What are African Studies

What are African Studies, anyway? How important are religious studies in the context of African Studies?

In the current contexts, African Studies still seem to be a great scientific area in struggle within the Social Sciences environment and, above all, with itself. As a major area of ​​knowledge, African Studies encompass a range of disciplines ranging from linguistics to history, from archeology to political science, from anthropology to art. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paulin J. Hountondji, questioned whether these disciplines that focus on Africa «simply overlap each other, studying the same object from different perspectives and angles, or at least otherwise, interdependent to the point of being subject to growing or disappearing together? » (2008: 150).

The question is pertinent and, as the author addresses, we cannot deny that these disciplines dialogue with each other, sharing methodologies and proposals, having the same vast geographic scenario in the laboratory. In this emblematic work, the natural philosopher from Benin raises yet another problem – that of the perspective in question. Historically, African Studies are scientific discourses, elaborated from different disciplines of knowledge, about  Africa and not made  of  Africa or  by Africans. This leads to a series of problems and challenges, but also of added value.

If, on the one hand, alterity is always played roughly against Eurocentrism, or the categories under analysis are too often forged from the Judeo-Christian environment, in positive cases the narratives have the merit of seeing beyond the prisons of experience. The debate cannot be subtracted, of course, either from the evolution of narratives about Africa, from the missionaries, or from the evolution of disciplines with their scientific postulates always under review. Think, for example, of the impact that evolutionism has had on the analysis of African or Amerindian cultures. But also, equally, about the knowledge that is conveyed ‘from within’ and ‘from without’ (Delmos J. Jones 1970).

Second, African studies are not independent of the diaspora. Stuart Hall (2003) already said that Africa that is doing well is that of the Diaspora, made in the colonial whirlwind. This idea goes against the researchers of the beginning of the 20th century who went in search of African survivals in the New World, like Melville Herkovits. What is real, in Africa and in the diaspora, is the hybrid dynamics and the intense  bricolage , as Bastide called him (1970).

This means that African Studies are marked by scientific negotiations between Western schools of thought and indigenous attempts to produce alternative paths. It is worth recognizing that the idea of ​​African Studies seems to resize the problem, as it simplifies such a plural geography. In spite of this, the great area of ​​African Studies has an important path to follow, knowing that it is able to strip the agendas that seem to guide the academy from external pressures. To what extent can African Studies be imprisoned in projects almost exclusively devoted to the debtor issues of political science? To what extent is the creativity of African Studies not limited to the political emergencies of Liberal Democracy?

This leads me to the initial question: What are African Studies? This question does not seem easy to answer, much less in a small reflection. In any case, African Studies must be a large area of ​​knowledge, capable of accommodating economics, political science, biology, art, history, anthropology, philosophy, archeology, and so many other exact sciences, human and animal.

I finally come to the final question: what is the place of religious studies in the context of African Studies? Historically, the first reports about Africa were produced in missionary, traveler and colonizer contexts. Religion, necessarily, was the central aspect of these reports. Many African societies have been and are indebted to the place of religion in their social and political structures. The interpenetration between religion and politics is evident in countless African peoples. However, religious studies have been disappearing from the African Studies agenda and appearing in History, Anthropology or the Science of Religions, as major areas of knowledge.

A trip through the Portuguese academic scene reveals that African religions and their derivatives occupy a minimal space in the research landscape. Social secularization has become a scientific secularization. This reduction in religious studies is not of minor importance. Not that religion should be at the heart of African studies. This agenda is too classic and evolutionary to fit the current paradigms. What is important is not to leave African Studies captured by agendas outside the academy, by developmental projects and by diplomatic illusions.

Studying religions, in a context in which civilization shocks, as Huntington advocated, are based on those, becomes imperative. Furthermore, religion, which deals with approaches such as authenticity or ideological tensions, can provide interesting data for other types of knowledge. This is at a time when my fellow doctoral researchers in African Studies are surprised by my agenda on religion. “Why religion?” it is a question that should not fit in our scientific environment.


by Abdullah Sam
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