Deconstructing Modern Africa: Anthropology Course Challenges Students’ Idea of the Continent

After breaking down wayward tropes, the course rebuilds a more accurate and complex understanding of urban Africa today
July 19th, 2018 by 

Jeremy Jones, assistant professor of anthropology, lectures in front of his class
Jeremy Jones, assistant professor of anthropology, says students need to deconstruct their current perception of the continent before understanding contemporary Africa. Photo by Tom Rettig

“I didn’t give you a good example of syncopation — here, follow this,” says Jeremy Jones, assistant professor of anthropology, as he starts to rhythmically bang on his desk. The students join in, and soon the room is filled with a cacophony of palms on wood. Then, Jones changes his rhythm, throwing off the general beat.

“You think that the rhythm of a city is back and forth,” Jones says while discussing the reading “Suturing the City: Living Together in Congo’s Urban Worlds” by Filip De Boeck and Sammy Baloji. “The authors are claiming that’s not happening in major African cities. The rhythm is constantly being messed up. Sometimes the electricity goes out. Sometimes you don’t eat.”

This is Jones’ sixth year teaching Anthropology of Africa, which includes students from an array of class years and majors. All of the students, however, have one thing in common: They come to the course ready to explore Africa with an open mind.

But before students can construct an understanding of the continent, they need to deconstruct — to, as Jones puts it, “Take apart an understanding of Africa that they arrive with when they walk into class.”

For the first several weeks of the course, Jones has students work through what are not just stereotypes of Africa — although sometimes they are that — but rather a particular structuring of the way that Africa and Africans are understood. Jones explains it as largely binary — opposing Africa to Europe, such that it always seems to lack the attributes that define the latter. In the history of the continent, that has been a prominent trope.

On one side of a diagram Jones draws for students, is Africa — Europe is on the other side. Further down, Jones lists examples like tribal versus civilized, rural versus urban and undeveloped versus developed. He also includes prominent images of racism, such as passion versus reason and informal versus formal.

“Then,” Jones says, “there’s a kind of rebuilding as we go forward.”

Part of this initial deconstruction includes two key assignments: watching “The Danger of a Single Story,” a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and reading the book “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina, a satire of analogies about Africa.

“The idea of a stereotype is a sort of blunt force conceptual tool,” Jones explains. “To understand how things work, you really need something a bit more sophisticated than that. It’s true that Africa and Africans are stereotyped, but that doesn’t take us very far into how these stereotypes work.”

Kevin Diaz ’20 chose to take Jones’ class because he knew his own knowledge and conceptions about Africa weren’t that developed.

“When a westerner thinks of Africa, they associate it with images of nakedness, barrenness, hunger, the wild, animals and tribes. Because of this, chains of oppositions that repeat the same basic logic are formed,” he says. “We worked to expose how binaries such as black and white, Africa and Europe, and modern and antiquated can be tied together.”

After spring break, students work through a series of real-life cases to start thinking about how Africans themselves have responded to this sort of structuring of their worlds through stereotypes, going back to the independence era and anti-colonial struggles. One of these cases involves “Kony 2012,” a controversial documentary produced by the organization Invisible Children aimed to inform the public about Uganda’s Joseph Kony and have him arrested.

The class looks in close detail at the history of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which dates back to the mid-1980s.

“We think about the ways that ‘Kony 2012’ makes sense within its own context,” Jones says. “We talk about one of the aspects of the Lord’s Resistance Army that really is fascinating to people outside — the fact that Joseph Kony considers himself a spirit medium. That fits very well into this stereotype binary of, ‘Boy, that’s irrational.’ But it’s not irrational, it makes a whole lot of sense. Even if people don’t agree with him or like him, within the context of Uganda, it’s not absurd.”

Alexandra Held ’19 took the course this spring and was surprised by her own ignorance around Africa, which she attributes to the way the continent has been presented to her over the years.

“Watching music videos like Taylor Swift’s ‘Wildest Dreams,’ looking at Nike ads featuring Kenyan warriors or watching USAID commercials in a critical light really changed my perceptions of what we see in the media,” she says. “Our idea of Africa is so unchallenged, turning these ideas on their head was really eye-opening.”

To further the contextualization of modern Africa, Jones has students focus on two major cities: Lagos, Nigeria, and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Students read “Email from Ngeti: An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa” by James H. Smith and Ngeti Mwadime, which tells a coming-of-age story about the author, Ngeti, who hails from an area near the coast of Kenya. Ngeti goes through a series of struggles with education and forced immobility — he wants to get ahead but the facts of economic life in his context are such that he can’t. In learning about Ngeti’s strife, students see a realistic snapshot of life in a modern African city.

“We think through what it means to be urban Africans. What is involved with urban life in Africa that’s different from the normative model of cities that we imagine in the United States? Kinshasa is a place with tens of millions of people, but very little formal employment; something in the range of 5 or 10 percent of that population is formally employed,” Jones says.

The course wraps up with discussions on Afropolitanism — what it means to be an African in a world in which many people suggest that Africa isn’t really even a part.

“It goes along with the kind of insistence from African scholars that Africa has always been a part of the world — a very important part, at that — and that it’s constantly shoved aside as not being important in any way,” Jones says.

Lecture by lecture, students who have taken Jones’ course know better than to fall for the trope.

Course Catalog

Anth 273-01: Anthropology of Africa

Professor: Jeremy Jones

Department: Sociology and Anthropology

Description: This course focuses on developing an anthropological perspective on contemporary Africa. Students engage with a variety of texts and media about everyday life in Africa and consider the way that experiences in particular countries fit into wider political, economic and social trends on the continent. Over the course of the term, students focus on the theme of “representation” and the various “technologies” of representation that have characterized — and continue to characterize — the idea of Africa. Specific topics include colonialism and race, ritual, religion, witchcraft, ethnicity and conflict.

Meeting Times: Tuesday, Thursday | 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

Classroom: Beaven 125

Required Reading

  • “Email from Ngeti: An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa” by James H. Smith and Ngeti Mwadime
  • The 2010 movie “Viva Riva!”
  • Additional readings and videos throughout the semester

Assignments

  • Quizzes (and pop quizzes) on readings and map of Africa
  • Three papers, including a final
  • Group project on Google Sites about aspects of African life that are largely absent from narratives about the continent
  • Class participation

Grades: Papers, quizzes, group web project, final paper, class participation

About the Professor

Jeremy L. Jones is an assistant professor in the anthropology department. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2012. Prior to graduate school, he spent seven years working in the nonprofit and non-governmental sector, both in the United States and in Africa. His academic research is broadly concerned with the interweaving of economic action and everyday life. In his current project, Jones focuses on young, formally unemployed men living in an urban township near the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. He pays special attention to these youths’ experience of Zimbabwe’s record-breaking bout of hyperinflation and their strategies for making money in seemingly impossible circumstances.

Written by Jane Carlton for the Summer 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine

Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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