AiW Guest Stephanie Kitchen
A stream of five panels at ASAUK considered ‘practical and political aspects of publishing in African studies’. The stream brought together representatives from key publishers on the African continent, both established and newer imprints, including CODESRIA (Ebrima Sall), Mkuki na Nyota Publishers (Walter Bgoya), Femrite, Uganda (Goretti Kyomuhendo) and Cassava Republic Press, Nigeria (Bibi Bakare-Yusuf).
Also represented were journal editors from the continent and Northern-based African studies journals including Dina Ligaga (African Studies/Wits), Tom Odhiambo (East African Literary and Cultural Studies), Henning Melber (Africa Spectrum), Nic Cheeseman (African Affairs) and David Simon (Journal of Southern African Studies). Other participants were from Cambridge University Press, Zed Books, University of Ghana Readers Project, African Journals Online (AJOL) and African Arguments online. Media and journalism academics Wendy Willems and George Ogola also took part.
Part 1: the politics of publishing in Africa
Scholarly publishing in Africa
A panel on ‘Scholarly Publishing in Africa’ was organized in association with the African Books Collective. This was chaired by Henning Melber of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, which has played a foundational role in its support for indigenous African publishing. As Melber commented, today requests for donor support for the African publishing sector, still characterized by ‘vicious competition over textbook publishing’, largely fall on deaf ears.
Ebrima Sall, the executive secretary of CODESRIA, began the session by speaking about their work in supporting research and the capacity development of younger scholars. Knowledge production for Africa remains a challenge, which ‘goes beyond the encounter with the West’. He highlighted that there is a vibrant tradition of knowledge production outside dominant Western, or Western-influenced publishing structures in Africa, as the important work of Ousmane Kane has shown. A challenge in Africa is to connect modern higher education scholarly paradigms with these traditions. The current context of higher education in Africa is still marked by crisis, with a consequent impact on quality. Issues of ‘academic freedom’ remain of major concern, combined with fears of the big tech companies expropriating African knowledge and ethical issues of the digital age: plagiarism and piracy.
Walter Bgoya (Mkuki na Nyota) brought the discussion back to the basics of scholarly publishing. His challenges remained those of human resources: recruiting sufficiently skilled copy editors at local rates, proficient in writing and editing in English. The language question looms large: if in Tanzania they did not publish in Swahili, they were effectively excluding 90% of people from their books. But the economies were complicated and there may be little institutional support.
Ama de Graft-Aikins, director of Social Policy Studies at the University of Ghana, presented the case of the University of Ghana Readers Project, an initiative of her university to mark its 65-year life and to showcase the research and teaching of different departments. The aim was to publish disciplinary readers in the humanities and social sciences, clinical sciences and in business. Some 40 books have been published or are in production at present. But the original donor-funding from Carnegie in New York is limited. Therefore the project editors are exploring ways of selling the books at affordable rates to make the initiative sustainable in the longer run. There are challenges of local affordability and currency exchange rates.
Ama recounted in a lively manner and fascinating detail her experience as a younger woman scholar of conducting peer review and implementing editorial decisions in an intensive and small academic environment: how initially she would refer difficult or awkward decisions up to her more senior editor, or avoided rejecting colleagues’ work that had not received positive reports outright, instead quietly excluding it – and then there might be a ‘skirmish at the launch’! But with time, she gained in confidence in handling such matters herself. One felt that the future of the politics and practice of academic publishing in Africa – hardly new problems, so we were reminded by the perennial advocates on the panel – lay precisely in such attitude and commitment.
Ama de Graft Aikins and Ebrima Sall entered into dialogue about the resources available locally in African universities; some University of Ghana departments, particularly those in health studies, which crossed into the sciences, were the recipients of substantive international research funding, which could be tapped to support innovative publishing initiatives. They both argued in different ways that higher education needs to include considerations of scholarly publishing and that such measures are an important antidote to the ‘dependency syndrome’.
Other important issues addressed by the panel included the need, unmatched by resources, for translation between European and African languages and the challenges the digital era presents to co-publishing arrangements. More positively, the digital revolution clearly presents opportunities to reduce distribution costs through measures such as open access online publishing.
Gender and publishing
Gender and publishing was the focus of a dedicated panel with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (Cassava Republic, Nigeria), Goretti Kyomuhendo (FEMRITE/African Writers Trust, Uganda), Emma Shercliff, (PhD candidate, Institute of Education, University of London, researching women and publishing in Africa) and Ebrima Sall representing CODESRIA.
Ebrima Sall usefully reminded us that the status of women as writers and publishers in the African continent, as elsewhere, reflected the status of women in the academy and higher education, as in society at large. Their place was both marginal and changing. The higher up the ranks one went, the smaller the numbers of women became (not an unfamiliar scenario to those of us in the UK). There is not for example a single woman university Vice Chancellor in Senegal. The other indicator of women’s progress in the academy is the status of gender studies departments – currently there are about 41 across the continent, a small number in relation to the number of universities. The leading feminist scholar, Fatou Sow in African Scholarly Publishing. Essays (Oxford: African Books Collective) has written about the difficulties of establishing gender studies at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar; she didn’t achieve this all the time she was there. Conceptual barriers also run deep; ‘gender’ and terms describing ‘sexual orientation’ are little known concepts in the francophone sphere and don’t always translate into African languages.
Sall made clear that at present there is a lively debate within CODESRIA about the relative merits of engaging with feminist issues and activism versus the more academic objective of embedding gender studies. But what is uncontested is the steady commitment – ‘women in publishing, this is about changing society’. Since the 1990s CODESRIA has run an annual Gender Institute. It will soon take over the journal Feminist Africa, currently run out of University of Cape Town. It is revisiting its 1997 landmark publication Engendering African Social Sciences (edited by Ayesha Imam, Amina Mama, Fatou Sow) and has recently distributed a new call for papers on ‘gender and academic freedom in Africa’ promising to update CODESRIA’s original ground-breaking study Women in Academia. Gender and Academic Freedom in Africa edited by Ebrima Sall (2000).
Bibi Bakare-Yusuf spoke about the Nigerian context (‘patriarchal and excessively capitalist’): where there are currently no women in the Nigerian Publishers Association; where in spite of her feminist ethos and female-dominated list 95 per cent of submissions received were still from men. Gender, combined with race, age and a lack of professionalization in the industry, prohibits access to capital for women publishers such as Bakare-Yusuf. Hence the emphasis of both African women publishers on the panel in seeking alternatives routes. Goretti Kyomuhendo related the beginnings of Femrite in Uganda, when as a published author she started inviting manuscripts from women. The writers’ collective would then review (sometimes in meetings outdoors) and publish books with virtually no office or warehousing capacity. They relied on innovative forms of advertising on the radio, and international distribution via the then recently established African Books Collective, which provided an important source of hard currency, and on donor funding. This new generation of women publishers is now looking to the internet to help with the commissioning, distribution and sales of books. They both expressed an urge to be ‘commercial’, which I understood to mean self-sustaining and independent.
There was a lively discussion and the panelists did receive some challenging questions from the floor: does being a woman (publisher) make you a feminist (publisher)? Not necessarily, but it should be possible to make the link. Bakare-Yusuf defended topics typically dismissed in ‘domestic books’ as being legitimate terrain for politics: polygamy was after all a matter of ‘sexual politics’. And fundamentally, Kyomuhendo argued, creative expression, women writing and publishing stories, sometimes subversive, which they had always known and told, in a society such as Uganda where a woman’s very identity is often constructed in terms of others (names formed as ‘wife of’, or ‘mother of’) is an act of self-articulation.
Stephanie Kitchen is Chair of the Publications Committee and managing editor at the International African Institute (http://www.internationalafricaninstitute.org/), London. From 2001-2007 she worked for the African Books Collective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Part 2 of the Review on Journal Publishing and the Media