Good or bad, the African university is all we have

legon1Keguro Macharia’s article “African universities crippling their students’ (The EastAfrican — December 29, 2008-January 4, 2009) pricked me. I found myself agreeing with it as much as I disagreed.

I wish to write about my own experience with universities in Kenya.

Allow me also to draw upon my experience with the Council for Development and Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria), based in Dakar, Senegal, which has been active since the early 1970s.

My everyday experience with African universities rotates around Kenyatta University where I was admitted as an undergraduate student in 1990, earned a BA in 1994 and was soon after admitted for an MA in 1995 on a staff development programme as a graduate assistant.

I earned my MA in 1997, the same year I attended the Codesria Governance Institute in Dakar. This gave me the first opportunity to network at a pan-African level.

In 1998, I applied for the Codesria African Humanities Institute tenured at the University of Ghana at Legon and at the Programme of African Studies at Northwestern University in the US.

I was selected for this programme which saw me spend the first half of 1999 in Accra, Ghana, and the second in Evanston, Illinois.

It is Codesria that made possible my initial ventures into the international academic network.

The institution has also influenced my thinking about African scholarship and universities in a way that my sojourn in the West, both in the US and UK, was unable to alter or revise.

Through my undergraduate training at Kenyatta University and through Codesria, I appreciated the existence of a vibrant community of scholars and scholarship in Africa and became convinced that the centre of knowledge production about Africa will always be in Africa.

The primary producers of this knowledge must, therefore, be Africans. They can decide to enlist the support of others, but they cannot apologise for putting the continent at the centre.

Even though Africa is the base around which my understanding of the world rotates, from 2000 to 2006, I was at Northwestern University for my graduate studies.

My stay and travels in the US confirmed the importance of Africans as primary and priority producers of their knowledge and trainers of future generations of intellectuals.

Not being assigned to read African authors in my graduate classes was a revealing omission.

If this was meant to undermine my belief in African scholarship or to convince me that there were no epistemic communities on the continent, it sharpened my enthusiasm for Africa and cemented my expectation that African universities will one day do something to rectify the situation.

Given the numerous challenges confronting our society, our universities are unlikely to match the expectations of those tenured in a US university.

I refuse to give up and insist on being part of the solution. The task of righting the wrongs in our university system needs a self-selecting group; a group that will commit, in whatever small way, to that tortuous long-term task.

Seeking refuge in Western institutions of learning is for me the easier option. This is not to say I will never take that option; it means that I will acknowledge this fact when I take that option.

“Every generation,” wrote Frantz Fanon, “must out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”

Our institutions supply enough excuses for us not to believe in our ability to discover and fulfil our mission.

The path to discovering and fulfilling our mission will forever remain stillborn if we accept all the excuses that our society provides in order to stay away from our own institutions.

I decided to overlook most of these reasons when in October 2006, I relocated with my family from Evanston to Nairobi and resumed my teaching at Kenyatta University. I know of some other colleagues who took the same decision.

In my travels in the US and the UK, I have met a number of Africans who decided to stay abroad and realise their potential. Those who belong to the universities constitute those I interact with most.

I respect their choices and, whenever possible, encourage them to use their skills for personal and collective growth.

A colleague from Nigeria at King’s College, London, has been instrumental in running a leadership programme that is extremely beneficial to mid-career African women.

She plans to relocate the programme to Kenyatta University this year. I consider her an ally in a broader struggle that will ultimately contribute to making a better world.

For some colleagues out there, however, Africa is incidental to their being and vision. It is useful only in so far as it provides the excuses for them to distance themselves from the continent.

They take the first opportunity to disparage local scholarship. They express surprise that I am still in Kenya. “How do you manage?” “Why are you still there?” “You know there are better opportunities out here?” they say. Others assume that good scholarship can only be undertaken outside Africa.

Africa is supposed to be corrupt. Its intellectuals are bankrupt of ideas and inept. If you want good scholarship, look for familiar African names in Western universities. Our local intellectual contribution is judged by where we reside.

Some will immediately proceed to list their accomplishments and conclude that they would not be where they are if they were working from a base on the continent.

The continent, their motherland, is conceived as a problem. One even counselled me recently to try publishing with Cambridge University Press instead of Zed Books because the former had a better profile and credibility.

In one stroke and never having read any of my publications, this colleague had dismissed me. He assumed that credibility and profile are value-free.

When I left Northwestern University in October 2006, I made a conscious decision to relocate back to Kenya. I had to turn my back on several beckoning job opportunities and offers for which I was qualified and was specially invited to apply.

My own department at Northwestern asked me to stay on for a while to teach the African history course since most of its Africanist faculty were proceeding on leave. Even the church members ganged up to convince my sons that it was a bad idea to return home! It did not work.

The same week I arrived home, the university lecturers went on strike. Except for a few colleagues who welcomed me back, most were surprised and others alarmed that I made such a stupid decision.

Subsequent experiences have alerted me to elements of this “stupidity” enshrined in the difficulties of teaching at a public university.

The most trying moment came in October 2008 when I won a one-month study residency at the Centre for African Studies at Oxford University to write my manuscript on Kenya —Democracy on Trial — under contract from Zed Books.

I was awarded a grant that took care of my travel and accommodation.

I asked Kenyatta University for permission to be away, which I was granted. But there was a rider. The finance officer was instructed to withhold my salary for the month and the Head of the Health Unit to suspend medical benefits to my family for a month. What a way of encouraging scholarship!

Still, it’s not yet time to give up on Kenyatta University.

True, the Internet system there, like many other universities, is slow. When the system was being put in place last year, those in charge skipped a number of offices — mine was one of them. I cannot therefore claim that I have access to a good ICT system.

The library is not conducive to advanced academic engagement. I normally use all my per diem whenever I travel abroad to buy books and access journals. I regularly pay penalty charge for excess luggage.

In fact, my MA students relied exclusively on my personal library for a course I taught on “Methods of Historical Research and Political Processes in Africa.” I hope this did not cripple them.

In teaching, I push my students beyond what is mundane. I expect something more than the unimaginative. I worry every day about being repetitive in my research topics and writing.

But I also guard against confusing postmodernist language games with intellectual sophistication. I expect students to know how to read a text, critique it and how to write well. I always warn them that learning how to write well is always a work in progress.

In class, we try to compensate for what they missed learning as undergraduates while learning what they need to know at MA level. I am sure that colleagues like Karuti Kanyinga, Frederick Wanyama, Wanjiku Khamasi, Felicia Yieke and Simala Inyani all demand the same from their students. If so, their anecdotes constitute a pattern, a pattern that gives me confidence about the possibilities at home.

Non-governmental organisations provide a useful avenue to complement my university work, not to replace it.

I was at a meeting at a Nairobi hotel that discussed sexuality. Sylvia Tamale was also there. She is by far one of the most respectable scholars and feminist activists in Africa.

Her studies on sexuality are innovative, imaginative, pioneering and rooted in Africa.

As an article of faith, I pay attention to how rooted and relevant my work ought to be in Africa and appreciate such rootedness from any scholar, African or non-African.

Tamale used her base in Makerere University to achieve this. She is a positive inspiration to many of us.

The distinction between the university and civil society is, therefore, conceptually useful but difficult to sustain in everyday life. Again Sylvia Tamale is a perfect example: Her understanding of feminism requires of us scholars to produce work of fine scholarship and use it to change gender relations in society.

Joyce Nyairo, another fine scholar, did her most illuminating work at Moi University. She is now with the Ford Foundation, supporting civil society organisations.

As for the idea that sites of knowledge production have shifted from universities and that the most vibrant production is in matatu graffiti, on street corners, in community-based theatre productions, I have two comments. First, I am yet to see an illuminating piece of serious scholarship on matatu graffiti that is not written by a thorough intellectual.

Second, I pray this claim, if indeed it is true, does not inspire more people to give up on the universities as sites of knowledge production.

The sustainability of these “alternative” sites depends very much on the willingness of donors to support them and this, as we know, is always short-term. I cannot handle the tyranny of measurable outcomes dictated by such donors. I love the “luxury” of sustained critical reflection.

In a nutshell, we must get a few more people with a little more faith in and patience with the African universities; the alternatives to the African university are so bad we shouldn’t exaggerate their prominence.

Credit: Godwin R. Murunga
Source: The East African

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