Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Africa, the dark continent?

By Matthew de la Hey

“The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place” — Chinua Achebe

Do they know it’s Christmas? Well of course they do. They’ll probably go to church, and then spend the day with their families. I find the return of Bob Geldof’s fundraising wonder song deeply problematic. His efforts in fighting the Ebola crisis are laudable, but the lyrics of the song betray the startling grip of an inherited image of Africa. Academia has a great deal to answer for.

Africa has a rich history of external conceptualisations. What has been “known” by much of the world about the continent has long been a product of external scholarship. It was however in Africa’s encounter with Europe’s colonial powers that the most enduring (and arguably the most damaging) image of the continent was formed. Africa was studied as a primitive, uncivilised, and otherworldly place — a continent of savages and cannibals so vividly portrayed to a Western audience in writing like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — a “prehistoric Earth … an unknown planet” inhabited by “prehistoric man”. Africa was set up as the antithesis of Western civilisation: an unknown into which Europeans could peer for assurance about their superior positions in the hierarchy of nature. As Comaroff says, Africa and the African “marked the point at which humanity gave way to animality”. Thus Africa was painted as an “other”: a continent without history in which indigenous bodies of knowledge and ways of thought were not considered. In the “natural progression” of the world towards European civilisation, Africa and the African were centuries behind the colonising powers.

The legacy of this thinking is still with us, despite the efforts of initiatives from Negritude and Black Consciousness to the African Renaissance, as eminent figures like Hugh Trevor-Roper and Nikolas Sarkozy portray. Trevor-Roper, Oxford’s late regius professor of modern history said in 1963 that “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none: there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness”. Sarkozy, speaking in Dakar in 2007, described Africa as a continent that has “not fully entered into history”, who’s people live in an “imaginary world” devoid of “human adventure or the idea of progress”, wallowing in a “static order where everything seems to have been written beforehand” and who need to realise that the “golden age that Africa is forever recalling will not return because it has never existed”, betraying the startling grip of the colonial conception of Africa. How has this image of Africa persisted? How does the state of global scholarship affect what is known about the continent? What role do places like Oxford have to play in all of this?

African universities remain underrepresented in the world and much of what is known about Africa is still produced in the West. The “modern university” in Africa is a phenomenon of the 20th century and was established in an order dominated by Western institutions: universities and scholars thus have to conform to a global order defined by university league tables, international rankings and performance measures based on research output, operating within its confines and according to its power structures if they wish to be relevant. Promising students and academics are drawn away from the continent to the better resourced and more famous institutions of the world, further deepening a north-south divide. This ”brain drain” impacts heavily on the continent’s ability to define itself on its own terms. How does this exposure to external, deeply formative influences impact and shape them and their thinking? The colonial narrative of Africa persists through the use of externally generated theories, methodologies, and frames of reference. African academics are compelled to engage each other in the pages of foreign journals using borrowed languages, and thus, as Amina Mama says, “internalise global hegemonic thought within African scholarship”.

And what of the language used to develop and disseminate African knowledge? Is the lingua franca of academia, a cornerstone of the Western conceptual toolbox, capable of telling Africa’s story? Can the metaphors, proverbs, myths and parables that form the basis of so much of African knowledge be adequately portrayed and faithfully represented in English or French? Shona poets interviewed in Zimbabwe, said “The languages are not the same — their idiomatic expressions, their proverbial expressions. So when you translate, you are losing the imagery, you are losing the symbolism that is expressed … there is a lot lost there because our mode of thinking and that of English are not synonymous, are not the same”. Up to 90% of the population in Africa today speak only African languages: what of the exclusion of vast swathes of the population from the products of the academy, from contributing to it, and from entering into it?

Africa scholars generate knowledge that shapes what is understood about the rest of the world. Anthropologist Sally Falk Moore explains that Africa, the object of anthropological analysis, has changed the way of thinking about the analysis. Paul Collier similarly cites the impact that work on the continent has had on the field of economics. Western institutions thus have a responsibility to support and engage with the African academy. The development of international collaborative relationships is essential to Africa’s academic development and is vital if it is to reach an equal footing with the rest of the world. We must not forget that Africa has things to teach us.

In many respects African scholarship remains an external endeavour. This situation is exacerbated by the global domination of Western academia. Much still needs to be done to erase the epistemological legacy of colonialism, allowing Africa to assume its rightful place in the global order, an end that will be as beneficial to our ways of understanding the world as it is to our knowledge of Africa itself. The global academic community faces an ethical imperative to assist the development of the African academy, proactively engaging with and including it, approaching research with an Afrocentric lens and dismantling problematic inherited modes of thought.

It obviously won’t be snowing, Bob — it’s the middle of summer, and this is Africa.

Matthew de la Hey is in his second year at Oxford University where he is a Weidenfeld scholar. He graduated with an MSc in African Studies in 2014, having researched small-scale agriculture in the rural Transkei, and is now doing an MBA at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. He completed honours in accountancy at Stellenbosch University in 2012 as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar.

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