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The New Somali Studies

23 Apr

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Since #CadaanStudies was launched on Twitter, the tweet that has received the most circulation has been something that British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote in his 1856 travelogue First Footsteps in East Africa:

http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-new-somali-studies

Burton had arrived in Zeila, his first stop before traveling through the rest of Somaliland and the broader Horn of Africa. He was keenly interested in the culture, beliefs, and practices of the curious “Somali race” that he encountered, and he discovered many things about them. He discovered, for example, that the Somalis of Zeila in 1856 believed that fever was connected to mosquito bites, and he speculated that this “superstition probably arises from the fact that mosquitoes and fevers become formidable about the same time.” He also re-discovered what he already knew: that the difference between “superstition” and “fact” could be traced along racial lines and that knowledge and thought was the realm of the European.

It would not be until 1880 that a French doctor, Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran, would discover the malaria parasite in Algeria, for which he would win the Nobel Prize. Finally, in 1897, a British medical officer in British India, Ronald Ross, would be credited with discovering that malaria was indeed carried by mosquitos.

Burton’s condescension still characterizes the encounter between European and Somali. When ethnographic observation was crystallized as a methodology and a science, only Europeans were seen as capable of the rigorous analysis, reason, and knowledge production it required. Somalis existed only as the backdrop for their intelligence and understanding, as superstitious, irrational, unsophisticated, and unscientific.

#CadaanStudies explores the ways in which these colonial epistemologies continue to be the foundation of the field of Somali Studies. It began in 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), which claimed to have been founded in collaboration with the University of Hargeisa, since deniedby the university. But the hashtag exploded after a member of the advisory board, Markus Hoehne, made his own observations about Somalis:

I did NOT come accross [sic] many younger Somalis who would qualify as serious SCHOLARS – not because they lack access to sources, but because they seem not to value scholarship as such. Sorry to say, but to become a successful political scientist, social anthropologist, sociologist or human geographer, you study many years without an economically promising end in sight. You have to work hard before you get out one piece of text and even then, you often get more criticism than praise. You certainly do not become rich quickly as a social scientist, at least if you have to pay your bills in Europe or Northamerica.

Now, where are all the ‘marginalised’ Somalis who do not get their share in academia? I guess you would have to first find all the young Somalis who are willing to sit on their butt for 8 hours a day and read and write for months to get one piece of text out. Okay, before you ‘crucify’ me now for my neo-colonial racist male writing, I ADMIT that given the lack of good quality higher education in social sciences INSIDE Somalia, one cannot enter into a fair competition between cadaan iyo madow [white and black] scholars here. BUT, there are many young Somalis in UK, USA and continental Europe who have a chance to get a degree from a well-established university in social sciences and become master analysts of Somali and other affairs (where are Somali sociologists who work on issues of discrimination or inequality in the USA or Europe, where are Somali religious scholars who engage in the debate about Islam in Europe? Sometimes you have to look beyond your Somali navel). But in my life, I met only very FEW diaspora Somalis who seriously pursued such a career (in social sciences). So, your activism is good, but what you actually would have to do – instead of getting outraged at cadaan scholars, is to sit down and get your analysis out and criticise not cadaan for writing sth, but your own brothers and sisters for not writing better stuff!

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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