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A Look at African Anthropologies

By Mwenda Ntarangwi, Calvin College

2007 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

Three scholars, all based in different continents and who follow different strands of anthropology, have combined their insights to examine African anthropologies as practiced in Africa today. Mwenda Ntarangwi is a Kenyan cultural anthropologist trained in the US and teaches in a small liberal arts college in the US, David Mills is a British social anthropologist trained in the UK and teaches in a large public university there, and Mustafa Babiker is a Sudanese applied anthropologist trained in the UK who works in the Development Studies and Research Institute in Sudan’s main public university. They, together with nine other contributing authors, have produced African Anthropologies: History, Critique and Practice. Their combination of experiences and collaborative efforts reflect not only the realities of anthropological training and practice in Africa but also the future of anthropology as a discipline in general.

Focusing on specific African nations in both English-speaking and French-speaking regions, this work represents large components of national life such as religion, ethnic and regional populations, and livelihood groups such as pastoralists. African anthropologies have struggled with the exigencies and expectations of constituted academic and governmental institutions. In the context of influential Pan-African critique and post-colonial thought in the global academy, and of the innovative frontiers in the discipline worldwide, the daily professional practice in teaching, research and applied work in Africa is in a condition of fragmentation and isolation that needs serious attention because a profession is not created only through the profile of its international leading lights.

The expansion of African anthropology under late colonialism thus serves to re-explore the relationship between government and the discipline, pulling together three strands to the arguments: the historical identification of what specific anthropological endeavors actually did under colonial conditions; the highlighting of the complex relationship between anthropology and nationalism (including ethnic nationalism and populism) in Africa; and the exploration of what “practice” entails within national contexts in the present. In this way the argument moves African anthropology from the bondage of the “handmaiden of colonialism” label to a discipline that has reshaped and invigorated scholarship and research in a continent that continues to face socio-economic and political challenges.

Ntarangwi, Mills, and Babiker have pursued a three-prong emphasis – history, critique, and practice. The first prong takes a historical and comparative perspective, illustrating and reflecting on a number of the national anthropological traditions that have developed within sub-Saharan Africa universities during and since the colonial period. Contributions draw both on historical sources and their own career narratives to retell and reflect upon these traditions of teaching, training and research. The second prong demonstrates the growing importance of anthropological engagement pointing out the unequal politics of knowledge-production about Africa (within and outside Africa) and the dilemmas faced by many African anthropologists who for socio-economic reasons predominantly work outside the academic sector, and in particular within NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and applied research centers, jeopardizing the chances of producing new anthropologists in the academy. The third prong demonstrates the important contributions to knowledge that African anthropologists have made through practicing and applying their disciplinary skills, whether in the fields of social development or public health. Contributors to this section highlight the importance of maintaining a dialogue between university-based academics and those anthropologists employed by NGOs or working as research consultants. As all contributors to the volume show, it is an exciting and intellectually invigorating time to be practicing Anthropology in Africa today despite the many challenges it faces.

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