I recently updated my positionality page, and wanted to include a note about it here for readers who access my site through an RSS reader or email and might not see the page itself. If you don’t feel like clicking over, here’s the new text.
As any geographer will tell you, maps don’t just provide information about the territory they depict; they also say a great deal about the ideas held by the people who create and use them. I thought about this frequently as I selected the map in the header of this blog. It’s a portion of the Cantino Planisphere, which was made in Portugal in 1492, and is the earliest European map to depict the entire coastline of Africa. Every time I look at the map I’m struck by all the layers of meaning that have accrued to it. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork. It’s a marvel of late-medieval cartographic technology. It’s one of the navigational tools that ultimately facilitated European colonization of the continent. And it’s a symbol of the sometimes positive and more frequently exploitative relationship between Africans and Europeans, and of a history that I still stand within, as a wealthy white Northerner interested in central Africa.
I value this symbolic idea of the map precisely because it reminds me that the work I do in researching and writing about African countries isn’t neutral. There are two senses in which I mean this. First, there’s no such thing as neutral or unbiased observation of the world. While I seek to share information here that strikes me as interesting and accurate, my perception of what qualifies as such is of course deeply tied to my own experiences, preferences and beliefs. This is an inherent part of how humans view the world – collecting and interpreting new information through the lens of previous experience – and in many ways it’s a great system. The challenge then is to keep seeking out the voices of others who’ve had experiences and hold beliefs different than one’s own.
Of course, not every voice is equally likely to be heard. This is the second part of what I mean in saying that my work isn’t neutral. There’s an immense amount of privilege that comes with being a white Anglophone with an American passport at a well-known university. It facilitates travel, gives you access to a wide range of resources, and makes it more likely that you might connect with and be taken seriously by powerful Northern leaders, who still hold a disproportionate amount of influence in the world. Writing about African countries without acknowledging this privilege and working to reduce it only serves to perpetuate a deeply unequal system.
So what then is to be done? One thing which anyone can do is to seek out more news and opinions from African sources, rather than Northern ones. The list of African newspapers and think tanks on the sidebar of this blog is a good place to start. More resources can be found in my posts on Anglophone African voices in policy analysis and the top 50 African writers I follow on Twitter. Beyond this, it’s important to note that higher education often serves as a gatekeeping tool for access to discussions about national or international development policy. Facilitating access to undergraduate and graduate training for African students is vital. To this end I’ve been compiling a list of scholarships for Anglophone and Francophone students who’d like to study in Europe or the US. (This isn’t to say that the quality of education there is inherently better, but these universities are generally richer than their African counterparts and seem more likely to offer scholarships.) There are obviously much larger questions at stake here about uneven development and whether and how people from different countries might help each other to live more fully, but this at least is a place to start.
To return to the question of my own writing for a moment, please feel free to comment critically on anything that I’ve written here. If you’d like to write a guest post, either in response to something I’ve written or on a different topic, just email me to get in touch. The goal of both doing research and writing about it here is to keep learning from others, and hopefully to produce information that will be of use in making the world a better place.