Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Nairobi Workshop

January 25, 2018

Nairobi, Kenya– Fellows from the African Leadership Centre (ALC) and the Social Science Research Council’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program and African Peacebuilding Network gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, at the start of the new year for an academic workshop. The meeting was held in collaboration with the ALC, the Pamoja Trust, and United States International University–Africa.

This was the 12th skill-building workshop held by the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program. As an essential component of the Next Generation model, workshops deepen networks among scholars from across African academic institutions while providing valuable mentoring by professors affiliated with the continent’s top academic institutions. These workshops strengthen research capabilities, help researchers develop publications, and allow fellows to engage in an international research community.

Thomas Asher, director of the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program, noted that the workshop brought fellows of remarkable ability together so that they might have an opportunity to devise and pursue research questions of their own making and to influence public discussions of their choosing. “Too often, researchers based at more privileged universities—especially in Europe and the US—dictate the questions animating research in less well-resourced contexts,” Asher observed. “Too often, locally situated researchers are asked to produce data and quickly divest themselves of hard-won datasets that will appear in publications by researchers from wealthier and better-connected university systems. The labor of scholars working in less robust university systems is erased and their own concerns recast into a set of disciplinary issues or national frameworks not their own.”

During the workshop, fellows participated in small group conversations facilitated by leading researchers from across the continent. Fellows discussed the importance of engaging local scholarship as well as scholarly literature from the global North. They also worked to distill their arguments into rigorous and compelling abstracts and chapters.

Fellows also had the opportunity to learn from prominent academics. On the first day, fellows heard from leading scholars from both the United States and Africa, who discussed how local research perspectives inform and deepen global research puzzles and principles for equitable research collaboration. Panelists included Tade Aina, executive director of the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research; Abiodun Alao, a professor at the African Leadership Centre and King’s College London; Alondra Nelson, president of the SSRC; and Paul Zeleza, vice chancellor of United States International University–Africa.

The following day, Nelson addressed fellows in a talk titled “The Social Life of DNA: Genetics and the Pursuit of African Ancestry,” in which she discussed how African Americans make use of genetic testing to ask searching questions about reparations, reconciliation, and belonging in the African diaspora.

After the talk, fellows attended a theatrical performance by Ignite Afrika. The play, Kwe Kalyet Lwanda Magere Revisited, is a retelling of a folk story about conflict between Luo and Nandi communities based on arguments made in a dissertation by Steve Ouma Akoth, a former fellow from the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program, who served as a facilitator and peer mentor during the Nairobi workshop. The play—at times comedic, poignant, and tragic—opened up questions about how to realize values expressed in the Kenyan constitution, especially around the topics of equity and pluralism. Concluding the workshop, fellows heard from Professor Sean Jacobs, the founder of the leading blog Africa is a Country. His discussion on public scholarship encouraged fellows to think broadly about the impact of their work and gave them an opportunity to think creatively about how to share their research beyond the academic sphere.

This workshop brought together fellows from every stage of higher education—from the master’s program to the PhD to the postdoc—making the pipeline from one stage to the next more robust. “Engaging with scholars at every stage of the process encouraged fellows to consider their research from different perspectives and allowed junior colleagues to see the potential trajectory of their academic careers,” said Francesca Freeman of the SSRC’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program. In doing so, this workshop not only brought together the next generation of scholars from across the African continent but also served as a springboard for the strengthening of university capacity that will continue to pay dividends across multiple generations as fellows teach future generations and take up leadership roles in universities and community organizations.

Ruth Lekakeny, a Kenyan scholar working on women’s rights and a Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Doctoral Dissertation Completion fellow, summarized the activities of the week: “The workshop is transformative. Coming to this workshop and realizing that we aren’t just 10 or 20 fellows but 50 or 60 instills confidence and banishes the sense that we work alone. And seeing how talented the other fellows are gives you a new perspective on your own work and a greater sense of your own abilities to alter research discussions.” At the conclusion of the workshop, she lamented, “My only regret is that I entered at the completion stage and only get this incredible experience for a single year. After another year, I cannot imagine how high my confidence would be.”