Approaching Africa

Since 1969, Harvard has had a Committee on African Studies (CAS), an interdisciplinary group of scholars who sponsor seminars and fund summer travel for student research. Beginning in 1993, CAS coordinated an honors “certificate” program (not a distinct concentration) for undergraduates pursuing work on that continent. But the University has no Africa center, comparable to the substantial centers for academic work on Europe, Asia (with separate East Asian, Japanese, and Korean units), and Latin America. Widener Library holds about 100,000 volumes on or from Africa—a significant, growing collection, but only a fraction of the Harvard-Yenching Library’s 1.1 million Asian volumes.

Such differences, crude as they are, indicate the relative status of African research and teaching at the University. But fresh initiatives are beginning to take hold: a new departmental home for African studies, an expanding languages program, faculty growth, and fresh resources for interdisciplinary work.

Professors active in the field say that for the first time, genuinely reciprocal scholarly collaboration between Harvard and Africa is in sight, making it possible to engage a new generation of students and young scholars. “We aren’t going to get senior people living in the bush, coughing for six weeks,” said Andelot professor of demography Allan G. Hill, a regular traveler to Ghana. Establishing the kinds of commitment Hill envisions promises much better understanding of Africa’s people and challenges, and a real opportunity to help educational institutions there develop.

An era ended quietly on June 9, when the last few certificates in African studies were conferred on graduating seniors. Four other students, meanwhile, became the first to complete the African concentration track within the expanded department of African and African American studies authorized by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in May 2003 (

Suzanne Preston Blier, shown last summer in Ife, Nigeria, in the company of local priests.
Courtesy of Suzanne Preston Blier

Key to the more substantial concentration was overcoming the language barrier. Perhaps 1 percent of Africans speak English or French, according to John M. Mugane, the senior preceptor who runs the department’s two-year-old African languages program. To pursue research or field work, students need some indigenous language skill—the undergraduate degree requires two to four semesters of African language—but there are more than 2,000 possibilities to choose from. Instruction is now available in the major eastern and central African languages (Mugane), western languages (preceptor Nike S. Lawal), and southern languages. Suddenly, several dozen pupils a semester—undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, and a handful of scholars from other universities—are studying Swahili, Bamana, Igbo, Twi, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu, taught by the faculty preceptors and various coaches and instructors: other students, consulate personnel, and residents of greater Boston.

In parallel, something ofan Africanist hiring binge is under way. Du Bois professor of the humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr., long-time chair of the department, said as many as five senior searches are in progress, in fields ranging from anthropology and development economics to literature. Eaton professor of the science of government Robert H. Bates, e-mailing from Nairobi, waxed enthusiastic about two new junior colleagues whose research has centered on Nigeria and Rwanda. (Bates was on one of his twice-yearly Kenyan trips to teach at the African Economic Research Consortium and complete work with a multinational team on a multivolume analysis of growth in each sub-Saharan country during the past 50 years.)

But the most significant steps toward expanded Harvard involvement in Africa may be proceeding from a cross-faculty planning effort led for the past three years by CAS chair Emmanuel K. Akyeampong.

Alan G. Hill stands outside the legal center in Accra where Luci White and students work.
Courtesy of Alan G. Hill

Provost Steven E. Hyman, a physician and neuroscientist, who has described his office as lending “encouragement and some financial support” to this Africa Initiative, noted that Harvard’s medical and public-health schools already have extensive programs on AIDS and infectious diseases in the continent. “I feel deeply,” he said, “that this should be complemented by broader efforts that comprehend history, culture, politics, economics, and governance.” The Africa Initiative can help set the agenda for “the serious effort that Africa warrants”—including adding faculty members in FAS, the Kennedy School of Government, and perhaps elsewhere.

According to Akyeampong, professor of history and of African and African American studies (see “Harvard Portrait,” September-October 2004, page 63), the time is ripe for that effort. Understanding Africa, he said, is inherently interdisciplinary work. As an example, Horvitz professor of law Lucie E. White cites problems of land-ownership reform that involve colonial and precolonial historical contexts, humanities disciplines to understand the significance of land and its role in ritual and art, anthropological analysis, and legal and political issues. More generally, Akyeampong said, the field is ready for fresh ideas because the “lost decade” of the 1980s (rife with civil conflicts, wars, and famine) and the continuing scourge of AIDS have decimated indigenous educational institutions and led to “an important qualitative transformation” in Western images of Africa. The continent has come to be seen as utterly dependent and incapable of producing ideas for its own future.

In this context, he said, scholars need to return to the field, to come to understand the differences among African nations, and to appreciate anew the strengths of indigenous social networks, communities, and cultures. The initiative is pursuing five areas for doing so: health, healing, and ritual practice; human capital; power, governance, and authority; realms of knowledge, memory, and contestation; and African creativity. Each study area leader brings to the initiative the hands-on experience Akyeampong extols.

For example, Hill, who directs the health component, is conducting a detailed study of 3,200 women in Accra—a city where only 2.6 percent of residents have contracted AIDS (one-tenth or less the rate of adult infection in parts of southern Africa). Beyond data on health status, living conditions, and access to care, Hill’s doctoral students have examined the prevalence of induced abortion in the absence of family-planning services and the effect of faith-based institutions on adolescent sexuality.

Hill’s work has encouraged two other important linkages. White (who chairs the governance group) has been working with the nonprofit Legal Resources Centre in Ghana for the past five years, of late exploring rural communities’ access to healthcare as the country makes the transition to an insurance-based financing system. In January, she and 23 students (in public health, law, government, and urban planning) began working with migratory farmers in northeastern Ghana, the first steps toward evolving a locally based, workable care system and advocating for changes in the health law. Thus, urban medical studies and rural health-policy work are yielding new knowledge and new cohorts of students, American and African, with enriched skills.

Even more important, said Hill, “The wind has changed” for doing work in Africa. Rather than solely funding expensive Western researchers, who parachute into the continent and then withdraw, foundations are beginning to build “south-south collaborations,” he said, aimed at strengthening local capabilities—in part by providing outside expertise when required—in health and other fields.

The need is acute. The University of Ghana, with 16,000 students, functions with inadequate buildings, supplies, and budgets: the vice chancellor, he noted, earns $454 monthly—what the Africa Initiative offers speakers at a Harvard seminar. Such disparities drain Africa of its local talent. An affiliation with the university arranged by Akyeampong is now promoting formal exchanges between Ghana staff and students and those from Harvard (six Massachusetts faculty members visited this academic year)—a first step in what Hill hopes will be many that develop skills locally and keep expertise in place in Africa.

In 30 years of travels to Africa, Suzanne Preston Blier, Clowes professor of fine arts and professor of African and African American studies, said she has seen “disastrous devastations.” But “what has always made Africa particularly enriching is [how] communities there come together in art, music, and ritual—in creative ways that are aesthetic, psychologically important, and culturally integrated.”

Through the Africa Initiative (she chairs the knowledge, memory, and contestation work group) and other recent Harvard investments, one senses, Blier is broadening her scholarly interests, with renewed enthusiasm. She is studying Yoruba, her fourth African language. Additional funds for her “Building Africa” workshop have made it possible to bring in outside experts and begin to explore the economic aspects of historic preservation, tourism, development strategies, and foreign-aid funding—critical factors for the future of Mali and other countries where the loss of historic assets “can’t be worse than it is” now.

In this kind of work, Blier said, “You’re forced, when you get off that plane in Africa, to reach across the canonical disciplines. You have to pay close attention to lived experience in a whole range of dimensions.” Along with the advent of a departmental home for African scholarship and the languages program, she said, the gathering momentum of the interfaculty initiative has finally “encouraged each of us to think about the ways in which, across our fields, we can come together” to work on overlapping issues—and so to impress on Harvard the importance of a continent it has studied too little.




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