April 18, 2015
By Yusuf Serunkuma
If one is not Somali, writing a critique of #CadaanStudies under the present circumstances feels like choosing to end one’s academic engagement with Somalia. It feels a bit nervous and weird! Let me state from the beginning that this is no attempt to defend Dr Markus Hoehne’s uncalculated remarks. They do not concern the scope of this response. My interest is in retracing the epistemological and historical roots of this rather popular hashtag – theorised in Safia Aidid’s essay, “The New Somali Studies”[in The New Inquiry, April 14, 2015]. There is a saving grace for me though; I am black, not white. Unless we will have another hashtag, #MadowStudies! #CadaanStudies seems to suggest three things: First, that it is only the self can be objective [about the self]; second, that colonialism was white, and if this is granted, whiteness then becomes the timeless symbolism of colonialist scholarship. Third, the critique of #CadaanStudies seems to also suggest that proper and objective representation must involve direct and self-participation!
Let me start with my own experience of #MadowStudies in East Africa and the horn. Doing fieldwork in Kisenyi, a Somali-dominated suburb in Kampala – my hometown – a female Somali shopkeeper asked my Somali language teacher and translator, “What are you doing with this black man?” Months of mutual assistance and cordial conversation had brought my teacher and I quite close. Although we had known each other for barely a year, we interacted like old friends. Now the present questioner suspected an affair running between us, and was wondering what a brown girl, that is, with superior ancestry, would be doing with a black man, that is, of inferior ancestry. My teacher calmly put her off saying, “he’s just my friend.” It was then that it struck us that I was black and my Somali teacher/friend was “not black.” [I do not know the opposite of not being black in the context of the questioner]. Plenty of scholarship suggests, however, that certain sections of the Somali community believe their ancestry has Arab roots, and in some cases with direct relations to the line of Prophet. Available historical evidence does not allow us to dispute or confirm the claim – which would actually be a wasteful exercise. However, the claim that pits black against white /brown/blue or whatever is not just loaded with racist undertones, but is also ignorant and counterproductive.
Anyone reading Kenyan and Ugandan social and mainstream media will be struck by the amazing levels of East Africans’ ignorance about Somalia and Somalis. Especially after the 2010 Kampala twin bombings and the subsequent terror attacks in the region, all Somalia [and East African Muslims] has been reduced to Al-Shabaab. It is not rare to hear bogus claims on radio or in print such as “All Somalis are Al-Shabab” or “Muslims are killing us.” The Othering continues! In the context of the ongoing violence in Somalia, and its effects on the region, as a humanist and aspiring philological academic, I decided to cleanse myself of an East African constructedness and attempt to understand Somalia – the people and community – and perhaps provide a link connecting East African and horn of African studies. This is something I have been doing for the past four years. However, I dare say that I have never been as conscious of my black skin as I’m circulating among my Somali brethren either in Kampala, Hargeisa or Mogadishu. I should add however, that I am lucky to hang out with several hospitable and respectful Somalis who do not see me as black or inferior. But now and again you feel the community’s eyes piercing through your skin. You are black, contaminated and inferior! In some bizarre cases, I have to answer that I am not just a Muslim but also one who also prays!
How should we think about social interaction or scholarship whose reception, response and critique assume that the place of origin or skin colour of the interlocutor is its “first intelligibility?”
If it wasn’t the hashtag, #CadaanStudies, it was the question, after Spivak (1988), “Can the Somali Speak?” These two, we are told, began as a “response to the total absence of Somali academics and researchers from the editorial and advisory boards of the newly launched Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS).” In other words, the hashtag found fault in the absence of direct participation of Somali native academics [I have no idea what this means, either]! Because the query springs from a concern over objectivity and perhaps good scholarship, the implicit assumption is that participation guarantees objectivity! Going along with several examples of bigoted claims from colonial anthropologists, Aidid theorises that the hashtag “explores the ways in which colonial epistemologies continue to be the foundation of the field of Somali Studies.
“…the hashtag #CadaanStudies gestures towards the conceptual whiteness of knowledge production in Somali Studies. It is an analysis of the systemic and the normative positions and relations it produces. It is a way of thinking about the words of one anthropologist and the exclusions of one journal not as isolated incidents, but as signifiers of the current state of Somali Studies, and the ways in which it has continued to sustain non-Somali dominance on all things Somali. It examines how colonial logic is replicated in contemporary scholarship on Somalis, and in the research practices of non-Somali academics in their gaze upon the Somali.”
It is difficult to understand what Aidid means by “the current state of Somali Studies, and the ways in which it has continued to sustain non-Somali dominance on all things Somali.” Scholarship and writing is not a mining field that the first occupier monopolises the mineral deposits and nobody can claim any mining rights. Neither is starting a journal; something like, if one started a journal on a particular area or field of study, no one else is allowed to start another on the same field of academic inquiry. Perhaps a name can be patented, but an area or field cannot be patented, right? What then does our good theorist mean? Does she suggest someone has stopped Madows from starting their own journals on Somaliland? Well, if the problem has historical-economic roots such as logistical challenges like the absence of infrastructure, then that would prompt another debate all together. In the same way, I have problems understanding what she means by, “It examines how colonial logic is replicated in contemporary scholarship on Somalis, and in the research practices of non-Somali academics in their gaze upon the Somali.” What does the category “non-Somalis” mean in the world of scholarship? What is this obvious intrinsic relationship between “a colonial logic” and “non-Somali academics?” Is this an effort to compartmentalise knowledge and assign certain scholars “first intelligibilities” as a method of reading their scholarly production?
Safia Aidid is a graduate student of history. First, I do not understand a historian’s insistence on absolute objectivity, accuracy or truth. I thought after Foucault, we were all historians of the present, and Yusufu Bala Usman rudely reminds us, “Africanists” that, “neutrality [or objectivity] is an illusion.” Second, the sort of exclusive emphasis on Somalia overt in the excerpt above seems to suggest that this problem is unique to Somalia. Because, exactly, she’s theorising whiteness in Somali Studies! History tells us that this is not just a Somali problem. It is a larger problem across the world especially in formerly colonised places. Across time and space, academics in former colonies, Frantz Fanon, Ade Ajayi, Ali Mazrui, Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Spivak, WEB Dubois, Stuart Hall, Edward Said have attempted to respond to this challenge in knowledge production. But the response has never been racial profiling! We have often called it Eurocentricism, not white-centrism. If the most current critique of Afrocentricism – which was a response to Eurocentricism – is that Afrocentricism is just an African version of Eurocentricism, how un-reflective then can White-centrism or #CadaanStudies be?