Peripheral Studies

Flirting with scholastic disaster in African studies

WASHINGTON, D.C.—I have foregone Harvard-Yale weekend to venture here, where over the weekend the African Studies Association (ASA) held its annual meeting, a coming together of many hundreds of scholars under the roof of a palatial Marriott around the corner from the National Zoo.

In what is called a “serendipitous occasion,” the ASA and the Middle Eastern Studies Association have double-booked the hotel, so that their annual meetings’ overlap.

This serendipity is manifold. Several yards away, two Levantine sorts whisper to one another—one, a grey-bearded man wearing a maroon beret, puts his palms on either cheek of his lady companion, and then swoops in to kiss her savagely.

Then, just down the way, a very pale white woman appears in Nigerian garb that she has been saving for just the proper occasion: an ankle-long, garish purple gown with green-glimmering sequins. She is emaciated—presumably by choice, not because (like a good many of the Africans she studies) she lacks food—and she is stumbling down this long, paisley-print carpet with a precarious glass of red wine.

Lest I erroneously draw myself out of this Orientalist mis-en-scène, I should mention that I am presently ensconced in a Queen Anne chair, accompanied by a steady stream of gin and tonics, brought to me by a breathtaking member of D.C.’s Ethiopian community who I’ve shamelessly been flirting with, utilizing all of the several Amharic words I know.

Welcome to the absurd world of African Studies, where I have at least three times in a weekend found myself in rooms with all-white audiences—these pale dozens mulling over the endless tumult of the least-developed continent.

It is all a good deal of fun. The playful banter of unrestrained whiteys who have a serious, but not vested, interest in Africa lends itself to chat that would be verboten continent-side. The portly President of Tanzania has, for instance, been an object of singular ridicule, being described alternately as “voluptuous” and “jolly-seeming.”

But in coming here, I have a more sober mission.

I have spent my past three academic years growing ever more interested in the history of Africa. Last year saw a lengthy stay in Tanzania and a summer-long visit to Ghana. My Swahili is solid, and my French is ready to be improved. Things poised as they are, academia is not out of the question.

But like many upperclassmen, a fair bit of existential anxiety has lately welled up in me. Here’s my problem: I love history, but I am ambivalent about becoming an academic—the whitest of white-collar professionals, whose usefulness to society at large is questionable, who at worst appears to live in a detached existence floating above the mundane everyday.

This spectacle has, at least, offered up one epiphany: professors are homo sapiens, too. Just like their students back home, some will hook up, and many will get tanked. Indeed, a number are well on their way now, at 8 p.m.

Score one for normalcy, as it were.

Tonight, released from a solitary existence of research archives and state schools, these academics are having a raucous good time, set loose upon one another. But with the daytime comes a cornucopia of panels spilling over with buzzwords, a spectacle undertaken to justify comfortable existences and expense accounts. Fresh off the plane, I attended a dreadful panel on “Indigenous Women and European Men.” It started with a red-haired Englishwoman who struck a grave face and tone and peering over her grandmotherly spectacles began, “Colonizers saw the land as a passive, indigenous woman open to the penetration of European men.” Colonial historians have an enduring fondness for imagery of rape, and to satiate it, there followed half a dozen such turns of phrase. And, as is academics’ wont, the concluding note was a call for more research on those native women who’d been woven into settler creation myths, so as “to move beyond Pocahontas.” Towards the end of the second hour of this, I discovered that this was merely Indigenous Women and European Men, Part I; I cut my losses and escaped before Part II began.

For the rest of the weekend, I have deftly avoided offerings that include phrases like “The Matriarch of Snow, Fire, and Rain” or ones that bespeak academic fads that don’t quite find salience in Africa, like the paper on “Butch Lesbians’ Relationships in Contemporary Soweto.”

Yet even engaging forums seemed, on reflection, peripheral. Such was the case with a panel marking the centenary of the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa, when native rebels believed a magic potion would make them invulnerable to German bullets. (It didn’t). So mulled over is the history of the event that panelists could only discuss how elephant hunters had occupied a “liminal space” or how Germany’s African soldiers had devised an honor-based rigeur amongst themselves.

It evoked a time when I was digging through the University of Dar es Salaam library’s stacks. I found myself in a section filled with colonial travelogues, which had been left untouched for many years. Giddy, I scooped up handfuls and, no sooner had I extricated myself from the musty history section, was I amidst a dozen Tanzanians clamoring over a single economics textbook.

Surely, I’m not ready to declare my past few years wasted quite yet. But in a time where the academy demurs more and more a “big picture” in favor of endless specialization, the possibility that our education might be irrelevant is a worthy consideration.

Somehow, today’s scholars have contented themselves to exist with it. Or perhaps a hidden malaise explains why all these Africa scholars are presently in a state of diminished sobriety, beboping their cares away to Bongo Flava at the conference’s wild dance party.

Travis Kavulla ’06-’07 is a history concentrator affiliated with Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.