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We want to boost African Studies on the Continent, an interview with Professor Grace A. Musila

Stellenbosch University in South Africa plays host to one of Africa’s important literary and cultural scholars, Prof. Grace Ahingula Musila. Recently in Kampala for the second East African Literary and Cultural Studies conference, TIA’s Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire sought her for a chat.



Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire: You have been described as ‘a great young African cultural scholar’. This comes at a time that we can say is of a sort of recovery from the pain of seeing the best African literary and cultural scholars emigrate to teach in the US and Europe. Think of leading critic Simon Gikandi and many more. What does it mean to you, to have Africa as your base? To excel at your work while based on the continent?

Professor Grace A Musila: That’s a very generous description. I am flattered that someone thinks so highly of my work. I think it is hard to be an African scholar anywhere, and not take your location seriously, both in terms of the country/continent; but also in terms of the institution, and the kinds of platforms, opportunities or resources that your location makes available or undermines.

Grace Musila. Photo: Open Book Festival.

Professor Grace Ahingula Musila. Photo: Open Book Festival.

At some point the issue of African scholars working elsewhere in the world was a huge problem; often described in the rhetoric of brain-drain; but increasingly, these scholars and their location ‘elsewhere’ have been a strategic blessing in two ways: in building networks of exchange, collaboration and rigorous engagement; and in placing African voices and concerns on those mainstream platforms out there; and compelling the world to take Africa and Africa/ns’ questions and concerns seriously. So, in this respect, I like to see these scholars’ location as strategic resource-pools in a shared struggle to put Africa and Africans on global circuits of intellectual exchange. 

But back to me personally: in some ways, my location at a historically white university in South Africa is an intriguing double-location: from outside the continent, I would be considered to be based at an African university; but on the continent, given the uneven spread of resources across the continent’s academic institutions, I am in a privileged position, in comparison to my colleagues at some institutions elsewhere on the continent, but also in comparison to some institutions within South Africa. Unfortunately there is a complicated unevenness between historically Black and historically white universities in South Africa. I am personally alert to this double position of both marginality and privilege; and I try to explore ways of challenging rather than invisibilising this unevenness; and seeking points of synergy with both better-resourced and less-resourced locations in my network.

Still talking about the ‘conducive-ness’ of the African university (or the university in Africa if you like) for literary and cultural intellectual workers like yourself to operate, I’d love to hear your take on the presence of creative writers as faculty/residents of universities in the way Okot P’Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Taban Lo Liyong (shamefully have mentioned only males) were based at Makerere, University of Nairobi, Ibadan etc. in the 60s and 70s. Is the university still a conducive space for creative literary production (in terms of novels, plays, poetry etc.), as it was then?

Makerere University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Makerere University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I think the university is still a homely space for both academics and creative artists – and in fact, many continue to juggle the double role of creative and critical production, comfortably – although, admittedly, there have been attempts to create a split between the two kinds of intellectual labour. These splits have played out in intriguing generational tensions between younger writers outside the university and older academics in universities, perhaps most visibly in the Kenyan context with Kwani? Magazine’s initial tensions with some elements in the academy. I have commented on this elsewhere (“The Redykyulass Generation’s Intellectual Interventions in Kenyan Public Life”) so I won’t dwell on it here. But my sense is, this is an artificial tension that has more to do with generational anxieties between the two groups, than with the capacity of universities to continue being productive spaces for writers and broadly, creative producers. 

We must be wary of attempts to set up hierarchies between creative and scholarly production; or worse, attempts to negate each other’s labour. I don’t understand this logic of scarcity. There is enough room in the University for both kinds of intellectual labour and more. Similarly, I don’t understand this culture of needing to be dismissive of the older generation of writers and academics. At some point, it became fashionable in East Africa to be dismissive of the Ngugi’s and Achebe’s of this world; and pretend that they weren’t that great. I find that so sad and pathetic; not because I believe in any holy cows which must not be critiqued; but because this dismissal is not critique; it is lack of imagination and basic meanspritedness. It comes from a place of scarcity, which says, ‘my greatness depends on denigrating the previous generations or dismissing academics or dismissing young writers’, and I just find this pathetic. There is room for all our contributions. Art is about opening up possibilities, widening up the horizons of human potential and human beauty, not narrowing them down.

Photo: University of Nairobi.

Photo: University of Nairobi.

A lot of work is being done by literary critics and academics on the continent. Talking of your work, of Professor James Ogude’s, and of others’ can be said to form a sort of core of contemporary literary and cultural criticism on the continent. Do you see watershed moments theoretically in this work, in the way one can look at the Ngugi-led Nairobi revolution of the 60s as a watershed moment in the teaching of African Literature at African universities?

I think watershed moments happen with the wisdom of hindsight. When you are in the trenches, you simply keep on doing what must be done, and keep on trying to do your best. I suppose every generation considers its time and efforts to be cutting edge; and in that respect, I am delighted to be part of the African academy now; and to live and read at the same time as some wonderful scholars, writers and artists from across the continent. It is a great feeling, to be constantly kept on your toes; constantly immersed in exciting waves of ideas which people feel strongly enough about to invest time, thought and energy on; whether I agree with these ideas or not.

In the wake of the #RhodesMustFall movement, we have seen scholars as Achille Mbembe not only write academic work on the need to decolonise/transform the university but also engage in public spaces, newspapers, television and, most importantly to me, online spaces, articulating their ideas in ways that are accessible to non-academic audiences. You are also fairly active online. What do you think of public engagement online by academics? Is it time universities considered contributions by their staff in the form of online articles (not necessarily in peer-reviewed journals and monographs) when promoting academic staff and judging academic production?

I think some universities do consider that body of work; mostly under the rubric of public engagement, community engagement or academic citizenship. But I see the broader question you are raising, around questions of what can be termed limited and limiting conceptions of what intellectual products and productions look like, or ought to look like. It is a question worth lingering on, especially in light of that critique we always hear, about inaccessibility of academic writing; or the poor circulation of some of these publications, and broadly, the forms of elitism that haunt it.

University of Cape Town. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

University of Cape Town. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is not only a question of accessibility or even gatekeeping of knowledge though. Some of the processes and expectations of academic writing and publishing promote intellectual rigour, which in turn is how we push ourselves to produce new knowledge and update our thinking. At the same time though, the reverse is true: that while it would help to have these products recognised for promotion purposes, our primary impetus should be about the promotion and circulation of ideas. Seen that way, it becomes possible, and even rewarding, to engage and explore ideas on both platforms.

Let us also talk about the recently concluded East African Literary and Cultural Studies conference held at Makerere that you co-convened. When and how did you and Stellenbosch come on board? Why a conference on East African Literary and Cultural studies?

We were part of the initiative from the very beginning (myself and Stellenbosch University). The initiative was founded by three of us: Dr Tom Odhiambo, who teaches in the Literature Department at University of Nairobi, writer and journalist Parslelelo Kantai, and myself. The basic mission here is a series of conferences on Eastern African Studies, hosted in Eastern Africa. The idea is to have one every two years, similar to the African Studies Association United Kingdom; and the European Conference of African Studies and similar ones elsewhere.

One thing we feel strongly about is the ways in which, because of all manner of unfortunate political, economic and personal choices – which scholars like Prof Thandika Mkandawire, Prof Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, among others have written about – in the 1980s and 1990s, African universities were systematically targeted and disempowered, as centres of knowledge production. We are still reeling from the knocks inflicted during those years. For me personally, one of the saddest things about this situation is that when you think of African Studies, you have to think Europe or the US. Africa does not come to mind as the most visible location of vibrant activity in African Studies. This is shameful. Can you imagine having the most active centres of American Studies in South Sudan? Or needing to travel to Equatorial Guinea to attend the major international conferences of European Studies?

University of Stellenbosch. Photo: I Africa

University of Stellenbosch. Photo: I Africa

This is part of the impetus behind our conference series. We needed to try and remind ourselves and the world that only a few decades ago, Eastern Africa was a centre of vibrant intellectual life, with the trio of Makerere University, University of Nairobi and University of Dar es Salaam being at the forefront of important intellectual debates and discussions; and playing host to major intellectual icons from all over the world. If they could do that in the 1960s; how much more can we do now? That is our challenge to ourselves.

We hosted the first conference at the University of Nairobi in 2013; then collaborated with colleagues at Makerere University on the second conference this year; and now this larger group is joining hands with colleagues in Tanzania to host the third conference at the University of Dar es Salaam in 2017. Literary and Cultural Studies is our starting point for now, but the broader vision is for the conference series to be wholly multi-disciplinary, under the rubric of Eastern African Studies. We would like to contribute to that moment in the future when excellence in African Studies will be associated with many more African institutions; alongside CODESRIA, which currently cuts a rather lonesome figure as the most visible and most active African Studies platform on the continent.