- Last Updated on 19 December 2016
By Kingsley Antwi-Boasiako
School of Media Arts and Studies
Scripps College of Communication
One of the ways in which Africans and Africanists studying outside the shores of the continent could give back is to conduct quality research aimed at solving problems and advancing positive change. Thankfully, many African students have been assisted in various forms with grants and funds to conduct research back home in Africa.
Impressive! However, let's take our eyes off the successful students who have been funded in such instances and ask ourselves, how many African students studying in the US and other places have had to abandon their desire to do research on the continent due to lack of funds? I may not know the answer but I have an idea about a root-cause to this issue. To some African Graduate students, the age-long challenge of not getting grants to travel to a research site, usually single or multiple countries in Africa forces them to abandon well-intentioned research topics, robbing the continent of the product of what would have been a good research.
It is true that there exists some funding agencies and bodies in colleges here in the US that support student research irrespective of the nationality of the students. It's also true that African students have equal access to some of these college-based and outside sources of funds that support research activities. However, my observation from speaking with a few friends is that some of the proposals seeking some form of funding by African students to research in Africa are rejected, sometimes for the most ridiculous of reasons.
How else would you describe it when an African student's proposal for research funding in any country in Africa is rejected on the basis of 'bad English' when the same student (some of whom have been schooling in African countries with English as the Lingua Franca or official language since birth) is excelling at Graduate School? Don't get me wrong, this is not to suggest that every grant proposal written by an African student in the US is by default a good one, no! However, to say that some (with emphasis on some) of these committees, sometimes with limited or no in-depth knowledge about cultures of many places in Africa do not review such proposals by African students (don't ask me how they know you're African) with pre-existing stereotypical and sometimes, quite sadly, racial lenses, would be quite unfortunate. But hey, opinions are free!
Consider this scenario and tell me what you think. After an African graduate student submits a travel grant proposal to her university seeking grant to conduct a comparative study in two West African countries, her proposal is rejected based on the comment below and similar ones by reviewers:
'This proposal is well written but it's quite confusing whether the student intends to conduct her study in just one or both countries as mentioned in the proposal.'
Per this comment, the reviewer sees the proposal as 'well written' but is however confused as to whether the study happens in one or two countries. Naturally, the only thing the student has to do is to explain (again) that she intends to visit both countries for the said research. It's a comparative study, for crying out loud. No, such opportunity is not given and she loses out on the grant. Another reviewer, obviously alien to many cultures in Africa thought the student should lose out on the funding because she had written that she first plans on consulting opinion leaders as entry point to the communities she intends to research. To the reviewer, this is unclear and alien to how research is done. Meanwhile, the said African student who many at times know the culture of the 'research site' very well is not given any chance to explain. No hard feelings.
The interesting thing is that you cannot say the committee is biased towards giving grants to researching in Africa because there are instances when non-African students and of course, one or two Africans from the northern part of the continent from the same university win some of these grants, sometimes multiple times. You often ask yourself a million questions after reading their proposals (when they are generous enough to share with you). There's nothing in there that you or a colleague did not touch on in those rejected proposals of yours. Try it!
It's against this backdrop that every effort/ to assist African students and Africanists studying in the US and other places to conduct research in Africa is greatly appreciated. One of such commendable initiatives is the African Studies Association (ASA)'s brainchild, 'The Africa Studies Association Royal Air Maroc Student Travel Award Grant', a collaboration between the ASA and the National Airline of Morocco, Royal Air Maroc (RAM), which seeks to assist student members of the ASA with free round trip air ticket/s between the USA and any African country (sometimes multiple countries) to conduct their research their research. All the student has to do is to apply with a short proposal detailing why you need that grant. Of course you must be a registered member of ASA as well.
As someone who has been fortunate enough to benefit from the ASA-Royal Air Maroc Student Travel Award Grant to go and conduct my research in Sierra Leone at a time when I almost gave up on my research for lack of funds, you would not be far from right if you choose to dismiss this post as one piece of propaganda that seeks to hail both the ASA and Royal Maroc. After all, there's an old dictum in Akan (one of the main languages spoken in Ghana) that says that: "nea oforo dua pa no na y3 pia no!" To wit, the person climbing a good tree deserves a push. If African oriented organizations and institutions could follow the shining example of the joint initiative by both the ASA and Royal Air Maroc, imagine what difference that could make. If you thought I was happy as a clam at high tide when I was presented with my award at the 58th ASA General Conference in San Diego in 2015, then you should have been at the ASA's 59th Conference in Washington DC in 2016 to see how enlivened the faces of the new recipients were. No matter how they tried to conceal it, it would be a gross moderation to say they were as joyous as a bunch of kids in a candy shop. Believe me, I saw how they walked up the stage to claim that firm handshake and take hold of the certificate and you know what, I've been in their shoes before.
For myself and many of these recipients, this award means a lot as it gave us the opportunity to pursue research about our 'own Africa', a starting point of contributing our widow's mite to the intellectual development of the continent, howbeit small. I used my ticket to go to Sierra Leone where I interacted with journalists and other media practitioners on how they went about communicating messages about the 2014 Ebola outbreak and learning about their general experiential accounts. I'm back to base in the USA where I'm currently writing my dissertation.
Lest I forget, I was impressed with the speech of the RAM North America General Manger Mr. Khalil Abdelhamid during the presentation of the awards to the recipients. In his words, ‘Morocco is a complete part of Africa’ and as a national carrier, Royal Air Maroc will continue to shine the light of Africa in the skies by connecting the world to Africa and vice versa. His organization’s desire to support African students who would become the future leaders of the continent with these tickets and other initiatives is worthy of mention and emulation. As Suzanne Baazet, Executive Director of the ASA said in her speech that very night, she herself was dumbfounded to learn that the response of RAM’s Khalil Abdelhamid to sponsor the student travel grant proposal was, in all cheerfulness, “of course we are going to do this! How many tickets do you need?” Now, if this does now warm your heart as an African or Africanist who appreciates the need for quality research on the continent, then please give your feet a rest, while some of us blow the trumpet of praise in their honor. After all, the Akans of Ghana have an adage that says that: “y’3mfa yafunu pan 3nhy3n ab3n”. To wit, no one blows the trumpet on an empty stomach. So as a beneficiary, I say Royal Air Maroc deserves our praise.
Don’t forget they were the only airline that still flew to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone when the whole world closed its gates to these countries during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Remember the song that goes like ‘..you left me just when I needed you most?’. Yes, we should put it on repeat when some of these organizations put on their holier than thou cloak and wave the ‘we love Africa’ flag in our faces. Kudos, to RAM for that bold initiative. Again, what I find particularly laudable on the part of Royal Air Maroc is their willingness to accommodate the flexibility that comes with the research data collection schedule of graduates students who win these grants. Using my case as a scenario, I would send a number of emails to one Nancy Caruso anytime there was a glitch in my timetable and they would graciously accommodate my new schedule.
To the management and staff of ASA that nurtured the wonderful idea of this initiative and Royal Air Maroc, I say "Ayekoo" as we say in Akan. To wit, well done! But don't forget that Oliver Twist was an African student when he asked for more of such. For as they say, 'there's always more where this came from.'