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"African Studies has a problematic origin"

African Studies is a field notoriously lacking in African scholars. Miriam Siun, research master student in this field, noticed this from the moment she started the programme. She decided to take matters into her own hands and hold a seminar reflecting on this issue.

What is this seminar all about?

When I started this programme, I noticed a lack of African scholars in the field. This is not specific to Leiden, it is the case in a lot of places. I wanted to have an opportunity to reflect on this by including different people, such as an academic with a PhD, current Phd students. The African Studies Centre and its director, prof. dr. Ton Dietz, have been very supporting and encouraging in giving me a platform to do so.

What makes it so important that more African academics enter the field of African studies?

The field has a problematic origin. At first, it mainly consisted of Western anthropologists, colonial officials and missionaries who conducted ethnographic studies and wrote monographs. And arguably, a lot has remained the same, as the field is still dominated by Westerners. If men were to dominate the field of women’s studies, that would be ironic because that would reinforce patriarchy. While some may argue that you don’t have to be African to write on or study the continent, I think that the violence that has marked the history between the West vis-à-vis Africa makes it imperative to reflect on how knowledge production played a role in colonialism and how that hegemony remains today.

Why do you think they do not have this opportunity right now?

Major journals in African studies are based in Western countries, and have a lot of gatekeeping. By that I mean that fewer people who apply to have an article published actually get published, particularly African scholars. A study was conducted on this recently, which found that African scholars get published and cited less. The number of Africa based scholars applying to these journals has stayed the same, however, but the number of rejections has increased.

What does the field gain by having more African academics?

I struggle to understand how a field devoted to ‘African’ studies can be almost devoid of Africans and still be considered legitimate. A PhD student, Safia Aidid coined the term ‘cadaan studies’, which means white studies. While she was speaking specifically on Somali Studies, I think the term encapsulates the state of African studies today as well – where only the subject relates to Africa. More African scholars in the field would therefore legitimize the use of the name ‘African’ Studies.

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See the event page on the website of the African Studies Centre for more information.

The African Studies Centre Leiden is the only multidisciplinary academic knowledge institute in the Netherlands devoted entirely to the study of Africa. It has an extensive library that is open to the general public. The ASCL is an interfaculty institute of Leiden University.

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