Committee on African Studies Holds Symposium

Harvard Focuses on Africa
Helen H. Solomon

The Committee on African Studies hosts "Africa in Motion," a University-wide celebration of Harvard's work in and commitment to the field of African Studies. Together, the reception on Thursday evening and the all-day symposium on Friday both showcase and celebrate Harvard's commitment to African Studies and the new opportunities in the field as a result the recent Title VI Grant of nearly $2.5 million in Federal Funding that Harvard received from the Department of Education when it was designated a National Resource Center for African studies. Jacob Olupona, Professor of African and African American Studies and Professor of African Religious Traditions, Harvard Divinity School, along with other distinguished panelists, participate in a round table discussion on the future of African Studies.

Highlighting an interdisciplinary approach to studying Africa, the Committee on African Studies last Friday held “Africa in Motion,” a day-long symposium that featured Harvard faculty, journalists, and current and former fellows.

Speakers pointed to positive developments in Africa’s trajectory throughout the day, while also critiquing outdated methods of looking at the continent.

Panelists from diverse fields of study—from history and anthropology to medicine and business—introduced themselves with short contextual lectures, then discussed the outlook on healthcare, the economy, and statehood in Africa. The event ended with a roundtable moderated by History Professor Caroline M. Elkins, chair of the Standing Committee on African Studies.

Kennedy School student Sagal M. Abshir, who asked one of the panels about the absence of a stable state in Somalia, said the speakers provided unique perspectives.

“They came at it from completely different angles, which was all very interesting and very rich,” she said.

The symposium, which was funded by the Provost’s Office, the Du Bois Institute, and other donors, also served to show Harvard’s commitment to liberal arts, according to Elizabeth Liao, who works with the Committee.

Speakers noted the historic nature of holding an interdisciplinary discussion on African issues.

“When I was in graduate school, we just didn’t study Africa,” said Monica D. Toft, an associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School. “It was off the map, in a sense.”

Toft, who was also a panelist, added that, in the past, the continent was studied primarily in the context of comparative politics.

“This does mark a historic moment, not merely for Harvard, but for African studies [in the United States],” said John L. Comaroff, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago who chaired one of the panels.

Liao said that the event was indicative of the Committee’s increasing prominence since Elkins became chair.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education designated the Committee on African Studies as a National Resource Center, an honor that will bring with it $2.5 million in grants over the next four years.

“Harvard is extremely interested in expanding its engagement in Africa,” Liao said.

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