An activist approach to African Studies

DSC00484copieNjeri-kleinerThe Introductory course to the African Studies Research Masters here in Leiden was an interesting and busy period. Each class presented a different angle through which African Studies is approached; for example economics, religion or history. Although the lecturers could only provide an overview of their respective areas of expertise, their lectures were still thought provoking and introduced new and fresh concepts. In addition to the classes, the assignments given were frustratingly and thrillingly open ended – giving the students a true opportunity to explore their interests instead of simply fulfilling the mundane task of writing a paper. Besides these in-classroom experiences, there were many opportunities to explore outside of the classroom, like the seminars held at the African Studies Centre and a variety of other occasions outside of university. The connectedness of the ASC to a larger Africa focused network, which includes other universities, NGOs and businesses within the Netherlands, is a true strength of the programme.

The ‘dark’ continent
Personally, I was a bit overwhelmed (positively) by my experience here at the ASC. I was inspired by the thoughts presented during lectures and by tools available to encourage the students in their studies. For example, in the exploration of the history and development of the field, the concept of using African Studies as a tool for the Western world to understand itself better by focusing on Africa as its opposite (think the labelling of Africa as the ‘dark’ continent) was honestly refreshing. I am not sure that this style of open and honest reflection is to be expected in many African Studies programmes. The openness of the assignments allowed me to be critical of my own ideas in front of the entire group. Exploring my thoughts openly instead of doing so behind closed doors and presenting a polished finished product, is an important aspect of sharpening my thinking process.

Pioneers of African Studies
With respect to the coming months, I am curious to see if, how, and where I will find my niche here at the ASC. Due to my personal and educational background, I am used to a learning environment that challenges students to look closely and critically at current events. This approach also challenges students to use the acquired knowledge to contribute to dialogues and debates about existing disparities and injustices. In the spirit of this approach, Charles Ambler noted in a  speech in 2010 the need for Africanists to be more aware of the legacies of Africanists of the 1800s, such as Edward Blyden (see photo), Africanus Horton and others. These often forgotten ‘pioneers of African Studies’ (Ambler 2011: 7) showed a commitment to ‘an approach that (…) takes an activist stance that is deeply (if often indirectly) engaged in the work of making or supporting economic, social, and political change’ (Ambler 2011: 7). I am seeking and hope to find an environment within the African Studies Research Masters that will continue to nurture and sharpen a similar approach within my academic work.

Edward Wilmot Blyden blog 2013-1

Ambler, C.(2011). “A School in the Interior” African Studies: Engagement and Interdisciplinarity. African Studies Review 54(1), 1-17. Cambridge University Press

– Njeri Mwaura


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