On Saturday April 29, the Goupe d’action et d’étude critique – Afica (Gaec-Africa) welcomed Professor Mayke Kaag, holder of the Chair of Anthropology of Islam in Africa and its Diasporas at the University of Amsterdam, a researcher also attached to the Centre for African Studies in Leiden, Netherlands.
The meeting provided an opportunity to have a conversation with a group of around twenty students from the Université Gaston Berger on the theme of the production of academic knowledge on Islam in Africa. The theme was approached with a focus on the choices, meanings, scope and stakes of the research topics adopted by the students. Exchanges provided an opportunity to discuss what seems to be a discrepancy between the subjects that increasingly dominate research in the North, notably environmental and decolonial issues when it comes to choices about Africa, and the concerns that seem to be those of students on the continent, which focus above all on questions linked to identity and identification.
The meeting also provided an opportunity to ask what might explain the panel’s lack of interest in themes that might seem, a priori, very fashionable, such as decoloniality. In the course of the conversation, it became clear that these themes, which are very important in African research circles today, have not been centered from above, but have rather been “imposed” by new generations who have formulated very strong demands for re-semantization, but also for epistemic re-articulations offering more room for the voices of the South. The vocabularies and experiences that fed these demands came from theorizing the struggles of minority groups in society. While these changes in African research centers and the disciplines they mobilize, under the label of African studies, may be thought to have been directly inspired by the United States, the debates showed that the role played by South Africa as a laboratory should not be overlooked either.
As for the situation of African universities, including French-speaking ones, and Senegal in particular, discussions highlighted the fact that students’ subject formulations are still largely dependent on the pedagogical materials and horizons offered to them by the university. Yet this panorama is still very much linked to an unfinished experience of decolonization, transforming most study departments into spaces for repeating Europe’s cultural, literary and scientific memory. But is the question really that simple? Are there really no critical and decolonial horizons in the research subjects of choice for UGB students?
The debates showed that these topics must be taken seriously, because not only do they say what’s important to their authors, and initiate discussion about who decides what should be focused on in the study of Africa from Africa, but, in addition, they are a great indicator of students’ feelings, ambitions and plans. The feeling that something is wrong with what is supposed to bring us together and act on the problem.
Saint Louis, May 30, 2023