars responding with a different definition. On the surface, this looks like a time-wasting endeavor that is converting the time, effort, and resources needed in other aspects of the African Studies domain to a seemingly less important endeavor. However, given that Africa struggled for decades as a colonial entity and even with the widespread independence, African states have been battling with issues of neo-colonialism and misgovernance, which all point to one critical thing — there is a need to coordinate African cultural resources and practices for the process of redefining, reimagining, and redesigning the African state. This redesign is necessary to give Africa and Africans a sense of direction and purpose, without which it would be difficult to conceptualize the standards that leaders need to be held to, the accountability metrics, or what should make a failed or successful African state.

In Africa, there has been a rising call for the influence of scholarship on the betterment of the people, one that has seen debates at the level of the African Union, calling for a re-organization of the grant-awarding process to probe scholars and examine how influential their research work is expected to be on policymaking. Some of the big questions that these sparks are: “Must there always be a relationship between the town and the gown? Must all forms of scholarship tie back to a direct influence on policy or a direct application to the lives of the citizens? Can the scholarship be embarked upon for scholarship’s sake?”

Professor Richard Joseph believes that the points are well in line, seeing as Africa is bedeviled with several major challenges (environmental, economic, and political, among others). Therefore, it would be counter-productive to build up scholarship in African Studies that is far removed from the realities and problems of Africa. The interview edition on African Studies is yet another avenue to examine the African domain, its challenges, and accomplishments from a critical and analytic lens, a task that was made more encompassing and in-depth by the experience and expertise of Professors Alidou, Joseph, and Harrow.

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