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Africa and the Disciplines, published in 1993, was a landmark in African studies. The volume sought to justify the place of African studies in the American university, not on the basis of Afrocentricity or multiculturalism, but because, it claimed, work done in Africa was already vital to the core disciplines. The book's subtitle, "The contributions of research in Africa to the social sciences and humanities," suggested the breadth of the potential contributions to knowledge, and the book's contributors--an all-star team of premier Africanists--personified the academic potential already focused on the continent. Of the book's three editors and seven essayists, only anthropologist Sally Falk Moore (then Thomas professor of anthropology, and now curator of African ethnology in the Peabody Museum) was a Harvard faculty member. But philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, political scientist Robert H. Bates, and art historian Suzanne P. Blier have since joined the Harvard roster. Says Bates proudly, "We do Africa at least as well as anybody in the country."
Nonetheless, student Africanists must be resourceful in order to pursue an academic program at Harvard. Unlike many other area-studies programs, African studies does not reside in its own center. Nor is it an undergraduate concentration, although undergraduates in other concentrations who satisfactorily complete eight approved half-courses (including an honors thesis) receive an honors certificate in African studies.
Why the lack of institutional support? Some say it's because Harvard, wary of overexpanding, can't be expected to do everything. Others suggest that Africa isn't a sufficiently promising source for donations. Taking the latter view, professor of history Leroy Vail says succinctly: "If you're talking about Harvard, within another sentence or two, you have to use the word 'money.' "
So Africanists at Harvard make do with what they have, operating through the Committee on African Studies, a 15-member group of scholars appointed by the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The committee oversees the African studies certificate program and disburses summer travel grants that enable students to conduct fieldwork for their theses. Such funds have recently grown with two gifts from Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer '89, J.D. '93, totaling $600,000 including matching funds; the money will be used for graduate-student fellowships, preferably to assist sub-Saharan students enrolled in FAS, and for general research support for undergraduate and graduate-student projects focusing on that region. In addition, from a small cluster of offices in Coolidge Hall, on Cambridge Street, Rita Breen, the committee's executive officer, maintains a website with links to all things African and academic at Harvard and at institutions around the world ("http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~cafrica/").
Appiah, the committee's chair, appears untroubled by the lack of an institutional anchor. "The problem of not having a center is theoretical," he says. "The other departments themselves have been hiring Africanists quite happily." He adds that "a student who just takes the courses available can do a lot," noting that several courses drawing on African materials are now a part of the Core curriculum. Appiah does identify one major weakness in Harvard's offerings: a lack of languages. Those available are Swahili, in which courses are supervised by Ali Asani, professor of the practice of Indo-Muslim languages and cultures, and Ge'ez (classical Ethiopic), taught by professor of semitic philology John Huehnergard. Students who wish to learn other African languages must look elsewhere, most notably to Boston University and its prominent African Studies Center. Apart from that, Appiah says, "We can do everything Harvard's other regional centers can do."
Other members of the committee are far from satisfied. Allan G. Hill, Andelot professor of demography at the School of Public Health, points to the relationship between the study of Africa and the development of Africa. Reflecting on his own studies of population growth in polygamous villages in The Gambia, Hill says, "It's important to see things from the inside. You have to understand why polygamy is important to that culture, the role it plays in cementing relationships." Forming sound policies sensitive to problems like these depends on conducting good research, he says--and this is where he sees Harvard fitting in. "Do we, as one of the richest institutions in the Western world, have an obligation to use our wherewithal to develop poorer regions? Yes, yes we do."
But for the moment, Appiah chooses to focus on the strengths of African studies at Harvard, even citing the scattered nature of the discipline as a positive. "We're here to pursue our own intellectual agendas and train students who have the tools to think about the questions," he says. "Most people [working here] put together a bundle of tools. I think it's an intellectual advantage, even when it's an institutional disadvantage."
To express her hope that African studies will flourish at Harvard, intellectually and institutionally, professor of music Kay Kaufman Shelemay (see "Habitats for the Humanties") offers an Ethiopian proverb: "Slowly, slowly, the egg will start walking on legs."