Anthropology in a post-colonial africa the survival debate

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Paul Nchoji Nkwi


African anthropologists grew up in societies that were either colonized or recently decolonized. Westerners initially controlled the production of anthropological knowledge and the result was functionalist studies. These studies were explicitly ahistorical and often myopic about colonialism. After the colonial period, the new nations of Africa dismissed anthropology both as a cultivation of primitivism and as an apologetic for colonialism. As all states do, the new nations rewarded knowledge production that served state goals, and anthropology simply did not figure into those goals during the early post-colonial period. While new nations were appearing in Africa, anthropology in Europe and North America remained mostly committed to the dispassionate study of cultures, looking on knowledge production as tainted if done on behalf of government or for policy purposes. African anthropologists were trapped in a terrible Catch-22: the more, they practiced anthropology by the standards of the former colonial powers, the more their governments regarded them as worthless, or worse; the more they worked to develop an anthropology that served the needs of the state, the more their knowledge production was dismissed by European and North American centers of anthropology.

There were three possible solutions for these scholars: 1) declare anthropology dead and try to legitimate themselves as social historians within Africa; 2) export themselves to the USA and Europe, the way many Third World scholars of all disciplines have exported themselves; 3) change the content of anthropology and search out the information required by their governments. The first solution was defeatist and unappealing to most scholars. The second was appealing, but anthropologists were not needed in the West to the same extent that, say, chemists and engineers were, and there were thus few opportunities for migration. The third option raised a serious question: would involvement in policy research harm anthropology or make something better of it? In the end, the choice was made for African anthropologists by government funding for research and university posts. Anthropologists would, in fact, serve the research and teaching needs of the state.

This chapter examines the ways in which African anthropologists have developed knowledge within a particular set of state needs and within a particular set of power relations. The paper focuses on a particular effort, the Pan African Association of Anthropologists. Today, the Pan African Anthropological Association (PAAA) is a professional organization accepted by a once hostile community of social scientists. This has dramatically affected the applied dimensions of anthropological knowledge and the way anthropology has been taught and practiced. The chapter begins with an overview of the anthropology of sub-Saharan Africa and then offers a history of the PAAA. The development of the organization took place at a time when Western-trained African anthropologists were renegotiating their place in the discipline, both in Africa and internationally. The dilemma faced by African anthropologists—to carry out investigations according to internationally held canons of scientific practice while keeping faithful to the demand for immediately useful research at home—mirrors that of all Third World academics; but the dilemma for African anthropologists is an extreme case because of the discipline’s well-documented history as the handmaiden of colonialism.

Africa’s Place in the World System

From the beginning of colonial rule, anthropology in Africa—as the study of human cultures and peoples—largely reflected the outsiders’ view of the continent. It would take many decades for Africans to articulate a view of themselves in relation to that outside world. When anthropology emerged as a discipline in the 1860s, Africa was not part of the world economic system. Of course, it had been four hundred years earlier, but by the mid-nineteenth century scholars in Europe had long forgotten this and saw Africa only as a backwater. It soon would be part of the world system again. The slave trade had led to the creation of European stations on the African coast for the recruitment of human capital. And, by the late 19th century, despite the abolition of slavery in most of the world, European nations jockeyed for position and access to the human and other resources of the continent. The treaty of Berlin, in 1878, granted any “civilized state” occupying a coastal African region, the right to claim the hinterland. This could only be achieved, however, by occupation (cf. Graniage 1969: 199), and so the scramble for Africa was on, with a massive outpouring of explorers, travelers and missionaries who would shape future anthropological work on the continent. Just eight years later, in 1885, the jurisdictional disputes between rival European countries over Africa were settled with the recognition of territorial claims (Sklar, 1985:1). Africa had become an integral part of the world economic system as a supplier of basic resources.

The establishment of the Journal “Présence Africaine” in the 1940s was a reaction among African and African-American intellectuals against what they saw as a failure to recognize adequately Africa’s role in world history. Basil Davidson showed consistently that sub-Saharan African history was, in fact, an integral and important part of world history (1959). This reaction later developed into what came to be known as Pan-Africanism, which was to be a powerful influence on many of Africa’s early post-colonial leaders and intellectuals.

English-speaking anthropologists dominated anthropology during the colonial period, partly I think, because of the philosophical doctrine of empiricism, which fostered greater respect for local culture. Whatever the cause, English-speaking anthropologists served colonial administrators whose directive was to rule through local personnel and this, in the jargon of post-modernism, produced multi-vocality and gave anthropologists the opportunity to assert themselves more creatively. The emergence of anthropology as a discipline in the university system in Great Britain during the period between the two World Wars led, in 1925, to the creation of a state-sponsored research institute, the International Institute of African Languages and Culture (IIALC). This institute (later known as the International African Institute or IAI) encouraged the collection of massive amounts of ethnographic data on Africa and further consolidated the discipline.

The Institute established the Journal Africa in 1928 and, in 1938, under Lord Hailey, published The African Survey. It inspired monographs on African politics (African Political Systems 1940, edited by Meyer Fortes, and Tribes Without Rulers 1958, edited by John Middleton, David Tait, and Laura Bohannan), cosmology and religion (African Worlds 1954, edited by Daryll Forde), witchcraft (Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa 1963, edited by John Middleton and E.H. Winter), and kinship (African Systems of Kinships and Marriage, 1956, edited by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde). Other English-speaking anthropologists of the period included E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Victor Turner, Audrey Richards, and Mary Douglas, all of whom contributed to what Leinhardt (1975), called the early theoretical capital of the generation that came into academic seniority after the Second World War. By the time that Beattie and Middleton edited Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa (1969), social anthropology had captured the imaginations of black Africans who were turning to the discipline for answers to questions about making development schemes successful in culturally heterogeneous societies. In the 1930s, Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya would study under Malinowksi, his Facing Mount Kenya was published in 1938. Kofi Busia from Ghana (1962) and Cheik Anta Diop from Senegal (1974), who had emerged as defenders of the right of Africans to be part of world history, were also deeply committed to anthropology.

The emergence of African ethnology in France was to await the return of Georges Balandier (1966), Jacques Lombard (1967) and others to the university system. Balandier, one of the leading French political anthropologists, would influence a whole generation of French anthropologists but also drew a lot of inspiration from Great Britain. He trained a whole new group of French anthropologists including Claude Meillassoux (1968), Marc Augé (1985), Jean Copans (1990) and others.

However, the development of anthropology in France was largely the work of two key government sponsored institutes: Institut Francaise pour l’Afrique Noire (IFAN)) and Organisation de Recherche Scientifique et Technique d’Outre Mer (ORSTOM). IFAN was established principally to document, for comparative purposes, the customs and traditions of African “ethnic nations.” ORSTOM, on the other hand, had a broad mandate allowing it to conduct more comprehensive studies in all French colonies, including Africa, by focusing on social, human, mineral, health and geological research. The creative work of ORSTOM would, like its British counterpart, also generate massive amounts of ethnographic data.

Under Claude Meillassoux, Marxist anthropology would again capture the imagination of Africanists across the world. As an ideology, not just as a theory of history, it was more sympathetic to the fight against capitalists and the imperial project of the west, than was the empiricist tradition of Great Britain. French anthropologists would leave their anthropological ghetto as French speaking scholars and explore the rest of the continent. To their great surprise, they found a totally different intellectual and academic outlook. And, of course, there was the huge language barrier between French and British anthropologists. As we will see, the PAAA would, from its beginning in 1989, take this issue on directly and make a conscious effort to deal with it.

Ironically, despite their use of anthropologists in the colonial enterprise, officials at the British colonial office were profoundly suspicious of anthropologists, especially those who came from the practical school of anthropology headed by Bronislaw Malinowski. Some colonial administrators accused anthropologists of peddling “tribalism.” Nonetheless, under intense pressure from nationalists, Africanist anthropologists from the West withdrew from studies on the continent during the 1960s. They correctly feared that the post-colonial African leaders would endorse neither the old colonial policies of governance, nor those scholars who had supported those policies.
New Nation States and the University system

At independence, each new nation created its own institution of higher learning with a curriculum based on that of the European universities. It was assumed that the transfer of scientific knowledge was crucial for development and there was also an urgent need for trained manpower, especially in the civil service. For example, at independence one African nation had about 16 university graduates of whom 12 were priests and four were laymen. This was a need that was understood and supported by international donors, and among the first objectives of the new universities was to produce that manpower. Little attention was paid to the study of African cultures in the new university curricula. African faculty with overseas training were recruited to teach alongside, and gradually replace, expatriates. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the returning graduates were guaranteed salaries, housing, and even transportation.

The applied dimensions of the discipline would suffer a setback, however, as nationalist movements turned to modernization theory to transform Africa into what they hoped would be an economic power. These nationalist movements continued to regard anthropology as a tool of colonial subjugation and as a discipline of no relevance for the new and modernizing Africa (Nkwi 2000: 21). African and Africanist anthropologists found it difficult to practice their profession openly. At Makerere University in Kampala, for example, the British had established the Institute of Cultural Anthropology (ICA) to promote ethnographic research. This once flourishing institute disappeared into the sociology department (Crossman and Devisch 1999: 117).

Caught between a desire to break with the colonialist past and a desire to attain economic and social progress equivalent to that in the former colonial powers, some Marxist-oriented African leaders plunged into an ill-conceived economic development model called «African socialism,” or “communalism.” The model was an odd mixture of statist and classical development economics. Although many of these leaders claimed African roots for their political ideology, few relied on anthropology to provide the basis for such an ideology. Many spoke of African culture without comprehending what that might mean in practice. Two UNESCO conferences (one in Monrovia in 1979 and another in Yaoundé in 1984) called for the teaching of African languages and cultures, but this simply never happened in most countries. Anthropology could have provided the material for such a curriculum, but the discipline was not taken seriously, carrying the stigma, as it did, of its ties to the colonial past (Crossman P & Devisch, 1999:117, cf Sawadogo 1995).

The first call for a university for West Africa came from three 19th century black intellectuals: Dr. James Africanus Beale Horton (1835–1883), Edward Blyden (1832–1912), and Rev. James Johnson (1839–1917). Blyden, for example, called for an indigenous university that would “release Africa from the grip of the despotic mind and restore cultural self-respect among Africans” and Johnson called for “an institution that would leave undisturbed our peculiarities” (Wanderia, 1978:39-40, cf Odumosu, 1973).

A century later, while opening the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana-Legon, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the then president of Ghana, invited African scholars to study Africa in all of its complexities and diversity, in order to stimulate respect for the idea of African unity. The study of African cultures and people was not to be limited to conventional and regional boundaries. Nkrumah urged that all investigations “must inevitably lead towards the exploration of the connections between musical forms, the dances, the literature, the plastic arts, the philosophical and religious beliefs, the systems of government, the patterns of trade and economic organization that have been developed here in Ghana and in the cultures of other African peoples and other regions of Africa” (Rays, 1958:10, cf Hagan, 1989). In his book Africa Must Unite (Nkrumah 1963), culture is also a dominant theme. Anthropological studies would be part of the essential programs of the Institute.

As it turned out, if African socialism did not work then neither did the main opposing strategy for development. With profound respect for the scientific principles behind the hugely successful Marshall Plan in post-War Europe, African planners swallowed development theories that targeted investment in industrial development and human capital. Most African leaders in the early decades after independence followed a pattern of industry-first investment; the development of so-called urban growth poles (see Eicher ad Staatz 1986), all mixed with overbearing state involvement in the management of the economy.

The policies adopted in the 1960s and 1970s permitted the State to intervene at all levels, controlling market forces by providing credit and setting prices for commodities. The construction of the postcolonial State saw the disarticulation of economic, cultural, and ethnic differences, and the endorsement of the arbitrary colonial borders. Economic failure and criticism of State policies would lead to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) of the 1980s. Those programs demanded the separation of the state from the market economy, reducing public expenditure, and empowering the private sector (Coussy, 1991:123-139). These adjustments were the price of continued international loans and other supports, but were detrimental to the masses who would become poorer and poorer. During the 1990s, the new buzzword was “poverty alleviation”— referring to the poverty that had been created during the 1980s by the poorly executed SAPs of the international financial institutions.

These vitriolic attacks on the discipline retarded its progress as the “rejectionist syndrome” drove some of our social science colleagues to extremes. In 1991, Ife Amadiume, an African sociologist, recommended abolishing anthropology and turning it into “African social history and sociology of history” (Mafeje, 1997:22). As the criticism intensified in the 1970s three trends emerged. First, anthropology took cover within African Studies programs. Centers of African Studies emerged in many American universities, and analogous Institutes of African Studies flourished in most English-speaking African universities. Within those institutes, anthropology per se was taught and practiced. Second, the role of Marxist intellectuals in fighting imperialism and colonialism led to the emergence of Marxist anthropology. Marxism, as a philosophy, served as an intellectual cover for many European anthropologists desiring to continue doing anthropology in Africa without being accused by nationalist movements of being part of the colonial apparatus. Being a Marxist anthropologist was politically correct at the time. Third, anthropology was labeled as one of the branches of sociology and was taught within the nascent departments of sociology in African universities.

In South Africa, anthropology continued to function as a formal discipline at the universities of Cape Town, Witswatersrand, as well as at Rhodes and Natal universities. These institutions, however, provided little support to departments of anthropology at the so-called “bush-colleges” (i.e. Transkei, Unitra, Durban-Westville, Venda, the North, and so on) (cf. Svawda 1998). These “bush-colleges” had been established under the apartheid system to provide education to Blacks and the so-called Colored. The voelkerkunde tradition, the ideological ingredient of the apartheid system, continued at the Universities of Pretoria, Port Elisabeth, Stellenboesch and Bloemfontein. In 1996 the voelkerkunde tradition attempted to legitimate itself by joining the PAAA during the Association’s seventh annual conference in Pretoria. They were not admitted because of the tradition’s association with past racism. In 2000, however, the two traditions merged (Bogopa, 2000:2).

Despite the stigma of its colonialist past, many Africanists from Western universities continued to study anthropology after independence. The Rhodes Livingstone Institute continued to enhance the anthropology of Africa, while the Manchester School, with Africanists like Clyde Mitchell (1969), continued to publish on African anthropological issues. Other Africanists such as Elisabeth Colson (1971), Mary Douglas (1963), Audrey Richards (1969), and Ronald Cohen (1971) worked intensively for decades even after independence. Kofi Busia, the Ghanian who studied anthropology and established the Department of sociology at the University of Ghana-Legon, would even head the department of anthropology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Jomo Kenyatta, a student of Malinowski, would use his anthropological skills to construct the mau mau movement to claim power in Kenya. Leading African anthropologists like Adam Kuper (1987), John Comaroff and Brian du Toit (1974), Archie Mafeje, and Maxwell Owusu (1970), left their countries in search of more conducive environments for serious anthropological work, while others like Kwesi Prah (1993), Godwin Nukunya (1969), Harris Memel-Fotê (1980) and Théophile Obenga (1985), remained in Africa to do research and teach anthropology.

In Francophone Africa, as OSRTOM’s influence began to diminish, institutes of human sciences were established outside of the university system. Within the universities, courses on marriage, kinship, African political and social institutions, and others with anthropological content were taught in departments of sociology; the teachers who taught these courses preferred to be called sociologists. This period coincided with the establishment of professional African studies associations in the U.S. and Canada and journals like the Journal of African Studies in 1974. French anthropological research continued in non-university settings, not only in ORSTOM, but also in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Musée de l’Homme, and the École Pratiques des Hautes Études (EPHE). This continued even after independence, perpetuating the colonial legacy of these institutions (cf Copans, 1990:32-36). During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the University of Paris X-Nanterre was the only one out of seventy six French institutions that offered anthropology at the undergraduate level (Copans 1990: 66-70).

These timid efforts within the French University system gained more impetus, however, under Georges Balandier and Pierre Alexandre. They established the Center for International Relations, (this was later known as the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, or the Center for Studies and International Research) with a specific focus on Africa; and Marcel Merle and Albert Mabileau set up the Centre for the Study of Black Africa (Centre d’Etudes d’Afrique Noire) in Bordeau. After independence ORSTOM forged a new relationship with new institutes of human sciences throughout the former colonies, and it also continued to work under a new umbrella called the Institut de Récherche pour le Développement (IRD). In fact, in French speaking Africa ORSTOM remained, until the 1980s, the only credible institution with the resources to conduct serious anthropological work (that included archeology, linguistics, ethnology, and social anthropology). Even in countries such as Cameroon, where the Social Sciences Institute in the Ministry of Scientific Research collapsed during the Structural Adjustment Programs, ORSTOM continued its research work, though it did so without involving senior local scholars. Despite the slowdown of knowledge production and the reduction in scholarship, the anthropology of Africa continued to contribute to the development of comparative ethnological theory and to the academic debates of the 1960s and 1970s.
Policy Shifts and Years of Awakening

By the end of the 1970s, mounting evidence showed stagnation or decline in per capita growth rates in Africa. The failure of modernization theory to transform nascent modern African economies led development agencies to rethink their policies. The World Bank committed major resources to developing the "poorest of the poor”, which was basically an open admission that macro-level policies had failed to achieve their set objectives. As the micro-level approach became a real alternative, some argued for the need for input by anthropologists. This was based on the theory that these field-working scholars were in the best position to understand how, for example, food markets work in Africa as well as who the participants were (Reeves 1989: 86 – 111).

In Development from Below, illustrated through a series of case studies, David Pitt (1976) and others showed how development projects failed specifically when the people for whom the projects were intended to help did not participate in either the design or the implementation of those projects. Anthropologists with knowledge of local cultures would have argued for exactly that kind of input—though this might not have been enough to stave off failure. By the 1980s, the demand for anthropological input had strengthened. This had an impact on the small community of African anthropologists who were still operating underground in departments of sociology. These scholars consulted with NGOs and other bilateral and multi-lateral agencies regarding the design of development projects, but they had little involvement in the implementation process.

Another major policy shift involved the training of applied scientists for rural development. If the emphasis at independence was to produce a critical mass of people to run the post-colonial administration, by the early 1980s, the focus had shifted to improving agricultural production and the living standards of the rural poor. This required training Africans in agronomy, animal science, veterinary medicine, soil science, rural economics, rural sociology, and the emerging field of development anthropology. The Land Grant university system had worked agricultural miracles in the United States and the US government launched a massive program to help build and staff entire agricultural universities in Africa, based on that Land Grant model. Science and extension would be the key to a new Green Revolution. The Agricultural University of Dschang in Cameroon was one of the beneficiaries of such a policy. However, despite the training of over 40 faculty members, the country-wide agricultural extension model envisioned in the design of the university never occurred.

Another major impetus for engagement by anthropologists in development programs was the Alma Ata (in Kazakhstan) conference of 1978 on health care. The Declaration of Alma Ata called for a new emphasis on primary health care and on the participation of locals in the design and management of health systems. This shift from hospital-centered to people-centered health care gave medical anthropologists a window of opportunity. The Bamako Initiative —Africa’s interpretation of the Alma-Ata declaration —called for “health for all in the year 2000” and this further opened opportunities for medical anthropologists.1

Another major policy shift took place at the joint conference of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA/UN) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) held in 1984 in Arusha, Tanzania. This conference brought together experts to address the failure of Africa to produce economic and social prosperity after two decades of massive foreign assistance. In the final document, the ECA and OAU acknowledged that the beneficiaries of development had been marginalized in the process. The document failed, however, to acknowledge that the social sciences had also been left out of the process. Michael Cernea (1985) would also indicate the importance of culture and people-centered approach in his writings. Of course, the failure to achieve prosperity in Africa was not only the result of leaving social science out of development; corruption and ethnic violence both had significant roles to play.
The Cameroon Case

Through a process of slow and deliberate infiltration into the policy-making process, anthropology has come to be recognized in the intellectual circles of my own country, Cameroon. Anthropologists in Cameroon have been engaged with the State in several capacities. First, as employees of the State—civil servants—the duty of university professors has been to teach the subjects we are assigned. Second, some social scientists have become part of the State’s policy-making apparatus as members of government ministries, as deans of faculties, or even as the chancellors or vice chancellors of a university.

Cameroon became a German protectorate in 1884. For 32 years, until 1916, pacification operations to quell uprisings by ethnic groups that refused to recognize German sovereignty were conducted in the area. During this time, scanty ethnographic work was conducted (Nkwi 1989). When the combined forces of British and French troops defeated the Germans in 1915, Cameroon was split into two parts and administered under the League of Nations. France administered almost two thirds of the original German territory, while Britain took over the rest of the territory that bordered on Nigeria and administered it from Lagos. ORSTOM and CNRS worked in the French speaking part of Cameroon, collecting and analyzing ethnographic data. The creation of Études Camérounaise by these French institutions offered an opportunity to all scholars to publish their findings in a unique journal. Some of the well-known anthropologists who worked during this period include Claude Tardits (1960) and Phillipe Laburthe-Tolra (1985) from France and Peter Geshiere (1983,1984) from the University of Leiden.

Between 1916–1960, while OSRTOM and CNRS conducted anthropological surveys in French Cameroon, anthropologists from Oxford and the University College of London focused on collecting ethnographic material to give the British colonial administration a better picture of the ethnic diversity of the so-called British Cameroons. Phyllis Kaberry from London (1952), Sally Chilver (1968) and Edwin Ardener (1958, 1966) from Oxford would spend their young lives building the basis of future anthropological work in English Cameroon. A younger generation of anthropologists, including myself, would be inspired by the massive amount of ethnographic data accumulated and sometimes published in the Journal Nigerian Fields. This generation would include Philip Burnham (1996), Michael Rowlands, Jean Pierre Warnier (1993) and Richard Fardon (1990).

In 1973 the government of Cameroon decided to reorganize the research that had remained largely in the hands of French scholars. Of the seven institutes created, one institute was reserved for the social and human sciences. Within this institute a department of anthropology was established and the first head of the institute was an anthropologist. The Institute of Human Sciences remained in existence until 1993 when the government shut it down and moved the researchers to various ministries. The reasons for its closure were largely political. With the push for democracy of the 1990s, as well as the political engagement of many of the institute’s researchers, the government came under criticism for its mismanagement and for the growing economic crisis. At least ten anthropologists accepted transfers to various government departments, while others refused to accede to government pressure and instead joined various opposition parties.

Earlier, in 1962, the Federal University of Cameroon had been established. Within its Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, there was a department of sociology and it was headed by a French anthropologist. As such, anthropological research and teaching continued at the university for years, although the courses were referred to as sociology. It must be said that the emerging state of Cameroon was not hostile to anthropology, for it continued to invite and deliver research clearance to researchers from Europe, America and Asia (especially Japan).

I joined the Department of Sociology in 1976. Being the first from the English-speaking part of Cameroon, my first assignments were to assist and counsel English-speaking students as well as to teach basic courses in anthropology. Two other colleagues, who were trained in France in general ethnology, taught courses in the department as well as in the Faculty of Law and Economics. 2 While I identified myself with anthropology, they continued to call themselves sociologists. Then came the crisis of 1978. The university administration convened a meeting of the heads of departments within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. As acting head of the department, I attended the meeting, chaired by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. The Dean of the Faculty, a historian, presented a report on reforms in the faculty that implied that sociology, and anthropology would be phased out from the university curriculum. After a series of meetings involving the departmental staff, university authorities, and the government the Minister of Education called off the reforms. Strict instructions were given to the Dean to maintain sociology and anthropology in the curriculum, but the reforms were put in place nonetheless. Sociology and anthropology would be taught as part of philosophy, but no BA degrees were awarded.

When the first continent-wide conference of African anthropologists was held in 1989, the Ministry supported it and provided resources. To highlight the importance of anthropology as a teaching subject, the Minister of Higher Education asked the Chancellor of the University of Yaoundé to open the conference in the name of the Cameroon government. In welcoming the 35 African anthropologists from 21 universities, the Chancellor called on anthropologists to take their rightful place in the development arena and to show what the “discipline can do to solve some of the problems Africa was facing.” From 1993 on we rebuilt the discipline, designing courses for the Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in anthropology. Prior to this, the Bachelor’s degree was not offered in anthropology. Just eight students declared anthropology as their major in the 1993-1994 academic year, but the number grew to over one hundred just a decade later. In the 2002-2003 academic year, there were 525 students majoring in anthropology, not to mention the same number of students taking it as their minor.

During this period, I witnessed the increased involvement of the social sciences in health, agriculture, animal, environmental, and population research programs funded by the government. There were several reasons for this. First, the proliferation of development programs increased the demand for social science input in general, and for anthropology in particular. Second, the university reforms that took place in the 1980s across Africa offered an opportunity for the enhancement of sociology and anthropology teaching programs. For example, in 1985 the University of Nairobi established a full department of anthropology within the Institute of African studies; and the University of Yaoundé started a full degree program in anthropology in 1993, giving students access to both undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology.

Kilbride (1994:10) notes that Kenyan anthropologists were “struggling to resurrect anthropology from the ash heap of its colonial associations by advocating anthropology in diverse public and private forums.” By 1994, he said, Kenyan anthropology was flourishing “at universities and institutes with research on such issues as overpopulation, polygyny, the status of women, AIDS and sexuality, tourism and children’s health.” Anthropology had to rediscover itself both as an academic discipline as well as a discipline that could help to solve problems. Anthropologists had to show that they were not peddlers of tribalism but that they sought to expand the horizons of human knowledge and to adapt to new areas and the challenges of development (Montero 2002:8)

At the University of Yaoundé, anthropology and sociology remained- for historical reasons- in one department, but awarded separate degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. With increased resources and the desire to evolve independently, sociology and anthropology went their separate ways. Anthropology expanded its teaching and research and attracted an increasing number of students. The increased demand for consulting work provided visibility for anthropologists. This in turn pressured them to assert their identity and to highlight the dual academic and applied approaches of the discipline. Application was seen by many of us as the best option for the discipline to claim its lost glory. Given the strong market for professionals in both national and international development work, I argued that anthropology was a social science discipline ripe for professionalization. Many of us in academia who were already active in consulting knew exactly what was necessary. Targeting critical areas such as general health, reproductive health, population growth, the environment, and agricultural development led to the design of courses in medical anthropology, development anthropology, and environmental impact assessment. Today, the University of Yaoundé-I has one of the most active and dynamic departments of anthropology in Central Africa, attracting students from the entire region. This department played a vital role in the creation of the Pan African Anthropological Association.


The formation of the PAAA was one of a series of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped integrate anthropology into the discourse of development in Africa.

First, was the establishment of CASA, the Council on Sociology and Anthropology in Africa, by CODESRIA, (the Council for the Development of Economic and Social Research in Africa) in 1987. UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Social Sciences in Dakar, known by its French acronym, BREDA, endorsed the initiative and provided initial resources to establish the association. In 1988 CASA held its first conference in Abidjan, bringing senior sociologists and anthropologists together for the first time. The government of Ivory Coast, under then President Felix Houphouët Boigny, provided substantial financial support for the consolidation of the association, but CASA failed to market itself to anthropologists and sociologists across the continent.

The second event was a spontaneous meeting of African anthropologists during the Twelfth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (ICAES) in Zagreb in 1988. The ICAES is the meeting of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, it has been held every five years since 1934. In 1986 Lake Nyos in Cameroon exploded, killing over 1800 people. I was studying the disaster and was invited by the Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Leiden, Netherlands to present a paper at the ICAES on how anthropologists, in collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines, approached the study of disaster mitigation (Nkwi 1992).

After my presentation, which was attended by a few African colleagues, I ran into George Hagan and Albert Awedoba, from Ghana, while they were having coffee with Adam Kuper. Kuper was the then newly elected president of the European Association of Social Anthropology (EASA) and he encouraged the three of us —Hagan, Awedoba and me —to establish an African anthropological association. A chance meeting with H. Russell Bernard from the University of Florida, Gainesville, who was attending the same conference, would also contribute to the PAAA’s training programs.

The third important event was a workshop organized in 1991 by CODESRIA in Dakar to review the status of anthropology in Africa. It was an attempt to reassert CODESRIA’s determination to revive or establish professional associations. This workshop brought together a small group of established anthropologists from different theoretical and ideological persuasions. Most participants were keenly aware of the fast-paced globalization of science that was underway and were convinced of the need for greater collaboration between anthropology and other social sciences. For example, during that meeting, I argued that the emphasis should be placed on the reorganization of the discipline rather than on the “deconstruction” of ethnography and Abdalla Bujra argued for a constructive engagement of anthropology in the development enterprise.

Fourth, and most important, was the increasing engagement of the discipline in applied work generally. While anthropologists must continue to produce knowledge as their primary objective, they cannot remain indifferent to the problems faced by local communities every day. How many anthropologists confront their governments for failing to improve the quality of life of the people? How many produce ethnographies as their Ph.D. theses, obtain their degrees, and promote their careers, while remaining indifferent to the plight of people whom they studied? What use is anthropology if we do not listen to the people and assist them in finding lasting solutions to their daily problems? Anthropology must and can find ways to survive as a useful discipline without sacrificing scholarship.

It is against this background that a group of African anthropologists sought the assistance of the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research to establish the Pan African Anthropological Association. A few of the Africans who attended the 1988 ICAES got together at that congress and formed a steering committee to organize a meeting of African anthropologists. We sent a letter to vice-chancellors of African universities asking them to identify anthropologists who might attend the conference. Thirty-five participants from 21 universities across Africa attended the first conference held in September 1989. It was organized around the theme “Teaching and Practice of Anthropology in Africa.” Approximately eighty percent of the participants had been trained as anthropologists; the remaining twenty percent were from sociology, education and philosophy. Some participants described the conference as a unique occasion for anthropologists to emerge from their “academic bunkers” and practice the discipline openly and with a sense of purpose and pride.

Since 1989, the PAAA has organized twelve annual conferences and a series of training workshops for junior anthropologists. The association has also worked hard to bring the discipline closer to other social sciences. The future of anthropology depends, we feel, on how well the discipline integrates with the other social sciences. For anthropology to attract funds it must take on, and bring a unique perspective to, research problems that are common to other social sciences.

The establishment of the PAAA was guided by four motivating needs: a) the need to break professional isolation; b) the need to improve teaching and training programs; c) the need to improve research capacity and enhance publication possibilities; and, d) the need to increase opportunities for African anthropologists to participate in the growing market for consultants and for their effective participation in multi-disciplinary development teams. All of these desires were captured in the constitution adopted at the end of the first PAAA conference.

While the PAAA has helped revive anthropology on the continent, Africanists in Europe and the USA have also been reorganizing themselves, seeking greater visibility in the world of scholarship in general. In 1991, the French scholars established the Association Euro-Africaine pour l’Anthropologie du Changement Social et du Dévelopment (APAD), mobilizing Africanists in Europe to share information on the anthropology of change. In the USA in the early 1990s, Africanist anthropologists began to lobby for the establishment of an Africanist branch of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) (Catell, 1996). Their efforts were rebuffed at first, but eventually, the Association for Africanist Anthropology (AfAA) was established within the AAA. Leaders of both initiatives, the AfAA and the APAD, declared that they would work with African anthropologists for the promotion and enhancement of the discipline on the continent.

Unfortunately, after more than a decade, neither the AfAA nor the APAD have initiated constructive engagement with the PAAA, the only continent-wide professional association of anthropologists in Africa. While the PAAA has made substantial progress, the problems of running an international organization in Africa are daunting. The constituent national bases of professional anthropologists remain weak, due to lack of resources at the local level. The PAAA counts over 550 colleagues among its members, but few can pay their dues regularly because of the low salaries in African universities. In addition, members cannot finance their own way to meetings. Participants in the PAAA’s annual conference expect the organizers to pay all expenses and this is not likely to change for some time. On the other hand, few of our Africanist colleagues in anthropology from wealthier parts of the world—including Africans who have migrated to greener pastures—attend the PAAA’s annual conference. In fact, only one American colleague, Maxwell Owusu (University of Michigan), has consistently attended the PAAA conferences since 1996.


To assert its presence within the African social science community, the PAAA focused on the training of young professionals and on networking activities. We emphasized applied anthropology as the focus of academic work in order to rehabilitate a discipline that had been discredited in the post-colonial era. Many colleagues of my generation in Africa stood against those in the West who maligned applied anthropology. The West invented anthropology to study the “Other” and it defined the canons. But in developing economies, where resources are scarce, science has to be either useful or be gone. Under these conditions-- when the so-called “other” comes to study itself-- disdain for applied anthropology perforce dissipates.

As Kottak describes it, the ivory-tower approach demands that anthropologists “should avoid practical matters and concentrate on research, publication and teaching” (1997:254). Most African anthropologists, however, follow what Kottak calls the “schizoid approach.” This demands that anthropologists “should provide information for policy formulation but should not be part of the implementation process” in order to keep personal value judgments separate from scientific work (ibid). Advocacy, however, calls for greater engagement of anthropologists in designing policies that promote wellbeing or that protect people from harmful development schemes. This approach motivates a large number of African students who want to be part of the anthropological enterprise without being castigated for not doing anthropology.

Precisely because the applied option dominates anthropology in Africa, the need to stay current in method and theory remains critical. During the first PAAA conference in 1989, many participants argued that addressing important human issues, such as the need for health care, the spread of famine, rapid population growth, environmental degradation, discrimination and violence against women, poverty, and ethnic violence would enhance the discipline’s tarnished image. These problems, which affect the most vulnerable members of our African communities, could not be addressed without appropriate training in method and theory. Every brand of anthropology—interpretivist and materialist, qualitative and quantitative, applied and basic—must aim for excellence of scholarship. This was the vision for the PAAA’s training program. The program seeks to increase the skills of our youngest members so that they can compete successfully with colleagues everywhere for grants, publications in prestigious journals, consulting work and academic jobs.

The association established professional networks for the exchange of information and experiences in dealing with basic human suffering and problems. These networks organized training workshops for acquiring skills in writing proposals, in publishing the results of research, and in the use of software for data analysis. By addressing contemporary problems, the networks became a vehicle for the exchange of ideas and experiences. This, in turn, enhanced the teaching and practice of anthropology.3

If the discipline were to survive and make itself visible, the PAAA had to understand the internal logics of other sciences. Their participation in team efforts had to be more than just a token, with an anthropologist drafted into a project simply to fulfill a funding condition. Anthropologists had to offer something of intellectual and practical value. The workshops also attracted other social scientists, enhancing and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. Over the years, African anthropologists have worked closely with environmental biologists, organic chemists, economists, demographers, health providers, and others. This experience showed that multi-disciplinary work is mutually enriching since each discipline draws on its unique insights to attain a common goal. Another area of concern was the lack of good libraries in African universities. Most institutions cannot even afford new books, let alone expand their library space. All participants in the PAAA workshops received basic training in computing, if they had none, or upgrading of their computer skills, if they already had some. It was our conviction that acquiring such skills would empower young scholars to access libraries abroad electronically and keep them abreast of the latest developments in anthropology. Libraries in African universities can concentrate on the collection of materials that are unavailable elsewhere – the kind of materials that scholars everywhere require for research on African cultures and societies.

One of the problems identified during the first conference was the lack of refereed anthropology journals. In 1992, we established the journal African Anthropology that became The African Anthropologist in 1994. This journal is a forum for African scholars and Africanists around the world to debate, exchange ideas, and contribute to the social science discourse on issues of importance to the continent. Articles on development issues have dominated the journal, now in its tenth volume. Almost all articles submitted for publication focus on practical issues associated with health, agriculture, politics, the environment, ethnicity and ethnic conflicts. These articles are often the byproducts of consulting work in which African anthropologists are increasingly involved. As part of its efforts to increase the quality of articles, the PAAA includes writing clinics in its training programs.

While many of the activities of the PAAA have been successful, others have not. One of the most glaring failures has been our inability to incorporate the growing number of African anthropologists who work full-time outside of academia. The link between this large group of applied anthropologists and those teaching continues to be very weak. And, despite their growing numbers, only a few non-academic anthropologists have either joined or have chosen to participate in PAAA programs or publications. Although a similar problem plagues the mainline anthropology associations in Europe and North America, the implications of this non-participation are more serious in Africa, given its profound impact on training and employment.

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