Patient Africa's time has come

April 4, 1997

It is ironic that as communications become easier and faster, the West's knowledge of Africa seems to diminish. The continent impinges on Western consciousness only at times of crisis - during wars, pestilence and famine. Images of genocide in Rwanda and political chaos in Zaire fade along with the interest that might once have been deep and continuing. A wealth of culture, languages, history and peoples is frequently dismissed as a mass of problems too complex to solve.

As the plunder of its riches under imperialism eased into the longer-term interest of the colonial era, Africa became a source of inspiration and curiosity for the West. The core of that interest was in the West's universities.

But academics have a patchy history of involvement with Africa. That involvement may be less tainted than the multinational successors to the buccaneering entrepreneurs whose exploitation paved the way for today's difficulties, but has been too often based on an academic imperialism exporting inappropriate Western models.

Now, however, indifference has allowed the opening of space for new relationships based on greater equality and equity. Some Western academics are building secure professional relationships with colleagues from African universities based on partnership and a two-way flow of scholarship, which ensures that as much is returned as is taken away.

Today's involvement may be a case of lending expertise, and giving access to sophisticated equipment and computing power. Sometimes it will be a matter of offering a secure base away from the sub-Saharan universities which have suffered for too long from poor resourcing, excessive governmental interference and undisguised state repression. Its success depends on avoiding imposing Western models, inappropriate technologies and any suggestion of seeking to enhance publications records and individual career prospects.

Africa needs collaboration with the West to resolve the seemingly-chronic problems its people face. But that cooperation depends on the extent to which African academics can operate within their university systems.

At the close of the colonial era, those universities that existed south of the Sahara, which were closely based on Western models, seemed to have a bright future.

But as the number of institutions has proliferated, the potential for excellence has diminished. Seen as focal points for dissent against anti-democratic governments emerging in the post-colonial era, at best they have been starved of admittedly scarce resources and at worst they have become the victims of severe repression.

Frequent closures, poor resourcing, indifferent career prospects and bad pay have driven many of the best academics to universities outside the continent. Attracting them back is possible, as the example of post-apartheid South Africa has shown, but there is still much ground to be made up.

This week, the council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities is meeting in South Africa for the first time since the that country's return to the Commonwealth. Later this summer, Commonwealth education ministers will hold their biennial conference in Botswana. And Unesco has the problems of sub-Saharan Africa firmly in its sights in the run-up to its world conference on higher education scheduled for next year.

A series of coincidences? Or is the West at last becoming aware that without the research and scholarship an internationalist university sector can offer, Africa's growing problems could soon beset us all?

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