With a population that is likely to hit four billion by the end of the century, a growing middle class and the emergence of 21st century African multinationals, African countries and their international partners are faced with new challenges: how to supply exploding cities with basic amenities, how to keep migration at acceptable levels and how to challenge the old power structures. Whereas traditionally these were questions for national governments and NGOs, today they also affect multinationals and international institutions. With increasing globalisation, the reality in Africa has an immediate effect on the reality in the West, and vice versa. African worm infections could be a remedy for ‘European’ diseases of affluence, shifts in the global economy are giving rise to new trade relationships and the internet is turning villagers into global citizens.
Furthermore, if we continue to take the same old approach, we are likely to misinterpret such developments: access to new technologies and old sources that have previously been overlooked mean that we need to rewrite history and become aware of the misleading assumptions we have embraced for decades. For instance, urban societies are not always more comfortable than nomadic ones, the war zones of today are the university cities of yesterday and African-European relations were often less innocent than we like to believe. If Europe wants to understand its links with the continent, it first needs to understand itself.
With a history dating back to 1947, the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL) is one of the oldest Africa research centres in Europe and has forged consistent and enduring ties with the continent. Whereas the continent often views former colonial powers such as France and the UK with suspicion, it can often form a more neutral relationship with the Dutch, says Ton Dietz, director of ASCL 2010-2017. Now in particular, with calls for the ‘decolonisation’ of academia, there is appreciation for the centre’s early Africanisation: the Centre works with African guest researchers on a structural basis and its library has purchased half of its publications in Africa for a long time already.
Hub for interdisciplinary Africa research
A diverse group of Africa researchers have joined forces in the Leiden African Studies Assembly to research how national and international developments translate at the local level. With over 100 PhD-holding scholars from disciplines such as history, archaeology, law, geography, anthropology, political science, economics and medicine, it is a leading hub for African Studies in Europe. If you include peers from Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University Rotterdam, it is the largest group of Africa researchers outside Africa.
The proximity of the many museums in Leiden that are related to Africa, Brill Publishers and organisations such as the Netherlands Institute in Morocco helps these researchers disseminate their knowledge. The Assembly also works with African partners to ensure that their findings reach the continent itself.