One-way ticket just isn't an option

January 13, 2006

A core of African scholars are ditching the convenience of the West to return home. Karen MacGregor reports

In 1996 after violent clashes with students and staff at the University of Ahmadu Bello - during which a professor was killed - Nigeria's military dictatorship closed the campus for six months and appointed a general as its sole administrator.

"I'd been offered a visiting fellowship at the University of Stockholm," recalls Jibrin Ibrahim, a political scientist who was then a professor at Ahmadu Bello and who now works in Abuja, Nigeria, as country director of Global Rights, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation.

"The general couldn't see the value in a fellowship. He said I should stay home and refused me permission to travel. I realised there was a conceptual problem. I left anyway and a week later received a letter firing me for insubordination."

After completing the fellowship and spending two years as a researcher at the Institute of Federalism at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and, despite being offered a three-year contract there, Ibrahim went home in 1998.

He is one of many scholars who have returned to Africa against a strong migratory current, swapping academic jobs and the material comforts of Europe and North America for an often more difficult (albeit interesting) existence back home.

Political instability and conflict, low salaries, paltry resources and limited opportunities have been cited as reasons for a massive brain drain that has stripped Africa of hundreds of thousands of graduates in the past half-century. Overseas scholarships that lead to jobs and relationships abroad also contribute to the depletion of Africa's 316 universities.

But not all scholars who succeed at international level abandon the least developed and most unstable continent on earth. Three academics who have decided to settle in Africa are Ibrahim; Willem Hanekom, a white Afrikaner medical scientist who left the US for the University of Cape Town; and Amina Mama, a Nigerian social scientist who is now chairwoman of gender studies at Cape Town and director of its African Gender Institute.

Ibrahim says he "never really had plans to stay away", returning from the University of Bordeaux in France "within a week of defending my PhD" and taking the Fribourg job only after being fired in Nigeria.

He adds: "I feel that the relevance of a scholar is limited when he works abroad. He is simply there as an intellectual resource. In your own country you are a stakeholder, you belong, you are part of the fight for your community - it is important that academics are involved.

"Quite a number of scholars are coming back to Africa. In Nigeria, they get jobs mainly in the NGO or diplomatic sectors, which pay international salaries and where, if academics are lucky, they can continue doing research. There's increasing competition for those jobs."

Returning academics shun Nigeria's university sector. Although it is the biggest in Africa, and situated in the continent's most populous country, it all but collapsed under decades of military rule. Universities have been shaken by riots and stripped of funds. Many of their academics - Jwho, with a PhD and in mid-career can expect to earn less than £170 a month - have fled, and institutions are reeling under expanding student numbers.

"When I was young, Nigerian universities competed at global level," Ibrahim says. Today, most Nigerian-authored publications are written by expatriates. Things have not improved since the arrival of democracy in 1999: President Olusegun Obasanjo, once a military ruler, "hasn't forgiven universities for the problems they gave him".

South African universities are in a better state and have become fairly popular destinations for foreign, and especially other African, academics.

Hanekom, a white scientist who specialised in paediatrics at the University of Cape Town, returned to South Africa last February. He had left in 1994, the year of its first democratic elections, on a three-year fellowship to Northwestern University in Chicago.

"I wanted to travel and explore. I told everyone I'd be back immediately after the fellowship," says the associate professor in the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (Satvi), at the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine. "But other factors develop that really sway you."

He met his former partner in the US and won a prize from the Society for Pediatric Research in 1997 that led to a four-year stint at Rockefeller University, New York. "It was fantastic, a slick research machine where you are surrounded by Nobel prizewinners."

There, Hanekom developed research into TB immunity and vaccines that brought him back to South Africa several times a year. After Rockefeller, Hanekom spent two years at the University of Miami.

When his relationship ended, he began to plan his return, pitching for grants with Cape Town rather than with US institutions.

"I landed with my bum in the butter. My grants suddenly got funded, as did those of people who were recruiting me." Today, he is laboratory director for a 78-strong team in Satvi, a globally funded cluster of research projects.

"The convenience of North America consumes you. You begin to think that being able to sort out a phone problem at 11.30pm is essential to your life," he says.

The big difference between top US and South African universities, Hanekom believes, is "the depth of the academic community. In the US there are very many people to discuss research with, here there are fewer. But we work to ensure that there is lots of research interaction.

"Also, in the US you get laboratory consumables overnight; here you can wait six to eight weeks. So it is much easier to do laboratory research there. On the negative side, some US universities are incredibly bureaucratic. Things might happen more slowly in Cape Town, but some of those bureaucratic structures don't exist here so you can get on with your work."

He adds that the well-funded Cape Town was the best place to complete the studies he had started. "If I were doing something less fundable, I might not have returned," he says.

He adds: "The reason why as a 'whitey' I'm in this position is because of our horrendous past. Part of the challenge is to work within affirmative action structures to reverse inequities of the past."

He says there are still few black postdoctoral students, and many black candidates are wooed by big industry salaries. He thinks academics should be evaluated not only on results, publications and grants, but also on how they make the research environment more equitable.

At the African Gender Institute, Mama also believes South African universities need to change their focus and culture. Mama was born in northern Nigeria but was sent to the UK when civil war erupted in 1966. She completed her PhD in the UK before going to teach at the Institute for Social Studies at The Hague.

"By then, fortress Europe was rising around us. Travelling in Europe, you would be the one person on the train to be checked. That revived an interest in returning home."

Mama returned to Nigeria in the early 1990s. "A bunch of us went back. We decided we couldn't be critics for ever. We had a sense of commitment and a belief that things were not going to get better in Africa unless people made them so."

She got involved in initiatives aimed at ending military rule and advancing gender issues. With others who had returned, she set up a Centre for Research and Documentation in Kano "that aimed to keep critical analysis alive" and a network for women's studies in Kaduna.

"With universities in a bad state, scholars were setting up independent research centres in Nigeria and across Africa, largely drawing on foreign funding".

But trouble found Mama in Kaduna, a once liberal city where she had spent part of her youth. Civil disturbance shook the city in 2000, and about 5,000 people died. There was extensive destruction of property, including Mama's offices, and she was forced to relocate.

She moved to South Africa that year because it enabled her to work at a university in a good international location. "This is the whitest place in Africa, but, boy, it can bring in the money," she says. The downside is a "white" academic culture that is alienating to other Africans. Many find academic jobs in South Africa but do not stay long.

"South African universities are peopled by scholars unused to the idea that they might learn from other African scholars, who are not here as students to learn from whites. Also, South Africans are positioned to lead a continent they know little about," she says.

Mama has "tried to make connections between interested South Africans and the rest of the African intellectual community". Her institute created the journal Feminist Africa .

While South Africa's political and university leaders are committed to transformation and integration with Africa, Mama argues, it is not happening at the micro-level.

"Universities have been slow to grapple with what African integration means in terms of what is taught and what is read. South Africa could benefit from deeper engagement with Africa's history."

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