Elephants and Metaphors: the Nyamnjoh debate on African anthropology

There’s been an debate going in the pages of Africa Spectrum which we thought might be of interest to some of our readers (hat tip to Stephanie Newell for bringing this to our attention).

In 2012, Cape Town-based anthropologist Francis Nyamnjoh published an article called ‘Blinded by Sight: Divining the Future of Anthropology in Africa’ [all links to open access PDFs] in which he argues passionately that anthropology is blind to its own failure to move from ‘seeing’ to ‘knowing’.

Elephant self-portrait (photo by Cybjorg, used under Creative Commons licence)

Elephant self-portrait (photo by Cybjorg, used under Creative Commons licence)

Using the well-known metaphor of several blind men touching different parts of an elephant and coming away different ideas of what an elephant is, Nyamnjoh’s article begins with a general attack on anthropologists’ lack of humility, their failure to grasp that ‘the elephant is larger than the individual or even collective experiences of it…that science is a collective pursuit, and that no one has a monopoly on insights and the truth.’

Africa, Nyamnjoh suggests, is that elephant, constructed still in an anthropological monologue. He argues that anthropologists have in fact never really relinquished the notion of ‘tribe’, not only in their research, but also amongst themselves, with race dictating the organisation and production of knowledge, and ways of belonging:

What if, as a black African, I were to be denied citizenship and belonging to the anthropology tribe? What if I were told that, regardless of my training, professional position and aspirations, I am not really an anthropologist? I am inauthentic, a veritable fake! My genealogy does not warrant inclusion. I am of the wrong race, the wrong class, the wrong place! Not only am I African, I am black and of rural origins. If white, I could be in Africa, but not of Africa, even if I have not known any other reality all my life. Somehow, anthropologists who study Africa seldom bother to “know” white Africans, almost as if being white and African were a contradiction in terms.

Nyamnjoh critiques the tendency for South African anthropology to ‘to study down, but hardly ever horizontally or upwards’ – i.e. to study whites of their own class (and, implicitly, themselves). He makes some provocative claims:

Fellow South African anthropologists who happen to be black or coloured, even when trained by white South African anthropologists in South African universities, are regarded with ambivalence, and more likely to be considered inferior and/or as overly politicised and polemical in their research and scholarship.

He ends by asking how anthropology can now deal with the ‘African elephant’:

What would it take to make the blind see? And once they are able to see, what would it take to ensure that they are subsequently not blinded by sight?

Nyamnjoh’s article received a rally of responses from anthropologists around the world. Andrew Hartnack, while asking ‘how excluded can a professor of anthropology and head of its section at Africa’s leading university really feel?’ recognises that non-white anthropologists can ‘get lumped in with the other “black elephants” whom white anthropologists have made it their business to study’. Nonetheless, he suggests, a new generation of anthropologists in South Africa are ‘actively exploring ways to make the discipline more inclusive and relevant to black students’.

Jean-Pierre Warnier remarks that Nyamjoh’s article has ‘stirred up lots of thoughts, regrets and soul-searching on my part’. From its inception, Warnier argues, anthropology has excluded ‘the elephant’ as producer of knowledge; it excluded the knowledge of both ‘the traveller, the merchant, the soldier, the missionary’ and ‘the local literati (in Arabic or other local languages, or in European precolonial and colonial languages), as well as literature, cinema, and other cultural and artistic productions’.

Isak Niehaus, however, takes Nyamnjoh to task for providing little evidence for his critique; he doesn’t name the ‘blind men’ of anthropology. He particularly contests Nyamnjoh’s claim that South African anthropology isn’t interested in ‘studying up’, i.e. studying whiteness, and he provides an extended bibliography of works on South African whites and whiteness by both local and foreign anthropologists.

Sanya Osha agrees with Nyamnjoh that (South African) anthropology is a ‘white-dominated discipline meant to objectify the marginalised, down-trodden black race and additional racialised Others’. He concludes that perhaps it is ‘better not to be where one is not wanted’ and commends those African and African-American thinkers, such as Kwasi Wiredu, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chinua Achebe and Fela Kuti who ‘create a parallel universe’ by, in Wiredu’s case, ‘developing a novel philosophical practice that inscribed the African presence on what was basically an empty page.’

Robert J. Gordon celebrates the long-standing self-reflectiveness of anthropology, but critiques Nyamnjoh’s ‘singularly atemporal’ polemic, arguing that it is missing a sense of the historicity of the discipline, especially its links with colonialism. The value of Nyamnjoh’s argument, and of anthropology in general, he suggests, is in its scepticism of categories – tribes – created in any context.

Annika Teppo weighs in to discuss Nyamnjoh’s point about anthropologists’ failure to ‘study up’ – drawing on her own work on ‘poor whites’ to question what she sees as Nyamnjoh’s implication that poor whites ‘don’t matter’.

Finally, Nyamnjoh himself has offered a lengthy response to the responses. One of his central arguments is that the critics are missing the main point: ‘the logic of my challenge to anthropologists to indulge in co-production, reflexivity and epistemological conviviality with the perspectives of the Africans’.

While the debate centres on South African anthropology and its particular racial structures, the discussion about insider/outside knowledge are clearly applicable elsewhere too, whether in the context of this blog – most of us who contribute are not African – or in the Caine Prize, in which much of the discussion this year centred on the fact that the winner Tope Folarin doesn’t live in Nigeria.

In fact, it is striking how much the imagery of this debate chimes with Folarin’s story ‘Miracle’ [PDF] in its emphasis on blindness and sight, knowing and not knowing. Both Folarin and Nyamnjoh seem to be asking, in different ways, who gets to ‘see’ things ‘as they really are’, and what the relation is between what we see and what we know.

It’s also interesting how many of the responses to Nyamnjoh, as well as Nyamnjoh’s article itself, turn on stories and metaphors: Nyamnjoh’s ‘elephant’ and ‘blindness’, Hartnack on gatekeepers as ‘merchants’, Warnier has a metaphor about university management and rowing crews, and Gordon has a parable of a rabbi. Anthropologists, are (still) having to tell stories to make their point, as if they can’t quite grasp the ‘thing’ itself. I wondered what Folarin, whose Caine Prize-winning story is all about the stories people tell themselves to keep dreams alive, might have to say about storytelling as a form of seeing and knowing.

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. hmmm…does it mean anthropology has racial profiling? Or can we say, anthropology is undergoing the process of identification like African literature did, some years back? In any case, who can study Africa better than Africans? Well, I just feel the only way out is for black anthropologists to make a headway, and be good at their practice

  2. Thanks, Rebecca, for an engaging reflection on this debate!

  3. Hi there, the picture at the top of this website publish is reloading a bit odd in my opinion? I used sending an email however it bounced back again.

    • Hi, thanks for letting us know. I had a look at the picture again and seemed to be loading ok at my end, but could you please let us know what the problem seems to be so we can investigate? Do you mean the website logo itself or the photograph included in this post? Thank you!


  1. Integrating African folklore and metaphors into Narrative Therapy | Earthpages.org

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