In an effort to address current discussions regarding Africa-based scholars in academic publishing, the editors of African Affairs reached out to Celia Nyamweru for input from her personal experiences. Celia Nyamweru spent 18 years teaching at Kenyatta University (KU) and another 18 years teaching at a US university with a strong undergraduate focus on Africa.
What role might the ‘brain drain’ of some of the best African scholars to the US and elsewhere play in academic publishing in Africa?
It is hard to tell. This subject would very much benefit from a study of the career paths of individuals. From my own KU experience, two of our most promising historians (Tabitha Kanogo and Paul T. Zeleza) both moved to North America quite early in their careers and have had productive professional careers with lots of recognition and publication. On a personal level, my own move from KU to the USA in 1991 opened up great opportunities for conferences, participation at the committee level in the (US) African Studies Association, research funding, and eventually publications – which I doubt I would have had, had I continued in Kenya.
How do the daily pressures and tasks required of professors in African universities affect their ability to research, write, and publish in high ranking journals?
Promotion to administrative positions: One early challenge in the 1960s and 1970s was the quick promotion to administrative positions (i.e. Department Chair and Dean – and higher) that faced many of the young African university faculty as they took over from the expatriates who had been there earlier. This gave access to power and higher salaries, but took time away from teaching and research.
The temptation of paid consultancies: such offers can be very appealing in view of the relatively generous per diem and stipends – but it means that the research agenda/question is set by the employer and tends to be more of a pragmatic, problem-solving one that does not easily convert into the kind of scholarship that western academic journals require/prefer.
Heavy teaching loads: Especially for younger faculty, heavy teaching loads take time away from research. For example, in Kenya there has been a significant increase in the number of new colleges across the country. Junior faculty often travel from one campus to another to earn extra money teaching on a part-time basis. Grading loads can be extremely heavy as well. For example, my last class at KU had 510 students and the exam format was a two-hour written paper with three or four essay questions!
Local journals: In the 1970s, there were a number of locally-based scholarly journals in East Africa that could provide a first step on the publication ladder before the big international journals. Examples might be the Uganda Journal, the Kenyan Geographer, the East African Geographical Review, Tanganyika Notes and Records – and I am sure there are other examples. And now – how many of these journals are still published?
Political pressures: African scholars have often faced political pressure to avoid certain topics or go for safely ‘neutral’ topics. In Kenya this was probably worst during the 1980s under Moi’s regime. One Kenyan historian even authored a (positive) book on Moi’s ‘Nyayo Philosophy.’ Some scholars were detained and/or left the country, including the historian Maina wa Kinyatti.
On a personal level, my own move from KU to the USA in 1991 opened up great opportunities.
From your experience, what are the challenges that African-based scholars face in publishing articles with highly ranked African studies journals?
Lack of access: African scholars often lack access to recently published articles and books – even with internet access I doubt that most African universities can afford the subscriptions to the expensive online journals, and books are even more difficult to obtain.
Social networks: Recent generations of African scholars may not have had the same opportunity to develop social and professional networks with scholars in Europe and North America. Many of the first generation of African scholars at African universities completed their higher degrees in Europe or North America before returning to Africa to teach. Later generations of African scholars are more likely to have done their higher degrees at African universities and may not have had the same interaction with those from outside the continent. This can lead to a gradual weakening of their contact with (a) with ‘main-stream’ scholarship in Europe and North America and even (b) with the English language as written and spoken in scholarly discourse. Even if the internet now provides access to both language and scholarship, it cannot fully replace the influence of individual mentors and networks.
What do you think can and should be done to support African-based scholars in publishing in top-ranked journals?
Funding: More support for academic research that is not NGO/consultancy directed – this means funding for the actual fieldwork/lab work and time to conduct research. Back in the 1970s, KU had research funds of its own that were administered through the Deans’ Committee, and all university faculty were free to apply through their department chairs. I am not aware of how well this system still works, or whether most research funding comes through big externally funded projects. I remember a recent conversation with an employee of the National Museums of Kenya who told me that there are virtually no research funds available from the Museums’ own resources – staff are supposed to set up relationships with foreign scholars in order to work jointly, with the funds coming from overseas. This obviously relates to the question of ‘power dynamics.’
Travel programs: Medium term visits to North American/European universities – such as the fellowships offered through the Cambridge University African Studies Institute in the early 2000s – for about 5 to 6 months, with living expenses covered, computer access, use of the university library system, etc. I personally benefited greatly from one of these in 2004/2005. Or even possibly shorter (two to three week) workshops where scholars can bring their work in progress for critique and advice from people experienced in the publishing and editing field. This could be combined with internet-based communication but I think the face-to-face contact, discussions with others, and then time to work on one’s own project would also be very beneficial.
Featured image credit: Jomo Kenyatta University Juja Campus Main Library by Stephenwanjau. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.