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Confessions of a Native? Anthropologist in the Making


joshBy Josh Maiyo. I have not attended a single anthropology class and neither can I readily give a standard definition of it. In fact, I cannot tell for sure whether it is a distinct discipline, an overarching framework, a field of study, or a particular science of society. The simple definition, attributed to the Oxford Dictionary by Wikipedia as “The study of humankind” doesn’t sound convincing enough…and that citation shows how deeply I am not embedded within its literature. That I am doing my PhD at an anthropology department remains a paradox. I am probably more conversant with its ethnographic research methods of extended field work and participant observation, than its analytical approaches and theoretical frameworks. In this brief text, I chart my troubled journey and encounters with anthropology in its various forms, and my ongoing struggle to situate myself in the divide between its European roots and its African subject. This starting point is relevant, in case further down, you do not find familiar and high-sounding references to its heritage, or scintillating vignettes from its founding venerables whose names are vaguely familiar: Margaret Mead, Franz Boaz, Malinowski and the like.

Looking back, with my now acute recognition of the sub-field of cultural anthropology, I recognise my earlier contact with its form and substance in my African oral literature and African English writers’ classes during my undergraduate days back in Kenya. The lyrical poetries of South Sudanese Taban Lo Liyong and Ugandan Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, Senegalese feminist writer Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Kenya’s own Ngugi Wathiong’o’s The River Between are replete with rich, though fictionalised, representations of African societies and culture. It is only recently, when I picked up Facing Mount Kenya – an ethnography of Kikuyu cultural traditions by Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta – and read its introduction by his professor and renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, that I realised the richness of my earlier exposure to anthropology… If only I had bothered to finish reading the recommended text back in my literature class.

So when slightly over ten years later I joined the African Studies Centre at Leiden University as one of the first cohort to undertake their now well established research Masters programme in African Studies, I was astonished, even slightly angered by what I perceived to be a deeply hereditary yet very much alive colonial worldview of Africa. I could not fathom, how and why, in the 21st Century, we were enthusiastically introduced to the so called Africanist classics of the legendary Jan Vansina and his overly reflexive description of the oral traditions of precolonial Congo or the supposedly ground-breaking work of colonial anthropologists of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute in Zambia. A class on urbanisation in Africa had Elmina, a now extinct city on the West African coast, as its case study. And African society and culture seminars dwelt on witchcraft and superstitionand South Africa’s famous Sangomas, while African development was about Sahelian nomadic peoples’ struggles against harsh and unrelenting nature.

I almost balked at what seemed to be an ideologically alien framing and representation of Africa, informed by a paternalistic, if colonial representation of Africans as essentially cultural beings, natives struggling against nature and encumbered by mystical belief systems. Perhaps after all, Malinowski’s attribution of the Netherlands’ ‘most successful colonial’ project to its ties with and support for anthropology [1] is born witness. In my rebellion, I chose to write my thesis on contemporary political party democracy in East Africa, and you can bet it never stood a chance of winning the Africa thesis prize.

Why did I have such a visceral reaction against the way Africa was being taught at Leiden? I didn’t realise then, how deeply my world view was embedded within contemporary Africa’s modernist aspirations. A century of Christian indoctrination against African traditions and culture, the hegemony of developmentalist ideologies of modernisation and progress, and the pervasiveness of western cultural globalisation had taken their toll in firmly shaping my normative worldview about how Africa can and should be understood and studied. My previous career as an international journalist covering African affairs and a subsequent Master degree in political science and international relations further reinforced a rather defensive stance against perceived western (mis)representation and knowledge production about Africa, designed to perpetuate its intellectual subjugation as well as cultural, political and economic domination.

Come 2011 and I commenced my PhD research on transnational land acquisitions (land grabbing) in Africa, ironically within the anthropology department at VU University Amsterdam. By then, I was perhaps more interested in the self-actualisation of obtaining a PhD, than perturbed about another confrontation with anthropological framing of Africa. My re-immersion into the world of anthropology was less painful than I had anticipated, thanks to a series of seminars on ethnography and reflexivity by the very perceptive veteran feminist scholar Lorraine Nencel. I then began to reflect upon, recognise and acknowledge my own ideological, intellectual and normative biases; products of a lifelong development of a particular ontological view of Africa and its place in the global intellectual marketplace. Was it after all useful and even necessary to, not only apply but also, seriously take into account the cultural history of African societies in order to fully understand its contemporary? (My Leiden professors’ fascination with Africa’s longue durée started to make sense). I began feeling comfortable with the notion that there wasn’t only a modern contemporary Africa, but one juxtaposed between modernity and tradition mediated by processes of continuity and change.

However, after avidly perusing the works of Edward Said on Orientalism and Talal Asad’s Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter, interspersed with Arturo Escobar’s critical postdevelopment theories, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps I was subconsciously exchanging my ‘African modernist’ world view for a Eurocentric one? If knowledge production, theory development or disciplinary foundations are not politically neutral, what subterranean ideological undertones were embedded within my long Dutch academic sojourn? After close to 15 years living in Europe and 10 of those spent drinking from the well of western intellectual tradition, was I instead becoming a subject for Ngugi Wathiongo’s proposition to ‘decolonise the mind’?[2]. Was I now sufficiently steeped in Eurocentric ways of seeing, interpreting and understanding the world and ready for reinsertion into Africa to continue the neo-colonial project?

Conspiracy theories aside, a shift away from Eurocentric knowledge bases for African self-awareness is not confined to post-colonial rejection of anthropology’s imperial roots. Renowned African scholar Mahmood Mamdani, a fellow anthropologist, is an ardent proponent of Africa-based training for African scholarship[3]. It was during my affiliation at the Makerere Institute of Social Research for my PhD fieldwork that I encountered Mamdani’s project to transform the institute from its well-documented foundations in anthropology’s romance with British colonialism and a legacy of post-independence academic decay, into one devoted to generating and promoting a rigorous and distinctly African scholarship. This struggle resonates with anthropology’s own identity crisis in Africa. Although it is now taught at a handful of African universities, it still faces daunting challenges of relevance and recognition[4].

It is instructive that many of Africa’s early ‘native’ anthropologists, who acquired their education in the west, became the discipline’s most virulent critics. Jomo Kenyatta, Maliniwski’s protégée thought of anthropology as representing ‘the duplicity of western pretenders to philanthropy who claimed to monopolise the office of interpreting the African’s mind and speaking for him’.[5] While Okot p’Bitek thought that anthropology had no place in the African university as ‘Africans were not interested in perpetuating the myth of the primitive’[6], South African scholar Archie Mafeje stands tall among the few African anthropologists who distinguished themselves in the field, being appointed, at the age of 34, as Professor of Anthropology and Sociology of development at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague in 1973.

In the tradition of my predecessors, I wonder whether my growing affinity with anthropological perspectives is based on a need to instrumentalise it for the purposes of reconnecting with my now frayed African cultural roots, rather than a manifestation of an enlightened world view or both. Crucially, and pretence about academic objectivity and critical distance aside, how do I position myself –anthropologically speaking- as I write my dissertation about processes and effects of land ‘grabbing’ in Uganda and contemporary agrarian change in general? Rather than provide a lens with which to study, understand and give voice to the experiences and world views of the socially marginalised (rural communities in central Uganda), has my own struggles with anthropology blurred my quest for analytical clarity instead?

[1] Mills, D. (2006). How Not to be a ‘Government House pet’, in African Anthropologies: History, Critique and Practice, 76.

[2] Wa Thiong’o, N. (1994). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. East African Publishers.

[3] Mamdani, M. (2007). Scholars in the marketplace: The dilemmas of neo-liberal reform at Makerere University, 1989-2005. African Books Collective.

[4] Ntarangwi, M., Mills, D., & Babiker, M. (Eds.). (2006). African Anthropologies: history, critique and practice. Zed Books.

[5] Kenyatta, J. (1965). Facing Mount Kenya. xviii

[6] p’Bitek, O. (1970) African Religions in Western Scholarship, Kenya Literature Bureau

Josh Maiyo is PhD Fellow at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU University Amsterdam. He is specialising in rural development, agrarian studies, and East Africa.


  1. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Josh, I only would like to say I am deeply impressed by these reflections. You have not only asked yourself what to make of anthropology, but forces other anthropologists (or should I write: anthropologists, leaving out ‘other’?) to think about our discipline. Thanks! Freek

  2. […] Given that my own perspective is admittedly centered in the USA, I enjoyed this post on the Dutch blog Standplaats Wereld that explores the question of standpoint: Confessions of a Native? Anthropologist in the Making […]

  3. Ton Salman Ton Salman

    A beautiful piece, that invites once again to think beyond the downtrodden! In a way, you already adequately address the questions you raise yourself, I believe: you illustrate that genesis is not destiny. The reason being that radical questions can and should be asked, including the questions that seem to undermine the metier that generated the questions in the first place…. I congratulate you, Josh, on an excellent text of contemplation.

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