The African diaspora scholar – Living in a ‘third space’

By Sharon Dell  

Professor Joseph Mensah, a Ghanaian-born scholar currently at York University in Toronto, Canada, has played a leading role in a number of African academic diasporan programmes aimed at tapping into the expertise of African academics living and working around the world. 

He speaks to University World News – Africaabout the “mammoth potential” of the African academic diaspora, about living in a “third space” and the reality of always having Africa on his mind. 

UWN:At the Africa Academic Diaspora Forum 2019, there was discussion about the need for “institutionalisation” of diaspora programmes and interventions with the suggestion that many of the existing programmes exist only because there are individual academics, departments or small collectives committed to driving them. Do you think there is a danger that diaspora programmes might be seen as an unrealistic panacea for higher education revitalisation?

Mensah: As a dialectician, I am always attracted to arguments that seek to dissolve binaries, in favour of middle grounds. My particular take is that this is not an either-or issue. We need both individual initiatives from below and institutional commitment from above. Without either of these two, such diaspora engagements will not work well. 

Keep in mind that without institutional backing from the overseas institution, the diasporan scholar would not have the requisite time to undertake a meaningful engagement. Indeed, there are situations where diasporan scholars may have to use only their March breaks, major holidays and sabbatical leaves to do this, and these times may not even favour the hosting institutions in Africa, as the timeframes for the major university holidays tend not to be the same. 

Also, without the institutional support of the host institution in Africa, the diasporan is thrown into a situation where the support he or she gets is ad hoc, sketchy, unofficial and at the mercy of the host colleagues or departments, without the full backing and commitment of the host institution. 

An approach that might work here is for institutions to rely or expand upon their existing partnership agreements in such a way that a diaspora scholar can choose to teach “here” (overseas) or “there” (Africa), depending on need and circumstances, with the overseas institution supporting or sharing the cost involved as part of the partnership agreement, or in exchange for their own students’ engagements in Africa – per field trips to Africa, for instance.

UWNHow much untapped potential exists in the African diaspora? Can we quantify it? 

Mensah: The potential is mammoth, but hard to estimate accurately, as there is no reliable database. Remember, for a long time now, most of the top students from African universities have sought and gained admissions, normally with scholarships, grants and teaching assistantships, to Western universities to pursue their graduate studies; and many have chosen not to return. 

One can say that these diasporans tend to be the proverbial cream of the crop. Of course, some excellent students choose to stay behind, but the size of the latter is nowhere near that of the former. The World Bank has made a number of attempts to develop a database of African diaspora, but, to date, no comprehensive database exists. 

UWN:Are African diaspora academics receptive to the idea of sharing their expertise on the continent?

Mensah: Generally yes, but it is a very contextual and personal issue. To be able to engage in such diaspora initiatives, the African diasporan has to be somewhat established at his or her own institution. This is why many get involved only when they become tenured, or move from assistant to associate or full professorship. 

At the probationary ranks, one has very little power and control over one’s time, and it may not be a good idea to take on such an initiative given the extensive time demands involved, which would invariably undermine one’s ability to keep up with the requisite publications to secure tenure. 

It also depends on the pay regime under which the diasporan works. For instance, for many American colleges and universities, if one does not teach in the summer, one is not paid. However, the pay regime in most Canadian institutions is different, with faculty members getting paid in the summer months when they are on holiday, assuming one fulfils one’s teaching load in the preceding two terms. 

Since many of these initiatives are very costly, with many African institutions unable to remunerate the diasporan scholar (partly or fully), if one is not being paid at his or her own institution, then funding becomes a tricky issue. Remember, the diasporan still has to pay for rent, family upkeep and other expenses at his overseas residence, even though he or she may be in Africa. 

We also have to note, even if only parenthetically, that generally African scholars in Western institutions deal with peculiar burdens, having to do with issues of race and racism. Since there are very few Africans in such professorial positions in the West, they are often burdened with race-related committee duties. 

Moreover, they are usually involved in, or expected to deal with, the counselling of African and other minority students, providing them with all sorts of “unofficial” support (moral or otherwise) at their own time. Not only that: the African scholars in the West often have to deal with racism from both students and colleagues in their institutions.

Moreover, given their limited number, their publications come only the hard way. For one thing, they do not have a network of classmates and schoolmates in peer journal editorial positions and manuscript acquisition positions in publishing houses, something others take for granted in their pursuit of publications. Thus, the challenges and time demands on the African scholar in the West are simply daunting.

UWN:As a member of the African academic diaspora yourself, can you share with us what motivates you to be involved in diaspora programmes? 

Mensah: For me, the main motivation is the conviction that I have a lot I can contribute to African institutions in terms of my acquired expertise, work ethics, student engagement practices and administrative experience from Canada. 

I visit Ghana and other African institutions a number of times in a year and I see the gaps in their administrative structures, protocols and practices, as well as in their academic programmes and courses that I can help improve with the knowledge I have acquired abroad. 

As a diasporan scholar, I have the advantage of multiple or dual cultural competency, with a reasonable understanding of institutional cultures of both “here” (Canada or the West) and “there” (Ghana or Africa). Having lived in Canada for over 25 years, I have a better idea of what lessons could be drawn from Canada, in particular, and the West, in general, to improve conditions in Africa and vice versa. 

I also have insights into what and how practices and protocols could be tweaked to make them applicable for the African context. I live in a third space, of a sort, as I am often “here” and “there” – living somewhere in the dialectical middle ground between these two geographic spaces. 

Another motivation is to keep me connected to my cultural heritage, my people, my family and friends: as an African, I am always an African, and the desire to help improve the human condition on the continent is always on my mind.

UWN:What, in your view, are the conditions needed for the success of such programmes? 

Mensah: How do we find the appropriate diaspora scholars to recruit for such programmes? What is the best mix of incentive and support that must be provided to attract the targeted diasporan scholar without incurring the resentment of his or her peers at the host institution? What is the best approach to use for a diaspora programme to yield the most for the sending and host institutions, the diasporan scholar, and the funder? 

While there is neither a single nor simple answer to any of these questions (including your own above) the following suggestions, based on my own experience, might help:

  • • Demand-driven: Rather than dwelling on the qualifications and skills of the diasporan candidate as the starting point, it is better for the programme to be demand-driven; otherwise the possibility of a mismatch becomes high, not to mention the likelihood of some candidates taking advantage of such programmes to reduce the cost of their own travel to their countries of origin.

  • • Ownership: A corollary of the need for demand-driven programming is the issue of ownership. Unless the programme is initiated by the host institution, working in concert with regional or international development partners such as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, it is virtually impossible for the host to claim or even assert ownership of the programme; and without ownership, sustainability becomes nothing but a fleeting concept.

  • • Cultural competence: Furthermore, organisers of such programmes have to be mindful of the fact that not all diasporan candidates have the requisite cultural competence to succeed. While most of the diasporan candidates might be fluent in the local language, for instance – given their cultural and linguistic affinity to the home country – it is not hard to envisage that their long stay abroad tends to undermine their cultural competence. Additionally, their expectations and sense of entitlement and mutual respect might also be incongruent with those of members of the hosting institution, especially if the diasporan scholar does not return home regularly enough. 

  • • Timing: Another crucial, yet innocuous, aspect of diasporan engagement programmes concerns their time dimensions. It is never easy to match the limited, and often intermittent, time that the diasporan candidate has available with the virtually insatiable demands at the host institution. Not only that, any time that the candidate spends in the field engenders some monetary cost to either the programme or the candidate – a cost that is never easy to handle, given the ubiquity of funding constrictions facing diaspora engagement programmes the world over. 

  • • Accommodation and transportation: Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, arrangements regarding accommodation and local transportation for the candidate have to be as contractually explicit, firm, and as binding as possible to avoid any equivocation once the candidate gets to the field.

UWN:Could you outline your involvement in academic diaspora programmes in the present and the past? 

Mensah: Examples of my key engagements over the years include the following:

  • • CODESRIA College of Mentors and Mentees: In an effort to support doctoral education in the social sciences and humanities in African universities, CODESRIA initiated a mentorship programme for African PhD students. Recently, I was recruited by CODESRIA to be a co-facilitator (with professors Anthony Bizos of the University of Pretoria and Abdul Karim Bangura of American University) of its college of mentees held in Kenya. With our 11-day programme, we provided participants with various intellectual resources, including commenting on their work and exposing them to new trends in academic writing, public presentations and publishing protocols. By all indications, notably per participants’ evaluation, this is a useful programme worthy of emulation. This CODESRIA programme was supported by funders such as the Carnegie Corporation.

  • • Pan-African Doctoral Academy: Since 2015, I have been involved in the University of Ghana Pan-African Doctoral Academy (PADA), which is also sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. PhD students from Africa are invited on a ‘pay to attend’ basis to participate in short courses deemed relevant for their development as budding scholars. The PADA programme includes courses in technical writing; managing the PhD process; innovative thinking in research; career development; qualitative research techniques; qualitative research methodology; and quantitative research methodology using SPSS (I normally run the latter programme). The PADA programme is bi-annual – scheduled for two weeks in January and June.

  • • CODESRIA’s African Diaspora Visiting Professors Fellowship: During the summer of 2016, I won one of CODESRIA’s inaugural African Diaspora Visiting Professor Fellowships, and was hosted by the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana. As part of its sponsorship, CODESRIA catered for my return air ticket and my living expenses in Ghana. My host department, the Centre for Migration Studies, on its part, provided me with accommodation, office space and local transportation. In return, I assisted my host institution in graduate teaching and supervision, oral thesis examination, external examination and curriculum review, and participated in seminars and workshops at the centre and the university. 

  • • Borderless Higher Education for Refugees: I was a founding member of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) project, established by York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies in collaboration with Kenyatta and Moi universities in Kenya, and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). BHER provided online degree and certificate courses for refugees at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya (from 2012-17). The programme was spearheaded by professors Wenona Giles and Don Dippo and the main grant came from the Canadian International Development Agency.

By all accounts, especially per evaluations by beneficiaries and participants, these programmes (BHER, PADA, CODESRIA Fellowship; CODESRIA College of Mentors) have been highly successful. 

Joseph Mensah is a professor of geography at York University in Toronto, Canada. He completed his BA, MA and PhD at the University of Ghana, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Alberta, respectively. He is currently on sabbatical at the Ghana Technology University College in Accra. For more on his research, v

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