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  • Making It Ethical to Study Africa:The Enduring Legacies of "Sitting on a Man"
  • Denise Walsh (bio)

At the annual 2006 African Studies Association conference in San Francisco, Nigerian feminist scholar Amina Mama delivered a keynote address with the provocative title, "Is it Ethical to Study Africa?" The lecture focused on African scholars working in Africa. During her talk, however, Mama noted that scholars who study Africa but live in the United States "have at times been complicit in imperialist agendas."1 Later, she pointedly asked: "Can we develop the study of Africa so that it is more respectful toward the lives and struggles of African people and to their agendas, studies that contribute to the good of Africa?"2

Mama's query invites us to think critically about the purpose and meaning of our scholarship and urges us to learn from those whom it is about. Rather than adopting agendas popularized by international agencies, for example, Mama invites researchers to ask questions informed by Africans fighting for a better future. The implication is that the agenda of the latter better reflects the context and desires of Africans, in contrast to one-size-fits all prescriptions, such as good governance, that do little to overturn domestic or international inequalities of power.3 With Mama's question in mind, I consulted the syllabus for my "Gender Politics in Africa" course, and realized that one of the readings that best responded to her question was also the oldest and a personal favorite: Judith Van Allen's "Sitting on a Man: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women."4 [End Page 166]

Like many faculty in the United States who teach about Africa, I find my classroom populated by earnest students burning with a desire to do good in the world. I share that impulse and take great satisfaction that my teaching and research attract such smart, dedicated students. But there is a dark side to this commitment. I meet many young, privileged white women from the United States who can think of no region more deserving of their humanitarian efforts than Africa because they believe it to be in crisis and in need of their help. Reflecting on Mama's question, they do have a concern for the good of Africa, but they are not particularly attentive to the agenda of Africans or how their own assumptions about how to achieve good may thwart that agenda. By focusing on doing good and forgetting to ask what Africans seek and how that might best be achieved, some of these students come perilously close to endorsing a naïve version of the civilizing mission, for example by endorsing entrepreneurial training for African women that would make them dependent on a volatile global economy that redistributes income from the poor to the wealthy.5

This proclivity to do good before investigating what the appropriate instrument might be to secure the future that Africans envision could put me on a collision course with my students. Although the following nightmare teaching scenario has never seen the light of day, it is easy to imagine: picture a white professor who spent much of her life in New York City studying leftist politics railing against racism and the hubris of imperial feminism to well-meaning upper class, white Southern students. No doubt they would swiftly drop my course. But there has never been a need for me to opine about the evils of the civilizing mission and contemporary neo-imperialism when teaching my course on gender politics in Africa because students consistently ask insightful questions about how and why phenomena like state building have shaped the lives of specific groups of women in Africa, how these women responded, and what was gained and lost.

I am certain that most students do not enter my classroom with these questions readily at hand. Nor can I attribute their queries to the cumulative effects of my teaching, as they pose these questions long before midterms arrive. Instead, I am convinced that their swift reorientation from do-gooders to good questioners stems from their exposure to and embrace of Van Allen's iconic piece, "Sitting on a Man." I assign "Sitting...


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pp. 166-172
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