The Nation-State, Pan-Africanism and Biosocial Claims to Knowledge

This past week, I participated in the second biennial conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) on “African Studies and Global Politics.” The ASAA seeks to promote the study of Africa from an Africanist perspective, and as such, much of the discourse at the conference was related to pan-Africanism, decolonizing the mind/knowledge, and promoting an African-centered epistemologies and education.

One of the key things I realized from the conference is a continued underlying question about what it means to be African. Is it a blood-based / phenotypical notion or is it based on culture/nationality/level of understanding of a place/history? Or something else entirely? How does the question of identity intersect with claims for authoritative knowledge?

The ASAA conference made this question particularly apparent because those in attendance did not just easily fit into normative categories of Black Africans and White Americans. Conference participants included Black African Americans from the US, Black African Americans who have immigrated to Ghana (some who have become Ghanaian citizens); White Africans; White Americans; Asians who live in America; White Europeans, White Brazilians, White Ghanaian residents, Black Africans who reside in African countries that they do not call “home”, etc. etc. I’m obviously tacking here between different scales of nationality and flattening identity into race, but I use this to simply point out the very obvious diverse racial positionalities embodied at the conference (not to even mention the other subject positions). Walking around you couldn’t “place” someone – Black Ghanaian citizen with American accent; white women with South African accent; Ugandan living in South Africa; Swedish woman married to Ghanaian; Kenyan studying in UK; the list goes on. The rich diversity of backgrounds, colors, histories, situations, made it very hard to say who was “local” and who was not – complicated further by a question of which categories are to determine that. If you have lived in a place for a long (define long?) time, does that make you “African”? If you know the histories and key historical figures, does that make you “African”? If you have citizenship, does that make you “African”? If you are Black, does that make you “African”? Given that several members of the diaspora Africans have recently been granted citizenship in Ghana, what appears to be a clear-cut question of who is African, is in fact more complicated than face-value.

In one ASAA panel I attended, a question was raised about the growing mantra of “Africans [are the only ones who should] produce solutions to Africa problems.” You can see this mantra similarly echoed in a picture I took during my fieldwork this summer of the entrance to a Kenyan technology enterprise:


What is the significance of scaling from “African” to “Kenyan”? What is the significance of moving from “Black Lives Matter” to “Afrikan Lives Matter” to “Luo Lives Matter (a recent hashtag used by Kenyan on Twitter to denounce state violence against a particular ethnic group in Kenya)”?

In response, a panelist asserted that the perspective that it is only “Africans” who can solve “African problems” was a naïve one since African problems are in fact global:

“We are not buying into the nativist perspective. There is no one who is ‘true blooded’ African, whatever that means. What we must be concerned with is an issue of democratization. Will it be fine if everyone else in the world could put their view-point on the table and Africans are absent? No! So, it has nothing to do with us being the most innovative people or us knowing something more than others because we are ‘pure blooded’ or anything. Rather, it is a question of equality and democratization.”

This question of the intersection between global politics of race and knowledge is extremely important as more and more decolonizing movements across the continent gain momentum and simultaneously, countries like the US increasingly take an isolationist stance. How do our biosocial bodies and socially constructed ideas of racial belonging (mis/)align/clash with nation states and boundaries? How do these claims align with idea of epistemology and claims to authoritative knowledge?


More info on ASAA:

The conference (held at the University of Ghana, Legon from October 12th – 14th) included keynote presentations by Elizabeth Ohene, Ghanaian; Nana Kobina Nketsia V; Professor Jacob Gordon; Professor Seth Asumah; Professor Takyiwaa Manuh; Professor Jean Allman; Dr. Yao Graham; and Dr. Wangui wa Goro. For those interested in learning more about the conference, you can find a summary that I wrote here. You can also find the final program here and more about the ASAA here.

HIST 290 : Draft Reading List

I’ve compiled a first draft of my reading list for the quarter. I’m copy-pasting it below, but also adding a link to a google doc here so that you can comment on it. Otherwise, for those that are so inclined, feel free to alternatively use hypothesis (which is pretty cool) to annotate the list directly on this page.

Continue reading “HIST 290 : Draft Reading List”

Update from the classroom

After my first class meetings for HIST 290 and ANTH 289 this week, I am looking forward to the opportunity that I think both classes will allow for – namely to further develop my own lines of research inquiry but with some facilitation, guidance, feedback and support from the faculty and peers in a class structure. Both Kris and Kavita appear to be approaching their classes more like reading groups which suits my purposes perfectly since in the Anthro department, this year (Year 3) is supposed to be largely dedicated towards developing one’s own project and orals documents (more on that in future posts).

As part of Kavita’s HIST 290 course, we are expected to post weekly on what we are reading (related to science, race, gender, and empire) and to share annotated bibliographies and thoughts pertaining to these topics. As such, I’m roping off a corner of this blog for these regular posts and I invite both my classmates and also those who are not in the class to review and offer feedback and any suggested additional readings!

Next steps: I’m working on a first draft of my proposed reading list for the rest of this quarter and will post that shortly. I will also post the annotated bibliography at the end of the 10-week quarter together with a short document that hopefully has some synthesis on the literature and its relation to my project (i.e. a basis for one of my orals docs!)

I hope to do the same for the ANTH 289 class (although that is not an explicit requirement of the course). I’ve therefore also roped off a section of the blog for that, although, time pertaining, I may not post as regularly there…

And just like that, we are off: the start of a 10 week quarter begins! (for those of you who haven’t experienced the quarter system… it feels like doing a marathon at a sprint!)

CFA: Workshop on “Participant Observation and Collaboration in STS Ethnography” (April 2018)

Reposting this call for those who might be interested…

Call for application for an early career workshop on:

“Participant Observation and Collaboration in STS Ethnography: Generating
Methodographic Sensibilities for Science & Technology Studies”

Continue reading “CFA: Workshop on “Participant Observation and Collaboration in STS Ethnography” (April 2018)”

Where My Head’s At: Research Update

Part of my rationale for starting this blog was–in addition to being a space for reflection–also as an additional accountability tool. As I mentioned in passing in my first blog post, I have decided to set up a “community advisory committee” in addition to the required academic advisory committee.

I see this as an important way to hopefully ground my project more meaningfully as part of ongoing conversations based in and relevant to communities in Nairobi (rather than in/for academic conversations at the University of California – Irvine). I feel strongly about this because I am not doing my PhD project solely for the service of advancing theoretical knowledge about Africa. Rather, I’m keen to have it be grounded in topics/areas of research of interest to people living/working in “Africa” (using scare quotes here because I always feel squeamish about referencing the continent as if it is/were a singular whole — more on this in future posts!).

I came to my project because of what I experienced first-hand myself being the subject of repetitive research questions time and time again in my job as research manager at the iHub in Nairobi. Why weren’t those who came to interview me more prepared? Despite having done a “literature review,” why had none of them ever read any of our papers and work? (Answer: because a lot of it was “grey literature” that was not in the top-most prestigious peer-reviewed journals and also particular ideas about who is doing “expert knowledge”?). Why–despite my explicit request–did not a single one of them ever send me follow-up material from our talk or even at the very least a transcript of the conversation (which I wanted to use to forward to future research requests!)? I must emphasize (and I’m sure I will continue to say this): my project doesn’t seek to fling blame or critique, but rather to understand more broadly how these behaviors may be better understood through the structures of contemporary (global) knowledge production. More interesting to me is how to move beyond critique and towards potentially expansive and imaginative work.

In line with such experimentation, I am attempting to set up a local advisory structure analogous to the academic advisory committee (which for me is based at my academic institution of University of California – Irvine). I’m calling this a “community advisory committee” for now, but haven’t figured out the details of the engagement yet. I’m drawing insight from Montoya and Kent (2011) and trying to figure it out as I go. (Any suggestions/experiences/ideas always much welcome!)

I’m envisioning an annual or twice/year face-to-face meeting with the 2 – 4 members of the committee to whom I will send short updates (to be also cross-posted on this blog!). I also hope to engage with the different members on one-on-one basis as needed / when relevant. Thus far I’ve asked and received acceptances from two members of the CAC. As with the announcement of the chair for my orals last week, I’m going to refrain from giving out identifying details yet until I’ve spoken with them about posting the information publically.

I will have a section in this blog for these regular updates for now and invite my CAC members (and also the wider public) to review and offer any suggestions/feedback/thoughts you may have!


Research Methods Workshop for Internet Policy & Advocacy in Africa – Due Nov 10

Research Methods Workshop for Internet Policy & Advocacy in Africa
Feb 26 – Mar 3, 2018
Kampala, Uganda
Application Due: Nov 10, 2017

The Annenberg School for Communication’s Internet Policy Observatory has teamed up with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Research ICT Africa, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), Unwanted Witness, Paradigm Initiative, and YoungICTAdvocates to organize the fourth regional Research Methods Workshop for Internet Policy and Advocacy in Africa. The workshop, taking place from Feb 26 to March 3 in Kampala, seeks applications from young scholars, activists, lawyers, and technologists working across Africa for an intensive practicum on using methodologically rigorous, data-driven, and contextually appropriate research for advocacy.

The workshop seeks to provide a venue for stakeholders in the region to build collaborative possibilities across sectors, expand research capacity within practitioner and digital rights advocacy communities, and to provide the skills and know-how to strategically use research and data to advance advocacy efforts. Sessions will cover both qualitative and quantitative methods and will provide the space for hands-on activities and the development of individual and group research interests. The workshop aims to create opportunities to connect scholarly expertise with advocates and improve working synergies between emerging African networks of civil society organizations, academic centers, think-tanks, and policymakers.

Sessions will include workshops on stakeholder analysis, conducting interviews, researching laws and regulations, social network analysis, network measurement, survey methods, data visualization, and strategic communication for policy impact.

We encourage individuals from Africa in the academic (early career), NGO, technology, and public policy sectors to apply. Prospective applicants should have a particular area of interest related to internet governance and policymaking, censorship, surveillance, internet access, political engagement online, protection of human rights online, and/or corporate governance in the ICT sector. Applicants will be asked to bring a specific research question to the program to be developed and operationalized through trainings, group projects, and one-on-one mentorship with top researchers and experts from around the world. Several partial and full scholarships will be made for the most competitive applicants to participate.

The course will be conducted in English and applicants should have high proficiency in English in order to interact with experts, lecturers and other participants who will come from diverse backgrounds. Please also note that we require all participants to have a laptop to use for the duration of the program.
For more information about the program please visit:

For questions, please email Laura at

To apply for the workshop, please fill out this form
by November 10:


Entering Fall 2017

Tomorrow marks the first day of classes (although my classes don’t technically start until next week since my classes are on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). I’m really looking forward to this quarter’s classes because I think they will be directly relevant to the direction my project is taking. I’ll be taking:

Kris Peterson‘s “Theorizing Africa” (ANTH 289)

Main course readings include:
  • Basma Abdel Aziz, The Queue (Melville House, 2016)
  • Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Duke University Press, 2017)
  • Omolade Adunbi, Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria (Indiana University Press 2015)
Kris has stressed that this is less of an “Anthropology of Africa” course and more of an multi-disciplinary critical theory course. It’s catered to those who are studying Africa as much as it is catered to those who want to further their interest in radical theory and the de-centering of European/Anglo-American thought (regardless of your area of study). It also is geared toward thinking about how to scale research and writing in a way that can effortlessly cross disciplines and literatures while remaining grounded in anthropological principles (particularly of method). So this course is hopefully going to be an example of how to think and analyze across time, event, and theory.

Kavita Philip‘s “Science, Gender, Race & Empire” (HIST 290)

Main course readings include:

  • Mona Domosh and Joni Seager, ed Putting Women in Place
  • Sandra Harding ed The Racial Economy of Science

This course explores the interconnected histories of science, gender, race, and empire. I’ll hopefully know more but I’m looking forward to taking my first history course at UCI…

“Responsible Research”: Reducing Risk or Improving Well-being?

I’m reposting here a piece I wrote for The Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) Blog:

A recent workshop held in South Africa convened two unlikely groups: San* groups in South Africa and sex workers in Nairobi. What do these two seemingly unrelated groups have in common? According to the workshop conveners, they have both experienced research exploitation, specifically citing being spoken down to, confused with language devised for technical specialists, or treated as ignorant. Taken further, I believe these groups are part of a growing trend of “over-research” on places and people that embody particular public narratives, especially of poverty. Studying these sentiments of being “over-researched” shifts the scientific conversation on research ethics from one of reducing the risks of harm to one of improving developmental impacts of science. This is because “over-research” does not appear to be defined by a measurable quantitative number or threshold, but rather is a temporally related, affective perception of being exploited in some way by the process of scientific knowledge production.

The question that follows from an identified increasing phenomenon of “over-research” then is what an alternative, more “responsible research” might look like. This question is one that is a long-standing interest of the Blog and other groups. For example, TRUST, an international project based in the UK that seeks to foster fair research partnerships convened the above referenced workshop, and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, an organization based in Cape Town that seeks to promote human-centered approaches to socio-economic justice, recently released a Safeguarding Policy document. This workshop and growing movement from the African continent compliments other existing work around indigenous research ethics codes and guidelines, including the First Nations principles of OCAP® and the Alaska Federation of Natives’ Guidelines for Research. There is also a growing conversation, especially out of North American and Australian aborigine communities, around “indigenous data sovereignty” that may be of relevance for those interested in indigenous research ethics on the African continent.

Following indigenous Native American and Australian communities, the San* as well as the Nairobi sex workers are thinking about and enacting an indigenous ethics code that pushes back against exploitative research. (For recent media coverage, see: herehere, and here.)

But, while local research codes and guidelines are a commendable and perhaps necessary intervention in some cases, as mentioned above, I worry that such research ethical guidelines may offer an illusion or promise of a template for an ethically unproblematic research project, erased of inevitable knowledge and power asymmetries. Do such indigenous ethics codes shift the fundamental measures of what is considered “responsible research”? Do they continue to operate within a paradigm of “reducing risks” or will they open up new possibilities of science in/with/for communities?

Since the 1980s, feminist scholars from both the global South and North, such as Abena Busia, Amina Mama, Kamala Visweswaran, Judith Stacey, and Lila Abu-Lughod, have been at the forefront of pointing out problematics and contradictions in the research encounter. Stacey writes: “I find myself wondering whether the appearance of greater respect for and equality with research subjects in the ethnographic approach masks a deeper, more dangerous form of exploitation” (1988, 22). If even research which seeks to have greater respect for and equality with research subjects masks exploitation, then perhaps the IRB and other ethical review processes should not focus so much on reducing the inevitable risks and problematics of research, but rather focus on emphasize uplifting and enriching those who participate in such knowledge production. Would such a shift change proposed research topics, subjects, and methods used?

Some may wonder, don’t Institutional Review Board (IRB) processes already exist to define exactly what counts as research and highlight the fact that all research involves risk (even if minimal)? In practice, IRB processes (viewed by many researchers as a bureaucratic requirement to reduce legal liabilities for Western universities) often do not relate to the broad range of contemporary studies and have trouble assessing more collaborative and participatory methods used in research, especially social science research conducted in Africa (and around the world) today. It is important to remember that current IRB classifications emerged as reactions to Western biomedical experimentation gone wrong (e.g. as a result of atrocities committed by Nazi doctors; and the U.S. Tuskegee Syphilis Study done on black men without their consent) and these underlying biomedical assumptions of what constitutes “high risk” do not seem to fully align with what African and indigenous research subjects believe counts as exploitative research. Furthermore, the IRB review process does not take into account the broader impacts of the research in aggregate. Any one particular study may not be problematic in and of itself. But as the examples of “over-researched” San* groups and Nairobi sex workers illustrate, it may be that research in the aggregate and on the same communities, time and time again is what leads to feelings of exploitation and disenchantment with the scientific process of knowledge production.

Therefore, taking our cue from generations of feminist scholars around the world may allow for greater recognition of the inherent asymmetries of research labor and contradictions that abound within the practice of research, especially development research “for the good” of particular marginalized people. Rather than avoiding these contradictions, openly grappling with them could strengthen existing and future research relationships. Moving away from bureaucratic ethical procedures designed to protect research organization/academic institution and reduce the risk of material or psychological harm for people only understandable under the IRB as “subject populations” and not co-producers of knowledge and expertise, and instead advancing thinking and attempts to realize the potential societal value of scientific research for all who participate in knowledge processes might be the start of a move towards more decolonized, ethical science.


  • * I use the term “San” here, but would like to acknowledge and flag the ongoing debates over the terms of reference for the groups: San, Jun/oansi, “bushmen,” “hunter-gatherers,” BaSarwa, e.t.c. For example, in Namibia, Jun/oansi call themselves “bushmen” when speaking Afrikaans, but otherwise call themselves Jun/oansi.
  • Several of these resources mentioned in this post were kindly shared on the “Responsible Data” mailing list managed by The Engine Room. To learn more and/or join, visit:
  • Thank you to Dr. Roy Richard Grinker, Director of George Washington University’s Institute for African Studies for his helpful feedback on this article.

Musings of a #PhDMama

From time to time, I expect to reflect via this blog on the experience of being a mother and PhD student (which comes first..?). I found out I was going to be a (first-time) mother on a long 17 hour layover in the Singapore airport from Japan en route back to my home in Nairobi. I sent a whatsapp image of the pregnancy test results to my husband who was just waking up in Nairobi. “Have you seen the picture I sent you?!” I asked him on Skype via the airport WiFi. He hadn’t and as soon as he did, as he recalls, he started running / pacing around the house (he’s an Enneagram type 5 / INTJ ; those of you who are into that might get a better sense of him :). Meanwhile, I was frantically googling… “starting PhD while pregnant?” “PhD while pregnant?” Surprisingly (and of not much consolation while I was in SIN), there is little information out there other than one or two forum posts and a couple of books. And many were from students in the “hard” sciences which I found hard to relate to… Why don’t social science mamas talk about their experiences more?

Long story short (I’m sure I’ll reflect more down memory lane in future posts), husband and I (and 6 suitcases filled to the brim) moved across the Atlantic ocean from Nairobi, Kenya to Irvine, California (USA) while I was 17 weeks pregnant.

I started the PhD program around 21 weeks pregnant and finished my first quarter nearing to pop. My son was born on December 30, 2015 and I continued the next quarter on January 4, 2016 with the rest of my cohort. Interestingly (and unpremeditated), I took my first feminist theory class that quarter, my first quarter as a PhDMama…

Not only is the experience of growing into motherhood one that is in and of itself interesting to reflect on, witnessing and guiding my very special little child on his own journey of life has and continues to be full of learning/teaching moments for us both.

My son, I’ll refer to him as DD, is an embodiment of the complex questions I have about identity and culture. As a mixed race child of parents from widely different backgrounds, figuring out what to explicitly teach him about himself, his cultures, and the world(s) is quite a trip. As a student of anthropology I think I am especially aware of how he is being socialized by me and everything/one around him. Being with him teaches me even more about what it means to do research because he is researching every day/every moment! Ethnographers are constantly trying to relearn the world and “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar” but in some ways, these methods expect one to have already a particular pre-formed worldview (that is shaped by our sociocultural and material environment, among other things). But being with my son (almost 21 months), lets me see what it is like when one *doesn’t* have a pre-formed worldview. In other words, having a first-hand look at the first-time formation of one’s perspective from a “blank slate” if you will…

Observing my son observing the world around him makes me reflect on how humans develop awareness of ourselves and the world. With Dedan traveling and developing strong social and linguistic ties around the world [we are (trying!) to teach him Japanese, Kiswahili and English], I am so curious about the shaping of his future perspective (and what that will mean for him if he, say becomes an anthropologist).

It’s 1 AM and this #PhDMama needs to sleep because my ever reliable alarm clock, aka DD, will be awake in 4 hours!

Milestone – Chair of Orals Committee Accepted!

A key part of the PhD journey is figuring out who you want to walk along with you to guide and support your growth as a thinker, especially when times get tough, (but also people who will question you when you think everything is going fine!). In other words, choosing your advisors is a key decision because they should be your biggest critics and also hopefully your best cheerleaders.

My PhD program is a bit different as compared to other Anthropology programs and doctoral programs more generally in that we do not choose who we will work with when we come in. We might have a general inclination about who we would want to work with, but just as the department assumes that our projects will change over the first two years of the program, they also assume that those we will work with may change as well.

But once you hit your 3rd year (cue next week, when I officially start the third year of my PhD program… eeek! where has the time gone?!), suddenly everyone is like… so… who’s on your committee?

Luckily, today I finally decided to make the plunge (after so many months of anxiety about making sure I chose the right advisor – my enneagram 7 type coming in for sure…) and today I asked a faculty member to be the chair of my orals committee… and she said yes! Should I have brought a ring and/or handcuffs?? hehe… Not sure yet… but having that sorted out definitely feels like a load off my shoulders. I’m so happy to have a key role filled by someone I highly respect and look up to and I will keep you posted on how the relationship moves forward.

One thing that I decided last year (Fall 2016) was that I would set up a Community Advisory Board to whom I will also be holding myself accountable to much like I do with my Academic Advisory Board. I plan to write more about this soon because I hope that this will ground my project with key project stakeholders outside of the academy.