Tag Archives: African Studies

Which organization should you donate to?

As we consider the causes that matter to us around Giving Tuesday, author Megan Hershey discusses the value in supporting local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

We all want to help. We want to aid displaced Syrians in finding refuge, support Venezuelans in the face of hyperinflation, and assist Mozambican families rebuilding in the wake of Cyclone Idai’s devastation. We want to prevent these catastrophes by promoting democratization processes and supporting development efforts—to see health systems strengthened and disaster response teams trained and funded.

Yet, for most of us, figuring out how best to give to these efforts poses a challenge. Which organizations are trustworthy? What about overhead costs? Who is positioned to do the most good?

Then there are the debates over whether foreign aid is a life-saving good or a broken system that requires a drastic overhaul. Should we take a market-based approach or work to better weave political freedom into our understanding of development? It’s enough to exasperate even the most dedicated household philanthropist.

Yet, there is good news. While we’ve been asking how best to give, spirited, locally established, and deeply embedded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have sprung up around the world and quietly gone to work on their communities’ toughest problems. Research on these NGOs spanning the last thirty-five years shows that they have had positive effects on development issues. These are the players that have embodied the injunction to “think globally, act locally.”

My recently published book, Whose Agency: The Politics and Practice of Kenya’s HIV-Prevention NGOs, offers a close look at the inner workings of these small, local organizations. Though they typically lack large advertising budgets and name recognition, they manage to achieve a great deal thanks to their local knowledge, community connections, and inherent adaptability.

When looking for an organization to support—whether in response to a humanitarian crisis or with an eye toward development—here’s why you should consider supporting a locally founded organization:

  • Access: Local NGOs operate in the areas where they were founded and often hire employees from their communities. They also usually do not need special permission to access an area in crisis. This means donations go directly to the people who need it most.
  • Embeddedness: They have relationships with local leaders and powerbrokers. While there can be tensions between NGOs and the people they reach, they are well placed to build trust, which facilitates service effectiveness.
  • Flexibility: This is a local NGO’s secret weapon. They may be constrained by donor requirements on how they can spend money; yet, when individuals give to these organizations directly, the NGOs can use those funds quickly, for the greatest needs, without dealing with too many restrictions.

You may have to do a bit more legwork to find these organizations. Read news stories and international NGO publications carefully to see what local NGOs are mentioned or ask friends who have traveled to those regions. Many governments also have NGO coordinating bodies that make NGO registries available. Do your due diligence, read up on the organizations you plan to support, ask questions, and build a relationship with someone at the organization if possible. But don’t be afraid to support local NGOs; you can be confident that your gifts will have a bigger impact, and you might even feel happier, too.

Photo of Megan HersheyMegan Hershey is an associate professor of political science at Whitworth University.

 

 

 

 

 

African Studies Association 2019

This week, the UW Press has been exhibiting at the annual African Studies Association Conference in Boston. The conference is wrapping up, but if you’re attending, there’s still one last day to stop by booth 314 for discounts on books and journals. And if you’re not in Boston, here’s a look at our new and notable titles in African Studies.


Holding the World Together, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson

Holding the World Together, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson

Featuring contributions from some of the most accomplished scholars on the topic, Holding the World Together explores the rich and varied ways women have wielded power across the African continent, from the precolonial period to the present. This comprehensive volume, focusing on agency and avoiding stereotypical depictions, features essays on the representation of African women, their role in national liberation movements, their incorporation into the world economy, changing family and marriage systems, economic impacts on their lives and livelihoods, their unique challenges in the areas of health and disease, and their experiences with religious fundamentalism, violence, and slavery.


Health in a Fragile State, by John M. Janzen

Health in a Fragile State by John M. Janzen

Based on extensive field research in the Manianga region of the Lower Congo, Health in a Fragile State is an anthropological account of public health and health care in the 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Congolese state. This work brings into focus John M. Janzen’s earlier books on African health and healing, revealing the collaborative effort by local, national, and international agencies to create viable alternative institutions to those that represented the centralized state. With this volume, Janzen documents and analyzes the realignment of existing institutions and the creation of new ones that shape health and healing. 

Throughout, Janzen explores the manner in which power and information, including science, are legitimized in the preservation and improvement of health. Institutional validity and knowledge empower citizens and health practitioners to gain the upper hand over the region’s principal diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and HIV/AIDS.


African Economic History, edited by Mariana Candido, Toyin Falola, Toby Green, and Paul E. Lovejoy

African Economic History

African Economic History publishes scholarly essays in English and French on the economic history of African societies from precolonial times to the present. It features research in a variety of fields and time periods, including studies on labor, slavery, trade and commercial networks, economic transformations, colonialism, migration, development policies, social and economic inequalities, and poverty. The audience includes historians, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, policymakers, and a range of other scholars interested in African economies—past and present.


Spirit Children, by Aaron R. Denham

Spirit Children by Aaron R. Denham

Some babies and toddlers in parts of West Africa are considered spirit children—nonhumans sent from the forest to cause misfortune and destroy the family. These are usually deformed or ailing infants, or children whose births coincide with tragic events or who display unusual abilities. Aaron R. Denham offers a nuanced ethnographic study of this phenomenon in Northern Ghana that examines both the motivations of the families and the structural factors that lead to infanticide. He also turns the lens on the prevailing misunderstandings about this controversial practice. Denham offers vivid accounts of families’ life-and-death decisions that engage the complexity of the context, local meanings, and moral worlds of those confronting a spirit child.


Ghana Studies, edited by Carina Ray and Kofi Baku

Ghana Studies

Ghana Studies is the journal of the Ghana Studies Association, an international affiliate of the African Studies Association. Published annually, Ghana Studies strives to provide a forum for cutting edge original research about Ghana’s society, culture, environment, and history. All of the scholarly articles in Ghana Studies are peer-reviewed by two anonymous referees, coordinated by an editorial team based in both North America and Ghana. Since its first issue in 1998, Ghana Studies has published significant work by leading scholars based in Ghana, the United States, Canada, and Europe. In addition, Ghana Studies features occasional material, source reports, and book reviews. It also serves to provide official notice of fellowships and prizes awarded by the Ghana Studies Association.

Ghana Studies Publishes Special Forum on First Ghanaian Archaeologist

Ghana Studies

The latest volume of Ghana Studies features a special forum in memory of James Kwesi Anquandah, who was a pioneer in the field of archaeology in Ghana. Forum editor Ebony Coletu chatted with the editors of Ghana Studies to describe Anquandah’s legacy and support for interdisciplinary research.


Ghana Studies Editors: For readers who may be new to Ghana Studies or to the field of archaeology, can you tell us why James Anquandah was such a towering figure in the field? 

Ebony Coletu: Professor Anquandah was the first student of archaeology at the University of Ghana in the sixties—and he went on to mentor five generations of archaeology students as a faculty member, along with countless others who were not working in archaeology or even students at the university. Because his research practice was deeply interdisciplinary, he attracted scholars beyond the department, many like myself just dropping in to his office to ask a few questions, but leaving with an exciting mandate to develop new approaches. You hear this in Kwasi Ampene’s article too, how conversations with Anquandah animated a speculative approach to researching musical practices in the Akan Stone Age and Early Iron Age. So Anquandah did not prescribe a method, he inspired methods, really from his energetic curiosity and commitment to telling new stories about the distant past. Also in this forum, Mohammed Mustapha and Wazi Apoh describe his “eclectic method”—which is a multi-disciplinary research protocol Anquandah used to answer complex questions. For him, it was not enough to write from a single discipline, or apply a single method consistently. Instead he wanted to synthesize history, policy, sociology, and art, to help reformulate and deepen the significance of a question and tell a better story about research findings, particularly for publics beyond the academy. 

GS Editors: What distinguishes this special forum commemorating the work and legacy of James Kwesi Anquandah (1938-2017)? 

EC: Soon after he passed, I circulated a call for papers that focused on mentorship as a way to map his influence across fields, thus “reframing the reach of archaeology.” The responses affirmed the call by capturing Anquandah’s marathon commitment to mentoring  (training five generations of archaeologists in Ghana) as well as the ongoing work of decolonizing disciplines. Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann addresses this directly in her essay, when she writes about autoarchaeology, a research practice that foregrounds direct descendants as researchers whose families have lived in or around the excavation site. She enlisted Danish-Ga descendants as researchers at Christiansborg Castle, unearthing artifacts and posing questions collaboratively. As a consequence of centering community-based knowledge production, the project inspires new pipelines for training in archaeology aimed at multilingual researchers who are gaining experience on site. She reframes the reach of archaeology by asking who can do this work and why? For Kwasi Ampene, Anquandah inspired a deep-time approach to Akan ethnomusicology, and in the process he challenges our dependence on sixteenth-century European traveler sketches typically used as evidence of musical practices. Questioning the explanatory power and the historical limits of these images, Ampene goes on to suggest a deep-time alternative: using archaeological research to speculate on the multipurpose use of agricultural instruments to make ancient music, inspired by those used for both purposes today.

GS Editors: You not only guest edited this special forum, you also contributed an essay to it in which you introduce the idea of “descendent epistemology.” Can you tell readers how your conversations with Anquandah helped you formulate this innovative methodology? 

EC: I was fortunate to meet Anquandah in the early stages of my research on Chief Sam, an Akyem merchant who led a diasporic return movement that recruited support from thousands of African Americans to purchase a ship that set sail from Texas, arriving in the Gold Coast in 1915. I had narrow interests in that first conversation. I wanted to reconstruct a fuller version of Sam’s family tree and identify a plausible link to the Sams of Anomabo, who are part of my family. Chief Sam’s life was far from conventional, leaving traces and descendants in multiple countries, including multiple wives and stepchildren. I sought Anquandah’s help to make sense of a more complex family tree. But after reading his interview notes with descendants and talking with him over several years, he began to reflect my questions back to me, noting that my concern with kinship had widened to include the technical matter of diasporic return: what was the status of African Americans who pledged to live, work, and die in African communities? Were they also, in some sense, part of Sam’s family? Sam had proposed to adopt them en masse to facilitate the process of landownership and repair a spiritual wound from separation by slavery. While mass adoption was unsuccessful, those who remained quickly integrated into indigenous communities through other means. I found Sam’s proposal, and colonial attempts to block it, an important antecedent to contemporary debates about diasporic right of return, evidence of kinship, and different routes to Ghanaian citizenship. 

GS Editors: Taken together, what does this collection of special forum essays tell us about the next generation of archaeological research coming out of Ghana? 

EC: The last essay says much on this point. Mustapha and Apoh tell a story about Anquandah’s decolonial legacy, which has shaped their own research itineraries instead of resting on a citational model that preserves what previous generations of Africanist archaeologists prioritized. For example, Apoh’s research builds new sources for the understudied topic of German missionionization and colonization in historical archaeology. While Mustapha pushes back against an exogenous theory of social complexity in the Mamprugu Traditional Area in Northern Ghana by investigating indigenous innovations that led to large scale ancient ironworking. Engmann’s work also sharpens this point by challenging value assessments in the literature, which can determine which places are considered critical to research while marginalizing others. Her work at Christiansborg Castle is groundbreaking for the sheer number of artifacts excavated in a short period of time on a site previously considered marginal. This despite the fact that it served as the seat of several administrations, from Danish governors to Flight Lieutenant John Jerry Rawlings. Though this forum began in a memorial spirit, it was exciting to edit because it features forthcoming interdisciplinary work in Ghana Studies encouraged by Professor Anquandah’s pathbreaking example.


Ghana Studies Volume 22 is available on Project MUSE. Browse the table of contents, which includes the special forum along with other articles and reviews. And if you’re attending the African Studies Association Conference this week, stop by the University of Wisconsin Press booth (#314), where you’ll find Ghana Studies alongside many of our other titles in African Studies.

Senegal Abroad

Today we present an interview with Maya Angela Smith, author of the new book Senegal AbroadThis book illustrates the experiences of Senegalese people in Paris, Rome, and New York, and is a part of our series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture.

 

How did you become interested in language in the context of migration, and why did you decide to focus on the Senegalese diaspora?

I first became interested in the relationship between language, identity, and setting as a college student. While studying abroad in Paris and Dakar, I experienced the social nature of learning a language and how this social practice varied with context. For me, learning French in Paris was a more challenging experience than learning French in Dakar. Many Parisians seemed to have little patience for language learners, and I was often self-conscious about my French-speaking abilities, worried about making mistakes. By contrast, while learning French in Dakar, I felt less pressure to speak French perfectly, partially because I was simultaneously studying Wolof, the most widely spoken national language of Senegal. Senegal, however, represented a conundrum to me. While I did not sense the same imposition of standard French as I had when studying in France, there was still a reverence for the French language that surprised me. People I met in Dakar insisted that Senegalese spoke the best French in Africa and even better than many people in France. I had not expected an African country to place so much pride in a colonial European language, all the while enthusiastically championing the various national languages of Senegal.

Furthermore, when interacting with people in Dakar, I realized that so many people had either been abroad, were planning to go abroad, or had family members abroad. Senegal, thus, was a mobile space constructed and managed through various diasporic settings. Many of the students at the university in Dakar had spent time studying in France, and I assumed that this mobility was tied to social class. However, I soon found that people from all social classes had access to the world beyond Senegal. For instance, vendors at the Marché Sandaga, Dakar’s largest market, when realizing I was American would tell me about their experiences living in New York City and about how many of their family members were still there. They would proudly show off the English they had acquired. Others, when learning of my travels to Spain and Italy, would talk about their time in these countries, and we would compare our experiences there especially as it pertained to language. These were not isolated incidents. It seemed like everyone had a story from abroad. These informal conversations I had with Senegalese in Senegal thus became a point of departure for a more formal inquiry into language and migration in the Senegalese diaspora.

 

How does your research inform your pedagogy?

My scholarship broadly focuses on the intersection of racial and linguistic identity formations among marginalized groups in the African diaspora, particularly in the postcolonial francophone world. As someone trained in sociolinguistics but who has always been housed in French departments whose primary interest is literary and cultural scholarship, my practice of bringing close textual readings to ethnographic interviews allows me to tell something new about the human condition. In my courses, I give students the tools to think critically about how we as humans engage with our environments and how we act, react, and interact with others. My goal is to help them articulate not only what they experience in their own lives, but to thoughtfully analyze how different communities and societies make sense of the world. In addition to the various forms of cultural production that we analyze in class—language, art, film, music, literature—I often have them grapple with the data I collect. I find that my interview data offer a productive space for students to comprehend the larger social and cultural phenomena that become visible in the themes we explore in class.

 

Speaking of your data, do you have a favorite anecdote from your research?

For my most recent book, Senegal Abroad, I interviewed over 80 people of Senegalese descent across Paris, Rome, and New York as they convey a variety of illuminating experiences on language, blackness, and migration. While it is hard to pick a favorite, I have a tendency to gravitate toward the anecdotes that showcase multilingualism, creativity, and humor. For instance, in winter of 2010, I was eating lunch with some Senegalese acquaintances at a restaurant in Rome. Although Wolof was the most common language used among this group, a regular patron named Idi abruptly switched into Italian to announce that he was discarding his Senegalese identity and claiming an Italian one instead. One of his friends then retorted that if he were so Italian, he should drink his water in Italian, to which Idi replied that drinking was not part of the Italian language. While the group began to argue playfully in Wolof and Italian about national identity and what constitutes being Italian, a man named Bachir exclaimed in French that he was proud to be Senegalese. As the only use of French in the whole exchange, I wondered why he would use French to profess his Senegalese heritage, especially considering the negative position he had taken in previous discussions concerning the role of the French language in Senegal. The linguistic intricacy of this exchange conveys the complexity surrounding where the Senegalese fit in discussions of Italian identity, the role of French as the former colonial language in current articulations of a Senegalese identity, and the agency that people have in negotiating these and other dynamic identities. Importantly, this exchange was happening over laughter and playful teasing as they shared a meal, demonstrating the cultivation of joy even in what many of them view as hostile spaces.

 

Why do you think the work that you do matters?

I place a lot of importance on representation. In this moment where political discourse and the media provide such a skewed and myopic view of immigrants and where their stories are usually told by those in positions of power and privilege, I wanted to find a way for the most marginalized among us to share in their own words the complexity of their lived experiences. Furthermore, in academic scholarship, most of the work on transnationalism depicts African migrants succumbing to economic temptations as the sole reason for migrating and creates a depressing picture of their existence in host countries. While I do not minimize these motivations and difficulties, I go beyond political economy and also concentrate on the pride, passion, and happiness that the people in my research achieve through their reflections on language. Their stories blur the lines between utility and pleasure, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of why and how Senegalese move.

 

Maya Angela Smith is an assistant professor of French and Italian studies at the University of Washington.

Universal Witchcraft and the Problem of Categories

Today we present a piece written by Douglas J. Falen, author of the new book African Science.

 

In 1935, the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote, “Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” Although Evans-Pritchard made a sincere attempt to explain the rationality of African witchcraft, his remark voiced an enduring Western view of the distinction between imaginary witchcraft and scientific reality. Since then, anthropologists have used less dismissive language to address such cultural differences, but this does not automatically mean they accept the reality of other cultures’ magical forces. What is the role of our own reality in our interpretation of other cultures? And what do we make of a society where witchcraft and science are not competing paradigms, but rather are similar forms of knowledge? These are the philosophical and interpretive dilemmas that an anthropologist faces in studying the occult in the Republic  of Benin, West Africa.

Sacred objects used in the creation of a deity’s new shrine

In the course of many years of research, I have come to recognize that my Beninese friends do not feel the need to make a choice between science and magic. For them, western scientific knowledge is a kind of magic that is responsible for fantastic technology, such as airplanes, cellphones, and the internet. This “white people’s witchcraft” as Beninese call it, is often likened to the incredible accomplishments of their own occult knowledge, which they call “African science” – an indigenous force that also permits people to travel around the world and to communicate via invisible waves. Another feature that these two systems share is their moral ambiguity. Beninese people acknowledge that, despite their benevolent potential, technology and witchcraft are similar in that both can result in death and destruction – such as through bombs or invisible soul attacks. This suggests that in Benin, what we might call “witchcraft” (àzě in the Fon language) is a much broader category drawing up ideas about knowledge, technology, and magic. Some informants also suggest that witchcraft is the animating force behind their indigenous deities, Christian churches, and esoteric societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. They regard witchcraft as the ultimate, all-encompassing, and universal force in the world. While people attribute misfortune, illness, and death to the work of malevolent witches, àzě’s incorporative tendencies allow traditional healers to adopt and employ new, often foreign, spiritual traditions in a supernatural arms race to triumph over evil. Beninese witches and healers battle over people’s souls, reaffirming the existence of good and evil in the world.

 A healer, right, engages in an Asian-inspired ritual to protect a patient from witchcraft

Rather than reduce witchcraft to mere folklore, or a naïve belief held by those lacking scientific rationality, I have taken inspiration from my Beninese friends for whom witchcraft is not a traditional belief giving way to modernity. Witchcraft is instead a contemporary, adaptive, and inclusive system that incorporates many domains that westerners regard as distinct – science, medicine, religion, and the occult. Although I do not expect foreign people to accept another culture’s supernatural reality, one of the lessons of anthropology’s “ontological turn” has been to encourage us to take native categories seriously and to let them shape our interpretation of other cultures. Through long-term, intimate ethnographic experience, I have come to appreciate my Beninese friends’ understanding of their world without feeling the need to discount it or frame it terms of my own categories of real, imaginary, science, or myth. Anthropology’s contribution to current social debates is to show us that cultural difference does not have to result in judgment, disavowal, and discrimination. If we make an effort to befriend people who are different from ourselves, we usually find that they possess the same human rationality as we do.

 

Douglas J. Falen is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.