APSA Co-sponsors Workshop on Teaching Religion and Humanitarianism in Nairobi

Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) has agreed to allow APSA to repost this piece (originally featured on their blog). The views expressed in the posts are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.The Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) team, funded by the American Political Science Association (APSA) and the Henry Luce foundation, organized a workshop on Teaching about Religion and Humanitarianism in Africa that was held during the Biennial Conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) in October 2019 in Nairobi. In addition to the CIHA team, scholars from Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Ghana participated in the workshop, discussing approaches, pedagogies and methodologies for teaching critically about religion, humanitarianism, and development in Africa with an emphasis on the necessity of privileging the research and perspectives of African scholars and activists. The workshop was divided into two parts, with each part followed by an in-depth discussion and Q&A.

The workshop began with participants introducing themselves and sharing their reflections on excerpts from the work of the prominent writer and academic, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, on reversing the lens of humanitarianism in Africa. For example, “In my view, Africa is always giving, literally [slaves, gold, copper, etc.] … if you think about who is the donor and who is the recipient, it seems like Africa is the donor and the West is the recipient” (Ngūgī, CIHA conference, UC Irvine, 2009) demonstrates right away the need for a thorough reversal of perspective. Almost all participants stressed how these writings made them think in new ways about the phenomenon of humanitarianism in Africa, and the concept of giving.

In the first part of the workshop, Simangaliso Kumalo began the discussion by speaking on teaching about religion, governance and the environment. Professor Kumalo highlighted the need for continued critical engagements, especially around our attitudes towards religion and how they shape belief systems, leadership policies in Africa, and how the environment is treated. He called for intentional reflection on religion as a critical space for teaching about environmental sustainability. Professor Kumalo concluded by emphasizing the importance of providing contextually relevant knowledge and skills to students, secular and Church leaders, faith-based and secular non-governmental organizations, academics, and ordinary people outside the academy to become agents of change in a shared ecosystem.

Akosua Adomako Ampofo then touched on the issues of hospitality and reciprocity. Her presentation underscored the critical lenses that must be turned on humanitarian actors by investigating African approaches to giving. She noted that in order to critically understand humanitarian acts offered by Africans, it is important to unpack concepts such as reciprocity, hospitality and accountability and the ways in which they apply in African contexts.

Cilas Kemedjio further called for the dissection of humanitarianism’s gendered implications. Professor Kemedjio argued that women and children have assumed the face of vulnerability and therefore, have become the target of humanitarian subjects used for advertisements and publicity, especially in Africa. At the same time, the denial of women’s basic rights continues, and the unaccounted hours invested in domestic work as well as their sacrifices which are unwittingly couched as hospitality make women vulnerable and leave them at the margins of society. Professor Kemedjio identified patriarchy as the foundation of women’s vulnerability as it weakens women’s social immune systems, hampering their ability to respond to what he described as “naturally engineered disasters” such as war, which keep humanitarianism in business.

Lively discussion ensued, particularly regarding a) the role of African religion(s) in the broader religious landscape, with many critiques of the historical subjugations by colonial authorities and “missionary” religions on the continent; b) the differing lenses on women’s victimization and their relationship to current trends in humanitarian aid, which frequently promote such lenses; and c) the range of interpretations of the notion of responsibility in family and community life on the continent.

In the second part of the workshop, Mame Penda Ba presented preliminary findings from LASPAD (Laboratory for the Analysis of Societies and Powers/Africa-Diasporas) regarding the conflict in Casamance in the Senegambia region and the challenge of knowledge production. She recalled that the conflict in Casamance started in 1982 and thus is one of, if not the oldest conflict on the continent. According to Professor Ba, African researchers have shown very little interest in this issue. On the contrary, 80% of the literature on the conflict in Casamance has been produced by foreign researchers, notably Americans and Western Europeans. In the context of humanitarian aid, Professor Ba revealed that the first humanitarian action in the context of this conflict was carried out in 1985 by “Kagamen,” an organization of indigenous women who willingly hosted and even offered a part of their lands to displaced persons. Moreover, in recent years a proliferation of non-governmental organizations in the region has been stifling local initiatives. The silence around this conflict has been disastrous, and Professor Ba faulted the Senegalese authorities for failing to democratize the discourse around it by including participants, stating that this lack of an inclusive framework has seriously impacted the peace process. She further problematized the notion of “low-intensity conflict” which is a term often assigned to the Casamance, as if to deny its importance and relegate it to the background. In contrast, she recognized the unconditional hospitality that continues to be offered by the people across the borders of Senegal-Gambia and Guinea Bissau, seen in their readiness to accommodate their afflicted neighbors.

Cecelia Lynch rounded out the presentations by adding to critiques of the roles of western actors. Professor Lynch focused on the role of language and discourse used by international humanitarian organizations in maintaining inequalities; in particular, binaries such as victim-donor and victim-recipient. She also pointed out the ongoing subdivision of humanitarian terminologies, including early warning, peace keeping, peace building, conflict resolution, and transitional justice, as well as the proliferation of humanitarian experts and bureaucracies – all in tandem with the growth of metrics of success compelled by what we loosely call “neoliberalism.” In addition, Prof. Lynch critiqued the terminologies used by these organizations and initiatives, such as partnership, sustainability and resilience, and noted how such terminologies, in fact, have not really changed the power relations on the ground and instead, have helped perpetuate inequalities while sustaining the humanitarian organizations themselves.