A Case For African Studies

 /  Nov. 30, 2015, midnight


The summer before matriculating at the University of Chicago, I read the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I fell in love with Adichie’s work because she illuminated the struggles and success stories of African immigrant families like my own. Seeing components of my life and identity exemplified in Ifemelu, the protagonist of Americanah, inspired me to explore my African identity in college. Unfortunately, at the University of Chicago, this isn’t an easy task. One and a half years into my academic career here, I have developed the belief that the University has a responsibility to support programs related to African affairs.

One opportunity that is unique to the University of Chicago is the ability to enroll in African Civilizations, one of many courses that fulfill the civilization studies Core requirement in the College. The University of Chicago also provides students with the opportunity to fulfill the civilizations requirement through a study abroad program. The purpose of the study abroad program is to “promote dynamic engagement beyond the classroom,” but this opportunity is seldom given to students interested in Africa, since not one of the 54 countries in Africa has an African Civilization study program. This is the problem: The African Civilization study abroad program is not in Africa. It is in Paris.

The Winter 2015 issue of The Core, a magazine published by the College, wrote an article on the most recent cohort to study African Civ in Paris. Under the title “Of Cannibals,” it gives the reader a glimpse into the classroom. While discussing the theme “France, Slavery, and Africa,” students read Robert Harms’s The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade and discussed the preconceived notions of cannibalism that  slaves had of  French slave merchants. When asked what surprised students about the reading, one African-American student commented, “It humanizes the slave merchants.”

Towards the end of the African Civilization program in Paris, there is an optional one-week trip to Senegal. The Core explained this trip in depth:

The itinerary includes downtown Dakar, the IFAN Museum of African Arts, the African Renaissance Monument, the Maison des esclaves (House of Slaves), and the beach resort town of Toubab Dialaw on the Petite Côte. Students will be hosted by Senegalese families, just as [History Professor and program leader Emily] Osborn herself was hosted when she studied for a year in Senegal as an undergrad. (There were so many strikes at the university, Osborn notes, it was nearly considered an année blanche, a year off. Nonetheless she became highly proficient in the local language, Wolof.)”

The one-week trip to Senegal gets to the very core of why the African Civ program should be in an African country. Students deserve to have the same experiences that Professor Osborn had when she studied in Senegal, to immerse oneself in the culture they are studying.

Why, then, is the bulk of the two-month program located in Europe? One explanation is the existence of a UChicago Center in Paris. Another reason is the faculty. Due to the lack of an African Studies department, center, or graduate program, the African Civilizations program is administered primarily by a limited number of faculty. The two faculty members who focus most heavily on African affairs are Professor Emily Osborn and Professor Jennifer Cole. Professor Cole is a cultural anthropologist in the Comparative Human Development department. Her research focuses on Africa—specifically the island of Madagascar and the legacy of its colonial and postcolonial encounter with France. Professor Osborn concentrates on African history, francophone Africa, gender in Africa, colonialism, and technology transfer and diffusion. Both professors have research interests related to France, a logical explanation for why the African Civilizations program is in Paris.

When I asked Professor Osborn what is was like to teach African Civilizations in Paris, she quoted a merchant she met on the streets of Paris, who said “all of Africa is in Paris.” While Professor Osborn recognizes the concerns I have expressed about the location of the African Civilizations program, she suggested in our interview that a preferable solution would be to have more faculty members that specialize in African affairs.

From the information I gathered, the issue of African Civ in Europe is a recent one. According to study abroad program information from the 2011-2012 academic year, the University once offered African Civ in Capetown, South Africa. This program was lead by Dr. Jean Comaroff, who was a Bernard E. & Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences while she was at the University of Chicago. In 2012, she accepted a position at Harvard University. When Dr. Comaroff left the University of Chicago, so did the African Civ program in South Africa. Faculty members play a crucial role in the enrichment and sustainability of a study abroad program in Africa: Dr. Comaroff had research interests and thus contacts in South Africa that not only sustained the program, but made it more enriching for students. When asked to comment on the issue of African Civ, she told the Gate in an email that “the option in South Africa ceased, I think, because we had been the only faculty willing and available to teach it.”

The importance of faculty members in study abroad programs suggests that the African Civ sequence not only needs to be taught in an African country, but by African professors. The necessity of having African professors leading the study of their own history and culture can be found in the current state of “African Studies” at UChicago. It is currently a committee—not an academic department or center on campus—that includes very few African  professors. One consequence of this limitation can be seen on the study abroad website for the African Civilizations program:


(A screenshot taken on November 4th, 2015 from the Study Abroad website )


“Why Study Africa in Paris?” the website asks. “Today, as Africa becomes increasingly poor and more former colonial subjects seek to move to the French metropole, French and African futures grow ever more deeply intertwined.”

The rhetoric of poverty and colonialism displayed by this website, and the displacement of African studies from Africa, encourages a continued "otherness" of Africa from the rest of the 'Western” world. It assumes what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story phenomenon” of Africa: a single narrative that has been told by predominantly Western media outlets which frames the entire continent as a disillusioned place of poverty in need of saving by wealthy developed countries. On the contrary, as Adichie noted in her famous 2009 TED Talk, “when we reject the ‘single story,’ when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” The only way of moving forward is to replace the “poor, colonial subject” mentality embedded in Western higher education and featured on UChicago’s Study Abroad website. After expressing my deep concern to Sarah Walter, the associate dean of international education, the website was changed. In an email, Dean Walter apologized for the language.

For students interested in studying abroad in Africa, summer is another option. Currently, the university offers the African Studies Research Grant, which supports travels to the continent for  BA research topics focusing on Africa. Once again, let’s look at the current state of the website:


(Screenshot of the Study Abroad website taken on November 16th, 2015)

54 countries, 1.1 billion people, and countless cultural sites, but instead the University of Chicago website suggests  animals are all you’ll see when you travel to the continent. While Africa’s wildlife is breathtaking and unique, it is not the focus for students interested in African civilizations. The continued emphasis of the African continent as a wild and undeveloped place furthers a narrative which trivializes its political, civil, and social problems. And we are able to buy into this trope most effectively when we do not study abroad and see it firsthand.

After examining the African Civ in Paris program, I decided that I can not in good conscience participate in the program, and have searched for other options. There is a Botswana program, which is the successor to an earlier Tanzania program and has a focus on southern development and ecology. This program’s focus on science holds limited appeal for those interested in other subjects pertaining to Africa. However, the University made sure to include on the website that the University of Botswana is a “modern and equipped institution.” Language such as this makes me wonder who questioned whether or not the University of Botswana is capable of operating at “modern” standards.

The other option I found was to enroll in a study abroad program on the continent run by  an outside institution. This would require a student to take a leave of absence, with no guarantee that the classes taken through the outside program would count towards their major requirements. Options like this are not only financial burdens, but can also delay graduation. What does it mean when a student has to leave the University of Chicago and temporarily attend another university to comprehensively study the continent of Africa? Shiro Wachira, a fourth year in the College, wrote to me about  her experience with this problem. “It was not easy to find a program that would complement rather than disrupt my UChicago education,” Wachira says. “Were it not so personally important for me to shift my academic focus more towards Africa, I would probably have given up much sooner.”

Beyond the moral and intellectual challenges of studying Africa while in Paris, a study abroad program there starves African economies of much-needed resources. When a wealthy and prestigious American university such as the University of Chicago conducts a study abroad program in Paris, it invests its resources in the French economy. The Paris program fee is $4500 dollars. The average UChicago student studying in Paris spends $200-250 dollars per week on meals and incidentals. The Study Abroad office even gives the following warning to students:

Bear in mind that the cost of living in Paris is relatively high and that, while it is possible to live frugally, it is also possible to run short of money if you are unwary. It is therefore essential that you budget your funds prudently, apportioning your resources so that they last for the duration of the program.”

UChicago students, learning about African civilizations, invest large amounts of money into France, a country that colonized about 30 percent of Africa. This is fundamentally problematic. The University of Chicago needs to invest its time, money, and resources into an African country. The economies of former French colonies, such as Senegal and Togo, are far less developed than France’s. Hosting the African Civilizations program in Africa would bring business to developing economies, instead of Paris, a hub for the global economy. Although the standard of living differs between France and a majority of African countries, imagine if 20 students and three faculty members spent $200-$250 dollars a week in Dakar, Senegal. They would invest about $4,600-$5,750 into the local economy per week. For one quarter (about ten weeks), about $46,000-$57,500 would be spent on food and incidentals alone!

Instead of bringing these benefits to Africa, we perpetuate the unfortunate truth that many francophone African countries are still economically dependent on France. How can we, as students interested in African civilization, learn in good conscience, while perpetuating this phenomenon by choosing to invest in France and not the francophone African countries? In Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a required reading in Power, Identity, and Resistance,this issue of economic dependency is addressed:

“The Conference of Berlin was able to carve up a mutilated Africa among three or four European flags. Currently, the issue is not whether an African region is under French or Belgian sovereignty, but whether the economic zones are safeguarded. Artillery shelling and scorched earth policy has been replaced by an economic dependency.”

Fanon’s analysis of postcolonial Africa is still relevant today. The University of Chicago made Fanon a required reading for a reason; the University may want to heed his criticism and remove African Civ from Paris.

Furthermore, there actually does exist a Civ program in Africa—just not African Civ itself. Middle Eastern Civilization has a program located in Morocco. Previously, Middle Eastern Civ was located in Egypt—but due to safety concerns, the program was moved elsewhere. According to the Study Abroad office, a lot of thought was put into the decision to move the program:

Following the recommendation of the Middle Eastern Civilizations program faculty and the Chair of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, as convened by Dean of the College John Boyer, the location of the Winter 2016 and Winter 2017 Middle Eastern Civilizations programs has been changed.”

While I do recognize that many academics group Northern African countries and Middle Eastern countries underneath the same umbrella due to the two regions’ cultural, linguistic, and historical similarities, the fact of the matter is that there is existing infrastructure in Morocco to support other programs. The University could expand the Morocco program to include African Civ and related Africa-focused programs. This could potentially be a step in the right direction.

When talking to administration about this issue over the past few weeks, I have learned to start with the greatest strength I, as a student, bring to this discussion.  I no longer begin the conversation by raising the question of whether or not African Civ should continue to be in Paris or whether or not we need study abroad programs that support study of Africa with the same respect and integrity as the other Civ courses. Instead, I begin with the essential question: “ Do I, or do I not, pay tuition at the University of Chicago?” I then proceed to discuss how my tuition is being spent for the betterment of those interested in studying Africa.

While bureaucratic circumstances that are beyond my scope as a student may surround the issue of African Civ in Paris, there is one central message I, as a tuition-paying student, want to communicate to the administration: East Asian Civ is in Asia, European Civ is in Europe, Roman Civ is in Rome, and Latin American Civ is in Latin America. It is time for African Civ to be in Africa.

The image featured in this article was taken by Luiz Gadelha Jr. The original image can be found here

Shae Omonijo