African Civ To Be Held in Dakar, Senegal Starting in Winter 2018

Students expressed concern about the location of African Civ in Paris, the only Civ program not based in the region it studied.

By Isaac Stein

According to faculty who taught the African Civilizations (African Civ) program in Paris, Study Abroad will offer an African Civ study abroad program in Dakar, Senegal starting in winter quarter of 2018.

Currently, the African Civ program is offered on campus and, every two years, in Paris. After 2018, the quarter-long sequence will be taught in Paris every other time it is offered. In College Council and in the pages of campus publications, some students had expressed concern about the location of African Civ in a European capital, which made it the only Civ program not based in the region it studied.

A Short History of African Civ Abroad

From its inception, the African Civ curriculum has been overseen by members of the African Studies Committee. Among them are Emily Lynn Osborn, associate professor of African history, Jennifer Cole, professor of comparative human development, and Cécile Fromont, assistant professor of art history. According to Osborn, she and François Richard, assistant professor of anthropology, have “taken the lead on the African Civ program” in Senegal. Richard could not be reached for comment for this story.

Starting in the 1999–2000 academic year, the University offered African Civ abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. Cole and Osborn said that while a contingent of the faculty wanted that program to be in Senegal, South Africa was chosen because of the international faculty connections and research interests of John and Jean Comaroff, who led the program. The Comaroffs left the University near the end of the decade, and African Civ in Cape Town was discontinued after 2012. In the midst of their departure, African Civ in Paris was then developed in 2010 as a “stopgap measure” to ensure that the University continued to offer African Civ abroad, Osborn said.

Given the diversity of faculty interests, Osborn said, France was “a place where we could build something for the time being,” and funding constraints and other logistical challenges prevented a fully-fledged Senegal program from coalescing sooner. Fromont, who taught the African Civ program in 2012, added that French collections of African art fit with her research interest in African material culture. In 2014, an influx of money from the Women’s Board also provided for an optional week of study in Dakar, which was a pilot for the upcoming 2018 program there.

“I came in 2007, and we probably had our first conversation about it in 2009. We’ve long talked about it, but the stars did not align until more recently,” Osborn said.

The Plans for Senegal

According to Cole and Osborn, the University will probably not construct a Center in Dakar for the upcoming study abroad program.

In terms of curriculum, Osborn said that the alternating Dakar and Paris programs will reinforce each other, as each has separate strengths as a base for African studies. She characterized Paris as “an invitation to [teach] Africa as a diaspora,” as “you can go down the street and see the legacies of colonialism, and streams of immigration to different neighborhoods in the city.” She added that while she acknowledges the colonial history of African artwork in French museums, the reality of that colonial past means that “Paris is a place where you can compare and contrast different parts of Africa, different kinds of art production…different ethnicities, countries, and regions in a way that you cannot do in any one African country.”

In contrast, Osborn said, the Dakar program “would be African Civ, yes, but it would also be Senegal Civ. In a way, it would be more constrained…more Senegalese focused, more Wolof focused, and more Francophone.”

Fromont added that she hopes the 2018 trip is concurrent with the Biennale, Dakar’s biennial contemporary arts exhibition.

Student Experience and Criticism

Fourth-year Alex Bahls, who participated in African Civ in Paris in 2014 and in the weeklong program in Dakar, referred to the optional extension as “one of the best weeks of [his] life.” He noted that his interactions with Senegalese people revealed to him “the effects of colonization that still pervade the society” in ways that were not possible in the Paris classroom. One of those experiences was with a passerby at a Dakar market.

“In class, we’d talk about how whites characterized Africans during the colonial period as cannibalistic. Going to the market, someone will come up to you and say, ‘I’m not going to try to eat you or anything.’ But just that imagery has stuck, and has a contemporary component to it as well…. There’s a ton of things like that, and I was just there for a week,” Bahls said.

Bahls said that while he understands the appeal of teaching African Civ in Paris as a hub for African art and archives, he would have preferred if the program was wholly in Senegal.

“I do understand where the professors are coming from; there was a lot of interesting stuff to see in Paris…but if you’re studying African Civilizations, there’s enough art to find in Africa. Also, living there and having that immersive-ness is something you can’t really get in Paris,” he said.

Fourth-year Alexa Daugherty, who participated in the Civ program but not in the Dakar extension, said the validity of the program was constantly questioned by its participants.

“I came out of the Paris program not convinced, but willing to accept why the program was in Paris. The professors definitely presented the history of what we are studying and the African nations that we were studying through this history of colonialism…and it really left me with a bad impression of France, which maybe wasn’t the main goal, but there [wasn’t] so much acceptance [among the group] of the program being in Paris…. There are reasons for the program to be in Dakar,” she said.

Bahls, however, recalled the group’s internal questioning of its studies in Paris differently, and said that he “did not remember a ton of dialogue about it,” with the exception of “people on campus who chose not to go, because they thought [African Civ in Paris] was kind of weird or messed up.”

One of those students was Shae Omonijo, second-year and Undergraduate Liaison to the Board of Trustees. Last November, she wrote an op-ed titled “A Case for African Studies” for publication in The Gate, in which she detailed the reasons why she could not participate in African Civ in Paris “in good conscience.”

Omonijo referred to the planned 2018 program in Senegal as “wonderful news,” and echoed Bahls in noting that she hopes that “in the future we can see a full transition to [African Civ in] an African country.” She also said the interviews that she did for her article led her to conclude that the continued existence of the African Civ program in Paris is driven by faculty research interests.

“Just the fact that there’s a lot of African art in France is an issue that needs to be addressed in the first place…. At the end of the day, I think that a lot of the programs that [the University] puts on are very faculty-driven…so it makes sense that they would want to continue for interests of their own personal research, and I think, once again, that’s why it’s important to have faculty from multiple disciplines study various parts of Africa,” Omonijo said.

Faculty Resources and a “Good Compromise”

For the foreseeable future, African Civ abroad will alternate between Dakar and Paris. Osborn said that the faculty for the Dakar program will likely include instructors who did not teach African Civ in Paris in 2014.

“As our plan stands now, we have firm commitments for teaching in Senegal from François Richard, Salikoko Mufwene [professor of linguistics], and myself. [Cole and Fromont] are also interested in contributing to the program as time and scheduling allow,” she said.

Fromont added that the small size of the University’s African studies faculty means that it is not logistically possible to offer an African Civ program abroad every year, irrespective of its location. Osborn also said that students ought to consider that faculty interests contribute to the design, timing, and location of study abroad programs.

“We professors are not here simply to serve undergraduates. The demands on our time are many…. Money is an issue when you start a study abroad program, and also all sorts of other circumstances, like getting tenure, writing books, and having children. It’s not like we can just sort of drop in and say ‘let’s do this now, because undergrads want it. I mean, that might not sound like what you’re paying for, but there are constraints on how we can do things, especially when our cohort is this small,” she said.

Fourth-year Liam Leddy, who participated in the 2014 African Civ program and the Dakar extension, said that while he “lean[s] towards” support for an African Civ program exclusively in Senegal, he recommended the African Civ in Paris program to other students. He added that while he agreed with the majority of Omonijo’s points in “A Case for African Studies,” he thought that she did not give the professors “enough credit.”

“All of the issues that [Omonijo] was raising were issues that our professors were equally concerned about. I know that some of our professors wanted our program in Africa, at least half of the time, but, logistically, that’s difficult to do. Some people aren’t going to be happy [with the alternating locations], but for now, I think it’s a good compromise…those ten weeks, and especially the three weeks with Emily Osborn, and the week with her in Dakar, were probably the most influential weeks of my education at this school….  Maybe the program should be in Africa, but living in Paris for 10 weeks isn’t a bad deal.”

In an e-mail, Sarah Walter, the Director of Study Abroad, added that the University also aims to “triple” the current opportunities for independent study in Africa by the summer 2017 quarter through increased grant and internship funding.

Editor’s Note: Liam Leddy is a former Viewpoints Editor for The Maroon.