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African scientific research in search of new alternatives

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Dr Sada Mire, a Swedish-Somali archaeologist, at Dhambalin, a 5000 years old site in Somaliland,
Getting out of the Colonial Library

As far as Africa is concerned, the colonial intelligentsia carried on fundamental and applied research in almost all fields of the social sciences and humanities. Most of these men and women belonged to the colonial apparatus as administrators, soldiers and military officers, medical doctors and nurses, missionary personnel, etc. Some became renowned scholars in their respective fields and contributed to the foundation of African Studies programs in European and North American universities and advanced research institutions.

Different schools, museums, research institutions and academic traditions emerged in Europe at Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, and in North America at Harvard and Columbia. Diffusionism was at its peak during the colonial era. With some variations among authors, Africa was viewed as a continent that had received all innovations from neighboring populations, essentially from the Near East, through direct migration and/or technological influence. The main themes of the Colonial Library, the hierarchy of races, civilizations and cultures, were contested and countered initially by intellectuals from the diaspora, in the Caribbean and North America and later from Africa.

Modern higher education institutions created in Africa were initially extensions of European universities and Christian missions. Achimota College in the Gold Coast, Makerere in Uganda, Ibadan in Nigeria, were the first to be in operation in sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial period. Algiers University, Dakar University, and the University of Cameroon-French Foundation of Higher Education in Cameroon, an extension of the Academy of Bordeaux, created later, were all French institutions in France’s former colonies.

Take archaeology as an illustration: its initial development in Africa was the result of conflicts, tensions, and negotiations within the colonial techno-structure. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was no coherent and well articulated archaeological curriculum anywhere. Archaeological research was nonetheless conducted by daring and bright minds, in Europe and Africa.

Without standard methodology and precise goals, “prehistoric” archaeology was fuelled by major controversies. The development of a more secular view of human history, the theory of “natural selection,” the validity of biblical narratives, the emergence of European nationalisms, and the deep-seated “primitive/civilized divide, were core driving forces in the narratives of Africa’s past. These worldviews helped shape the minds of virtually all archaeologists working in West Africa up to World War II.

A radical shift to field data took place in the early 1950s with the creation of research institutions and the training of a handful of professional archaeologists. Paradoxically, and for understandable reasons, West African archaeology was not affected by the rise of African nationalisms and the movement toward independence.

The entry of a larger number of Africans into the field had mixed results: poor communication between African scholars; a tendency to rely on former colonial powers that kept tight control of the field; and virtually no significant internal African support for archaeological research. The research agendas were exactly the same.

For example, the field archaeology program of the famous Ancient Ghana site of Awdaghost-Mission Tegdaoust-led by Jean Devisse and Serge Robert from the History Department of the University of Dakar was interested in tracing Arab and North African influence on the emergence of urbanization in West Africa.

Glazed ware from Mediterranean and North African origins was analyzed thoroughly while locally made pottery was neglected and left un-examined. The same strictures can be applied to a former colonial enclave, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, whose initial archaeological research agenda championed the Near Eastern origins of the Swahili civilization in East Africa.

The structure of European archaeological research in Africa is clearly nation-based and an extension of European outreach, with recurrent sub-titles like: “British contributions to….,” “50 ans d’archéologie francaise en Afrique,” “Polish contributions to...,” “Swiss contributions to…,” “Belgian contributions to…,” and “German contributions to....,” etc. Each of these entities, rightly so, promotes its achievements. However, such understandable attitudes generally cause intellectual uneasiness

The ideals of open unprejudiced debates, free and responsible assessment of research results, and collective promotion of knowledge are appealing, a noble but useful myth. Genuine research, vigorous debates, prejudices, antagonisms, as well as destruction, take place in academic institutions. The denial of the demic structure of scholarly communities, with their embedded networks of academic power and privilege, is a poor strategy to naturalize an existing social order.

The reality is very different. Any attempt to bring to the fore the hidden and unsaid practices that still plague African social science research is met by a barrage of denials. Tasked with writing a review of Postcolonial Archaeologies in Africa, edited by P. Schmidt, Ann Stahl discloses the content of the book in precisely 111 words. The book review was supposed to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the contributors’ papers. They have different training trajectories, come from different geographic areas and cultures and from diverse research and institutional origins, and are sharing their personal research experience and life in academic institutions. Instead, Stahl used her review to launch a frontal assault on P. Schmidt’s introduction. For her, the book’s chapters “range from engaging and reflective to ill focused and meandering. Some deal robustly with structural and institutional dimensions of power/knowledge while others reduce their complex dynamics to a narrative of heroes and villains.”

It is no surprise that the contributors to Postcolonial Archaeologies in Africa were shocked by the misleading, patronizing and dismissive attitude of Professor Stahl. All the contributors to the volume wrote a short statement entitled “Silencing Voices in African Archaeology: Statement by Contributors.”

That response outlines the main facets of the mindsets at play. The silencing of African scholars with different perspectives operates via non-citations, biased peer-reviews, and abrasive book reviews. “Silencing of African scholars who are not in the Western mainstream is a condition that still persists during the postcolonial era. Silencing occurs when scholars proffer views different from those familiar to Western scholarship and when peer review becomes a disguise to denigrate these unorthodox viewpoints. Much more troubling are conscious attempts to silence those who challenge well-established paradigms that specifically took root during the colonial era and have held sway since.”

The Search for Alternatives

The promotion of alternatives to Eurocentric perspectives on Africa humanities and social science research is not a new phenomenon. These ideas coalesced under the concept of PanAfricanism in the middle of the 19th century to counter the de-humanization of Africans, fight against enslavement, and promote the liberation of the continent from colonialism. Edward Blyden, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B DuBois, Frederick Douglass, J. A. Beale Horton, J. E. Caselay Hayford, M. Robinson Delany, H. Sylvester Williams, G. Padmore, A. Cesaire, L. S. Senghor, Walter Rodney, Cheikh Anta Diop, etc., were some of the towering figures promoting alternative views of the contributions of Black people to world history and cultural heritage.

Cheikh Anta Diop’s life-long research and political activism were devoted to debunking colonial constructs on the African past. Other scholarly initiative without Pan-Africanism involvement backed alternative views on the history of Pharaonic Egypt. Many individual African scholars and experts in African social science research carry out their own alternative agendas in their respective fields of expertise, relying on a broad range of rallying concepts: liberation, anti-imperialism, anti-neo-colonial, post-colonial, or de-colonial.

Adhesion to a particular school of thought or ideological posture, important as it seems to be in academic circles, is in fact unimportant. What matters fundamentally is setting a pragmatic research agenda that makes a difference. Some sixty years after the wave of African independences, one has to pause and think.

Bretton Woods institutions—such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and more recently the World Trade Organization—have set the rules and imposed liberal capitalism as the norm. Deregulation and laissez-faire have proven to be double-edged sword processes. What is the place of independent African states in such an international system?

Some, as is the case for the Francophone countries of West and Central Africa, are trapped in the neo-colonial net of their former colonizers. Their national currency, the CFA Franc, controlled by the French government, is an emblematic case of neo-colonial domination. Without necessarily having to cut ties with former colonial powers, it is time to explore new partnerships with Asia and South America.

The world is open to all, and they are entitled to their own views and worldviews. The past colonial domination, wealth and institutional imbalance that presided over the present day satellization and dependency of African researchers do not ipso facto put Euro-American academics in the position of gate-keepers of Africa’s social science research.

Unfortunately, African countries are predominantly unwilling to support Africa’s social science research and prefer to rely on foreign research teams. Many fear an ideological radicalization of youth and students they think can be triggered by critical social science research. Others assert different priorities excluding fundamental and applied social science research.

Most are comfortable with foreign research teams enlisting one or two local researchers, in what Cameroonian colleagues called the “policy of picking up the crumbs.”

The liberation imperative and new partnerships It is time to explore new partnerships with South America and Asia. Despite its current political crisis, Brazil, with the largest population of people of African descent out of Africa, is and will be crucial—a natural partner in the years to come. India and China are other important countries with whom Africa had a long and unknown history and should develop scholarly exchanges to know each other better.

A surveyor and local assistant measure distances from a fixed point (1925, courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund)

Augustin F.C. HOLL

Co-founder of Afrospectives


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