A continent in transition: the bigger picture
Lire ce dossier en français: Un nouveau regard porté sur l’Afrique (pdf)
If you follow the western media, you are likely to think of ‘Africa’ as the continent of origin of desperate migrants, a continent of hunger and disease and a breeding ground for international terrorism. But if you want to see the bigger picture, you should look no further than the African Studies scholars in Leiden. Their close links with African partners and their emphasis on fundamental research has enabled them to generate insights in the past decades that benefit both Western and African societies.
With a population that is likely to hit four billion by the end of the century, a growing middle class and the emergence of 21st century African multinationals, African countries and their international partners are faced with new challenges: how to supply exploding cities with basic amenities, how to keep migration at acceptable levels and how to challenge the old power structures. Whereas traditionally these were questions for national governments and NGOs, today they also affect multinationals and international institutions. With increasing globalisation, the reality in Africa has an immediate effect on the reality in the West, and vice versa. African worm infections could be a remedy for ‘European’ diseases of affluence, shifts in the global economy are giving rise to new trade relationships and the internet is turning villagers into global citizens.
Furthermore, if we continue to take the same old approach, we are likely to misinterpret such developments: access to new technologies and old sources that have previously been overlooked mean that we need to rewrite history and become aware of the misleading assumptions we have embraced for decades. For instance, urban societies are not always more comfortable than nomadic ones, the war zones of today are the university cities of yesterday and African-European relations were often less innocent than we like to believe. If Europe wants to understand its links with the continent, it first needs to understand itself.
With a history dating back to 1947, the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL) is one of the oldest Africa research centres in Europe and has forged consistent and enduring ties with the continent. Whereas the continent often views former colonial powers such as France and the UK with suspicion, it can often form a more neutral relationship with the Dutch, says Ton Dietz, director of ASCL 2010-2017. Now in particular, with calls for the ‘decolonisation’ of academia, there is appreciation for the centre’s early Africanisation: the Centre works with African guest researchers on a structural basis and its library has purchased half of its publications in Africa for a long time already.
Hub for interdisciplinary Africa research
A diverse group of Africa researchers have joined forces in the Leiden African Studies Assembly to research how national and international developments translate at the local level. With over 100 PhD-holding scholars from disciplines such as history, archaeology, law, geography, anthropology, political science, economics and medicine, it is a leading hub for African Studies in Europe. If you include peers from Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University Rotterdam, it is the largest group of Africa researchers outside Africa.
The proximity of the many museums in Leiden that are related to Africa, Brill Publishers and organisations such as the Netherlands Institute in Morocco helps these researchers disseminate their knowledge. The Assembly also works with African partners to ensure that their findings reach the continent itself.
Booming cities, new entrepreneurs
Exponential population growth and rapid urbanisation are prompting the development of gigantic African metropolises that must be supplied with resources such as food, water and energy. This creates economic opportunities, drives migration and presents political challenges. Researchers from Leiden combine qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the dynamics between local businesses, African multinationals and international players.
The global price of commodities such as oil, gas and copper fell in 2014. This was a test for many African economies: were their growth predictions based on the export of such commodities or could they manage without? With the emergence of African multinationals such as cement giant Dangote and the growth of a class of business owners, this is a legitimate question. Will Africa be able to feed its cities if its population increases from 1.3 billion to 4 billion in 2100, with the majority of people living in cities?
Africa: food exporter
Demographer Akinyinka Akinyoade and professor of African Development Ton Dietz believe so. In their book ‘Digging Deeper’ they conclude that agricultural production is increasing to such an extent that Africa would easily be able to feed its population, also in 2100.
Currently, part of the produce is being sold to international players such as China, and agricultural land is being leased to countries such as Qatar. Furthermore, Africa exports expensive produce and imports cheap produce. Much grain comes from Russia, whereas some Nigerian urban farmers are exporting their fruit and vegetables to the Netherlands.
However, it is not only grain from abroad that feeds the hungry urban population. Akinyoade gives the example of Nigerian mega city Lagos, which is burgeoning into a multinational metropolis that will encompass cities in the neighbouring countries of Ghana, Togo and Benin. To feed its current 18 million mouths, the region already rents land in other parts of the country, and local entrepreneurs are constantly thinking of new ways to market the produce to meet the needs of the new urbanites. Spin-off economies are consequently developing in the areas that supply the city as well as in the city itself.
Whether entrepreneurs manage to develop a successful means of existence often depends on local dynamics, says development economist and human geographer Marleen Dekker. She is following a group of farmers who settled on the farm of a former land owner in Zimbabwe after the country's independence under black majority rule in 1980. Although the community seemed to fare well in the first twenty years, its income fell when the Zimbabwean economy collapsed at the turn of the millennium.
However, for another group of farmers who took over the land of a large landowner during the economic crisis the economy actually improved. The departure of this large company that had made its purchases in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare cleared the way for local initiatives. A host of small shops opened in the area, where the farmers could purchase their fertilizer, seeds and food.
The hyperinflation forced people to be creative: Zimbabwean farmers had to spend their money on the day that they sold their produce, because otherwise it would be worthless. There was little option for bartering in places where everyone was selling the same produce, but where there were alternatives: farmers traded their crops for exercise books, for instance, which they could barter again for other products. Many Africans still have five or six different income streams, and they survive the lean years by helping each other out, says Dekker. This strong informal strength enables them to survive if the formal economy fails.
Africa in the world
The emergence of new players on the world market such as India, Brazil, China, Turkey and the Gulf States gives Africans more choice in who they work with and under which terms. At the same time, African multinationals are choosing to work with regional partners and are thus furnishing old political ideals with a new economic basis. The research group Africa in the World uses empirical research and economic analysis to investigate what global relations mean for local players.
Africa exports commodities and imports the end product – it is an old story that still holds true, concludes Professor Chibuike Uche, holder of the Stephen Ellis Chair for the Governance of Finance and Integrity in Africa. Take cement: many African countries have large supplies of the basic ingredient limestone in the ground, but they import cement from countries like South Korea and China, at a price, 70% of which is for transport. There must be another way, thought Aliko Dangote, founder of Dangote Cement, now Africa’s biggest multinational. With a burgeoning empire, Dangote Cement not only serves the African construction market but is also venturing into oil and foodstuffs.
You might think that the established parties would want to stifle this new competitor, but from an international perspective this new situation can create a win-win situation, says Uche: instead of cement, China now supplies cement factories. The main form of competition is between Dangote and small local businesses, which cannot compete with the new giant.
A voice through economic activity?
Policy is often developed following national analyses, but you need to look at different levels, warns social anthropologist Mayke Kaag. Take a country such as Mozambique, where the national government is eager to do business with the Chinese, giving municipalities governed by the opposition the opportunity to close deals with donors that do no longer have a preferential place at the table in Maputo.
After decades of field research in West-Africa, Kaag knows that local business owners often do not have the options that they seem to have on paper. In theory, they have a say, but in practice they are frequently caught up in political dependency: for instance, a group of sellers lobbies a local politician for a certain spot at the market, but hears nothing more after the election.
They only have a voice if they generate economic activity, says Uche. ‘Take my home village: the arrival of three local chicken farms has contributed in making the unpaved roads motorable all year round.’ By setting up small businesses, people start to have a voice. Once there are enough chicken farmers, a national minister will no longer get away with pushing local farmers out of the market by importing subsidised chicken wings. Industry seems to be achieving what the first Pan-Africans failed to do: Dangote Cement now sits at the table with governments negotiating on the removal of trade barriers between African countries.
The big problem in Africa is a lack of organisation, Uche concludes. Like Kaag, he believes that education plays an emancipating role. This can be through commercial concepts such as micro-leasing, in which a product together with knowledge about its use and maintenance is shared, but equally by teaching people how to keep tabs on their leaders and call them to account. But even then, says Kaag, it remains important to look at who is benefiting and how the profits are distributed: nationally, locally, between superpowers, between neighbours and within families.
Aiming to create a better understanding of Africa's past, a team of multidisciplinary researchers at Leiden University digs in to everyday artefacts and local knowledge. Their work helps to invalidate false assumptions and make less dominant narratives available.
Diversity is a basic need
Using daily artefacts and local knowledge, archaeologist Sada Mire not only collects fresh evidence on Africa's past, but challenges presumptions about history at large. She remembers how she dug up a sheep bone in Kenya, indicating that the people of its days had kept cattle, rather than 'just' hunting and gathering. Yet, the layer of ground in which she found it dated back to 1500 BC – thereby debunking the popular notion that hunting & gathering were followed by keeping animals, which only then leads to farming.
‘History is not linear, but circular,’ she believes. ‘People have mixed survival strategies; they use those which are most appropriate at that particular moment in
time. During the Somali war, the 'modern' people in the cities suffered, whereas the 'traditional' pastoralists, who keep livestock, managed to survive as they knew the resources of the land. Diversity is a basic need for the survival of humankind.’ In her recent research in Somaliland, Mire studied rock art, landscapes and the practices of the people of the Horn of Africa. Her findings show that, besides self-sufficiency economy, there is also a wide diversity in religious identity. Leiden's Faculty of Archaeology allows her to pursue a holistic approach, and make less dominant narratives available.
Understand our place in time and space
Rethinking African history may also help Europe reflect on its own place in global society. During field research in Namibia, several Herero informants told Jan-Bart Gewald how German soldiers used to cook the bones of their men. Initially, Gewald took it as a symbolic story, illustrating the horrors of the Herero genocide that had followed General Von Trotha's 1904 Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination order) to kill all Herero who refused to leave their lands.
However, when digging into the archives, he found it had actually happened. The evidence had been there all that time, he recounts, but no one had ever looked into it from that point of view. German soldiers had indeed boiled the heads of killed Herero to prepare specimens that could be used in the now debunked pseudo-science of craniology.
Sadly, he realises, such cruel histories have taken place not only in Namibia, but all over the continent. ‘Europeans tend to think of Africa as a place that needs to develop. Most have no idea of institutions like the Timbuktu University, of the trade relations we have had for hundreds of years with African countries, or of the repulsive acts Europeans committed there. We need that knowledge to understand our place in space and time.’
You are what you buy and what you speak
Over 60 years of research into religion has made it clear to the researchers at ASCL and elsewhere in Leiden that politics, the economy and religion in Africa cannot be separated. The modern gospel of prosperity and individual responsibility presents a threat to traditional values. Linguists and anthropologists are studying what this means for the identity of the population.
Language as self-definition
We use language to determine our identity, our position. Young people in the Netherlands pepper their sentences with Surinamese and Moroccan words, opponents of Apartheid in South Africa used prison slang to register their resistance to the regime. This is the same everywhere, says linguist Maarten Mous, but unlike in the Netherlands, youth-speak in countries such as Kenya is not limited to a small group. Student or market vendor – everyone speaks the language of their new cosmopolitan city. With their linguistic creations, the young do not express opposition as much as their self-definition as modern, urban citizens.
Foreign language, foreign knowledge
Alongside their own linguistic creations, young people are expected to speak an official language that is radically different from the languages that they grew up with. As many African countries encompass areas in which dozens of languages have always been spoken, many authorities use the language of their former coloniser. Secondary education is often taught in French, Portuguese or English. This has dramatic consequences, says Mous. ‘Everything you learn at school is in a language that is foreign to you and associated with a culture that is foreign to you – the culture of your former rulers. As a child, you then make a distinction and decide that all that knowledge – physics, biology – does not belong to you. It belongs to someone else. That is detrimental to understanding and the idea that you have about yourself.’
Gospel of prosperity
Exposure to new world views may provide fertile ground for the emergence of the Pentecostal Churches, which have become a dominant force in many African countries in recent decades. Anthropologist Rijk van Dijk sees tensions with the older generation. Whereas the old mission churches emphasized solidarity with the poorest members of society, the new Pentecostal churches preach prosperity and individual responsibility. Their gospel of rebirth encourages members to make their own decisions rather than be governed by old traditions, parents or family members.
As the Pentecostal Churches see personal prosperity as an explicit sign of divine intervention, it is flourishing among the emerging middle classes. ‘The more prosperity a leader can exhibit, the more favourably inclined God is to him,’ says Van Dijk. ‘I’ve been told many a time that Jesus was a rich man.’ One of the countries in which Van Dijk conducted research was Botswana, which has seen rapid economic growth. Here engaged couples no longer need to go cap in hand to their parents. Instead bride and groom both take out bank loans to pay for status symbols such as expensive cars and exorbitant weddings. Their new religion justifies this open embrace of consumerism.
Forget old approaches
However, the emerging middle class is not the only group in which the Pentecostal Churchesn are gaining a foothold. As its members must generally donate 10% of their income to the church, there are also faith healers for those who cannot or do not want to but who do want spiritual support.
Business people and some governments have also shown interest in the Pentecostal Churches over the years. Museveni’s recent anti-gay policy is said to have been prompted by conservative Pentecostal leaders. ‘The societal strength of the Pentecostal Church is truly enormous,’ Van Dijk concludes. ‘But if you continue to think in terms of a “division of power” you fail to see the full picture. In Africa, religion is politics, politics the economy and the economy religion.’
Politicians, non-citizens and rebel leaders
To understand which groups turn against their government, you need to understand the political culture in which they grew up, what they expect from a ‘state’ and what alternatives there are. With its long interdisciplinary experience, ASCL is often considered to be a regional expertise centre. But this background enables it to cast a critical eye on current theories on state formation and democratisation.
Focus on political cultures
You need the practice to prove or disprove a theory. Take research into ‘democratisation’ in Africa. Political anthropologist Jan Abbink says that field studies in Ethiopia and Rwanda undermine Staffan Lindberg’s theory that regular elections in autocratic states have a democratising effect over time. Such theories are often based on survey data, says Abbink, without consideration of the local context and political culture, which can be revealed in observations and interviews. With his chair in ‘Governance and Politics in Africa’ he wants to emphasise the internal local processes and experiences with ‘the political’.
In the young nation states of Africa, it is often a question of what exactly the ‘state’ is and means. In many countries, there is a schism between the government and many of the citizens, Professor Mirjam de Bruijn explains, but unlike those who actively turn against their government, these citizens simply have little to do with it. People are bound to ethnic, family or religious ties rather than to the state. There is no such thing as a sense of citizenship.
Like the nomads whom De Bruijn previously studied, many urban ‘non-citizens’ live an unsettled existence, but unlike many nomads, they are dissatisfied with this. Young people seek a permanent form of existence, which often also proves to be most fragile.
New forms of leadership
Whereas some see the government as an authority that should facilitate its citizens, many ‘non-citizens’ are more likely to see the state as a source of frustration. To gain more of a say in their own lives, many young leaders seek alternative ways to organise themselves. Some make a clean break from the traditional power structure, says Abbink. An armed group such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia shows its opposition to the older generation of moderate Sufi Muslims. It has rejected the influence of the local culture, customary justice and clan background to form new trans-ethnic transnational links.
However, some groups set great store in their own cultural background, such as the Ethiopian Borana-Oromo. They base their forms of self-regulation on the traditional Gadaa system – an extensive age and class system, in which different generations have clearly defined roles.
Mobile phone masts
When in 2006 the first mobile phone masts were placed in the remote west and central African regions in which De Bruijn was conducting her research, she knew that this was a critical crossroads in history. With the introduction of mobile phones, and thus access to the internet and radio, political awareness changed: people no longer felt like local actors but that they were part of a state or the world. Nomads participate in the global discussion on jihadism and terrorism, and this changes their definition of who they are.
We see a new kind of awareness process that filters through to all current uprisings, says De Bruijn. In the coming years, we will need to establish what this means in different countries and regimes, in areas with emerging middle classes and in regions faced with starvation.
Politically sensitive regions, from the global perspective too. ‘We as researchers are entering sensitive times, in a constantly changing laboratory – technology in Africa is changing so rapidly that you constantly have to modify your conclusions. But it is clear that we must draw attention to places in which dissatisfied subjects, conflict and hunger come together: it could be that developments in the Sahel suddenly determine those in the rest of the world.’
Research in Africa reduces health spending and prevents diseases of affluence
Health workers have always sought ways to fight disease in vulnerable groups in the population. It is now clear that such research also benefits more prosperous countries. African worm infections and innovative thermometers have shown Leiden researchers how to fight diseases of affluence and keep health care affordable.
Worms fight diseases of affluence
When immunoparasitologist Maria Yazdanbakhsh looked at the blood of children from rural Gabon, she saw something unexpected: without ever having exhibited any symptoms, the children had antibodies against many allergens. Their protection came from worms, which infect a large part of the global rural population.
Yazdanbakhsh found comparable results in Ghana, Indonesia and Siberia. Infections with ‘parasites’ such as hookworms have been found to protect their carriers from diseases of affluence such as diabetes II, inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s and allergies such as asthma and hay fever. Although severe worm infections can be harmful, the worms also have positive effects, Yazdanbakhsh concluded. Her team at the Leiden University Medical Centre studies which molecules are responsible for this, so that they can be used as a vaccine to prevent the diseases or as a drug to treat them.
The research dossier Immunity, Infection and Tolerance delves further into this research.
If it were up to Yazdanbakhsh, the Leiden health researchers would conduct their research in close, equal partnership with academics in Africa itself. They work in areas where the spread of disease is extremely polarised: while people in rural areas still suffer from various infectious diseases, people in the growing urban centres suffer from diseases of affluence. This makes such research interesting for any country that is faced with these diseases now or in the future.
Affordable health care
The arts, sciences and social sciences also work together intensively. Besides working as a development economist at the ASCL, André Leliveld is co-director of the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa. Here the universities of Delft, Leiden and Rotterdam have joined forces to seek out high-quality but affordable innovations for African markets. Leliveld gives the example of the development of an affordable thermometer for community use in remote areas. It sounds simple, but it must be cheap, reliable, robust and socially acceptable for those who use it. Furthermore, it must indicate how (un)healthy a person’s temperature is and it must be possible for a large group of people to use it without spreading infection. Although thus far such solutions have generally been created for developing countries, they increasingly inspire discoveries that can also help western countries – for instance, how to provide affordable health care in the Netherlands with its ageing population.
In Africa, health problems are one of the main reasons that households fall into poverty, says Leliveld. They have to use their savings or sell their livestock, land or harvest and thus no longer have a buffer. They often
need this money for relatively simple things such as malaria pills, antibiotics, safe births or minor operations. Although many people belong to small informal networks that share such unexpected costs, they are still responsible for the lion’s share themselves. In Togo, Leliveld and colleagues are conducting research into whether the introduction of community-based health insurance schemes make it easier for people to deal with the financial burden of health risks. Furthermore, countries such as Togo are seeking ways to link this kind of local initiative to a national health insurance system.
Ton DietzProfessor of Development in Africa/ Director ASCL 2010-2017
Topics: Africa, poverty analysis, food security, human geography, political environmental geography
Mirjam de Bruijn Professor of Culture and Identity in Africa
Topics: Africa, African history, anthropology of Africa
Topics: Africa, cultural history, Ethiopia, ethnography of food cultures, governance and development, horn of Africa, Northeast Africa, political culture, religious discourse and politics, Somalia
Rijk van DijkResearcher
Topics: Africa, African diaspora, Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, pentecostalism, religion and HIV/aids, religion and sexuality in Africa
Maarten MousProfessor of African Linguistics
Topics: African languages, African linguistics, Bantu, Cushitic, language and identity, youth languages
Maria YazdanbakhshProfessor of Immunoparasitology
Topics: Immune system, parasites, allergies, autoimmune disease
Ria ReisProfessor of Medical Anthropology
Topics: Medical anthropology, in particular anthropology in public health
Peter PelsProfessor of Anthropology and Sociology of Africa/ Scientific Director
Topics: Anthropology, anthropology of magic and witchcraft, anthropology of politics, anthropology of religion, east Africa, material culture
Robert TijssenProfessor of Science and Innovation Studies
Tinde van AndelExtraordinary Professor of History of botany and gardens
Jan Michiel OttoProfessor of Law and Governance in Developing Countries
Topics: Environment, land tenure, law, governance and development, local government, sharia and national law
Mirjam van ReisenProfessor of Computing for society
Felix AmekaSenior University Lecturer
Topics: African linguistics, anthropological linguistics, descriptive linguistics, ethnography, language contact, linguistic typology, pragmatics, semantics, West African languages
Topics: Africa, African nature & wildlife conservation, climate change, drought, drylands, east Africa, eco-tourism, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kenya politics, land conflicts, land governance, land tenure, Maasai, nomadic pastoralism, Orma, Turkana, water
Chibuike UcheProfessor of Governance of finance and integrity in Africa
Topics: Africa, inclusive development, banking, Dutch multinationals in Africa, financial history, financial institutions, financial regulations, foreign businesses in Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, political economy, Sierra Leone, west Africa
Topics: Africa, African migration, Cameroon, decentralization, demography, fertility dynamics in west Africa, food security, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, population health, Tanzania, west Africa
Topics: Africa in the world, land issues, Islamic charities, informal workers, migration, political anthropology, Senegal, Chad, West Africa
Topics: African studies, anthropological linguistics, descriptive and documentary linguistics, sociolinguistics, Ethiopian languages: Amharic, Wolaitta, Maale, Oyda and Zargulla
Victoria NystUniversity Lecturer
Topics: African sign languages, descriptive linguistics
Topics: Africa, Africa, inclusive development, Ethiopia, land reform, markets, Nigeria, polygyny, risk, social networks, Togo, Zimbabwe
Sabine LuningAssistant Professor
Topics: Africa, corporate social responsibility, economy, migration, religion and religious ideas, resource politics
Sada MireAssistant Professor
Topics: Archaeology and anthropology of Africa, cultural heritage, development and rights, digital heritage, Somali archaeology
Topics: (frugal) innovation, community based health insurance, labour movements and trade unions
Klaas van WalravenResearcher
Topics: Africa, biography, decolonization, French Africa, French empire
- BA African languages and cultures (in Dutch) http://www.studereninleiden.nl/studies/info/afrikaanse-talen-en-culturen/
- MA African Studies http://www.mastersinleiden.nl/programmes/african-studies/en/introduction
- MA African Studies (research) http://www.mastersinleiden.nl/programmes/african-studies-research/en/introduction
- MA Language Diversity of Africa, Asia and Native America http://www.mastersinleiden.nl/programmes/language-diversity-of-africa-asia-and-native-america/en/introduction
- BA International Studies http://bachelors.leiden.edu/studies/info/international-studies
- BA History (in Dutch) http://www.studereninleiden.nl/studies/info/geschiedenis/
- MA History specialisation Colonial and Global History http://www.mastersinleiden.nl/programmes/colonial-and-global-history/en/introduction
- MA History (research) specialisation Colonial and Global History http://www.mastersinleiden.nl/programmes/colonial-and-global-history-research/en/introduction
You can study Africa in various disciplines at Leiden University. The Faculty of Humanities offers Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes in African Studies, and the Anthropology, International Studies and Leiden University College programmes also pay specific attention to Africa. Africa also plays a role in thematic courses at the other faculties. Furthermore, Leiden is working with Delft University of Technology, Erasmus University Rotterdam and the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague on two Minors: Frugal Innovations and African Studies.
The faculties offer specialisations and often field work too. The University works with its partners from the Leiden African Studies Assembly to provide special fieldwork facilities in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa and Mozambique. Back in the Netherlands, the University and ASCL libraries provide a host of physical and digital sources on Africa.
News & outreach
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Jan-Bart Gewald new director of Leiden's African Studies Centrehttps://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2017/04/jan-bart-gewald-new-director-african-studies-centre
Chibuike Uche chair holder new Stephen Ellis Chair for Finance and Integrity in Africahttp://www.ascleiden.nl/news/chibuike-uche-chair-holder-new-stephen-ellis-chair-finance-and-integrity-africa
A Leidener in Africahttps://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2017/03/a-leidener-in-africa