• Funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the New York–based American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the African Humanities Program (AHP) operates in five countries: Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda.
• The AHP is driven by energetic scholars and university administrators in Africa, led by an advisory group made up of senior scholars from the countries in which it operates along with two U.S. advisors.
• In the decade since its launch in 2008, the AHP has invested more than $14 million to fund 400 scholars early in their careers, with more than 100 senior scholars at African universities serving as peer reviewers and advisers.
• Working to counter the marginalization of humanistic studies, the AHP supports individual scholars in the humanities and interpretive social sciences in the hopes of strengthening and revitalizing institutions and scholarly networks on the continent.
• The AHP offers predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships to individual scholars, sponsors intensive manuscript development workshops and intraregional meetings and colloquia, provides residencies for scholars outside their home country, and much more.
• While the program was to end in 2018, the Corporation approved a centenary grant to ACLS to support the work of the AHP for a further three years, with the understanding that sustainability must be "baked into the grantmaking." The goal: that AHP become a "full-fledged Africa-based program."
A Decidedly African Affair
A fellowship from the African Humanities Program in 2013 allowed Amanda Tumusiime, an artist and senior lecturer in the Department of Visual Communication, Design and Multimedia at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, to do many things: take a year off from teaching to pursue her research on gender and the visual arts in Uganda; complete a residency at Rhodes University in South Africa, where she met colleagues working in her field; and connect with an important journal of African arts, to which she contributed and eventually edited. It also helped her to enrich her own painting practice by situating it in a larger theoretical field.
But as important to Tumusiime was what happened after her fellowship year was complete: she began mentoring students and sharing professional development skills and publishing opportunities with her peers. “Through the AHP,” she says, “I have been able to influence the communities around me by creating a ripple effect.”
The African Humanities Program (AHP) is one of several programs focusing in recent years on the humanities in African academia — most notably, the Mellon Foundation’s International Higher Education and Strategic Projects (IHESP) program. These initiatives are largely driven by energetic scholars and university administrators in Africa, with the support and financial backing of global foundations. The program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the New York–based American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), an organization dedicated to “the advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and the social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among the national societies devoted to such studies.”
Though supported by American organizations, the AHP is a decidedly African affair, administered, in part, by a small secretariat located in South Africa and guided by an advisory group made up of senior scholars from the five countries in which it operates (Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda), along with two U.S.-based experts. Since its establishment in 2008 the program has supported hundreds of researchers by providing pre- and postdoctoral fellowships, offering travel grants, creating mentoring opportunities, and more. Many of these scholars, like Tumusiime, have subsequently taken on the role of mentor within their own academic communities. Plugging into networks of scholars, they deepen the role of the humanities in Africa while expanding AHP’s influence and effects. Now in its tenth year, the AHP is taking stock of its considerable achievements in supporting scholars and institutions of higher education in Africa, and looking toward the future of the humanities on the continent.
Why the Humanities?
In the wake of decolonization across the African continent in the mid-20th century, political leaders of newly independent nations saw education as one of their most urgent priorities. How do you build the infrastructure and gain the knowledge — whether in medicine, science, engineering, economics, or a host of other scientific and technical fields — to improve the lives of their citizens? And, equally important, how do you write a new, postcolonial story of Africa — of its histories, its arts, its philosophies and literatures, its musical and cultural traditions — told not through the eyes of its colonizers, but by its own makers, scholars, and thinkers?
The answer to these questions involved investing heavily in higher education. Among countries in sub-Saharan Africa, between 10 percent and 25 percent of all government spending went toward education in the postindependence era, with up to a quarter of this amount dedicated to colleges and universities; even 50 years later, in African countries an average of 16 percent of all government spending goes to education, more than the U.S. (13 percent) or European nations (11 percent), according to the World Bank.
This investment resulted in great payoffs in the 1960s and 1970s, which many refer to as a “golden age” for higher education among African nations. But challenges emerged in the decades since — a combination of economic shocks, changes in government (including the rise of military and authoritarian regimes), and debt crises leading to interventions by the World Bank and the IMF — that have taken their toll on institutions of tertiary education in a number of countries on the continent. Recent years have witnessed a movement “to build education, training and innovative ecosystems that have local relevance, global competitiveness and mutual recognition to enable us to equip the African citizenry with the necessary knowledge and skills needed to build the Africa we want,” said Sarah Anyang Agbor, commissioner for human resources, science, and technology for the African Union. Speaking at a pan-African conference on education held in Nairobi in April 2018, Agbor stressed, “Quality education is imperative if Africa is to attain this vision, generate home-grown solutions to African challenges, and participate fully in, and influence the global knowledge economy.”
Visual Activism In Flora III (2010), the Nigerian artist Nnenna Okore uses cast-off paper and rope, glued together in complex coils and swirls, to create an abstract arabesque design that evokes a blossom — transmuting detritus into an image of the organic. Art historian Nkiruka Nwafor, a 2014 AHP fellow, is interested in the younger generation of African artists like Okore, whose artistic projects “constitute contemporary visual activism, intended to bring to the fore political, cultural, societal, and historical issues in Africa.” (Courtesy of Nnenna Okore)
However, this recommitment to higher education across a number of African nations has tended — as it has in the U.S. in recent years — to focus a vast proportion of resources and attention on STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) along with other policy-based subjects, including many in the social sciences and business. In this context, says Professor Bertram Mapunda, principal of Jordan University College in Tanzania, the humanities are at an extreme disadvantage. “Generally, the humanities are undermined. Affected by economic hardship, most leaders become shortsighted, and consider the humanities a noncontributor to the economy. Across the continent, emphasis is placed on technology and research that is seen to alleviate poverty. In fact, direct efforts are sometimes made to undermine humanities scholarship — in Tanzania, for example, student loan programs deliberately favor students in the natural sciences at the expense of the humanities.”
This lack of robust support for the humanities has wide-ranging implications. One of them is the fact that much scholarship about Africa is being produced outside the continent. As Andrea Johnson, program officer in Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Higher Education and Research in Africa program, puts it, “How do you ensure that African history is written in Africa? The research and ideas of African scholars based in Africa should be elevated at least as high as those of scholars based in the Global North. The challenge is to find ways to sustain humanities research in the continent when financial resources are scarce.”
“No knowledge-led development strategy can succeed without a solid core of humanistic understanding and humane values. To envision the future, we must understand the lessons of the past. To act in the present, we must be sensitive to current cultural complexities.”
— Recommendations for Reinvigorating the Humanities in Africa (2015)
At the same time, there is a growing recognition among education leaders in Africa that the expansion of science, technology, and applied social science must be accompanied by a broader understanding of the human condition, of history, and of the arts. A group of scholars from Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia recognized this urgency in a report — titled Recommendations for Reinvigorating the Humanities in Africa — prepared for the AHP in 2014. “It is clear,” the authors write, “that the marginalization of the humanities must be remedied, because no knowledge-led development strategy can succeed without a solid core of humanistic understanding and humane values. To envision the future, we must understand the lessons of the past. To act in the present, we must be sensitive to current cultural complexities.”
More recently, Professor Kwesi Yankah, a former associate director of the African Humanities Program who now serves as Ghana’s minister of state for tertiary education, made the case. Speaking at a 2018 gathering in Accra, he reminded stakeholders in higher education that the humanities have long played a specific and urgent role in ensuring the sovereignty of African nations in the face of the overwhelming forces of globalization in the postindependence era. Ghana’s early leaders were convinced that “through the arts, Ghana could fashion a unique national identity that would be used as a tool for resistance and also for accelerated development,” Yankah said. The question that faces Ghana and other African nations now is how to reclaim that legacy.
Reinvigorating the Humanities in Africa, Visualized The African Humanities Program supports scholars based in five countries on the continent pursuing research in a wide range of topics in the humanities and the interpretive social sciences. A good deal of this work, as it happens, is directed toward study of African languages, history, literature, and various aspects of African identity — thus furthering the goal of supporting the study of Africa by Africans. As the bar graph above illustrates, the program is highly selective and has become increasingly so over the years, with only about 16 percent of applications selected for funding. In light of the extreme gender imbalance in academia on the continent, it is significant that 34 percent of successful applicants are women.
Reinvigorating the Humanities
The African Humanities Program is one of a number of initiatives focused on shoring up humanities education in the face of such challenges. It emphasizes support for individual researchers in the hopes of strengthening and revitalizing institutions and scholarly networks. This has partly to do with its history, coming on the heels of similar ACLS initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe, according to Andrzej W. Tymowski, director of international programs at the American Council of Learned Societies. “The AHP emerged in the wake of another Carnegie-sponsored program, which was focused on the former Soviet Union. The broad purpose of both was similar — to support individuals in the humanities so that they could continue to build the scholarly infrastructure in their home countries.”
The choice to focus on individual researchers is especially crucial within the context of the region. Among the many challenges faced by the humanities in African tertiary education, the stresses placed on the shoulders of university lecturers and professors are near the top of the list. This is in part due to sheer demographic realities — as the population increases and as governments expand access to primary and secondary education, more and more students are pursuing degrees. In fact, university enrollment across all sub-Saharan African countries has grown from 181,000 in 1975 to approximately 8.8 million in 2016, while the number of higher education institutions grew from 130 in 1990 to more than 1,500 in 2014, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics and the World Bank, respectively.
Many politicians and policymakers would like to see more students take up STEM and other fields seen as relating directly to development goals in order to train a homegrown citizenry to confront economic, environmental, health care, and other immediate concerns. But elementary and secondary training in STEM subjects is often lacking, and at the university level these courses of study are expensive to offer, making few seats available. As a consequence, many students end up taking humanities courses instead. This means bigger classes, more demands on lecturers, and less time for mentoring graduate students toward their PhDs, which in turn results in fewer and fewer qualified teachers completing their degrees and entering the academic pipeline, and even less time for research. Salaries for university lecturers are poor, research funding is hard to come by, and working conditions in general are challenging — prompting some of the most qualified researchers and thinkers to move abroad to better-resourced institutions, and others to risk professional stagnation by staying close to home. Financial constraints make traveling to international conferences in one’s field difficult, and the relative parochialism of the academic communities in the Global North means that few scholars outside Africa have access to, or cite the work of, their African peers, leading to intellectual isolation on both sides.
The result is startling: while Africa is home to 13.5 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for less than one percent of its scholarly output in the humanities, despite producing some of the world’s great public intellectuals and demonstrating — throughout the continent — a deep commitment to higher education.
Site-Specific Doung Anwar Jahangeer, a Mauritian-born artist based in South Africa, was included in Ruth Simbao’s groundbreaking Making Way exhibition, featuring artists from the Global South tackling questions of mobility. Part of Jahangeer’s project involved a performance, The Other Side with the Matebese Family (2012), in which he ground a special reddish-brown soil traditionally used by the Zulu people for self-adornment and protection from the sun’s rays, and applied it to the faces of the (white) figures that compose the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown, South Africa. The gesture, says Jahangeer, “welcomes this history into the present” — instead of taking down a monument to white colonialism, the artist modifies the sculpture to spark conversations about often unquestioned aspects of the past. An art historian at Rhodes University whose research ranges widely, from performance theory and site-situational art to the geopolitics of knowledge and “Western-driven theories of diaspora and globalization,” Simbao was a 2010 African Humanities Program fellow. (Courtesy of Doung Anwar Jahangeer | Photo: Ruth Simbao)
Enriching the Scholarly Experience in Africa
Supporting humanities scholars in multiple ways, the AHP
• offers predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships to individual scholars, allowing academics at different stages of their careers to take time away from teaching and administrative duties in order to complete their dissertations or the manuscripts of their first books
• works with the U.S. African Studies Association to sponsor scholars from the continent to travel to annual conferences, where they are able to present their work to an international audience and make connections with peers
• sponsors intensive manuscript development workshops and publishes a book series, helping select fellows get their scholarly contributions out in front of a global readership
• sponsors intraregional meetings and colloquia, enabling scholars in Africa to develop networks for mentoring and intellectual exchange
• gives scholars the opportunity to do a residency outside of their home country at one of a number of residency centers in the five AHP countries as well as at the West African Research Center in Senegal, giving them the opportunity to focus on research and writing outside of the demands of day-to-day life and to meet peers and senior colleagues abroad
Moreover, although perhaps less easily measured, the support offered by the African Humanities Program allows ambitious scholars to imagine a professional life in Africa, without feeling the need to emigrate in order to pursue their research.
The American Council of Learned Societies will mark its 100th anniversary in 2019. As part of the celebrations, in August 2018 it was announced that 11 PhD candidates and 43 early career scholars — drawn from a record number of applicants — had received over $940,000 in fellowship funds. In the decade since its launch in 2008, the AHP has invested more than $14 million to fund 107 predoctoral fellows and 299 postdoctoral fellows working at 66 universities in the five countries in which it operates. The research areas supported include the linguistics of African languages, African histories, and African literatures, but fellows also pursue work in art history, philosophy, gender studies, film and media studies, and English literature, as well as a host of other fields.
The impact of the African Humanities Program, including the communities it has generated, is already visible in myriad ways. Bertram Mapunda, who has been a core advisor to the AHP since the third year of the program, sees several tangible effects. “First, of course, it provides research opportunities for young humanities scholars. This spills over into more publications, and, consequently, into accelerated promotions to senior lectureships and professorships. Thanks to the predoctoral fellowships, we also see students completing their PhDs faster than before. Both junior and senior scholars are able to travel within the continent — junior scholars have the opportunity to take up residencies at research institutions during their fellowship year, and senior scholars, who act as mentors and assessors within the AHP structure, receive travel grants.” Mapunda adds: “The mobility offered by the AHP has resulted in the development of a strong scholarly network, enabling researchers to share experiences and enrich their research.”
Creating the right conditions — so that scholars and ideas could move freely within the continent — was at the heart of the African Humanities Program from the very start. Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University and chair of the board of the ACLS at the time the program was conceived, notes that due to a history of colonization, many African universities tended to be oriented toward Europe and America, drawing their curricula, exams, external examiners, and other structures and traditions from outside the continent. “Against that background, it seemed like a good idea to create interconnections within the continent,” Appiah explains. “And this is something that the ACLS knows how to do very well. ACLS is the collection of the American learned societies, the academic professional organizations of various fields. And those organizations connect departments and programs across universities. The ACLS has helped create networks that develop professional fields, develop and raise standards, and so forth.
Due to a history of colonization, many African universities tended to be oriented toward Europe and America, drawing their curricula, exams, external examiners, and other structures and traditions from outside the continent.
“It’s expensive to do that, and African universities operate with severe economic limitations, by American or British standards. There’s not money sitting around just waiting to be used. But our idea was if you could set this up and get it going, then the institutions themselves might realize that there was a value in connecting your faculty with other people outside your university. You could show the yield that comes from collaboration.”
Appiah notes that in the 1980s and 1990s, the main professional and scholarly group for historians of Africa was in fact based in the U.S. That scholarly landscape is starting to change. AHP fellows, along with the scores of scholars who have worked with the program as advisors, application reviewers, and mentors, are beginning to coalesce into a cross-continental network of advocates for the humanities in African higher education. Some of these networks are informal, while others are being formalized as structured bodies, including the newly formed Network of Nigerian Historians, the Nigerian Humanities Society, the African Humanities Forum, and the African Studies Association of Africa. Fellows who connected through the AHP have organized transcontinental comparative research conferences, making the work of geographically distant scholars available to a pan-African audience.
A Ripple Effect
As Bertram Mapunda points out, a significant increase in mentoring is one of the most important consequences of the African Humanities Program. Former fellows and program advisors are enthusiastically passing along their expertise to their PhD students and peers in many ways. They’re organizing professional development workshops at their home institutions; they’re guiding next-generation and new-generation academics in grant writing and manuscript development; and they’re holding writing retreats. Such initiatives, often begun at the major research universities spanning the continent, are sometimes replicated at smaller institutions, expanding the reach and impact of the larger schools.
At Makerere University in Uganda, Angelo Kakande, chair of the Department of Industrial Art and Applied Design and a former AHP fellow, began conducting writing workshops for his students and colleagues. “When I returned from a manuscript development workshop in Dar es Salaam [Tanzania], I wanted to test out how someone could write an article in 12 weeks. I got the opportunity to introduce what I learned there to the doctoral students at the art school.”
“There were students who had been writing their proposals for five or six years,” notes Dr. Kizito Maria Kasule, dean of the school. “Since Dr. Kakande introduced this platform, we have been able, during the previous two or three years, to have about seven students who have successfully defended their PhD proposals or their doctoral theses. So I requested that he coordinate the PhD seminar.”
Such efforts have resulted in a sharp uptick in published research. “The academic staff and students have published over 23 papers” since the workshops began, says Kasule. Furthermore, according to Dr. Henry Alinaitwe, principal at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology at Makerere University, “Most of the faculty who have taken part in the manuscript development workshops have been promoted to the rank of senior lecturer” thanks to their increased scholarly output.
One of the major challenges facing scholars in Africa is the relative invisibility of their work to
their peers. A recent study in the British medical journal the Lancet notes that the work of Africa-based researchers represents significantly less than one percent of all global citations — an important marker of the reach and influence of ideas.
African-Focused and Sustainable
Funding for the African Humanities Program was to end in 2018. But at its December board meeting, Carnegie Corporation of New York approved an additional centenary grant to ACLS to support the work of the AHP for a further three years, allowing its African partners to usher the program into its next phase of existence. “The goal now is to build on the network and mentoring successes of the AHP, so that in the near term it can become not only Africa-focused but also African-directed. The legacy of Carnegie funding would be, we hope, an autonomous and self-sustaining African Humanities Program,” says ACLS’s Andrzej W. Tymowski.
“This means deploying the tremendous capital that has been accumulated by the program so far. The active community of AHP scholars can build bridges across the continent to catalyze intellectual exchanges,” Tymowski continues. “Because the humanities study the natural human propensity to tell stories, it is easy to see why the humanities are crucial for understanding African cultures. The goal of the African Humanities Program is to encourage and enable Africans to tell their stories in as many ways and to as many audiences as possible.”
The goal of centering the priorities of their African partners and achieving sustainability is also at the heart of another major funding initiative on the continent — The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s International Higher Education and Strategic Projects (IHESP) program, created in 2014 and headed by Saleem Badat.
“Because the humanities study the natural human propensity to tell stories, it is easy to see why the humanities are crucial for understanding African cultures. The goal of the African Humanities Program is to encourage and enable Africans to tell their stories in as many ways and to as many audiences as possible.”
— Andrzej W. Tymowski, American Council of Learned Societies
While the African Humanities Program offers fellowships to individual scholars, the Mellon Foundation’s work in the region focuses on supporting universities and other institutions — in South Africa (where Mellon has been working for 30 years), plus institutions in Uganda, Ghana, Egypt, Lebanon, and Senegal. “So what exactly do we support?” asks Badat. “We support their priorities in the arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences.”
This support may be in the form of research, faculty and graduate development initiatives at each individual university, collaborations with other institutions in their countries, and transnational collaborations with other institutions, located mainly in the Global South. It also includes building scholarly infrastructure, which could encompass the establishment of archives, digitization, library development, and the creation of graduate programs. (Physical infrastructure is not a priority for IHESP, although the foundation has supported increasing internet bandwidth, a crucial prerequisite for scholarly research and one that is often lacking.)
Badat emphasizes that the work the Mellon Foundation does in supporting institutions in Africa is done with an eye to — and in conversation with — other agencies working in the field, including the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Ford Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the Canadian International Development Research Centre, and Carnegie Corporation of New York. “We talk to each other about our grantmaking and experiences. We know each other. We know that we don’t need to put resources into certain areas because our colleagues at other agencies are doing that, so we can focus our attention where it makes sense to us and our mission. We meet regularly with Carnegie around questions of who we are supporting, and what issues are important. We share information and ideas, because we have a common commitment to helping build institutions in Africa and the Middle East.”
Badat was, after democracy in 1994, the first head of the policy advisory body to the South African minister of higher education, and served as vice chancellor of Rhodes University in South Africa before taking up his current role at the Mellon Foundation. He is pragmatic about what it means to promote, defend, and advance the arts and humanities — the mission of the Mellon Foundation — in the context of African nations: “Because of the particular history of Africa, and of countries shaped by colonialism and neocolonialism and by unequal economic relationships and trade, these societies have major challenges in addressing the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, inequality and poverty, and of creating and ensuring a better life for their citizens and their people. In that context, governments by and large devote much of their scarce resources to economic and social development, and to the STEM areas. So even when, on occasion, there is a recognition that the arts, humanities, and social sciences are important and not just for narrow developmental or instrumental purposes, the budgets simply are not adequate to sustain and support those areas.”
At the same time, Badat insists, sustainability is an issue: “A key challenge that the Mellon Foundation and anyone else working in this context has to contend with is how to provide support wisely, but also how to help leverage other support from states, the corporate sector, and other sources. Sustaining universities and the arts and humanities — which is the Mellon Foundation’s interest — cannot just be a philanthropic commitment. It has to be a larger commitment. So our grantmaking is constantly looking at how we may engage with universities and simultaneously engage with the state and other potential partners, and how we can build partnerships, so that ultimately we make progress both via Mellon support and via the internal resources in each of these countries that can be galvanized and leveraged to support the arts and humanities.
“Any progressive funder has to constantly think about how you sustain initiatives, how you ensure that important programs and projects are institutionalized,” Badat continues. “Not to see themselves as the key and all-knowing actor. That kind of modesty is important if you wish to be a genuine development partner.”
Bertram Mapunda agrees that sustainability must be baked into the grantmaking — and for him, the three-year transition period that Carnegie Corporation is funding is a model: “It is important because it offers an opportunity for humanities scholars in Africa as well as their collaborators across the globe to ensure that the gains accrued over the past 10 years are not only sustainably maintained but multiplied.” He continues, “We need to turn the AHP into a full-fledged Africa-based program, and to do that we need to make clear to the public, to our governments, and to private and public funders (both inside and outside of Africa) of its considerable achievements so that they will take over support. And we need to continue to develop the network of AHP alumni (both fellows and mentors) so that they become a united block that can then expand outwards, bringing others into the fold so that there is a real strength in numbers among humanities researchers across the continent.” ■