The African Studies Association Board of Directors includes an Emerging Scholar Representative. Elected by the ASA membership, the Emerging Scholar Representative serves a two-year term and is a full voting member of the Board of Directors. Yusuf Serunkuma Kajura was elected in May 2018 to serve as the next Emerging Scholar Representative. He will officially join the Board in November 2018.
Tell us a little bit about yourself – what do you study, what institution are you based at, what organizations are you part of?
My name is Yusuf Serunkuma Kajura. I am a graduate student at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University. I am Ugandan. For my PhD, I studied secessionist nationalism/movements going via the vehicle of popular culture. I did field work in Somalia and Somaliland, and I focused on the ways in which nationalist consciousness, nationalist sentiments and identities are mobilized in Somaliland – in the quest to break away from Somalia. Besides my PhD work, I am writer and volunteer editor with the Pan-Africanist online publication, Pambazuka News. I am recipient of SSRC Next Gen fellowships, and the American Council for Learned Societies’ (ACLS) Africa Humanities Programme (AHP) fellowship. My background is in literature and English language. My play The Snake Farmers (2015) is a course-book for secondary schools in Rwanda.
How and why did you initially become involved in the ASA?
I recall attempting to nominate myself for the ASA Presidential Fellowship sometime in 2013. An American friend of mine, Dr. Melina Platas, who was then student at Stanford, had shared the opening with me. As a Ugandan student doing fieldwork in the Horn of Africa, I aggressively wanted to get in touch with like minds. My application came to nothing, and I moved on. Then without knowing it, my friend, Prof. Lidwien Kapteijns of Wellesley College successfully nominated me for the ASA Presidential Fellowship in 2015. This was my first engagement with ASA. I gave talks at Wellesley, Harvard and Columbia which were very uplifting moments for me. Then [the Annual Meeting in] San Diego. In the course of my engagement with ASA, I became exposed to a huge community of scholars involved in several intellectual projects on the African continent. These connections have been very fruitful for me, and I am convinced scholars based on the African continent need these connections as they certainly help one to grow as a scholar. It is a great deal of learning.
When you think about your first time attending an ASA Annual Meeting, what experiences stand out to you the most?
There are a couple of experiences that have lived with me. First is the people. The scholars. Never had I ever met so many scholars studying this continent. Prof. Allan Isaacman’s humour as he reported about the readings of books for the different awards remains memorable. I had read his work on peasants, and was a pleasure seeing him as well. Also, my encounter with Somalist scholars who had never gone to Somalia was equally exhilarating. I was amazed by how much stereotyping they were involved in and how they reproduced it with absolute authority. I recall standing up to them and challenging them that their work was biased and not reflective of the perspectives of those that they were studying.
What motivated you to run for the ASA Board of Directors Emerging Scholar Representative?
Two rather naïve reasons: I am involved in debates on decolonizing African studies. I actively participated in #CaddaanStudies (in Somali studies) in 2015, and I am curious to know what decisions drive the field from the vantage point of the largest umbrella organization – and perhaps be part or influence some of these decisions. I was convinced being a member of the Board would give more a more nuanced understanding of the field, and perhaps engage in subsequent debates on the topic in a much better way. Second, as I mentioned earlier, ASA is a big opportunity for young scholars (in terms of connections with like-minds, and also opportunities for publication and intellectual advancement), and being based on the continent myself, I have often sought to find ways of getting other scholars to drink from the ASA pot. As a member of SSRC Next Gen, and ACLS/AHP, I have had chance to meet and touch-base with many young scholars from across the continent, whom I felt I would do a good job representing in the largest and oldest umbrella of Africanist academics.
What are you looking forward to most at your first ASA Annual Meeting as a Board Member?
This is sort of open for now. But I am anxiously looking forward to meeting the Board team and knowing everybody better. I want to learn the ways in which ASA helps young scholars, and get involved in promoting ASA and ASA objectives to scholars like myself.
As the Emerging Scholar Representative, what are your priorities over the next two years?
Get more scholars based on the African continent involved in ASA activities, and increase young scholars interest in African Studies Review. I have had the chance to get mentorship from ASR and I am convinced it is a wonderful space. I participated in an ASR workshop in South Africa early this year, and I was blown away. I do not know how ASR can have more people for its mentorship programme, but I think it is a wonderful window. My second priority is improving young African scholars based on the continent who have myriad challenges mostly relating to the intellectual conditions (and material conditions). This to me involves three-pronged approach (1) engaging with the barriers to scholarly growth especially PhD and Master’s degree supervision. Holding workshops with already established academics at African universities to speak about the challenges with supervision. The second, mentorship/Training workshops for young scholars, and third, finding grants and collaborations to enable young scholars deal with the challenges of their material conditions as they engage in scholarship.
What role do you see emerging scholars playing in the ASA?
They are the ‘established’ scholars of tomorrow. ASA has to be the second training ground to young scholars. Giving them the opportunity to present their work, and also connecting them with like minds. There is some exuberance that comes with being young both in age and industry. This exuberance is important in opening new grounds and perspectives. This is what emerging scholars, properly nurtured can do.
Do you have any advice for current ASA members that consider themselves to be emerging scholars about how to make the most of their ASA membership?
ASA is opportunity to meet with already established scholars. Emerging scholars have the challenge to connect more with scholars in similar and related fields. Write to them and ask them for guidance as possibly could. Although some already established scholars are arrogant and selfish (no names here), I have met many who are outgoing and ready to help emerging scholars grow. For example, as a young Somalist scholar, my friendship with Prof. Lidwien Kapteijns of Wellesley College (which started out of an email about one of her articles) who actually introduced me to ASA has been very helpful in enabling me to grow as a scholar. So has been my friendship with Dr Markus Höhne of MPI, Halle. I know Prof. Derek Peterson of the University of Michigan is working with many young Ugandan academics to help them realize their full potential. And there are many more ASA scholars doing the same in different ways.
If you could give one piece of advice to a first-time attendee at the Annual Meeting, what would it be?
Take the email addresses of academics who work in similar and related fields, and please do write to them. If they do not respond to the first email. Please write again. And write again.
What is the greatest thing you’ve taken away from your experience so far with the ASA?
As someone based on the African continent where established scholars often tend to act hierarchically and it is often difficult to get support or mentorship as a junior scholar, I have had the opportunity to meet down-to-earth scholars who are open and willing to work with young scholars grow. The generosity of spirit and comradeship among many ASA scholars and other professionals is true to point.