Visiting Africa: A Short Guide for Researchers

Image| Wambui Mwangi
Image| Wambui Mwangi

1. Prepare. Prepare as you would for an important job interview. If a formal institution has invited you, read about the institution. If a department has invited you, read about the department. If specific scholars have invited you, read their work. Know it well. Have something to say about it.

2. You’re coming to co-create knowledge. Co-create.

3. Map the intellectual terrain. African intellectual work happens across multiple spaces, not simply in North American or European peer-reviewed journals and monographs. Look for exciting intellectual work on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube. Figure out how to engage that work. If you’re a very traditional scholar, get digital. And quickly.

4. You have been invited to share your research AND to speak to particular audiences. Do not forget your audience. Make your audience a priority. If no one tries to engage you, you have lost your audience.

5. Your hosts will probably know a lot about your country. We have friends and family living across the globe. We track their lives. Most African countries have digital newspapers online. Read. You don’t have to know everything, but you’re a researcher, not a tourist. Research.

6. You are a researcher, not a tourist. Don’t act like a tourist.

7. Do not be condescending. Do not tell your hosts that they are “clever” or “bright” or “intelligent.” Do not act surprised when your conceptual paradigms are challenged. Engage those who challenge you.

8. Don’t turn us into native informants. Respect us as intellectual equals. Ask us the same kinds of questions you’d ask people you consider intellectual equals. Be rigorous. We can take it. Expect the same.

9. Do not discover us for us. Stop it. If you’re planning to say anything that starts with, “I discovered,” or “no one has ever done this before me,” or “I am the first to find this object here,” stop. Do not do it. You are wrong. Do not discover us for us.

10. Never ever presume to tell us what is “wrong with us” and how we can “fix” ourselves. If you’re tempted to “offer solutions,” resist the temptation. Figure out the work that’s being done. Try to find a way to enter existing conversations.

11. Do not presume that you have the right to access our most intimate lives. We may be hospitable, but we also have boundaries.

12. We are not on some train headed toward your version of the world. If you're tempted to tell us how we can become more like you, don't.

13. Be curious. Find out what we're interested in. What we value. What we think is intellectually exciting. Learn from us.