Guest blog first-year student Eline Sleurink: Africa at the forefront of ‘firsts’

blog-eline-sleurink-2This guest blog was written by Eline Sleurink, MA student African Studies at Leiden University. Eline has won the blog competition for first-year students of the (Research) Master in African Studies! The assignment was to write a blog about what is ‘African’ in African Studies and what is your motivation to study African Studies. Eline’s blog was selected by the jury as the best among the sixteen papers submitted. The jury consisted of Han van Dijk (programme director), Rijk van Dijk (course instructor) and Azeb Amha (coordinator Research Master). Congratulations, Eline!

One of my favourite quotes about ‘Africa’ is – somewhat incongruously – not from an individual living in one of the 54 countries today, an African scholar or an internationally renowned policy maker or leader. It is not a quote by Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah or any other ‘famous’ historical figure that is often associated with carving the history of the continent. It is a quote of which the origins and meanings are debated, but which I believe can be transposed and made relevant again today:

“Semper aliquid novi Africa affert”
 

The author of this quote was the Roman administrator Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23-79 A.D. (Van den Heever, no date). Translated freely, this quote means:

“Africa is always producing something of novelty”

Pliny used this quote in his Naturalis Historia, a 37 volume work on the wonders of the natural world. The expression is found in his passage on the manner in which lions and leopards would interbreed in ‘Africa’ to create new hybrids of species. Pliny borrowed the quote from a common Greek saying, which itself was probably coined by the Greek sage Aristotle (c. 384-322 b.c.). Aristotle used the saying in his Historia Animalium (another volume on the natural world) stating that the wild animals of ‘Africa’ are the most ‘new’ in form (Van den Heever, no date). The phrase was henceforth borrowed, transmuted and decontextualized throughout time. Today, the phrase and its variants can be found in newspaper articles, journal headlines (Stein, 2012) and it has adorned the seal and coat of arms of the South African Museum in Cape Town since 1877 (Van den Heever, no date).

But why refer to this somewhat obscure and dubious saying? Why have I chosen it to answer the question of what I believe is ‘African’ in African Studies, as well as what my motivation is to pursue this master’s degree? Why refer to an expression coined more than 2300 years ago, whose author was not from Africa and whose knowledge of the existence of the continent was limited to areas north of the Sahara?

The original meaning, origin and connotations of the saying can most certainly be contested and debated. It is the sentiment that the phrase carries which renders it a metaphor for my views on the continent. To me, “semper aliquid novi Africa affert” can be distilled into the concept of novelty and most importantly, innovation. In my eyes, Africa is a continent of ‘firsts’; in the past, now and in the future.

Scientific consensus locates the origin of mankind in the East of Africa (Sample, 2015). Coffee finds its origin in Ethiopia, while the first objects of mathematical use (thought to be at least 35,000 years old) can be traced to neighbouring countries (Anyangwe, 2015). This is a continent which is said to have inspired the movement of modern art (Anyangwe, 2015) and it is claimed that “every musical element… is essentially African in background and derivation” (Gunther Schiller, cited in Anyangwe, 2015).

Isaac Mkalia, 20 years old, a teacher by profession is checking his mobil phone.

Isaac Mkalia, 20 years old, a teacher by profession is checking his mobile phone. Photo: AIF600 http://afritorial.com/2013-africa-innovation-prize/

While some of the above might be disputed, (much) more recent sources of innovation can not be. As of late, we have seen technological advances which perhaps surpass those of other continents. The rise of mobile money and use of applications such as M-PESA have led to a situation in which “paying for a taxi ride using your mobile phone is easier in Nairobi than it is in New York” (Why does Kenya lead the world in mobile money?, 2013).On his recent trip to Nigeria, Mark Zuckerberg argued that “Africa will build the future”, encapsulating his belief in the continent’s innovative future by visiting business hubs and meeting socially conscious entrepreneurs (Shapshak, 2016).

Technology and entrepreneurial innovation aside, the continent also offers a rich array of cultural and artistic avenues to be explored, both in its history as in present day. As I write this assignment, London’s Somerset House has just finished hosting the annual 1:54 festival, showcasing contemporary African art and attracting over 10,000 visitors (About 1:54, 2016). In late 2017 the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art is set to open in Cape Town. The museum – “Africa’s largest museum in over 100 years”- will host an enormous collection from Africa and its Diaspora and may “shift the contemporary art world as we know it” (Hancock and Page, 2016).

In essence then, change is afoot in Africa. I have only managed to scratch the surface of changes that have occurred, are occurring and are set to occur in the continent. Africa is home to such a rich and complex diversity  that is so full of nuances – on all manner of subjects – that we could study what is ‘African’ ad infinitum. But of course, this notion is applicable to any continent.

I have failed to mention the many, many atrocities, civil wars and disasters which have blighted Africa’s history or are currently dominating the headlines. These events deserve just as much attention as the positives and ‘firsts’ I have listed here. But it is my belief that Africa as a continent is entering a period of momentous change, energy and above all, innovation. We can turn to Africa’s history to learn an incredible amount about the birth of humanity – both in the literal sense (see above) and in terms of the origins of our thinking and actions. Modern day debates on colonialism and slavery continue to be just as relevant today as they were 20, 50 or 100 years ago. The question of whether ‘neo-colonialism’ is occurring in light of key foreign investors has become a controversial topic (China and the new scramble for Africa, 2016). All in all, there is plenty to discuss.

What is ‘African’ in African Studies to me, then, is the concept of innovation and novelty. It is not the concept of a singular ‘African’ identity, which I think is impossible to define. My first and foremost motivation to study African Studies is my unwavering belief and optimism that the future of Africa will bring an incredible amount of opportunity.

I do not wish to dismiss the ‘problems’ the continent has and is currently facing. Nor those that it will have in the future. But I vehemently believe that endogenous, inclusive growth – particularly through innovation – can shape the future. I stand with Ashish Thakkar, Chair of the United Nations Foundation, when he says that “Africa’s time is now” (Thakkar, 2015). I believe that Africa has undoubtedly been shaped by its history, but it is its future and that which we cannot predict – the ‘unknown’ – which make it worth studying. The opportunities are endless and I believe the continent’s future will not only shape its own population, but that of the entire world.

Pliny’s reference to Africa may be more than 2300 years old, but I believe it is just as relevant now as it was then. As we can trace the origins of mankind to Ethiopia, it is my hope – and belief – that we will one day trace the origin of most of the world’s most spectacular innovations to the continent. That which we cannot predict and visualize might very well be what advances the entire being of humanity. The role of Africa in this is, in my mind, undeniable. Just as it has in the past, so semper aliquid novi Africa affert.

Bibliography:
About 1:54 (2016) Available at: http://1-54.com/london/ (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Anyangwe, E. (2015) 10 things Africa has given the world. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/08/10-things-africa-given-world (Accessed: 22 December 2016).

China and the new scramble for Africa (2016) Available at: http://southernafrican.news/2016/09/16/china-and-the-new-scramble-for-africa/ (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Hancock, C. and Page, T. (2016) Is this the new home of contemporary art? Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/31/architecture/thomas-heatherwick-zeitz-mocaa-cape-town/ (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Sample, I. (2015) Jaw bone fossil discovered in Ethiopia is oldest known human lineage remains. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/04/jaw-bone-discovery-in-ethiopia-is-oldest-ever-human-lineage-remains (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Shapshak, T. (2016) Africa will build the future says Zuckerberg, visits Kenya on First African trip. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tobyshapshak/2016/09/01/africa-will-build-the-future-says-zuckerberg-visits-kenya-on-first-african-trip/#586dd9665214 (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Stein, D. (2012) ‘Psychiatric contributions from South Africa: Ex Africa semper Aliquid Novi’, African Journal of Psychiatry, 15(5). doi: 10.4314/ajpsy.v15i5.39.

Thakkar, A. (2015) Africa’s time is now. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ashish-thakkar/africas-time-is-now_b_8119528.html (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Van den Heever, J. (no date) Semper aliquid.. Available at: http://academic.sun.ac.za/botzoo/paleo/africa.htm (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Why does Kenya lead the world in mobile money? (2013) Available at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-18 (Accessed: 12 October 2016).

Guest blog: ‘Publish or Perish in African Studies: new ways to valorize research’

Stephanie IAIThis guest blog was written by Stephanie Kitchen, Managing Editor, International African Institute. With Hartmut Bergenthum (Frankfurt University Library), she convened a panel entitled ‘Publish or Perish in African Studies: new ways to valorize research’ during the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 6) on 8 July 2015 in Paris. Full abstracts of the panel are available here.

The well attended panel (with standing room only) raised a number of salient points and debates about publishing in Africa and African Studies. Hartmut Bergenthum introduced the panel that aimed to bring together academics, publishers and librarians to discuss the changes from traditional (print) to new (digital) publishing models and how they are used to support and valorize research.

Stephanie Kitchen (left) listening to Jos Damen's (ASC Library) presentation.

Stephanie Kitchen (left) listening to Jos Damen’s (ASC Library) presentation.

Jos Damen (ASC, Leiden) helpfully identified the main current models of journal publication. Journals are funded by (i) subscriptions, (ii) organizations and institutions, or (iii) are open access funded by authors; or else they are a hybrid of these models. Looking at the top ten journals in African Studies as measured by Impact Factor, it is noticeable that only one of these is fully open access – Africa Spectrum, funded by the German GIGA Institute of African Affairs.

Not reaching out enough in Africa
Vincent Hiribarren (King’s College London) discussed the dissemination of academic research online, notably on Africa4, a blog that Vincent co-edits and that has been set up for academics to discuss research in a wider sphere. The blog is part of the French left-leaning newspaper that is influential amongst academics, Libération. He spoke interestingly about the different writing styles for blogs versus academic books. Books tend to be considered ‘authoritative’ whereas blogs may be more ‘subjective’. Paragraphs in blogs are shorter. Less jargon is used. Vincent felt that journalists have much to offer academics in learning how to write for the web. In terms of dissemination, it is a truism that more people will read blogs than books. Vincent argued that Africanist lecturers are not reaching out enough in Africa and yet are under pressure to demonstrate ‘impact’. The challenge is to mix popular and research modes of writing.

Peer reviews a ‘waste of time’?
Godwin Siundu (University of Nairobi) used the case of the journal he co-edits, Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies, to discuss the sometimes contradictory pressures inherent in such an intellectually ambitious publishing project in East Africa. Journal editors may encounter institutional resistance and be confronted with a lack of publishing skills and capacity on the one hand. On the other, they operate within university systems of recognition and reward that prize respected peer review publications. At the same time, established academic faculty may not ‘take editorial comments kindly’, sometimes pronouncing peer review to be a ‘waste of time’ at the same time as judging newer journals to be too ‘young’ to confer authority.

Driving a research agenda from the South
Roshan Cader (Wits University Press – WUP) identified the leading South African scholarly publisher (WUP) with driving and disseminating a research agenda from the ‘South’. The onus on Wits Press is to be visible (on international databases, with citation tools), and to go digital in a climate where there is insufficient buy-in from universities to adopt new technologies. One option Wits is exploring is establishing a digital platform of scholarly presses in South Africa. Wits Press’s position on open access is that there is ‘not enough evidence to support open access’ (‘evidence’ in the sense of making it work economically at Wits Press); and that they therefore do not yet have a fully fledged open access policy.

How to document tweets
Peter Limb (Michigan State University) concluded the panel presentations with a wide-ranging discussion encompassing the value of digital outputs and the challenge of curating digital sources. Librarians were bounded to ‘anticipate the new’ – how do librarians deal with documenting tweets, for example?

publish-or-perish1I introduced and chaired the open discussion, first bringing to the fore some key points that emerged from the publishing stream at the 2014 ASAUK conference (African Studies Association of the UK). First: that knowledge production in Africa remains a challenge going beyond the ‘encounter with the West’. Second: that higher education in Africa is still marked by crisis, with a consequent impact on quality of research and publication output. Third, that African-published journals typically suffer from ‘resource scarcity’ whatever the publishing model, granted that the evidence shows institutionally funded open access journals to be gaining in reputation and dissemination. In the North, meantime, in common with the case presented by Roshan Cader, monographs are shifting to digital. But it is unlikely that a single dominant model to support open access monographs will emerge for some time.

Junior scholars’ dilemma: how to publish the thesis?
The audience discussion was the most lively part of the panel. Early career scholars raised the oft-repeated though nonetheless career-crucial dilemmas they encounter in decisions about publishing the full text of their theses online immediately, and/or whether to publish in article and book formats.
There was a good discussion about peer review cultures. With the northern journals there tend to be established patterns, of expectations on academics to review the work of their peers, recognition being achieved via editorial board membership and journal editorships. This is not always the case with African journals, where peer reviewers may expect payment. The editors on the panel (from Wits and IAI) pointed out that reviewers of their book manuscripts were paid whereas journal reviewers are not paid.

‘Digital divide’
Members of the audience questioned the extent to which a research agenda from the global South/South Africa was sufficiently broad to encompass the priorities of the African continent more widely. And evidence of a North/South or ‘digital divide’ was present in our discussions with the audience. Although this is perhaps alternatively expressed in terms of unequal access to the resources (funding, knowledge, skills) on which the ‘digital shift’, advocated particularly by Peter Limb, ultimately depends. The Dar es Salaam-based publisher Walter Bgoya stressed that African publishers and authors were abreast of and held views on the questions about digital paradigms that this panel was raising. But just as they were listening to the experts on the panel, he also asked that they should in turn listen to the more fundamental issues still confronting the publisher in Africa, starting with editorial capacity and language of publication.

As the co-chair of the panel, I found this to be an informative and stimulating session that brought together divergent interests. As editors, scholars and curators of knowledge on Africa we have much in common wherever we are working; but we also need to be aware of how unevenly (digital) resources are spread – and ways in which this can be redressed.

We will take forward some of these debates in the Publishing Stream being planned for the next ASAUK conference in September 2016.

Stephanie Kitchen
Managing Editor, International African Institute, sk111@soas.ac.uk 

Africa in Qatar – Qatar in Africa

image5

Doha skyline with the Museum of Islamic Art.

A delegation of the ‘Africa in the World’ research group of the African Studies Centre in Leiden visited Qatar recently, and had discussions with people in various universities, Qatar Foundation, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, The Netherlands Embassy and a number of Qatar charities. Qatar is one of the ‘South-South hubs’ of today and an interesting one if one wants to understand the possibilities for Africans to ‘negotiate’ the new global, polycentric world.

With Dr Afyare Abdi Elmi of Qatar University, College of Arts & Sciences.

At Qatar University, with Dr Afyare Abdi Elmi (on the right) of the College of Arts & Sciences.

More Africans than Qataris in Qatar
Qatar is full of surprises. The population living there consists of 2.3 million people, but only 12% of them are having a Qatari passport. There are more Indians and more Nepali in Qatar than there are Qataris. What’s more: there are more Africans in Qatar than there are Qataris (the majority of the Africans being Egyptians and Sudanese, but there are also many people from Ethiopia, Tunisia, Eritrea, Morocco and Kenya). We were told that it is virtually impossible for foreigners to get a Qatari passport, unless you are a sportsman, as Qatar would like to impress the world with ‘its’ sports accomplishments. The atmosphere in capital city Doha is very cosmopolitan, with an explosion of colourful architectural highlights forming the skyline. In the ‘old’ market one can see niqabs alongside Western dresses for women, and suits and hoodies next to the white robes and white-and-red head dresses for men. One gets the impression of ‘everything goes’ and an open, tolerant and very safe public space. At the same time, Qatar wants to be a major player in the Islamic world (and partly in competition with other Gulf states) and is known to support various Islamic groups, including some Islamist groups. The Taliban has an office in Doha. There is major support for Hamas. And there are connections with groups that pledge allegiance to the ideas of Islamic State.

image emblem

Emblem of the Sheikh Eid Bin Mohammad Al-Thani Charitable Association.

Development assistance
The State of Qatar started its own Department of International Aid in 2007 and spent more than 1.7 billion (US) dollars on ‘development assistance’ in 2013 alone, of which one third was given to Africa. Total aid money would be 740 dollar per person living in Qatar, or, if we only count people with a Qatari passport: more than 6,000 dollar per person. In addition, most non-Qataris send a lot of remittances back home, and Qatari charities are known all over Africa (and elsewhere) for their generosity. One can see the donation boxes of the various charities in central places in Doha.

Al Jazeera
Why would a small country on a peninsula in the Gulf do this? We were told that the former Qatari Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and the ruling family realised how vulnerable their family business had become after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Arabia could do the same with them; a reason to do so could always be found. So Qatar needed friends elsewhere, and it needed trumpets to tell the world: here we are! Some people told us that that was the main reason why (in 1996) the Emir decided to fund the Al Jazeera news network, which put Qatar on the world map of journalism. Others told us that it is much more complicated than that. Later, the Qatari elite decided to attract lots of foreign researchers (the Qatar Foundation is rich!); to fund numerous sports and cultural highlights; and to build a city full of special features. They can pay for it. In 2013, Qatar exported for 137 billion dollars’ worth of products (mainly gas and chemical products) and it only imported for 27 billion dollars. That truly means a huge balance of payment surplus. Japan, Korea and India are its major customers; the USA and China the major providers of goods and services. Although Qatar used to be a British colony, Europe’s role in imports and exports has become quite limited. At the same time, trade with Africa is very small (although growing): only about 1%. In 2013, Qatar’s major African trade partners were South Africa and Kenya for its exports, and Egypt and (again) South Africa as providers of some of its imports.

Visiting the Netherlands' Ambassador to Qatar, Mrs Yvette Burghgraef - van Eechoud (second from left).

Visiting the Netherlands’ Ambassador to Qatar, Mrs Yvette Burghgraef-van Eechoud (second from left).

Peace broker
Trade and aid are clearly not much connected (yet?) and one can see Qatar’s aid policy as one of its methods of ‘impression geopolitics’, and ways to export its cultural-political ideas. And that is full of controversies and surprises. In 2011, Qatar supported almost all Arab Spring uprisings. And currently, Qatar’s foreign policy is full of attempts to be a major peace broker in Africa and the Middle East: the ‘Norway’ of the Middle East. With Qatari aid money surpassing Qatari trade money (imports and exports) in most of Africa’s countries, Qatar’s embassies in Africa and Africa’s many embassies in Qatar, we see a form of aid diplomacy that must be familiar to Dutch diplomats who dealt with Africa in the 1980s and 1990s and who did not have to promote Dutch businesses too much in those years, with the exception of diplomats in African oil countries like Nigeria. It was trade or aid; not trade and aid. And it was about exporting an ideology. Like Qatar nowadays; although the ideology is different of course. Africans nowadays can make choices. And they do so ever more…

Africa in Moscow

blog-ton-moscow-abstractsThe Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the ‘Scientific Council for the Problems of Economic, Social, Political and Cultural Development of African Countries’ organized their 13th International conference of Africanists in Moscow, at the end of May. I was curious to know what would happen during a conference of Africanists in Russia, who would be there and what would be their research subjects. I knew that they had once been an associate member of AEGIS (African Studies Centres in Europe), but that was before I joined the AEGIS Board in 2010. And I knew that Russia, as the R country in BRICs, tries to redefine its place in the newly emerging global dispensation. So what did I see and hear?

A whole new world of Africanists
I heard a lot of Russian, to start with. I went to panels where the only contributors were Russian scholars, who were in shock when they discovered that there were non-Russian speakers in the audience. I was lucky that in those panels there was always some translation and sometimes it was good that I speak enough French and German to be part of a chaotic multi-lingual communication process. But I heard some angry American participants who complained that they could not follow much of what happened in many of the panel sessions which they attended.
Another interesting observation was that I hardly knew anyone. I have been to AEGIS, EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) conferences and there are always quite a lot of people whom I know from earlier meetings. This time there was only one familiar person (Ian Taylor), and a few names I knew (from of group of about 600 people). It seems there is a whole world of Africanists that is isolated from the conference circuits I normally visit. And the other way around: from the AEGIS Centres in Europe quite a few people from Central Europe participated (I met Polish and Hungarian colleagues) but very few if any from the ‘old and established’ Centres of African Studies in Western Europe. More than 170 participants from Africa attended the conference, and the organizers had attracted papers from scholars representing 26 African countries. Interestingly, North Africa is definitely part of what Russians define as Africa.

The Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

The Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

Nothing on climate change – what a relief!
I have looked at the titles of all 253 Russian papers in the programme to find out what Russian Africanists are interested in and how they phrase their research interests. The majority of the contributions had an emphasis on political affairs and international relations. There were quite a number of papers with a linguistic focus or dealing with cultural issues like ethnic identity, gender roles and education. Relatively few papers dealt with economics or business issues (and as far as I could see there were no participants with a business background, despite the fact that Gazprombank (GPB Global Resources) and Lukoil were the main sponsors of the conference). And hardly any papers dealt with health, water, the environment (nothing on climate change, what a relief!) or agricultural issues, or with civil society or the role of Africa’s private sector.

The BRICs and Africa
The International Relations papers partly concentrated on historical issues: Russian travelers and explorers in the 18th and 19th Century, the Imperial Russian fleet’s activities along the African shores in 1904/05, the impact of the Russian revolution on Ethiopia, the impact of the Bandung Conference in 1955 on Africa. More contemporary issues were e.g. Russia’s participation in UN Peacekeeping activities. Many papers dealt with the BRICS and Africa, sometimes as a group, often as ‘Brazil in Africa’, ‘China in Africa’, ’or Indians in the Horn’, but there was also attention for other countries: Turkey, Japan, the USA (and Africom) and a lot on the EU-AU or EU-African states relationships, or on British or French foreign policies and Africa. Other interesting papers were e.g. about Indonesia and Africa (by a Hungarian scholar!), or South Korea and Africa (by a Kazakh scholar). Quite a lot is happening in the sphere of ‘Africa and the World’, one of the current focus areas of the African Studies Centre in Leiden.

Migration issues
But there was also a lot of Russian interest in migration issues, with attention for certain African diaspora groups elsewhere in the world (e.g., Somalis in the USA, or ‘African babysitters’ in France) or specific African-Russian migration issues: the jobs Moroccan students got (or not) after they have studied in Russia; Russian wives in Ethiopia and Tanzania; Afro-Russians and their esthetic and social preferences; Russian-speakers in Africa; and how Russians could practice their Orthodox Christianity in Islamic countries in Africa. The keynote speech by Irina Abramova (“the New Role of Africa in the 21st Century World Economy”) also highlighted demographic issues in Africa, and the ‘demographic dividend’ Africa is supposed to harvest in the next few decades.

The Library of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

The Library of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

Studying former coups
Many papers on political affairs dealt with the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Terrorism and its threats for peace and security also received considerable attention, as well as radical Islam, and there was a remarkable interest in Libya and Sudan. Many political papers had a historical orientation: studying former coups (and Russian involvement in some), or political change and revolutions in an African country. But there were also many papers on legal and political issues dealing with democracy and human rights, often on a scale of Africa as a whole, but sometimes focusing on particular countries and experiences.

‘Russian investors: please come to South Sudan!’
The funniest session I attended was on African Cinema, with a very interesting paper about the history of the Tashkent Film Festival and its impact on Africa, and a vehemently Russian-nationalistic plea against American domination in the (African) film industry. In Russian of course (with whispered translation next to me). And when question time came, the speaker had disappeared. Then suddenly someone appeared who was supposed to give a talk on Russian documentary filming in Africa during the Soviet era, but who was two hours late.
The most remarkable thing I experienced was the speech by a high-ranking official of the Republic of South Sudan during the opening ceremony. Yes, we made a mess of it, he said, but unlike many other African countries we solved it in 40 days! So, he went on, Russian investors: please come to South Sudan; we have proof now that we can solve all your problems within 40 days!

China-Netherlands-Africa: trilateral collaboration?

groepsfotoThe Lakeview Hotel in Beijing is beautiful. Owned by the ‘number one university of China’, as many members of staff from Peking University start to say when they shake hands with me, its grandeur and beauty shows China’s self-confidence. Smog levels take away some of the sight of the Lake (students use their apps to check the levels: ‘O, it is only 184; no mouth piece needed’; in Paris there was panic when it was close to 150 in mid-March). Two things that are very much related: high growth and high pollution.

Africanist colleagues
I was in Beijing last week with a delegation from Leiden’s African Studies Centre to attend an international workshop organised together with Peking University’s Center for African Studies. ASC researchers Benjamin Soares, Mayke Kaag and visiting fellow Romain Dittgen participated, together with invitees from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (Meine Pieter van Dijk and Ward Warmerdam), the University of Amsterdam (Sarah Hardus) and our African partner CODESRIA in Senegal (Carlos Cardoso). The Chinese main organiser Liu Haifang had invited many of her Africanist colleagues in China and a considerable number of African guests, including journalists from Africa who happened to be in Beijing for a training. The conference was called ‘International Development Cooperation: Exploring Sino-Dutch Complementarity in African Studies and Policies’.

Ton‘Our friend’
The conference came at a very appropriate time. The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Netherlands had made the headlines in China and had created an atmosphere that can be summarised by: ‘Europe is important for us, but the Netherlands is now our friend’. Many Chinese observers had noted with surprise that President Xi had been invited with more ‘honour’ than President Obama. So now our Chinese hosts were very willing to explore possibilities for trilateral collaboration with us in the Netherlands with regard to Africa, even if some of the speakers noted that the Netherlands could hardly be noticed on a world map. The conference dealt with four major topics: a comparison of African Studies in China and the Netherlands, a comparison of experiences with aid, trade and investment relationships with Africa, experiences with and ideas about peacekeeping, and observations about capacity development. Let me highlight some conclusions about ‘African Studies’.

Independent attitude
China has an interesting history of African Studies; it would be useful to write that history in English and compare it with the history of African Studies elsewhere, for instance in Leiden. There are no differences of opinion about what African Studies should be: African Studies as area studies is broad, multi-disciplinary, and connects insights from fields of study as diverse as sociology, cultural studies, economic and business studies, political science, legal studies, geography and agricultural studies. Some participants noted that some centres of African Studies now put a lot of emphasis on economics. But African Studies should not be reduced to purposes related to immediate economic diplomacy or immediate policy relevance. It has much more to offer and should maintain its independence from policy and business circles. If it engages with policy and business circles it should do so with a critical, independent attitude.

BenGlobal exchange
Area studies like African Studies (should) play a role in teaching new generations of scholars. Examples like the courses taught in Beijing and in Leiden show the importance of a broad curriculum. It was suggested that we exchange curriculum experiences. We could even develop online exchange mechanisms, also involving African partner institutes and African Studies centres from other countries in Europe (AEGIS) and elsewhere. We could work towards the development of e.g. chat rooms where African, Chinese and European students and staff can communicate and talk about their research. Or we could develop summer schools in Africa, where Chinese, European and African PhD students could meet for intensive seminars or follow master classes given by prominent Africanists from the three regions.

Joint research
There are many possibilities for joint tripartite research activities, including applications for funding, fieldwork, publications, outreach activities and even evaluation of aid/trade/investment impact. A more formal commitment for collaboration between Peking University and Leiden University might be useful. This could go beyond African Studies proper and for instance also support the establishment of Asian Studies and European Studies in Africa as trilateral ventures. In Leiden the newly formed Leiden Global could be a useful tool for that.

Changing the image of Africa
Many participants noted that African Studies centres should play a role in changing the image about Africa in journalism and in school teaching: away from the image of a ‘sick continent’. It would be good to compare the various experiences in Beijing and in Leiden: the use of public media, art forms (plays), websites and social media. African Studies centres can also play a role in connecting to the African diaspora around them: on campus and beyond. The same is true for the maintenance of contacts with alumni originating from Africa.

Yan-LihuaYan Lihua
At the end of the conference Yan Lihua, the ‘Grand old lady’ of African Studies in China who had been listening carefully to what went on, asked me to greet a few of our researchers back home that had visited Beijing fifteen years before. She had later been in Leiden as a visiting scholar for a month. She hoped that this time all the ideas for collaboration would materialise better than they had done a decade ago, she told me. I think she will not be disappointed. The time is ripe now.