By James Yeku
It would be nice to devote a panel at the next ASA conference in Boston or at other similar venues to the question of African diaspora doctoral students who are routinely excluded from opportunities reserved for their colleagues back at home. There is the assumption, normalized by most funding agencies/units/organizations both in African and Euro-American locations, that once a graduate student ‘escapes’ Africa, their economic fortunes naturally become better than those of their colleagues elsewhere.
That this belief is far from the truth is not my interest; what vexes me is another problematic it embeds, namely: if those at home are rendered disadvantageous by circumstances not of their own making, then they have to be extra motivated to achieve success. Herein lies the problem: the muted idea is that African doctoral students who are abroad, because of their locations, are guaranteed academic/career success. This is a curious politics of geography that gives too much agency to non-African spaces while masking the rigour, both academic and economic, most students in exilic locations must apply themselves to just to be able to succeed in academia, to travel to conferences and present a paper. The same argument can be made about the plight of postdocs.
And is there a graduate student abroad that is not gutted each time they click on a web link to a funding announcement only to discover their location already debars them from applying? In the words of the Nigerian writer Adunni Adelakun to me in a private conversation, “you are marginal here [in the West], and still marginalized [at home] and your reality does not cohere with the politics.” In other words, you cannot fathom how organizations like ASA will provide travel fund for Africa-based scholars to attend conferences here in North America, while you who live in a neighbouring city cannot attend because you can neither afford a hotel bill, or there is no provision for daycare
If you have done your graduate program in a western location in which Africa-related research is not a big deal, you know what I am talking about. You are in a frustrating limbo; your scholarly interest is not a big deal where you are, as it is not one for the canons, and those you left at home think by virtue of your not being home, you have suddenly become some sort of hero.
But of course, you know you are not one. You still have to struggle to pay for conference fees from your personal, limited income. Like one doctoral candidate at a famous Institute of African studies in the US mid-west said to me, “once you pay [hotel] accommodation from your stipend, you’re back to broke” because the 500 dollars you got as travel funding was hardly sufficient.
Never mind that, while at that, you still have to grapple with issues arising from your visa and immigration status with money from your tiny purse. And you want to get married too? Are you okay? But of course, you did, and now you have to be supported by a spouse who gives up their own dreams to ensure you finish your program as soon as possible, while your white colleagues in the home country wonder why you are in a hurry to finish your program and face the precariousness of the job market. Never mind that they too have the burden of student loans to bear.
I am probably wrong and may be accused of an inclination to share in the scarce resources of colleagues back at home, but that mindset is what I believe to be the problem. As far as I know, some of the best brains of Africa-related research are on the continent, and while they may aspire to the (unknown, precarious) conditions of some colleagues abroad, the truth is that they grind out brilliant ideas and success narratives from their often limiting spaces at home.
And there you have it; we are not different after all. Home or abroad, we thrive, we survive, and we do our best to learn new areas of research that animate ours (and, yes, get us funding in some cases). Perhaps a good strategy for doctoral candidates abroad is to make themselves visible to scholars at home while engaging with knowledge canons and formations from the continent. That way, they can retain their interests in Africa before funding to travel home for conferences arrives. Hopefully from organizations such as CODESRIA that offers scholarly opportunities that often include non-continental Africans. Groups such as The African Doctoral Lounge on Facebook that provide a space for mutually benefitting conversations for African academics in Africa and the diaspora offer invaluable resources.
If you are like me, you can also choose to engage Africa-based scholarship by deliberate citational practices. Read and cite scholars from Africa as a necessary homage and ritual of connection, while waiting for a travel grant.
One can only that when next there is a gathering for African graduate students in Accra or Nairobi, some organizer will do well to reserve a space for one or two African students who may want to travel home to connect, network and learn. It enriches the powwow.