May 7, 2010

A continental oversight

The U of C’s treatment of Africa shortchanges students interested in the field

On the eve of the African and Caribbean Student Association’s annual show, it is important to understand how Africa is studied at this university. Investigating this matter points to an alarming truth—Africa, the second-most populated continent in the world, is stunningly underrepresented. This, in turn, leads to varying levels of ignorance towards the continent.

Most people’s understandings of what goes on in Africa reveal a high degree of ignorance of the actions our government plays a part in. Most of us know that American inaction allowed the deaths of thousands in Rwanda during the 1990s. However, most of us don’t know that the U.S. currently supports Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a brutal leader who has led a silent military campaign in Congo, responsible for the rapes and murders of hundreds of thousands. The Save Darfur Coalition, while generating interest about an important issue, does not understand the conflict it seeks to address. As Dr. Mahmoud Mamdani notes, there is simply little to no evidence that the conflict is racially motivated. It was British colonialism and a regional power struggle during the Cold War between the United States, Israel, and Libya, which planted the seeds for such a conflict, with a lack of resources as a catalyst. Students are likely to blame Robert Mugabe for Zimbabwe’s extraordinarily high inflation, despite the fact most research shows that international sanctions share as much responsibility for this as his policies. Finally, while radicals will know the names of Asian and Latin American leftist leaders, hardly anyone recognizes the names of brilliant revolutionary figures like Nyerere, Lumumba, and Cabral. Africa is relegated to the shadows even at the University of Chicago.

Until the end of last year, students could have majored in African and African-American Studies. The major was then subsumed under another program: Comparative Race Studies. Neither program has shown itself to be truly adequate for the continent of Africa. The former major joins Africans—a group that has thousands of languages, thousands of ethnicities, thousands of years of history, and spreads thousands of miles—with African-Americans, obviously a very different group of people. One could conceivably finish such a major without truly understanding either group. The new major simplifies the study of Africa to the study of race, and implies that the study of this continent must be done in comparison with another group of people. Anyone who solely wants to study a section of Africa will be disappointed in pursuing this major.

Many of the University’s other departments contribute to the ignorance of the student body regarding Africa. In recent years, the Philosophy department has not had a course on African philosophy, a topic that has intrigued luminaries of contemporary philosophy like Richard Rorty. The Political Science department does not have a single professor who primarily focuses on Africa. The History department has only two professors who specialize on Africa, making it one of the least represented regions in the world. There is no one in the Sociology department who focuses on Africa. The Economics department, with the slight exception of Emily Oster, does not have any Africanists.

Finally, Swahili is the only African language taught at this university. In addition, only two levels are taught, despite the fact Swahili is one of the world’s fastest growing languages and the most popular indigenous African language. Compare our lack of African languages to the plethora of South East Asian languages. While other top institutions hardly represent Africa well, most of our peers still beat us in this area.

The Anthropology department is the only one to buck this trend. It has produced some of the nation’s top Africanists. Thus the student interested in Africa would probably be served best by pursuing this major. There are a few problems with this decision, however. First, undergraduate courses specifically for Africa are few. The course catalogue points to only two courses for undergraduates that focus exclusively on an African community. Secondly, the major itself is not that marketable, scaring away a number of possible students from pursuing research on Africa.

Finally, there is a specific perspective that anthropologists take towards studying society. While this is a generalization, much of anthropological research focuses on how the local is affected by larger currents, such as global capitalism and modernity. The point really is to help understand the latter, rather than the former. Again, in a new way, Africa is simply used as a means and not an end. Few anthropologists talk about day-to-day political events, something that a political scientist tends to focus on.

The University’s lack of interest in Africa has led to many examples of ignorance here on campus. On November 10, the Human Rights Program and Amnesty International hosted Daniel Bekele, an Ethiopian activist. In a small discussion, the Bekele discussed his country’s need for democracy. Surprisingly, and obvious to anyone who had read his work, he hid the fact that he also demands less economic inequality. The audience’s response was astounding. Susan Gzesh, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program, only asked, “What international NGOs are working there?” Such a question highlights her missionary-like outlook.

More egregious was the claim of an Amnesty International researcher in attendance, who said it was “the color revolutions of Eastern Europe that inspired Ethiopians to demand democracy.” No one called out this inaccuracy. Few cared that it was the U.S. government that was the biggest donor to the Ethiopian military, the very institution that was responsible for massive human rights abuses and the imprisonment of Mr. Bekele.

More telling examples of ignorance are the arguments by economists about the prevalence of HIV. Why is there a tendency for certain African males not to change their sexual practices in light of HIV? For Emily Oster, who has studied the virus, it is because changing their behavior wouldn’t be rational. Because their life expectancy is perceived to be low, African men apparently have no reason to practice safe sex. It is as if Africans take care of themselves in the same way one would take care of cattle. This research oversimplifies a complex set of cultural processes and reasoning to fit a given methodology. What is more concerning, however, is the fact that academia has yet to refute these arguments. We need more Africanists in order to counter such beliefs.

Any student interested in African studies ought to demand more cross-departmental representation of the continent. It is the imperative of budding Africanists everywhere to see the people of the hidden continent as connected to us, to doggedly fight all forms of ignorance relating to Africans, and to help them on their own terms.

—Suman Som is a second-year in the College majoring in Anthropology.