Ideas from Africa still free for all yet webinars have cut travel costs

Friday September 04 2020

When “objectivity” of an African is challenged, fellow African scholars on the webinars will be passive bystanders, conscious that the real issue on the table is that of Westerners considering it inappropriate for Africans to invade their turf as “experts” on Africa. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


Am I the only one who is overwhelmed with webinars?

It used to be the case before Covid-19 that we would be invited to conferences. If you were speaking, international organisations were willing to fly you across the world, put you up in expensive hotels and then, instead of paying a fee for the ideas you presented, provide a few measly dollars in lieu of dinner and call that per diem.

There would be no mention of fees for ideas you had researched, often at great cost, and now shared publicly.

Those of us giving ideas for a free ticket and free hotel accommodation were mainly people from the Third World travelling to the developed world. We would often find each over lunches of thin sandwiches and complain bitterly about this injustice.

We knew, however, that making presentations at these conferences was a useful stepping-stone to build curriculum vitae we desperately needed to compete in the job market.

When the developed world people wrote breezy emails announcing visits to the Third World to research further on what we had presented, our hopes would hold out for recognition of the role we had played in planting the original idea.


They would fly in, stay in the best hotels and get paid huge amounts of money for follow-up research based on the ideas we had given for free. We would travel for fieldwork together and watch our fellow Africans fawn over the Westerners.

In hotels, waiters would fall over themselves to serve them first. In the villages, our people would answer questions, providing confidential information they hadn’t even been asked.

The same Africans deferring to white people would often question the ability of African scholars discussing the same subject. The African scholar would ironically be alienated in his own country by the interviewee and the “visitor” in this space of Euro-American led research on Africa.

Research and knowledge production in Africa are often subject to white gatekeeping. Many Euro-Americans graduate each year with PhDs in African studies and claim Africa as their academic homes. The fawning behaviour of Africans towards Westerners support the colonial framework through which some of the Euro-Americans interpret Africa. Most often Africans do not question why hundreds of Westerners would be researching indigenous African peace building methods or the benefits of the Neem tree, yet few Africans conduct similar research in the Western world.

Often the research by Westerners would be touted as knowledge creation on Africa, resulting in articles and books, in which our original work was not even a footnote.

I am not digressing from the topic of webinars. Coronavirus has changed a few things. We are no longer travelling, staying in posh hotels and starving in conferences.

However, Covid-19 has not changed the fact that those from the Third World are still providing original ideas, while those saving tonnes of money from not paying for flights and expensive hotels are still not paying for our well researched ideas.

Research on Africa is still being re-explained back “whitesplained” to the continent from a Western perspective. The webinars present new opportunities for interventions from Euro-American “experts on Africa” who question African scholars on the “objectivity” of their research in racially coded language that only those attuned of this situation understand.

Curriculum vitae

This concept of expertise on Africa is baffling. A Westerner will go to Somalia for three days, Sudan for a week and their curriculum vitae will read, expert on Somalia and Sudan. Sometimes they don’t even have to go there to be “experts”.

It is difficult to find a Sudanese or a Somali who claims to be an expert on their own countries, yet quite a number of Westerners claim to be. Ironically, an African will study in Canada or Scotland for eight years. However, they will hardly ever refer to themselves as experts on Canada and Scotland.

When “objectivity” of an African is challenged, fellow African scholars on the webinars will be passive bystanders, conscious that the real issue on the table is that of Westerners considering it inappropriate for Africans to invade their turf as “experts” on Africa.

Africans on webinars I have been on have so far not devised ways of contesting this exclusionary practice. One discerns the unsaid racist undertones that the Westerners, unlike the African, possess an inexhaustible capability for acquiring and developing new knowledge.

Africa must invest in researchers to roll out evidence-based research on its heritage and apply it to the present day, particularly on mitigating crises such as drought, flooding and ensuring sustenance.

Meanwhile, let us find ways to get paid for the knowledge we produce.