Reflections of the day: Day 1 (January 11, 2017)
Ruth Murambadoro, Zimbabwe
The Next Generation Social Sciences workshop allows me boldly to engage with fellow colleagues and test new ideas. The caliber of intellectuals and quality of conversations l encounter at these workshops make me realise that l am a rapidly developing scholar, set to make great contributions to my community, provided that I work with the community and give voice to their urgent concerns. This echoes a crucial point raised by Professor Akosua Adomako (University of Ghana, Legon) in her presentation titled “Navigating the University Space,” where she emphasized that,
“As an academic the success of your career should not only be about gaining a name, rankings and citations, but ought to be centered on the number of people that you interact with and how they remember you. Our reach beyond scholarly journals is the most significant impact factor for which we ought to strive. An academic ought to be remembered for his or her dedication and commitment in transforming the conditions of the people around them.”
Hearing such inspiring words from an acclaimed academic challenges me to reimagine my own journey if I am to attain a fulfilling career. This presentation set the tone for the deliberations that occurred in the break-out groups for that firsts day. Fellow colleagues offered one another constructive criticism about their work in progress, helping one another improve on our ideas while ensuring that our work helps the communities in which we undertake research.
Drawing from the research projects of fellows in my group, namely Philip Oketcho (Uganda), Pedzisai Maedza (Zimbabwe), Marion Ouma (Kenya), and Leigh-Ann Naidoo (South Africa), l will use the space below to highlight the critical ideas that we shared with one another in an effort to improve our collective work.
Pedzisai Maedza researches what he calls “Chains of Memory in the Postcolony: Performing Collective Remembering in Namibia and Zimbabwe.” He asks how the Herero and Ndebele people in Namibia and Zimbabwe, respectively, who happen to be minority groups, are underrepresented in the current nation-state, and are using their experiences of genocide as the cornerstone for contesting states that give them insufficient recognition. After reflecting on the presentation made by Mr. Maedza regarding his study, colleagues argued that memory is constructed by drawing from the past and articulating it for the present. Hence, the question should also be, whose pain becomes historicized and to what end? If we go to the historical records, the stories are often written by people in positions of power. What people choose to remember and how they choose to reenact those memories is subjective, leaving out harms of the most disadvantaged members of communities while drawing attention to the goals of the elite. One therefore needs to document and recount the memories of people from different positions within society, especially those from less privileged vantage points. We focused on the heterogeneity of the communities that Mr. Maedza sought to work alongside, and all of our work will be better for thinking through these matters.
Also, the conversation was invaluable because rarely do you find a group of friendly critics of good will offering their input for the sake of making your research richer, rather than to make themselves look more knowledgeable than others.
This good will informed our conversations throughout the day. Marion Ouma is studying “Social Protection Policy Making in Kenya: A Study of the Dynamics of Policy Transfer.” She analyzed the instrumentalization of poverty at the level of the Kenyan state. Marion observed that states developed social policy protection not in response to growing inequality but too often out of concern for their own interests, which hampers the effectiveness of the policies they fashion. Elites fear the poor and the possibilities that they might be mobilized by different political agendas. The policies elites develop too often reflect these concerns, not ones grounded in human dignity. Again, we explored the different interest groups and advocacy groups that worked with the state to create and improve on social protection policy, giving more nuance and finding a greater range of questions that need to be asked in the process.
Leigh-Ann Naidoo’s project examines “Black Student Intellectuals and the New Student Movement in South Africa: The Case of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement.” One colleague shared that
“The response of university management who were quick to militarize campuses is disturbing. The play out of the protests demonstrates the failure of the transition project that the South African government adopted in 1994 and it begs the question of what change could satisfy the needs of various population groups in South Africa.”
Once again we found shared interest in insufficiently realized democratic processes and the exclusion of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of communities.
Philip Oketcho’s research looks at “Symbolic Identities: Language, Conflict and Identity Making in Uganda.” What stood out for me in his presentation is the comment made by Dr. Sarah Ssali, our group facilitator from Makerere University, that identity has always been a part of processes of human interaction, often subtle, but in other instances more visible. We explored the conditions under which identity and difference could create coalitions and bring people together and conditions under which identity was mobilized as a divisive force. Again we looked at social distinctions within groups and asked how these distinctions can be bridged or exacerbated, depending on political and social interests.
My own research on “Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in Zimbabwe: A Case Study on Tradition-Based Approaches in Two Local Communities” certainly was improved by critical input from colleagues in the program. Dr. Ssali invited me to explore how ideas about transitional justice are produced, disseminated, and commodified for postcolonial governments in Africa. She raised the idea that governments in the northern hemisphere want peace at the expense of resolving conflicts over real issues. They often force people to quickly succumb to the idea of peace before underlying tensions have been resolved. Transitional justice processes often leave out the most marginal groups (a theme that came up over and over as you can see!). She asked me to take on the genealogy of the concept of transitional justice and how it has played out in different areas, and furthermore, how this affects the way we are asking it to come to Zimbabwe. This will be my next big project.
While engaging in these intellectual debates it was easy to lose track of time. Though we have had to call it a day at 8 p.m., it is safe to say that my group members still had so much to share and look forward to the engagements for tomorrow. I can also attest that due diligence has been done to the mandate that Tom Asher, Next Gen Program Director gave in his workshop welcome speech that we should
- Reflect on how we are engaging and responding to locally articulated concerns;
- Identify the nexus between local and global scholarship, how each matters and how each can change or influence the assumptions of the other, ensuring that we challenge and alter the framing of debates taking place in the north;
- Work together to form an intellectual cohort in the truest sense of the word.
Tom also suggested that it is important for the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellows to be cognizant of their context because working in Africa requires an openness to the communities in which we work and a willingness to have members of the community shape the research questions we investigate. We turn to the communities in which we work not to get answers for questions we ask, but to make sure we are asking the right questions in the first instance.
Reflections of the day: Day 2 (January 12, 2017)
Day two of the workshop focused on the use of scholarly literature in our dissertations. The goal was to identify the ideas we are engaging, advancing, and critiquing and to address gaps in our intellectual engagement. Professor Charles Ukeje (Nigeria) opened the discussions by arguing that scholarship should always advance new thinking, even when the practical implications aren’t yet obvious.
One fellow in my group, Bernadette Araba Adjei, looks at “Water Resources Governance in Ghana: Outcomes of Formal and Customary Management Frameworks- Selected Case Studies.” Professor Ukeje invited her to interrogate the varying notions that surround the concept of water governance. He elaborated that doing so saves us from reducing the term to a mechanical process that informs how the government operates and allows us to interrogate the meanings attached to the resource: how a resource is managed, politics surrounding the topic, the people affected, and the communal and social implications. The meanings attached to a resource often determine how various actors respond in managing it. In instances where the resource has cultural connotations, the approach to managing it would be different from when the resource is regarded strictly as an economic commodity.
Throughout the discussions l had with my other group members, namely Pedzisai Maedza, Olugbenga Falase, and Wilfred Muliro, I drew out the following four remarks:
1. As African scholars, we have a responsibility to intercede and give voice to those who ordinarily would not have a voice in debates. One should actively bring the voice of the people to the debate.
2. Even when states are labeled as fragile or collapsed, there are still elements of the state that enable it to continue functioning. Therefore, widespread instability does not limit the emergence of new logic, and a good scholar should position themselves to interrogate this knowledge.
3. Mimicry is a weapon of the weak to transmit their views. In conditions of oppression, it enables the weak to challenge the oppressor in ways that transcend their circumstances. A good researcher should be able to account for the repertoire of options that local populations adopt to navigate harsh conditions—which can be evident in arts, in cultural forms, and in minor acts of disobedience that prepare a broader resistance.
4. Concepts are political tools for attaining different outcomes. The role of a scholar is to expose the interests, agency, and processes that inform understandings of concepts in each context.
The above points echo the views that were shared yesterday by Tom Asher and Professor Akosua Adomako. I believe Africa needs a next generation of scholars whose scholarly and public engagements are pursued attentively, proactively, and meticulously. We need thoughtful and sophisticated research concepts and tools if we are to make more inclusive societies.