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Professor Joseph Mensah, a Ghanaian-born scholar currently at York University in Toronto, Canada, has played a leading role in a number of African academic diasporan programmes aimed at tapping into the expertise of African academics living and working around the world.
He speaks to University World News – Africa about the “mammoth potential” of the African academic diaspora, about living in a “third space” and the reality of always having Africa on his mind.
UWN: At the Africa Academic Diaspora Forum 2019, there was discussion about the need for “institutionalisation” of diaspora programmes and interventions with the suggestion that many of the existing programmes exist only because there are individual academics, departments or small collectives committed to driving them. Do you think there is a danger that diaspora programmes might be seen as an unrealistic panacea for higher education revitalisation?
Mensah: As a dialectician, I am always attracted to arguments that seek to dissolve binaries, in favour of middle grounds. My particular take is that this is not an either-or issue. We need both individual initiatives from below and institutional commitment from above. Without either of these two, such diaspora engagements will not work well.
Keep in mind that without institutional backing from the overseas institution, the diasporan scholar would not have the requisite time to undertake a meaningful engagement. Indeed, there are situations where diasporan scholars may have to use only their March breaks, major holidays and sabbatical leaves to do this, and these times may not even favour the hosting institutions in Africa, as the timeframes for the major university holidays tend not to be the same.
Also, without the institutional support of the host institution in Africa, the diasporan is thrown into a situation where the support he or she gets is ad hoc, sketchy, unofficial and at the mercy of the host colleagues or departments, without the full backing and commitment of the host institution.
An approach that might work here is for institutions to rely or expand upon their existing partnership agreements in such a way that a diaspora scholar can choose to teach “here” (overseas) or “there” (Africa), depending on need and circumstances, with the overseas institution supporting or sharing the cost involved as part of the partnership agreement, or in exchange for their own students’ engagements in Africa – per field trips to Africa, for instance.
UWN: How much untapped potential exists in the African diaspora? Can we quantify it?
Mensah: The potential is mammoth, but hard to estimate accurately, as there is no reliable database. Remember, for a long time now, most of the top students from African universities have sought and gained admissions, normally with scholarships, grants and teaching assistantships, to Western universities to pursue their graduate studies; and many have chosen not to return.
One can say that these diasporans tend to be the proverbial cream of the crop. Of course, some excellent students choose to stay behind, but the size of the latter is nowhere near that of the former. The World Bank has made a number of attempts to develop a database of African diaspora, but, to date, no comprehensive database exists.
UWN: Are African diaspora academics receptive to the idea of sharing their expertise on the continent?
Mensah: Generally yes, but it is a very contextual and personal issue. To be able to engage in such diaspora initiatives, the African diasporan has to be somewhat established at his or her own institution. This is why many get involved only when they become tenured, or move from assistant to associate or full professorship.
At the probationary ranks, one has very little power and control over one’s time, and it may not be a good idea to take on such an initiative given the extensive time demands involved, which would invariably undermine one’s ability to keep up with the requisite publications to secure tenure.
It also depends on the pay regime under which the diasporan works. For instance, for many American colleges and universities, if one does not teach in the summer, one is not paid. However, the pay regime in most Canadian institutions is different, with faculty members getting paid in the summer months when they are on holiday, assuming one fulfils one’s teaching load in the preceding two terms.
Since many of these initiatives are very costly, with many African institutions unable to remunerate the diasporan scholar (partly or fully), if one is not being paid at his or her own institution, then funding becomes a tricky issue. Remember, the diasporan still has to pay for rent, family upkeep and other expenses at his overseas residence, even though he or she may be in Africa.
We also have to note, even if only parenthetically, that generally African scholars in Western institutions deal with peculiar burdens, having to do with issues of race and racism. Since there are very few Africans in such professorial positions in the West, they are often burdened with race-related committee duties.
Moreover, they are usually involved in, or expected to deal with, the counselling of African and other minority students, providing them with all sorts of “unofficial” support (moral or otherwise) at their own time. Not only that: the African scholars in the West often have to deal with racism from both students and colleagues in their institutions.
Moreover, given their limited number, their publications come only the hard way. For one thing, they do not have a network of classmates and schoolmates in peer journal editorial positions and manuscript acquisition positions in publishing houses, something others take for granted in their pursuit of publications. Thus, the challenges and time demands on the African scholar in the West are simply daunting.
UWN: As a member of the African academic diaspora yourself, can you share with us what motivates you to be involved in diaspora programmes?
Mensah: For me, the main motivation is the conviction that I have a lot I can contribute to African institutions in terms of my acquired expertise, work ethics, student engagement practices and administrative experience from Canada.
I visit Ghana and other African institutions a number of times in a year and I see the gaps in their administrative structures, protocols and practices, as well as in their academic programmes and courses that I can help improve with the knowledge I have acquired abroad.
As a diasporan scholar, I have the advantage of multiple or dual cultural competency, with a reasonable understanding of institutional cultures of both “here” (Canada or the West) and “there” (Ghana or Africa). Having lived in Canada for over 25 years, I have a better idea of what lessons could be drawn from Canada, in particular, and the West, in general, to improve conditions in Africa and vice versa.
I also have insights into what and how practices and protocols could be tweaked to make them applicable for the African context. I live in a third space, of a sort, as I am often “here” and “there” – living somewhere in the dialectical middle ground between these two geographic spaces.
Another motivation is to keep me connected to my cultural heritage, my people, my family and friends: as an African, I am always an African, and the desire to help improve the human condition on the continent is always on my mind.
UWN: What, in your view, are the conditions needed for the success of such programmes?
Mensah: How do we find the appropriate diaspora scholars to recruit for such programmes? What is the best mix of incentive and support that must be provided to attract the targeted diasporan scholar without incurring the resentment of his or her peers at the host institution? What is the best approach to use for a diaspora programme to yield the most for the sending and host institutions, the diasporan scholar, and the funder?
While there is neither a single nor simple answer to any of these questions (including your own above) the following suggestions, based on my own experience, might help:
UWN: Could you outline your involvement in academic diaspora programmes in the present and the past?
Mensah: Examples of my key engagements over the years include the following:
By all accounts, especially per evaluations by beneficiaries and participants, these programmes (BHER, PADA, CODESRIA Fellowship; CODESRIA College of Mentors) have been highly successful.
Joseph Mensah is a professor of geography at York University in Toronto, Canada. He completed his BA, MA and PhD at the University of Ghana, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Alberta, respectively. He is currently on sabbatical at the Ghana Technology University College in Accra. For more on his research, visit: www.jmensah.info.yorku.ca.