GHANA-US: Reinventing African studies in California

Last month the University of California partnered with the University of Ghana for the first conference in a series of three to be held in Africa. The series is a way of reinventing African studies in the University of California system by bringing together academics from the two continents, comparing notes and getting to know one another.

The "Revisiting Modernisation" conference was convened by professors Takyiwaa Manuh of the Institute of African Studies (IAS) at the University of Ghana, and Stephan Miescher and Peter J Bloom of the University of California Santa Barbara.

It featured 43 papers from various disciplines, keynote speakers and - in the spirit of the hosting institution - an art exhibit, a dance performance and a film screening.

Miescher, an associate history professor, summed up the intentions of the conference in his opening statement as: "We want to strengthen connections with the African continent".

By starting that connection through the Institute of African Studies, collaborations between the institute and the University of California (US) system through student and faculty exchanges are being significantly reinforced.

After Ghana, a second and a third conference with a collaborative approach are planned to take place in Senegal in 2011 and in South Africa in 2013.

The American leg of the organising committee is a wholly new entity. The African Studies Multi-Campus Research Group (MRG) is a collaborative project within the UC system and was launched in July 2008. It is a joint effort to modernise African Studies, a field with roots in colonialism and orientalism, into "a multi-sited post-colonial discipline".

In addition to the conference series, this change will come about through graduate student workshops, performances of African cultural groups, restoration and screening of African films and visiting fellowships for African academics.

The first African counterpart, IAS is a much more mature entity. The institute was established in 1961 by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, and it was mandated to carry out research in arts and social studies in Africa as part of a Pan-African political agenda.

Importantly, the institute is also responsible for providing the mandatory classes for second year students at the University of Ghana, ranging from African Historical Studies and Government and Politics in Africa to African Music and Dance and African Language studies.

In a recent speech at the university the Vice-president of Ghana, John Mahama, fondly remembered his mandatory class at the IAS: "I did African Studies of course, just like everybody else. We had to choose a course from the list of available classes, but to my horror I didn't get the language class I applied for, but instead African dance! Looking back at it now, I am happy I know dances like Adowa and Kpanlongo."

The mandatory African studies courses are "designed to introduce students to current ideas, thinking, theories and developments in Africa", according to the IAS information brochure.

The idea of Africanising a colonial syllabus is today fully integrated into the University of Ghana and 5,185 undergraduate students registered in 2007-08. The institute has 86 graduate students, 20 of whom are pursuing PhD studies.

The IAS also consists of a professional dance group, the Ghana Dance Ensemble, as well as a library, and it publishes book series and monographs. Additionally, in the in-house Research Review, IAS twice a year publishes original research in the social sciences and humanities. Last year the institute's interdisciplinary workforce was made up of 118 staff including 26 research fellows and 25 senior staff.