Skip to main content

Anthropology and the African Postcolony: A Roaming Conversation Between Graduate Attachés

By April 8, 2022No Comments

After meeting during the 2022 cohort of the British Institute of East Africa’s Graduate Attaché Scheme (GAS), Sharon A. Otieno and Aaliyah O. Ibrahim sat down to have a winding conversation about their shared interests in Anthropology and the study of Africa today. The conversation topics were inspired by GAS bi-weekly meetings with Prince Guma and weekly African Theory Reading Group by Loice Ongera at the BIEA.

Aaliyah O. Ibrahim: At the beginning of the On the Postcolony, Achilles Mbembe writes, “but it is in relation to Africa that the notion of “absolute otherness” has been taken farthest. It is now widely acknowledged that Africa as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world.” In these sentences, Mbembe lays the foundation for one of the things I have always struggled with the most when it comes to anthropological thinking. It seems to me that anthropology, being a study of human cultures and society, is a study that thrives on ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’. We, as aspiring or current African anthropologists, have to keep struggling with how the field creates and perpetuates differences that are destructive to all ‘Others’.

Because I don’t think differences are necessarily bad, they are even radical sites of relational imagination as we keep learning, but there is something in anthropological manipulation of difference that keeps me on my toes. Sharon, what is it about the relationship between anthropology and the African postcolony that one should be wary of, and what does that tell us about what the postcolony means or can be imagined to mean in anthropology?

Sharon A. Otieno: I concur with your sentiments that differences are not necessarily bad. The goal of anthropology is to provide a holistic understanding of what it means to be human. By holistic I mean examining all aspects that make us human and how these aspects interact. For instance, our ways of knowing, belief systems, attitudes and values. In the quest for understanding what makes us human, individually and collectively, we tease out the cultural differences and similarities to understand societies and individuals in their own terms but not to ‘other’ and problematize ‘difference’ per se.

Anthropology has been criticized for exploiting ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ by other disciplines because of  its connections to colonialism. During colonial rule, anthropologists were contracted to study and document the ‘natives’ culture. The information gathered was used to exploit ‘difference’ and justify imperial rule. The fact that many anthropology scholars including budding scholars of anthropology like myself accept and reflect on the role anthropology played during the colonial period is an indication that anthropology is taking steps to rethink its methodological and theoretical approaches that perpetuate ‘othering’. I must say this has not been as simple as it sounds, there is a need to be more self-reflexive in our theory and practice.

For you, Aaliyah, in what ways do you see colonial notions of ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ being appropriated in the African postcolony?

Aaliyah O. Ibrahim: I appreciate your more skeptical but hopeful approach to the goal of anthropological thinking, especially because a holistic understanding of what it means to be human is something that will always be influx but continuously relevant and necessary to articulate? I think this is also why I keep being drawn to anthropology despite my wariness. Especially if I start to think about African notions of humanness and all the ways Black Studies scholars reject and expand the category of human, there’s a lot to keep thinking with and writing about more so in the context of a ‘global age.’

But to your questions of how colonial notions of ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ play out in postcolonial Africa, particularly as perpetuated by fields like anthropology, my first example will be just the notion of ethnic or cultural difference. I think one of the things I struggle to articulate both personally and professionally is how I feel about belonging to an ethnic group. All Africans belong to some language or cultural group, but colonial anthropology exceptionalized this belonging to accentuate differences in a way that propagated ethnocentrism. And we see this play out in the postcolony again and again, not just in terms of interethnic relations, but how within nation-states there are deeply held beliefs about who should have power and who should not. This remains to me the most apparent thread between the colony, and the postcolony, who holds power in the nation-states and who does not and why they do or do not.

Which brings me to ask you how you deal with the reverberations of the postcolony in your work? Do you find yourself struggling with the echoes or ruins of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’?

Sharon A. Otieno: Thank you for your question. One of the core pillars of my graduate training was decolonizing anthropology and that is how I began to be more conscious of postcolony reverberations in my work as well as scholarly work on Africa. I will draw examples from two research projects in African and European contexts to answer your question.

The first project focused on  the African diaspora in Flanders, Belgium. In a five month interdisciplinary project, eleven colleagues and I explored the experiences of Africans living in Belgium. During the initial stages of this project, it was apparent that each individual I interacted with had faced some form of discrimination because of their identity, being African or of African origin. Some of our interlocutors were born in Africa whereas others were born in Belgium and other parts of Europe. There were participants who identified as Africans, others Europeans because they were born in Europe and had never been to Africa. A third group identified as both African and European, a hybrid identity. The last group was not exempted from discrimination on the basis of Blackness. Atimes, these narratives roused uniseasiness. I felt like I made participants relive their uncomfortable experiences in Africa and abroad. My discomfort, I may say, was necessary. I needed to understand their experiences with the colonial aftermath in Africa and in Europe. They were ‘other’ and ‘different’ in Africa and Europe. I did not consider myself exempted from being ‘other’ and ‘different’ as an African living and studying in Flanders, Belgium.

The second example is based on my master’s project on pastoral mobility among the Maasai pastoralists in Kenya. I realized that land was and still is a sensitive issue among pastoral groups. Kenya’s colonial past resulted in disruption of pastoral livelihoods due to land evictions. First, the colonial regime favored sedentary livelihoods like agriculture over mobile livelihoods like pastoralism which created interethnic tension, perpetuated ‘othering’ and exploitation of ‘difference’. What followed was evictions and confinement to African reserves. This translated to limited access to water and pasture for cattle. Secondly, the colonial notion of separating people from nature in order to conserve it ignored the indeginous ways of conserving nature by coexisting with wildlife. In the present day, we have witnessed conflict in bordering protected areas between pastoralists and conservationists; on who has access to land, and to what extent, not forgetting the divergent approaches to resolving human-wildlife conflict. Colonial notions of conservation and land demarcation still prevail not only among the pastoralists but also among farmers, miners and other forms of livelihood in postcolonial Africa..

I will bounce back the question to you Aaliyah, do you encounter reverberations of the postcolony in your work? Do you find yourself struggling with the echoes or ruins of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’?

Aaliyah O. Ibrahim: Sharon, these are fantastic examples. I enjoyed how you navigated all these terrains of postcoloniality to bring up some acute understandings of power in the present. I think for both examples, whether within or out of Africa, the relationships between the colonial past and present are still unfolding in the daily lives of many people. And I think for me this is where I start to feel the reverberations the most in my work.

I have been thinking and working on the intersections of health and African development broadly, but when I recently took a turn to more closely interrogate women’s health and mental health in Africa, I started to see some things about coloniality more clearly. For example, in mental health in particular, across many African countries, the reality is that poor mental health is criminalized, punished, and relegated to marginal domains of health and well-being. And there are many complex reasons why, but you can start to understand them when you look at the colonial policies and laws encoded in place about mental health. Whether it is Nigeria’s Lunacy Act of 1958, or Uganda’s Mental Health Act of 2018 which was just a recent update to Uganda’s Mental Treatment Act of 1964, the way mental health is addressed at a state or governance level is infused with colonial notions of health and wellbeing.

And same with women’s health. It will be hard to not connect the way colonialism’s influence on gender roles in Africa also spreads itself to the level of health care people of all genders receive under the patriarchy. You can even extrapolate the unevenness of power distribution in the postcolony to what we have seen with vaccine apartheid and who gets access to health resources in the global economy of health we know as ‘global health’. So for me, as I attempt to study health histories, be it on a national or individual scale, I cannot but keep seeing all these ways health itself as a category was and continues to be used to ‘other’ Africans. Health is far from neutral when it comes to colonial enterprise, if anything, the building of health systems in the West depended on the ill health and well-being of Africans.

In that vein, I now want to ask you about anthropological futures for Africa. What are some of the things African anthropologists have to persist thinking about for the future or think about in new ways? I believe in our capacities to reclaim some anthropological methods in the study of Africa, especially if we continue to destabilize the image of ‘the native’ which has dominated anthropological imagination. These days I find myself dreaming of more conversations of course, but also diverse methods. I think that anthropology as a field has become more experimental in a way that invites African scholars. Of course it can even go further in that direction, but I am interested in knowing about the openings. What are some cracks, splits and holes in the Westernized buckets of anthropological thought and method that Africans can jump into to progress our own knowledge? Or as many continue to do, what new buckets can we carry?

Sharon A. Otieno: I agree with your sentiments that African anthropologists are capable of reclaiming anthropological methods in the study of Africa. As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, African anthropologists need to be more reflexive about the existing theories and practices that reproduce imperialistic notions of power. We need to reclaim our space in telling African stories and formulate theoretical frameworks and methods that capture our reality.

Speaking of reclaiming our space, there is a need to understand the dynamics of practicing anthropology at ‘home’ and globally. It is important to look at the dynamics within the discipline in terms of funding, the local and global politics of anthropology and how African anthropologists maneuver these terrains. For example, over the years anthropology received negative publicity in Kenya, it has been viewed as a colonial discipline and has little to offer. Such sentiments are fuelled by ignorance and invisibility of anthropologists’ contribution in Kenya. There are many anthropologists already doing great work in diverse sectors such as academia, NGOs, government, medicine and many others. Recently, an anthropological professional body was launched in Kenya (Anthropological Association of Kenya). This is a great start to bring anthropologists in Kenya together to share ideas, educate the public and increase the visibility of our work not only in Kenya but also Africa and globally. Amidst the challenges and opportunities in the postcolony, African anthropologists have a vital role to play in telling African stories.

Aaliyah O. Ibrahim: Thank you so much for talking, Sharon. It has been delightful to sit with you. I look forward to all the African stories we shall tell.

Sharon Adhiambo Otieno recently graduated with an Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies from Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). She also obtained a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Nairobi (Kenya). Her research interests include the intersection between livelihoods, health and environment, disability, and gender. Sharon’s current research project at the BIEA focuses on Deaf identities and culture in Nairobi and Kajiado counties in Kenya.

Aaliyah O. Ibrahim holds a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and a Certificate in the Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights (MAPHR) from Yale University (USA). Her broad academic interests are in health equity and human rights. She is especially passionate about community health programs, mental health and other non-communicable diseases, and women’s health in Africa. She ethnographically explores the nexus of health, development, and culture with a primary focus on Nigeria and Uganda.


Author BIEA

More posts by BIEA

Leave a Reply