Is It Ethical to Study Africa? Preliminary Thoughts on Scholarship and Freedom

By Amina Mama

(Editors ‘ note: The author was honored by the African Studies Association by being invited to give the Bashorun M. K. O Abiola Lecture at the 49th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in November 2006 in San Francisco. The article that follows is based on that lecture.)


This article explores the manner in which ethical concerns have been addressed within Africa’s progressive intellectual tradition through the eras of anti colonial, pan-African, and nationalist struggles for freedom, and into the era of globalization. Africa is characterized as the region bearing the most negative con sequences of globalization, a reality that offers a critical vantage point well-attuned to the challenge of demystifying the global policy dictates currently dominating the global landscape. Ethical considerations are conceptualized as being framed by considerations of identity, epistemology, and methodology. It is suggested that Africa’s radical intellectuals have effectively pursued anti-imperialist ethics, and developed regional and national intellectual communities of scholars who have worked for freedom, often challenging and subverting the constraints of dominant and received disciplinary approaches and paradigms. However, it is suggested that the liberatory promise of the anticolonial  nationalist eras has not been fulfilled. While the fortunes of higher education and research in Africa have declined, scholars have established independent research networks in and beyond the campuses to keep African intellectual life alive. However, it is argued that Africa’s intellectuals need to engage more proactively with the methodological implications of their own liberatory intellectual ethics.

Read more here: Mama-Ethical-to-Study-Africa

African Studies Review
Vol. 50, No. 1 (Apr., 2007), pp. 1-26 (26 pages)
Published By: Cambridge University Press

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By Daniel Large


In the wake of China’s Year of Africa in 2006, China–Africa relations are currently the subject of unprecedented attention. However, although those relations are widely covered they are also under-researched. This article offers an introduction to China–Africa relations, covering background to the history and politics of Chinese involvement in the continent and identifying areas of further research. It concludes by calling for the study of China–Africa relations to develop a culture of serious research beyond current ‘dragon in the bush’ preoccupations and so engage a complex subject that is about to become a mainstream issue in African politics.

Read more here: Large-Dragon-in-the-Bush-2008

African Affairs, 107/426, 45 – 61 doi: 10.1093/afraf/adm069
©The Author [2008]. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved

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Rethinking publics in Africa in a digital age

By Sharath Srinivasan, Stephanie Diepeveen & George Karekwaivanane


The digital transformations taking place across the African continent present an urgent need for fresh thinking in the study of publics. This introduction lays out the impetus and contribution of this Special Issue to such a rethinking of the study of publics in Africa. Following in the footsteps of a wider body of scholarship, we draw on Africa’s pasts and present in order to move beyond the limiting assumptions, histories and languages that are embedded within Western scholarship on publics. We make the case that both de-Westernising and capturing publics in a digital age in Africa require openness to a diversity of disciplines, approaches and questions. In addition, we explain how, collectively and individually, the articles in this Special Issue contribute to taking up this task. Taken together, the articles are an eye-opening collection on the unfolding practices of citizens convening and participating in discussions using both newer and older media and communication platforms across Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Contributions cover diverse disciplinary perspectives and empirical cases that investigate publics convening around digital platforms from WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to weblogs and dating apps on mobile phones. We see this endeavour of examining the complex and dynamic digital transformations across Eastern Africa as part of a crucial scholarly turn in which the study of African society and politics helps us to rethink ideas and concepts that have heritages elsewhere, and to understand them in a new light.

Read more here: Srinivasan-et-al-Rethinking-publics-in-Africa-in-a-digital-age

Rethinking publics in Africa in a digital age, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 13:1, 2-17, DOI:10.1080/17531055.2018.1547259


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Challenging the city’s longue durée pressure

by Mwangi Mwaũra

Before its establishment as a stop over town for the lunatic express, Nairobi was a place of cool waters, a coolness that can’t be felt in its current state as ‘mji wa mawe’ (a town built of stones). This cool space has ironically become an unsurvivable space for most of its residents and was recently ranked among the most stressful cities in the world.

An aerial view or a structured drive around the city reveals the unjust and segregated planning or lack thereof that imprints this space. From the street naming that depicts what the authorities want us to remember or forget, to the chaotic building of “White elephants” (infrastructural projects that continue to alienate most residents from their “natural” dwellings). To survive within the marginalized ruins that anthropologist Wangui Kimari calls ecologies of exclusion, residents continue to create ways that make them critical city makers and are consequently helping them make the city possible. Like the colonial powers the authorities continue to turn its back on them, terrorizing them in their hustles and bulldozing their houses down. To challenge the institutionalized marginalization, Nairobi’s subaltern’s agency is being best depicted through the now nineteen social justice centres established in different parts of the city. The ‘made in Nairobi’ social justice movement gives voice to different groups in informal settlements, such as people living with disabilities (PWD) whose exclusion blade cuts deeper.

June Disability Justice march

On June 13, people with disabilities from different informal settlements within Nairobi gathered at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) for a peaceful disability march around the settlement and to the area’s administration offices. The comrades carried placards bearing different slogans. These placards, as many as they were, could not fit the many forms of injustices this population goes through; but were instrumental in sending the message both to the other residents and the administration (read police). As the walk criss-crossed different streets in Mathare, several strategic stopovers were made where the group engaged the residents in calling for humanization of people with disabilities. The soloist proclaimed “walemavu ni watu” (PWD are humans) urging parents and relatives living with them to let them out.

On the main road the group was keen on reclaiming the tarmac road, confidently occupying one lane. As expected during the planning, the now normalized policing of protest was evident as police officers passed the march several times. One ‘killer cop’, Rashid, well known and feared for his extrajudicial killing records of youths in different informal settlements choosing to for once allow a group practice their right to hold peaceful protests.  Njeri, a volunteer at MSJC critical of what she called police ‘empathetic pretense’ would later narrate past confrontations and subsequent profiling of protestors.

Illegal arrest in the area goes beyond arresting comrades, there has been a normalized extrajudicial killing in different informal settlements, an area that has been a major focus of the different social justice centres. Perhaps the report that exposed the social movements work, MSJC’s ‘Who Is Next?’ chilling report went beyond and identified at least eight police officers who had been involved in repeated extrajudicial killings. The report which was also the first human rights report written in sheng (a clear sign of resident’s agency) has given birth to a social support group for mothers of victims and survivors network that has been instrumental in continuous documentation of these incidents and gone beyond by offering a social support infrastructure for the relatives of the victims through the tedious and often long court hearings that continue to delay their justice.

At the local administration offices, the marginalization of PWDs became even more apparent, as observed in an earlier survey by Open Institute Disability Program, the offices of the chief, the deputy county commissioner and other government officials had no ramp for wheelchair users, this angered the group who in unison asked, “Are we as (PWDs) meant to be served from outside, are we not human?”. The new inspector, who a few comrades described as lenient, listened to the group and advised them to send their representative later for a meeting with the chief. In PWDs related advocacy, caregivers have for long been left out, but not at the MSJC. Several of them were present and led the conversation with the inspector championing for their inclusion in the team to be sent for the official meeting.

Ultimately, the march achieved the much-needed community sensitization on PWDs by PWDs in the area. In the coming week, Mama Rahma, an active member of Nairobi’s social justice movement has received information of PWDs whose families continue to hide them in their houses and has managed to continue connecting with such families. The group also continues to chat ways they can better improve their living conditions such as joint investment even as they continue to fight for justice and dignity.

In summation the centre’s advocacy for this group and on other social and economic injustices reveals that such movements have become an urban ‘infrastructure of care’ in this unintended city. Within this infrastructure of care lies the affirmative power that is challenging the omnipresent pressure and violence in the city.


Mwangi Mwaura has vast research experience as a research assistant at the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

Twitter: @MwangiMwauraL

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Access and Academia in the Digital Space: The Musings of Remote Graduate Attachés

by Virginia Somers, Ingrid Viban, Lucy Irungu and Elias Michaut

This summer, the Graduate Attachés with the BIEA found ourselves sharing a Zoom office space rather than in the BIEA’s facilities. We gazed at each other through the lens of a computer camera, situated in four different countries and two different time zones. There were some of the blips we have come to expect in this digital age: bad internet connections, interruptions, awkward silences and of course, people not realising that they are, in fact, still muted. Yet despite these challenges, we have managed to cobble together connections and the beginnings of friendships, all built without ever physically being together.

However, the move to the digital space in academia predates the pandemic and it will continue long after. Although, the pandemic has thrust a spotlight on technology as academic institutions find new ways to use adapt learning programs and improve on the already existing online services. We are quickly approaching the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and while the term ‘new normal’ has been tossed around frequently, many of us find ourselves disheartened by the new modes of existing that we still find ourselves relying on. We graduate attachés are not above complaining – in a non-pandemic world, we would love to be in Nairobi enjoying working and being together at the BIEA. But we find ourselves in a world where the email chains grow ever longer, and the online meetings grow ever more impersonal and tedious – who would have ever thought the words ‘video call’ could simultaneously trigger such a sense of dread and exhaustion? Nevertheless, these experiences have allowed us to reflect on the digital space and what it provides because despite our wishes to be in Kenya, the digital space is touted as a strong point of access to academia, an assertion that will be interrogated in this blog post.

In academia, we often discuss who is in the room. A discussion and the conclusions reached in that discussion are largely dependent on the individuals inhabiting the space. The breadth of possibility for who can occupy these rooms is expanded in the digital space. The BIEA’s weekly reading group is a prime example of this. We meet each week with a group that is, at the minimum, physically situated in at least four different countries. From Kenya, Cameroon, France and the United Kingdom, we are able to come together for an hour and a half in a Zoom meeting room and share our thoughts (somewhat ironically given our inability to travel) on the book Travelling While Black by Nanjala Nyabola. But also, with different geographic locations comes different experiences, memories, and cultures. Now imagine all those individuals building an opinion on the same book and having the opportunity/ access to share it with one another. It sounds chaotic but it’s really like learning and travelling without leaving your couch. Honestly, that’s probably why they get exhausting, it’s the new version of Jetlag.

Similarly, online conferences allow all qualified and keen academics to participate, whereas in-person attendance could limit participants on account of financial or visa issues. Hence in-person conferences oftentimes amplify the voices of academics with strong passports and diminish those with weak passports. One does not need a visa to travel to a digital conference, and thus the conference proves to be more accessible and most likely richer in content and personnel. Similarly, the audience for academic talks and conferences can be increased and diversified as well. Academia is notoriously inaccessible, in both the literal and figurative sense. By hosting these talks and conferences online, more individuals can attend, thus making academia and the issues being discussed more accessible.

This is not to say that the digital space eliminates all obstacles to academic learning and teaching. The same way in which online platforms grant access by eliminating visa requirements, they also come with restrictions of their own. For starters, access to online platforms is limited to individuals who already have access to technology such as computers, smartphones, internet and electricity. Even for some who do have access to technology, digital platforms are not available to users in their native languages creating the impression that these platforms are only meant for the literate. Respondents of a study conducted in rural Zambia for example reported that they felt too intimidated to open Facebook accounts because they thought it was only meant for individuals who could speak English. This creates a gap between the number of people who would like to use online platforms and who actually have access to these platforms.

Then, there is the issue of separating professional and domestic spheres that comes with working remotely. This lack of separation can be extremely difficult for those who have obligations at home, in particular women who oftentimes have the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities. Even if one is capable of logging in, it is not truly academic access if the individual has children who need help with homework, dinner that must be cooked or family members that need assistance. It is one thing to be able to log in; it is another to be present in that digital space. Access must be thought of as the latter.

In addition, meeting online rather than in-person can lead to a loss of enrichment or networking opportunities that traditionally can create points of entry and future opportunities. Hence, the online mode can limit access in the broader sense. Oftentimes, the onus is placed on individuals to be more active in their networking rather than it occurring organically. Organisers of these online events must be cognizant of this and specific measures must be taken to facilitate engagement between attendees.

The pandemic emphasised the importance of having a robust online space for academia. The growth of the digital academic space has been expedited, and although we hope that things will eventually allow us to all be physically together again, online learning is here to stay. It has allowed institutions, instructors and students to remain resilient and continue with their learning missions despite the closing of classrooms. Nevertheless, online learning does come with its own limitations. As we have explored in this blog not everyone that needs or wants to always has full access to the online room – at least not yet. However, as we continue to learn and adapt in the digital space, it is crucial to keep the concept of access at the centre of the structure of programmes and initiatives. Academia only becomes richer when we increase the breadth of people who can access and participate in it.

BIEA Graduate Attachés (in the July–September 2021 cohort):

Author details:

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Managing for the yet-to-come: Yesterday’s and today’s Ancestors

by Mwangi Mwaũra

The essay was published by The Peter Drucker Challenge as one of the global top 15 for 2021.

I knew they were geniuses

We probably are not from the same community, but you must have heard of my ancestor’s courage in the face of an enemy (ooh yes, we are that popular!). The year was 1902, long before any of us were born. Without warning, the colonizers instituted social and economic policies which directly altered my community’s way of life. My ancestors were not pleased with this, as the ‘new normal’ of growing cash crops threatened the very fabric our society was built on: communal living. With limited resources, my people put their trust in what they knew best, traditional, and spiritual solutions.

By using the ‘war medicine’—a mixture of water, castor oil and millet seeds—they believed they had the power to defeat the new enemy and his weapons. When applied to the body, this medicine was believed to transform German bullets into water. The use of the war medicine brought my ancestors together, showing how a shared form of knowledge gave them courage when fighting an unknown enemy with unknown powers. The unification was even broader, as they shared the liquid with our neighbours in the spirit of Ubuntu bringing different communities together against the common enemy. The leader of these ancestors of mine had had a revelation through a dream that East Africa was meant to save the world from colonialism. This would symbolically be called the ‘Maji Maji’ Rebellion—‘maji’ being Swahili for watery war medicine. Although this battle would eventually become increasingly lost for my people, the culture of the united rebellion prepared us for the current enemy: coronavirus.

Appreciating the geniuses, the ancestors were, I hereby seek to analyze the current global crisis through their spirit. The essay reflects how the pandemic has radically changed ‘normal’ ways of doing things while drawing lessons of unity in the panic—the Ubuntu spirit. I lay context on management through the Ubuntu spirit, by analyzing how a social science research institute has effectively managed within the tumultuous disruption of the crisis. I then take pride in the global citizenship status of the youths and position them as well-suited descendants ready to take up management mantles.

It’s a pandemic…

After weeks of watching in shock and disbelief at the so-called ‘first world’ being crippled by the novel virus, our president confirmed the first case of the virus in our territory in March 2020. Trying to explain the anxiety and fear which grappled us would be the same as explaining the undocumented fear that the people outside the biblical Noah’s Ark felt as the waters submerged them to death. Both the private and public sector were sent into turmoil. Managers made fast and radical decisions with little to no clear information on what could save their organizations.

As an undergraduate volunteer and a junior researcher at a renowned research institute, I thought I had done my part of familiarizing myself with the ‘ways’ of the virus through watching the international cable news updates almost on an hourly basis. I knew that the work the institute carries out in the Social Sciences and Humanities would be critical in documenting the daily livelihoods of people during a pandemic and was sure that this would allow us to continue working from the office as the social and productive fabric of our work.

After the presidential announcement on a Friday, the country director of the institute—who is not one to panic and whose management and leadership skills I can only term as both inborn traits and acquired through training and experience—sent us all emails detailing some precautions we should all adhere to both at work and at home during the weekend. Come Monday, we would convene for a meeting where the three institute directors positioned between Nairobi and London decided we should all work from home. Responding to reality, not society expectations, the management had assessed the situation and cancelled many of the upcoming events, despite public pleading that some —like the annual lecture hosting renowned poet and scholar Prof. Micere Mugo—take place. By doing so the management thought critically like doctors who Drucker (2008) applauded as clear thinkers.

Lessons from our past

The virus started as a simple cough—one that the world thought a junior medical student could treat—but became a public health emergency of international concern in late January, and a global pandemic in mid-March. Following the confirmation of Kenya’s ‘patient zero,’ we all went into panic mode. We had watched from afar as the virus permeated the global north like the proverbial wildfire in the desert. We all rushed to empty the supermarkets of toilet paper, sanitizers, and the few groceries we could afford. As the saying goes, ‘monkey see, monkey do.’

In the international arena, all eyes were focused on the medical researchers whose optimism fixated on the hope of finding a vaccine soon. In the meantime, our neighbours from Madagascar— borrowing a leaf from my ancestors—confidently developed a herbal concoction and, in the same Ubuntu spirit, shared their ‘Maji Maji’ medicine with us and other regions of Africa. The same doubts channeled towards my ancestors’ war medicine were repeated by international bodies advising against the consumption of the Madagascar herbal ‘war medicine.’ But with the fear accompanying this crisis, the concoction was a relief most of us were ready to believe in.

With time, vaccines were developed. Yet beyond our fantasy of global unity and solidarity, the scramble for vaccine supply by countries around the world could arguably surpass the 1884-1885 scramble for Africa. To cite Nanjala Nyabola (2021), vaccine nationalism is not only patently unjust but also dehumanizing to us in the Global South. As we continue to wait for the scrapings after the rich countries have had their fill, our ‘Maji Maji’ concoctions of lemon, ginger and honey continue to be diligently cooked up in most homes and—guided by our ancestor’s precedent—we face the new world ‘colonizer’ head on in this battle.

Ticking Drucker’s boxes

Observing the institute’s management of the crisis reveals that the revolutionary thoughts by the father of modern management, Peter Drucker, is no longer a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness. Like in most workplaces, radical changes had to be instituted for the survival of both the organization and its ongoing projects. The changes, as discussed in this section, affirm Drucker’s provision that organizations in the 21st century would only survive in a different form than we traditionally know them (The Economist, 2001).

In Drucker’s (2001) words, “to survive, organizations require an ethos of imagination, exploration, experiment and discovery”. At the institute, most of the projects and programs were adjusted and relocated into the ‘new’ online world of Zoom. The traditionally held annual lecture and dinner gala—whose postponement had led to so much emotionally charged opposition—was held later and under a new theme “Africa and the Global Outbreak Narrative” (Batour and Burnett, 2021), with only virtual glass cheers to signify the traditional cocktails.

Organizational success in this century also depends on managers’ commitments to make positive impacts in the world (Drucker, 1986). At the institute, the mission of building quality social science researchers is now achieved in virtual spaces. A weekly PhD forum and reading group meets virtually, gathering the members to discuss their field research and analyzing key text on Africa. The positive feedback from the members in the Zoom chats and on our common WhatsApp group continues to inspire the management team as it affirms their Drucker’s (1986) traits that “leadership and management is the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond its normal limitations”.

Drucker (1986) in the same breath argues that management tasks, responsibilities, and practices exist for the sake of society. In the face of social inequalities being exacerbated and becoming increasingly apparent globally during the pandemic, the institute organized workshops and panel discussions on racism in the context of Black Lives Matters activism and protests around the globe. This timely unity shows the management belief in the Ubuntu spirit that my ancestors stood by. It also shows a management led by a ‘people first’ belief that has been evident all through. This also ticks Drucker’s ‘proverbial’ three dimensions of the 21st corporation: economic organization, human organization, and a social organization (The Economist, 2001).

With the staff working virtually, programs such as the Graduate Attachment Scheme, that I am currently contracted on, have also been held remotely. Management of the program has been on ‘Management by Objectives’ (MBO) formulated by Drucker (1954). With weekly check-ins we divide tasks in a democratic manner which allows us all to grow together as we achieve the goals and objectives of our different projects. In The Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959) Drucker further argues that the most valuable asset for the 21st Century would be its knowledge workers. This has been evident in the diverse ways the Information and Communication personnel at the organization has had to step in facilitating and coordinating the countless Zoom and Skype sessions.

The above breakdown depicts how the institute responded effectively to the crisis. From the breakdown the strategies taken orient around a continuous mission of connecting the institute with its community which I argue is in the Ubuntu spirit that my ancestors and my community is built on. This affirms that management is a social function and therefore both socially accountable and culturally embedded (Drucker, 1986). The Ubuntu philosophy as analyzed in the next section not only connects people from the same community but also allows them to connect with other actors as it champions for humanness. The philosophy when well inculcated in the fabric of different organizations saves them when at what I call a ‘hard rock’- between a rock and hard place- like the current pandemic.

Relieving through humaneness and the Ubuntu spirit

The spirit of Ubuntu champions for interconnectedness, its literal meaning being, ‘in existence with and through others’ (Guma, 2013). This philosophy has been the backbone of not just my community but strands of it can be found in almost all the other over three hundred subethnic groups that use variations of Bantu languages on the African continent. For example, in the isiZulu maxim ‘Unmuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu,’ translated as ‘I am because you are, and you are because we are’; or the Sesotho expression ‘Batho pele’ which means ‘people first’ (Guma, 2013).

The spirit calls for good humanness from all entities in the society including organizations. It further challenges organizations to ‘put people first’ in management, an aspect of management that has been crucial in the current pandemic that saw massive job losses amidst several other anxieties cutting all aspects of human livelihood. For an organization to put its people first, the management must have been able to connect with them to a level that has allowed them to live socially. This means the management understands the social needs of the employees and its clients at various times and in different circumstances including and more so during an international crisis.

For the yet-to-come: Youth as today’s ancestors

In a world of constant distractions by the pandemic and its daily crises, online presence has become a superpower. We, the youth, as digital natives, have fortunately immersed ourselves in this world juggling more than five social media platforms while our parents continue to struggle with sending WhatsApp voice notes. Keyboard ‘warriors’ continue to win and lose battles in this online world where activism, learning and even stupidity has found a place. As earlier quoted Drucker categorically stated “the most valuable asset for the 21st Century would be its knowledge workers” most of them being workers well versed with the online world.

For us, our ‘Maji Maji’ solution is this positioning which is paramount in the current digital and information driven world. Contextually we have much of our schoolwork encompassing information and communication courses and devices. With globalization we have become global citizens, thus increasing the number of ancestors we can claim lineage to. That is to say, we have Peter Drucker as our ancestor which makes our ‘Maji Maji’ war medicine stronger and more efficient as managers. Having said that, we refuse the narrative of ‘we are the leaders of tomorrow’ by proclaiming that tomorrow is already here with us.



Batour, J & Burnett, E. (2021). BIEA Annual Lecture: Africa and the Global Outbreak Narrative: narrative/

Drucker, F. P. (2008). Managing oneself. Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Drucker, F. P. (1954). The Practice of Management. New York: HarperCollins.

Drucker F.P., (1986). Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Truman Talley Books/E.P. Dutton: New York.

Drucker F.P. (1959). The Landmarks of Tomorrow. New York, Harper.

Guma, K. P. (2013). Revisiting the Phenomenon of Organizational Management: African Art, and why it Matters. 2013 Drucker Challenge Contest. The_article_68046174.pdf

Nyabola, N. (2021). Vaccine Nationalism is Patently Unjust. The Nation. The Economist. (2001). Will the Corporation Survive?

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Decolonizing Academia via Zoom? – The BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme in Times of COVID-19

by: Hannah Schild & Lewis Mwaura

The twelve participants of the 2020/21 Graduate Attachment scheme in 
conversation with Prof. Gabrielle Lynch, Dr. Freda Nkirote and 
Dr. Prince Guma of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, August 2020.

How do I angle my screen to avoid my interlocutors getting too much of an insight into the private sphere of my room? Which wall or piece of furniture in my home is neutral enough to serve as a ‘professional’ background in a first session with a BIEA supervisor? Will my internet connection hold while moderating a group session or freeze me with an awkward to potentially embarrassing facial expression mid-call? And how do I prevent roommates, partners, parents, kids (or cats) from suddenly popping up in the background (or foreground!) of an important presentation? 

Some of these questions will be all too familiar for those of us working and learning in the ‘Zoom-iverse’ of the ongoing pandemic which (amongst others) has fundamentally changed the structure and course of the BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme (GAS) that we were a part of in 2020/2021. It is clear that our experiences as attachés were radically different from those of our predecessors having taken part in the programme in previous years (Oh, the jealousy of reading about hands-on archeological fieldwork or real, in-person events!). But despite the faint disappointment about, and the occasional strain of, conducting research (for the most part) from behind our computer screens (or with considerable hurdles on site in Nairobi or Kampala), and regardless of the fact of only ‘knowing’ each other as disembodied upper bodies and (pixelated, and yes, at times, frozen) faces, we also came to appreciate some aspects of our virtual GAS experience.

There certainly were many more opportunities to connect with members of the different attaché cohorts (there were three in total this time around) or to take part in the numerous activities of the institute and its affiliated researchers. Many of our thought-provoking debates literally took place across the globe; the weekly BIEA reading group in which we shared and listened to insights from Bukinghamshire to Ajmer, India, or from Bavaria to Nairobi is a perfect example for these exciting dynamics. The fact that this group and other formats offered by the BIEA could be joined from the comforts of one’s home – or even ‘on the go’ at times – did do away with some of the obstacles of joining conversations and making one’s voice heard at eye level with each other.

Debating the issue of the decolonization of knowledge production and academia within our cohort in preparation for the first part of this blog series, we asked ourselves whether these positive aspects of the virtual format of this year’s Graduate Attachment Scheme could in fact offer a building block within the ongoing project of challenging power structures in academia. Could online reading groups, group discussions and research forums become platforms for a true plurality of voices?

There certainly is some promise in virtual formats in this respect. Next to the reading group this also became apparent to us during the Completion Series seminar organized in February by some of our fellow attachés, which demonstrated the power of diversity and interdisciplinarity within the community of young researchers interested in Eastern Africa that had built over the past months: topics as diverse as digital archaeology along the Swahili Coast, the impact of financial technology in Abuja, social media and the recent elections in Uganda, pineapple waste composting, and educational aspirations in Dadaab – projects which were carried out online for the most part and had rich cross-connections to issues like digitalization and technology –  and the ensuing lively Zoom discussion were great examples of the potential of online collaboration, global communication and the opportunities these provide for a ‘true’ and more equal co-production of knowledge.

Still, access to reliable, inexpensive internet connections, to high-quality scholarly literature in digital formats, or to chances to submit one’s work to distinguished scientific journals, remains highly unequal even in our digital age. This of course continues to reinforce the same old patterns of ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ in academic knowledge production, cementing the roles of passive knowledge ‘consumers’ and active knowledge ‘extractors’ along the North-South hierarchy. No matter how heart-warming and inspiring it can be to see a group of diverse faces and listen to a multiplicity of voices via Zoom or in other digital forums, it remains important to ask the hard question of whether everyone joins these conversations on an equal footing.

So, all in all, the answer to the question whether the virtual BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme 2020/2021 could serve as a model in the struggle of decolonizing academia, is probably yes and no. As often, a new and exciting tool or technology can only be as transformative as the overall context and structures it exists in let it be. As long as North-South hierarchies and global inequalities remain, online or hybrid formats in academic conversations can only be a tiny ‘chisel’ chipping away at Eurocentrism and colonial structures. But after all, maybe some of the hard conversations we need to have will be less difficult if we have them while wearing comfortable pants!

The authors of this piece would also like to thank their fellow Graduate Attachés Ed and Shuaib for sharing some of their valuable insights about the program with them.

Hannah Schild graduated from the Research Master in African Studies from Leiden University (Netherlands) in 2020 and is currently working to develop a PhD proposal at the University of Bayreuth. Her research interests include the intersections between gender, parenthood, kinship and coping with uncertainty, which she had a chance to further delve into during her time at the BIEA.

Lewis M. Mwaura recently finished his BA course work in International Relations where he majored in International Development. He describes himself as an urban imaginer and his current research at the BIEA focuses on Community Justice Systems in informal urban settlements around Nairobi.

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The BIEA Graduate Scheme: A Trial of Inclusive and Alternate Methods of Knowledge Production

by: Beth Hermaszewska & Sakshi Agarwal

As we embarked on the Graduate Attachment Scheme with the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) at the start of this year, we anticipated being involved in interdisciplinary research and colleagues spanning continents. Unsurprisingly, our cohort was made up of students from various disciplines, countries, and perspectives. This month we came together to discuss ‘How to Write About Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina (Wainaina, 2019) in our weekly reading group. A satirical, unpretentious, frank, explosive, and erudite piece which shifted our perspectives as we explored it. It made us all wonder about the ways in which we had all incorporated at least one stereotype in our own lives and writing. It also reminded us of the known ways in which scholars, institutions, research papers, and media platforms subscribe to the neo-colonial biases and perspectives when writing about Africa.

This initial discussion has inspired our cohort to think more and undertake research into our various disciplines’ efforts in decolonisation and the nature of knowledge production. Are we stuck in a hegemony of Eurocentric perspectives and ideologies which repeatedly exclude indigenous and non-western ways of knowing from the metaphorical table? A starting point could be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s suggestion that we should reconsider the sources from which we get our knowledge and sensitize ourselves to the need for bringing in alternative means for knowledge production (Ted, 2009).

In every power structure and institution that governs social, political and economic lives of the world the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised has endured.

‘During the last 520 years of the “European/Euro-North-American capitalist/patriarchal modern/colonial world-system” we went from “convert to Christianity or I’ll kill you” in the 16th century, to “civilize or I’ll kill you” in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “develop or I’ll kill you” in the 20th century, and more recently, the “democratize or I’ll kill you” at the beginning of the 21st century.’ (Grosfoguel 2017: 158).

In academia this dynamic of ‘giver’ and ‘taker’ has continued in the formation of discourses that are bound by a single trajectory framework of knowledge production. Such work is seen as necessary because colonisers deconstructed the worlds they occupied and forced them into one unified philosophical and ontological system of knowledge production and exchange. Within this system knowledge was considered scientific and philosophical, outside of it knowledge was belittled as plebian or indigenous (Santos 2007). This is the system from which our modern disciplines, research methods, academic institutions and understandings of knowledge have developed. As an antidote, decolonization offers a process that goes beyond formal political independence and forces people, including academics, to rethink, reimagine, and reshape the structures and systems of knowledge production.(Ndlovu-Gatsheni, n.d.) The concept of plurality encourages linkages, dialogue, and respect amongst different disciplines, voices and ways of knowing.

Exposure, through the BIEA, to researchers based in East Africa experimenting with innovative research methods has helped us begin to do this. One of the popular narratives that has come out of the decolonisation movement in the social sciences is the concept of the ‘pluriverse’. Arturo Escobar argues that rather than a ‘universe’, the world is a ‘pluriverse’ which includes all the different voices and viewpoints the world’s communities produce. It encourages scholars and activists to address their academia’s responsibilities for the damage to cultural, epistemological, and ontological resources of the countries not occupying the Global North, during and after the colonial regimes ended (Escobar, 2012; Sundberg, 2014). This effort of decolonising academic research and knowledge production is prominent in universities, a space where transformative and informative work is possible and contributes to a reimagining of what we mean by knowledge, what we know, and how we know it (Tuck and Yang, n.d.). This includes challenging the trends of Westernization and modernization in education which has conditioned the curricula to reflect a dynamic of ‘The West and the Rest’ (Hall, 1992).

When the world is seen from an understanding that African modernity and knowledge production, sources, and perspectives differ from their Eurocentric counterparts, it heralds a new system for understanding philosophies. The academic space, with this awareness, becomes fueled with a hybridity of influences and a deeper appreciation of the differences that need to be respected, evaluated and used to create a world that is inclusive, expressive, and dynamic (Osman Zein-Elabdin, 2011).

An important question is: what is required to change in order to usher in a new age of research and knowledge production in which everyone is heard and given the credit they deserve for the context, scope and achievement of their work?(Hutchings, 2019) Considering this as Attachés to the BIEA we have investigated how we can be part of this movement of decolonisation. The key questions that tease and provoke us are: How are the current universities and institutions like the BIEA contributing to this process? What is at stake for the scholars in this movement? What are the implications of a decolonized academia on the systems that are currently in place? And how can we contribute?


Escobar, A., 2012. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press.

Grosfoguel, R., 2017. Decolonizing western universalisms: Decolonial pluri-versalism from Aime Cesaire to the Zapatistas. In: Paraskeva, JM (ed.) Towards a Just Curriculum Theory: The Epistemicide. New York: Routledge, pp. 147–164.

Hall, S., 1992. The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power

Hutchings, K., 2019. Decolonizing Global Ethics: Thinking with the Pluriverse. Ethics Int. Aff. 33, 115–125.

Kebede, M., 2011. African Development and the Primacy of Mental Decolonisation, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J., n.d. Discourses of Decolonization/Decoloniality 28.

Osha, S., 2011. Appraising Africa: Modernity, Decolonisation and Globalisation, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA.

Osman Zein-Elabdin, E., 2011. Postcoloniality and Development: Development as a Colonial Discourse, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA.

Santos, B., 2007. Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of. Review. 30.

Sundberg, J., 2014. Decolonizing posthumanist geographies. Cult. Geogr. 21, 33–47.

Ted, 2009. Dangers of a Single Story.

Available at: [Accessed 13 March 2021].

Tuck, E., Yang, K.W., n.d. Decolonization is not a metaphor 40.

Wainaina, B., 2019. How to Write About Africa. Granta, [online] (92). Available at: [Accessed 13 March 2021].

Beth Hermaszewska graduated with a first class BA in Human, Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge 2020. Since joining the BIEA, her research has focussed on Kenya’s 2011-2012 Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission and how justice was articulated by witnesses. She is an aspiring lawyer and will begin her legal studies in September 2021 at the University of the City of London.

Sakshi Agarwal recently finished her postgraduate MSc in Global Prosperity from University College London. Passionate about philosophy, social service, literature, and history, her research with the BIEA focuses on indigenous knowledge production and its implications with regards to envisioning a pluralist society.

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Remedying African research institutions’ challenges to knowledge production: some reflections and proposals

by Abdikadir Bare Abikar, Ed Burnett, Emmanuel Hanyabui, Shuaib Jalal-Eddeen, and Kamugisha Allan Kabahweza (the second cohort of BIEA graduate attachés for the 2020-2021 academic year)

The growing relevance of knowledge creation and “human capital” in contemporary development cannot be overemphasized. African centres of learning have a crucial role in the continent’s future success. Yet, compared with their counterparts elsewhere, African institutions tend to lag. This blog post presents a few of our thoughts on two issues. First, some of the challenges faced by African institutions in the context of knowledge creation and human capital development. And second, suggestions on how African institutions can be better positioned to improve their capacities, for the betterment of the continent.

One challenge African universities face in knowledge production is a lack of confidence. Lecturers are often not convinced of their own knowledge, since African education systems have frequently been centred on “question and answer” systems. These systems, originating in colonial education schemes, have led many African countries to focus purely on teaching rote facts. Similarly, many students are in school purely because their parents have told them to acquire white-collar jobs, and do not want to think beyond passing exams.

Indeed, most African universities themselves exist primarily for profit. Thus, they arguably cannot be considered “research universities” at all. So questions remain about: Who should think of what the continent needs? What kind of people should African countries produce to better themselves, rather than for mere extraction of natural resources?  Through Western nations’ involvement, universities tend to be built for business rather than shaping future generations.


Because neither universities nor societal guardians are motivated to let students think creatively, knowledge production is greatly dampened. Many educational institutions in Africa correspondingly lack education in critical thinking. Yet, critical thinking is key for encouraging creativity and the production of new knowledge rather than mere recital. In Uganda, for instance, there have been numerous calls to focus the curriculum towards producing job creators rather than job seekers.

Likewise, even where critical thinking is taught, education systems are often purely theoretical rather than practically based: academic institutions in Africa produce graduates in large numbers every year with no practical and ICT skills to solve development-related problems. Inadequate qualified personnel in institutions, lack of ICT facilities or infrastructure, and unavailability of networking are all among the serious challenges hindering African graduates’ training. The ultimate consequence is that talented young graduates cannot develop their potential without practical or critical thinking skills.

Moreover, any beneficial schemes attempting to change African research institutions frequently originate from former colonial nations, maintaining a stronger voice over methods of study and so on. This greatly affects Africa’s reliance in knowledge production. However, merely replicating these preexisting teaching programs is a flawed concept. It reduces researchers’ creativity. In contrast, each institution needs its own research structure, one that could consider the most immediate and important demands and needs in the country or region that it resides.

External influence can sometimes be damaging, as can be seen attempts aimed at examining the state of academic archaeology and heritage within Africa. Dr Sada Mire’s recent article in the Guardian outlines this situation particularly well. Mire notes that cultural heritage is an essential part of human existence, yet its production and maintenance so often fall within external, Western institutions. There have been improvements with, for instance, several editors of related journals now based on the continent. However, outside voices still dominate the study of Africa’s past. The same is the case with archaeology as a whole. Voices tend to predominantly be white, straight, and male. Aside from this situation’s base injustice, this creates issues of inaccurate recording. As Mire discusses, researchers from diverse backgrounds ask diverse questions, and those who have been brought up among the culture whose past is being studied are more likely to ask insightful ones.

Because of these and countless other challenges, many African research institutions face comparatively poor educational outcomes and research output – and, perhaps even more importantly, those instances of truly excellent teaching and research are often sidelined or outright ignored. In short: something needs to change.

So, what can be done to remedy this situation? The most straightforward change would be in institutions’ fundamental objectives and curricula, as outlined above. But this would naturally be extremely difficult, considering how deep-seated these problems are. A more specific way to improve African institutions’ research capacity, contrastingly, is through endowments. Endowments are financial assets donated to academic institutions to support their teaching, research, and public service missions. This could free up researchers’ resources, allowing them to study those areas they deem important and interesting for wider society—not just those that promise more money. Key performance indicators (KPIs)—for instance, publishing in an international journal or engaging a minimum number of PhD students—could be used as a baseline for accessing this privilege. Apart from the clear benefit to the recipients, endowments can improve the sponsoring firm’s reputation, too.

When considering the aforementioned issues with external funding bodies and researchers holding sway over African research institutions, simply raising awareness about the extent of this problem provides one means of fighting back, where more tangible actions are impossible. All researchers working in Africa must discuss these injustices and work towards ending the treatment of Africa as a source of knowledge rather than an equal part in creating it. The Society of Black Archaeologists (while US-based) is one excellent organization providing this sort of essential work, among many others.

Finally, technology provides one key means that African research institutions could focus on the more practical, creative aspects of education. However, this must not be simplistic, but should incorporate more complex technological tools and other smart devices. An education system that only prides itself on students’ ability to surf the internet and use technological gadgets at ease is not enough. Instead, we need education and training systems that produce graduates who can better invent technology, from agriculture and fishery machinery to computers and robotics. Research institutions within Africa need to grow and develop. Such objectives should hopefully help make this happen.

Abdikadir Bare Abikar is a passionate educator with 8.5 years of experience in multicultural classrooms at the primary, secondary, and university levels in Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya; indeed, UNHCR has recognised his accomplishments as an example of what education makes possible for displaced learners. He has a Masters in education and a Bachelor of liberal arts and provisional studies majoring in geography from York University, Canada.

Ed Burnett’s main academic interests lie in the archaeology of East Africa, particularly regarding geospatial analysis. Over the last year he has completed an MSc in Digital Archaeology at the University of York, in the UK, and previously carried out a BA in Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Emmanuel Hanyabui has recently finished his MPhil degree in Land Use and Environmental Science at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, after having successfully completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture at the same institution. His research interest borders on soil plant nutrition dynamics.

Shuaib Jalal-Eddeen’s research at the BIEA focuses on the everyday impact of financial technology in Nigeria. He has a BSc and MSc from the American University of Nigeria and University College London respectively.

Kamugisha Allan Kabahweza has just finished a BA in Journalism and Communication, and is now undertaking a Masters in the same subject. He is interested in Social Media Analysis, particularly in his home country of Uganda.

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BIEA Annual Lecture: Africa and the global outbreak narrative

By: Joëlle Batour and Ed Burnett

Live tweeting by Lewis Mwaura

On November 18th, the British Institute In Eastern Africa (BIEA) held their annual lecture, hosting Professor Simukai Chigudu as he gave a compelling talk on the global outbreak narrative surrounding epidemics, pandemics and the positioning of Africa in light of COVID-19. The event was chaired by Professor Dame Henrietta Moore FBA, the current director at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity and president of the BIEA. Discussions were led by Professor Ambreena Manji, professor of Land Law and Development and co-founder of the Law and Global Justice Centre at Cardiff University and the former director of the BIEA.

Professor Simukai Chigudu is an Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of St Anthony’s College. He has worked across several different disciplines, most notably in global public health and in African politics and history. He also helped found the Oxford branch of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement whilst a graduate student, campaigning to remove the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes currently displayed in front of Oriel College. Professor Chigudu has written for and been interviewed in a wide array of publications, including the Guardian, the New Statesman, the British Medical Journal, and the South African radio station 702. His book ‘The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwewas released in January 2020.

Opening with an anecdote of Guinea’s first Ebola case, Professor Chigudu recalled how Western media often claimed the ‘consumption of bushmeat’ or ‘particular religious and burial practices’ to be explanations for the Ebola outbreak, blatantly ignoring issues surrounding lack of funding and mistrust between the public and their government. Noting how these claims are a product of the global outbreak narrative, Chigudu explained how the importance of this narrative cannot be undermined: It restructures our economies, differs people’s perceptions of others and shapes public understanding of how disease work. Chigudu concludes that because of this almost omnipotent nature of the outbreak narrative, it is crucial that we see its change. Science, like countless other disciplines remain tied to colonial history and through uniting under interdisciplinary bodies, actively decolonising our research and prioritising community over capital, we will be able to progress forward.

Identifying the positions of Africa and the Global North within the outbreak narrative, Chigudu highlighted how it labels Africa to be either the primordial origin of disease or its ultimate destination. He questioned why the suffering of disease is inconceivable in one place yet inevitable in another? Africa has been illustrated as a continent that is always at risk of disease and always in need of healing, whereas the Western world is posed as the foil to this. Following the 2001 Anthrax attacks and the Bush presidency’s decision to deem bioterrorism equal to other national security threats, the narrative surrounding emerging diseases changed. Chigudu asserts that this narrative has become inseparable from the USA and capitalist military-industrial complexes as emerging diseases are no longer bound to science, but also a multi-billion business.

However, Chigudu aptly noted that the way COVID-19 has spread undermines the outbreak narrative which brands Africa to be ‘doomed’. The continent counts for 17% of the world population but only 3.5% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. Giving possible explanations of uneven population densities, government choices and young populations with possible pre-existing immunities, Chigudu remained certain that this does not mean that African governments must not remain ready. Chances of spikes are still possible, yet it is clear that the current narrative glosses over the diverse nature of the realities. Through identifying ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, the outbreak narrative gives an universal template for understanding interactions between humans and the microbial world, however things are far more complex than this. In discussions led by Professor Manji, Chigudu stressed the caution we must take when considering actions of ‘philanthro-capitalism’. He argued that it is important to be wary of organisations that are embedded in the ‘Silicon Valley imaginary’ (such as the ‘Gates and Melinda Foundation’), stating that organisations which valorise innovation and technology often avoid any local people having a stake of representation.

In all of this, Professor Chigudu made it very clear that the global outbreak narrative needs to change. Citing the work of Priscilla Wald, who claims that we should revive the outbreak narrative within the world of social justice, Chigudu asks if we can go even further. Stating how we must reflect on our past in order to move forward, Chigudu explained how germ theory emerged from the idea that microbes and humans were at war when in reality, there is no war to win. Bacteria constantly evolves through real complex processes of horizontal transmission and evolution (8% of human DNA is virus) and therefore, we must evolve with it. Thus, he argued that we must remove the narrative from a purely science domain and instead, reshape it within interdisciplinary bodies. At current, outbreak history shares a pathological connection to colonialism and therefore, we cannot view it through the single lens of science. Concluding that we cannot see epidemics and pandemics through a single ontology, Chigudu highlights how in a world where humans feel most separated, it is crucial for us to come together across disciplines in order to move forward and reimagine the global outbreak narrative.

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