• Roundtable

Roundtable 1: Asia Through an African Lens: Rethinking the Discourse on Asian Studies


Thursday, 24 September 2015 to Saturday, 26 September 2015


University of Ghana


University of Ghana
Legon Boundary

The Asia-Studies-in-Africa initiative seeks to develop paradigms that enhances the role of African intellectuals and validates African contributions to global knowledge production on Asia. In order to do so we must first answer why Asia should be studied in Africa?

Asian studies in Africa will build on the increasing number of individual African and Asian scholars undertaking research on Asia in Africa and on Africa in Asia.  It will also benefit from the fast-developing trends of migration and exchange patterns between the two regions, that include, but are not limited to, the China-Africa story.

The context for Asian studies in Africa stands today at a critical starting point.  African and Asian intellectuals feel the need to address and overcome intellectual constructions inherited from the long cultural domination of the West, or North – i.e., Europe and North America.  Part of the task is a re-evaluation of the impact of the colonial experience on the way Africans view themselves in the world, rather than only on how the world views Africa.

The scholarly legacy of the colonial experience includes both conceptual and practical problems. On the conceptual side, until recently, African scholars, much like their Asian counterparts, tended to study their societies through a European conceptual lens, which hinders the development of analytic frameworks that take into account experiences, both comparable and distinctive, among African and Asian societies and interests. In practical terms, African scholars have not benefitted sufficiently from structures, input, and networks that can promote posing novel questions about Asia and Asian flows of capital, commodities, people, and ideas, for African scholars to systematically research and answer.

Asian Studies in Africa has until now placed an inordinate emphasis on China and India, as well as on economically important countries such as Japan, Singapore, Korea, and so on. This focus has primarily been driven by a concern with their geopolitical and economic strategies, achievements, and their implications for Africa. In consequence, there has been little attention to the less economically or geopolitically visible parts of the region – Southeast Asia, for example. Similarly, African intellectuals have considered the economics and politics of Asian societies largely within the framework of the nation-state, which ignores many aspects both within and across national borders. Asian scholars of Africa have been experiencing similar methodological limitations and entanglements. 

Directly relevant here is the difficulty born out of the Western discourse on “development” and its implied hierarchy of values, historical determinism, and assumption that Africa must “follow” and “catch up with an “Asian model of development,” itself defined in paradigms based in and on Europe, North America, and Japan. To what extent can an African analytic focus on Asia be developed that transcend these imposed categories and references? Can such a focus be rooted in an inclusive “humanistic” vision, which values contextualized knowledge within African academic traditions?

Questions to be addressed by the Roundtables

 We plan to suggest a series of questions for invited participants to address in their preliminary notes to be sent prior to the Accra conference.

I - Conceptual questions

  1. What does doing Asian studies in Africa mean? How do we define Asian studies in Africa?
  2. What are the issues and challenges that Asian studies are facing in Africa?
  3. What does Asian studies mean for global humanities in Africa?
  4. Are the difficulties faced by African scholars on Asia similar to those experienced by Asian scholars on Africa?
  5. How do we situate this debate within the larger arena of area studies and global humanities?

II. Practical Questions

  1. What is the current state of Asian studies in Africa? Current programs, gaps and needs.
  2. What are the structural and programmatic challenges for Asian studies in African institutions?
  3. To what extent Asian studies in Africa remain marginalized in institutions of higher learning (and in governmental/inter-governmental higher education policies)?
  4. What is the nature and focus of current research being undertaken on Asia in Africa? The role of transnational linkages, diasporas, etc.

III - Suggested Areas of Intervention

  1. Program development and enhancement (secondary school, university, institutes, think tanks) e.g., Language study programs, joint degree programs, scholarly exchanges
  2. Joint curriculum development (foundational courses, e.g., Intro to Asian studies for African students, Intro to methodologies, etc.
  3. Regional resource centers (basic knowledge, books, digital resources)
  4. Digital linkages and networking (website, etc.)
  5. Conferences
  6. Publications (open source journals, conference proceedings)
  7. Place and role of A-ASIA: what should be its mandate, structure and realm of intervention?

Format of the Accra Roundtables

The roundtable setting is intended to facilitate and inspire open discussions between participants.  Two to three short interventions of 5 minutes each will start things off. Discussions will be moderated. No formal papers will be read. The focus is debate and discussion among the panellists and with the audience. The roundtables will occupy half a day each, divided into two sessions of two hours each.

Invited Roundtable participants will be asked to submit a concept note of 1-2 pages ready for circulation by 1 September 2015 at the latest. To be submitted to Titia van der Maas at t.van.der.maas@iias.nl. The concept note should address the main themes, drawing on the author’s scholarship and practice.


Annex: information regarding existing African initiatives in Asian Studies (Lusaka Workshop, 2012)

Current situation

In East Africa, the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, has already developed an Asian studies programme with much success. In West Africa, in Nigeria, there are two main universities that have specific programs on Asia: the University of Lagos and the University of Abuja. In Ghana, a program in Mandarin has been developed at the University of Ghana as a part of the Department of Modern Languages. The Legon Centre of International Affairs and Diplomacy has been running a Japanese language course as part of its MA program. There is also a cluster of centres for the study of the Chinese language. Many new books on Asia in Africa have been published by West African scholars.

In East Africa, examples come from Nairobi, where Confucius Institutes have led the creation of whole programmes and departments. At the University of Nairobi, the success of the Confucius Institute has led to the creation of the Chinese Department. This Department now provides a B.A. and is developing an M.A. and Ph.D. program.  It also offers a mutually beneficial  situation for the Chinese teachers involved who do their own research on Africa while teaching Chinese.

In Zimbabwe, the University of Zimbabwe is making an effort in Asian studies, but there is commitment without coordination. Similar to Nairobi, there is a Confucius Institute offering a B.A. in Chinese language, which also sends graduate students to do Master’s programs in China. There is also a Masters in International Relations that covers Asian-African studies.

The longest standing programs of Asian studies in Africa are in South Africa. There are language studies centers there that date back at least to the mid-1990s, as well as many other initiatives over the past two decades. 

In the beginning there was a shared understanding to study the Asian region within a broad geo-political framework. The two main universities involved in this initiative were Wits University and Stellenbosch University. At Wits, the focus has been on China. At Stellenbosch, studies began in the Political Science Department and the Asian Studies Desk. They too focused on China through the work of scholars such as Ian Taylor and Martin Davies, and then Japan with the work of Scarlett Cornelissen.

There are many lessons to be learned from the South African example. First is how these programs gained support. The protagonists of the development of Asian studies in South Africa began with small-scale support, moving to a large scale as they used networks to gain access to an international audience. Institutionally speaking, they had receptive university administrations.  Since 2000, Stellenbosch has even offered a B.A. in Mandarin. The corporate funding for this degree program is evidence of a receptive community within South Africa. 

Despite these valuable insights into the current state of the field, we need to carry out a systematic survey of existing capacity for the study of Asia in Africa. This is a crucial first step in developing and promoting Asian Studies in Africa.