How to study Africa as a European, in 2016?

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For as long as there have been contacts between Europe and Africa, Europeans have studied the African continent in (almost) all its aspects. By now, I think it is safe to conclude that this has benefited Europe and the Europeans. So from a Eurocentric perspective, one conclusion at least is fair: Africa is definitely a continent worth studying!

Africans have not been idle either, because many of them have devoted considerable energies to a careful study of Europe in (just about) all its aspects. Whether or not and in which ways this has been to the benefit of Africa and the Africans is not for me to judge. Unfortunately, some of the best African minds who have studied Africa have had little other choice than to do that in the diaspora.

Many of the Europeans studying Africa, and I count myself as one of them, have been well-intentioned and well-meaning. But many Africans have had more than their stomach’s full of well-meaning but perhaps sometimes (not just) a little patronizing attitudes and have become less welcoming over the years. Those patronizing attitutes were perhapse tolerated in the past, for the sake of the money that Europeans sometimes brought to communities, but that is becoming a thing of the past. No reason to complain here: after all, Europeans have been received far more kindly in Africa than Africans have been received in Europe.

In the ‘good old days’ of colonialism and apartheid, things used to be easy, in a way. It was easy for a well-meaning European to choose sides against colonialism and apartheid. But now? I spent years of my life feeling solidarity with ZANU and ZAPU in their struggle against the Smith régime in then Rhodesia, and later in trying to build the new Zimbabwe. But I can no longer defend that choice these days, and I am not so sure about Tsvangirai either. Frankly, I have become a bit disillusioned, as well-meaning European, and I’m not the only one.

But this European disillusionment has in turn led to what must feel to Africans like a particularly hurtful brand of patronizing theory about Africa – the type that says that Africa is underdeveloped simply because Africans are hopeless. It’s never really said this way – but it shines through in many European discourses about Africa – and I wouldn’t be surprised if many Africans would get an allergic rash whenever they are confronted with this attitude.

So what to do, if you’re a well-meaning European and want to avoid this pitfall? I’m afraid there is no alternative for the thorny path of solidarity. After all, Africa’s history is not only a history of exploitation and oppression. Africa’s history is also one of resilience, resistance and attempts to build countervailing power. Today, I see examples of that in the environmental movement, (some) trade unions, in the women’s movement and in the work of African artists – and I’m sure there must be more that I don’t see.

Any European studying Africa these days needs to make a conscious choice: who’s side do I want to be on? Whose interests do I want to serve in my study? Do I want to build my career by following current fashion? Do I want to serve multinational corporate interests? Do I want to be a scientific tourist?

Neutrality, I think, doesn’t exist. So if the choice is like mine – to see yourself as on the side of those who are resisting oppression and are trying to build an Africa based on authenticity, based on the interests of the peoples of Africa and not based on narrow self-interest – then the only way open is the thorny path of solidarity. The only way is to seek alliances with those Africans that seek the same path – and be modest and conscious of the pitfalls.

I’m open to hearing anybody’s views on this…

Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is pursuing a Masters’ in African Studies.

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