Election season in Ghana is special to me. I have lived through the 2008, 2012, 2016 versions of it and gotten more and more involved in each election cycle. So for 2020, I decided to be a bit proactive! Together with a colleague at the Nordic Africa Institute with a soft spot for Ghanaian politics, Diana Højlund Madsen, we planned an event and a policy note around the gendered aspects of the 2020 Ghana Elections.
In the policy note, we write “In the upcoming Ghanaian elections, a woman has, for the first time, emerged as a vice-presidential candidate for one of the two major parties in the country. Her candidacy has sparked hopes of progress on gender equality, but has also triggered anti-feminist and misogynistic rhetoric.”
Thanks to all involved in making the event and the policy note possible.
A dream came through a few weeks ago: I was a participant in Sweden’s foremost event for the written word, the Gothenburg Bookfair.
I remember the first time I attended the fair as a student. I took the train from Uppsala to Gothenburg and stayed with a classmate. On the morning of, I walked towards the exhibit area and the closer I got the more people joined me. Outside the Göteborgsmässan, colorful banners were up everywhere and the queue was long. Once inside, I was still shocked by the intensity, heat, and ferocity of book conversations, seminar events, the crowd streaming back and forth… and they were all holding (intellectual prints adorned) tote bags filled to the brim with new, exciting books. As a book nerd, I felt like I had died and come to heaven.
So when I colleague kind of casually asked if I would be alright with attending the book fair as part of my job, I might have screamed a YES too loud to be professional. I proposed a seminar, very hopefully assuming the corona crisis would be over around this time. “Africa after the Corona crisis: Digitalisation, Culture and Freedom”.
I suggested a long list of creatives I thought would to justice to the topic. In the end, this was the lineup:
We spoke of effects of the Corona crisis on culture, but also on education and freedom – and how digitalization is playing a more important (and more divisive) role now than ever.
While I was hoping I would be at the fair physically, I could see myself being ushered through a dense crowd of sweaty and happy book lovers together with some extraordinary creatives to a well-lit stage and later join the crowd in browsing for books for 48 hours or so, as we all know, the Corona crisis is not over, and close-knit gatherings of sweaty thousands of people handing objects to each other are off the table for now. Thus this experience with Mantse and Ainehi calling in was second best, but still, quite the success if I may say so myself. However, a sweet side-effect is the webinar is available well beyond Gothenburg and Sweden.
As the summer moved into autumn in Sweden, days became shorter, rains fell, and our family was hit by a terrible blow. One in our midst was suddenly gone. She was called Comfort and it’s not often a person so embodies their name. She truly was a Comfort and a joy to her family and surrounding community including a large circle of friends and she will be missed.
Comfort Maame Ekua Adu was my husband’s sister and became my sister too. When I was new in Ghana, I would meet her on the way to Community 1 Market where she would sit outside her friend’s shop and she would always wave me to stop and chat in a way that strengthened me and made me feel seen and often she made me laugh. In the family, she was a powerhouse and almost had an inner engine that seemed to propel her forward. She could kickstart us into different projects and at times step on toes as she hurried forward. Comfort was also the natural center of the party, coordinating the people involved, divvying up the food, and starting the dance on the dancefloor with a big, deep laugh.
Despite her natural speed, deep voice, and power, she moved with kindness. She took time to talk when we met, was tough when tough love was needed and hugged me with a squeeze so hard it almost made me breathless.
I seek comfort in that while our sister Comfort Maame Ekua’s life was too short, it was also inspirational, especially to women since she was unapologetically herself and in a way that encouraged others around her to live their desired life in a society that puts a lot of pressure on conforming to the norm. She had a large circle of friends, and over the last weeks, I have come to understand she knew almost everyone in our hometown of Tema! She lived alone and adopted and loved two girls.
As the autumn colored the leaves yellow and red, the skies turned grey, and the last sunrays of summer were seen less frequently each day here in Sweden. This past rainy weekend, Comfort was given her last rest in Ghana. Our sister Comfort spread joy and comfort and while I hate to write that in the past tense, I think that is the nicest thing one can say about a person. That is why so many will miss her sorely.
It is September and I am back on the blog. Over the summer, I decided to take an extended social media break after reading rhetoric expert Elaine Eksvärd’s post about being present with family (in Swedish). So I was just that: present. With the family I moved apartments, we went on a little trip, swam in Stockholm’s many water bodies and played many rounds of cards!
But now the air is crisp and some leaves are turning yellow, kids are in school and I am back behind the keyboard, working, and planning the autumn. Being a teacher at heart, this time of year smells of new beginnings, new possibilities, and “bouquets of sharpened pencils” as it was phrased in the film “You’ve Got Mail”. To top it off, my PostDoc at NAI is coming to an end in December so I am also planning for the next stage of my career. Probably more on that in another blog post soon!
Speaking of my workplace, we are now back in the office one day a week and that feels somehow perfect. The Covid-19 pandemic meant we were fully Working From Home and although that saved me a pretty long commute, I do miss having a workplace and colleagues. One day a week is perfect for fitting important meetings, water-cooler-small-talk — without feeling constantly on the hamster-wheel like commuting sometimes do.
In addition to that, I have listed the papers I want to finish from other projects (read: the dissertation), the books I want to read (and maybe write a few book reviews?), the people I want to meet, even if by a 2m distance, the food I want to cook (this time of year is so food-fantastic!), and the blog and Instagram posts I want to share.
A few weeks ago, I did not think this feeling would come, but here it is: I am welcoming the autumn and all that comes with it!
Academia is not a place for fast turnarounds. Last week, I reached a milestone which was the result of intense efforts starting 13 years ago when I first decided to apply for a Ph.D. position in migration studies at the University of Ghana. Now, this milestone quietly appeared as an automated email among many in my inbox. The communication indicated that the first paper out of my thesis had been published in a peer-reviewed journal!
The journal is called the Journal of International Mobility and is a French journal – I just love how abstract and bio is also available in another language. It is also an open-access journal meaning researchers and others can read it for free and download /télécharcher it as it is not behind a paywall. I found it as they were publishing work on academic mobility, international student migration and I thought it could be a good fit.
What does it mean to publish a paper?
This means a section of my research is now available for easy consumption and critique. That means I am part of a global conversation about my topic, much more than if I only left results in my 300+ page dissertation (PDF). In this paper, I chose to focus on my quantitative data (two more papers out of my thesis yet to be published have a more qualitative focus drawing on focus groups and interviews) on student migration aspirations.
Morover, I contextualize the situation for student migrants out of the global south – unequal access to higher education, under- and unemployment after graduation, hardship acquiring visas to further studies abroad, the global knowledge society where student migrants provide 3% of trade in services in the OECD. I explain how Ghana is a good case study with outmigration among highly skilled close to Africa’s average and high levels of graduate unemployment. I review the international student migration (ISM) literature and suggest students from the global south are understudied. I ask: “Do students from the global south aspire to be mobile? Are they mobile? How do they experience the global knowledge society?” With survey data from 467 Ghanaian students I respond to these questions and find that (quoting from the abstract, or summary):
…the students aspire to migrate, mostly for educational reasons. However, many of these students also aspire to return, others to live transnational lives, and one in twelve students surveyed are not interested in migrating—that is, in leaving Ghana for more than one year. These results show that university students in Ghana often imagine their future at home, but their life strategies include graduate school and gaining work experience abroad. Hence, mobility, but perhaps not necessarily migration, is a central feature of their life aspirations.
What does it really mean to me to publish a paper?
Emotionally, the email and publication shook me to the core. It has been such a long ride and now this seems…small?
Late nights transcribing interviews, tabulating survey data. Versions of this paper dating back to 2017. Having a colleague critique and then rewriting the paper. Getting it rejected once. Getting many comments on what is now the published paper, but pressing through. It was hard until the end, too… The final edited version I had to correct twice (a misunderstanding meant the copyeditor needed the changes in a different format). The emails sent to ask for an update on the process.
Now, I had the email blinking a URL at me on the screen with a “published” in a sentence next to it.
Was this it?
After a drink with my husband to celebrate, and this email to tell you all, I am pressing on with other slow, thoughtful, and important scholarly work. But after taking a few weeks of vacation!
In an ongoing collaboration with Education Subsaharan Africa (ESSA), I was invited to write a blog post for them. I chose to write about the problem of reliable and comparable data on higher education in African countries for ESSA’s “Doing more with Data”-series.
This year, 9.8 million students in Africa were not able to go to their universities as they used to because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The aggregated estimate (UNESCO) covers the continent as a whole. This data reminds us of a major issue for the African higher education sector – there is not enough detailed, open and recent data to make good policy and research.
While higher education in Africa struggles with resources, relevance and impact it is easy to forget the issue of data for planning. The adage about a group of people describing the different parts of an elephant — and coming back with widely different conclusions about the animal based on describing the trunk or the tail, reminds us of the complex issue at hand. Policy makers, university administrators and researchers of higher education all need quality and timely data points from all levels of the sector: individual departments, universities, countries, regions and continents.
To align this with the elephant story, without a systematic way of describing the sector, we end up with confusing data. With such difficulties it is hard to conclude on basic trends: if the discipline is growing or declining, and subsequently what links the size of the discipline has to democratization and transparent governance…
Recently, I attended a webinar on the state of open access in Africa where I had a particular use of every presentation, focusing on support for early-career researchers like myself. See my notes with links below. The program was organized by the Training Center in Communication and led by its founding director Joy Owango. After the webinar, I made an interview with Joy Owango and will share some of the highlights of out 45-minute call, but I have cut out our children in both Kenya and Sweden joining us!
What is Training Centre in Communication, (TCC Africa )?
We are a center that supports researchers’ in increasing their research output through training in scholarly and science communication. In addition to this we host monthly thought leadership webinars on capacity building for early career researchers with a focus on open science.
In the beginning, the focus of the center was supporting researchers communicating among themselves, particularly how to write academic papers that could be understood at multidisciplinary levels. Within five years, we broadened the scope and started supporting researchers on how to communicate with non-scientists, even as we are going through this process, I increasingly noted the challenges early career researchers faced in the process of academic publishing.
Before we start crucifying researchers about not being able to write, we need to ask, how are they getting resources for their research discovery? Just by answering this question, our model transformed, which, included providing open access discovery solutions to support their research lifecycle. We do not just offer training, but also advisory services, where we guide institutions on how to set up research and grant offices and also guide governments on ways they can improve on monitoring their research output especially with the support of open data. Before the COVID19 Pandemic hit Africa, we were in Malawi and guided the Government of Malawi through the National Commission of Science and Technology on how they can use Scientometrics and open access data in monitoring research output from the country.
2. What is your funding model?
We are a not for profit organization with a self-sustainable business model, where we charge for our services, and as a result, funding is one of the revenue streams.
3. Do you apply for grants?
Yes, we compete for grants as well, however, it is not our main revenue stream, as it comes with the objectives of the donor and rarely in line with our objectives as such we work with donors who support early career researchers regardless of research background in improving their research output. As a result of this, the donors we have chosen to work with support multidisciplinary research backgrounds and are not restricted to the research interest areas of the African continent (namely research in, health, agriculture, and climate change). This decision was deliberate and 15 years later, we have survived and are self-sustainable. We have seen programs similar to ours come and go as they are 100% reliant on funding and we did not want that as we wanted a more sustainable approach to supporting early career researchers in improving their research output through training.
4. What do you see as the most important issues for higher education on the continent?
Open Science. In its totality from data, infrastructure to academic publishing. Open science is the glue that holds together good quality scientific output from research discovery, academic publishing to dissemination. When a researcher is unable to complete his research due to paywalls, you understand their academic fatigue. Taking a postgraduate course is not easy and limited access to resources to conduct your research can be very frustrating. It was because of the frustrations and academic fatigue I noted in researchers we trained that we thought of getting research industry partners, who supported open science. So when we tell researchers, “you need to be involved in the process of scholarly communication”, it is really the whole research life cycle, from research idea, writing the paper, and the whole process behind it, that helps you write that paper!
5. You founded TCC already in 2006, what is your own journey to where you are now?
From experience, I remember in the early 2000s’ I was studying for a postgraduate certificate in Mass communication research and the only library in Nairobi that had the latest resources in my research area was at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). For five days I sat in that library until 8 pm when they shut down, I would sit outside until midnight as I needed access to the library Wi-Fi and the resources. Fortunately, ILRI is within a campus full of early career researchers, so no one bothered me. This was a typical scenario that early career researchers may face in pursuit of resources for their research discovery process.
If your own university does not have subscriptions to the journals you need, as a student, you are stranded. Even then, I did not understand how bad it was until I got to work with Clarivate Analytics, then Thomson Reuters, and I was like “hold on! this is what I have been asking for… Access to data. But all the good data is behind a paywall!”
When we are talking about open access it is not just journals, it is the whole system! It’s not just “Oh, I want the full-text journal!”, no, it is the research discovery system that needs to be open. I understand there is a business model to it, but it needs to be open because a majority of self-sponsored researchers who may not have adequate support systems fall through the cracks and are unable to complete their education due to lack of resources. In essence, open science democratizes education.
My own reflections from the seminar are that sitting in the middle of the information age exploding, it is easy to just get tired and not research well where you “host” your research, however, it is as important as ever. All the links I shared above are mindblowing in their own way, it is actually as exciting as it is tiring! But you need to understand how to make your research visible and readable to the constituencies you write for! As Joy shared, open access publications in the last two years are many (44%) and growing fast from Africa, however not all fields are well-represented.
The movement toward open science is in a way a “going back” to the foundations of science – sharing progress for the common good – and public and private funders are now going back to this ideal. As a researcher believing in the public good of science, I believe all of us have a responsibility to publish our data and findings open access.
Global and regional goals, such as Agenda 2030 and the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa, foreground higher education as an engine for development and job creation. Yet, many African universities perform weakly in international comparison. This policy note looks at the challenges in strengthening the freedom, relevance and impact of research and higher education in Africa.
The Recommendations In Short
Time to put higher education in Africa in focus! Critical for a more democratic and equal society. Continue the debate by reading this interesting policy note by my colleague @kajsaha at @NordicAfricahttps://t.co/BZbNjAbvuP
As a researcher who is also a blogger, I am very much interested in the availability and ease of use of my research. Even though I went into the process of writing for a policy audience highly motivated, I was challenged by the level of work that goes into a shorter paper simplifying the issues.
After writing and rewriting a text that in the end was 1000 words longer than the format, I had several of my researcher colleagues read early drafts and come with comments – especially how to phrase recommendations and limit the scope I found tricky. Next, our communication unit read the text and we had conversations on what aspects to visualize and what to cut out, and then there was (very much needed) language editing. It is actually quite scary when I saw how many words can be altered for clarity, thinking about how I have gladly been pressing “publish” on the blog for many years without any such editing! Then a few back-and-forth-emails on final titles, illustrations and other details – and then four months later – voilà: The finished Policy Note.
Please download, share, and let me hear your comments!
These days, just like many others, I am keenly following everything on the Black Lives Matter protests in the Unites States, and in the last days the rest of the world including 1000s on the street here in Stockholm. Is now the time racism will finally die? I think of my friends in the US and wonder how they are feeling. I look for Instagram posts about white allyship. I sit with long-reads tracing the history of racism. An eerie feeling rises: nothing of this is new.
The best input so far, I feel, is a heartfelt 18 minute clip by talk show host (and house god) Trevor Noah. He argues that the protests were to be expected as the US social contract was repeatedly trashed when black citizens daily have to fear for their lives by law enforcement.
“Why should the citizens of a society adhere to the laws when the law-enforcers themselves don’t?”, as Trevor Noah puts it.
The social contract is an idea, a thought model for what a society is. I taught social contract theory in my Social Theory class at Ashesi University in Ghana for 10 years, so I immediately liked this way of understanding the situation at hand. The social contract, even in its cruelest, most authoritarian form as expressed by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan has one caveat – when your life is threatened…when your life does not matter to the leadership, the social contract no longer exists. When the society is no longer protecting you, you are back in the state of nature, the “all against all” situation where there are no more any rules – because what do you have to lose if your life is at stake?
To educate ourselves about the history behind the racism we see across the globe and to discuss how that reality is relevant today, the Social Theory class also read Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyesi’s novel Homegoing (I can very much recommend it) which follows the descendants of two sisters from Ghana – one sold into slavery and transported over the seas to the US, one staying in green Ghana. The message that Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora are connected is driven home well-well. In a post from 2016 related to this issue, Ghanaian blogger Jamila Abdulai wrote,
“I’ve been observing the lack of dialogue on the Black Lives Matter cause and racism in America among Africans, particularly on the continent, with great trepidation. Sure, some of us are sharing one or two articles, but we are largely silent on the issue, not uttering a word. Not to mention the fact that there hasn’t so much as been a beep from our so-called leaders either. That’s why I’m writing this. To appeal to your conscious, to plead with you to wake up.”
But maybe there are things that are new, this time around. This time, Ghana’s president Akuffo-Addo did share a statement that I think it is worth reposting.
White people also do better on acknowledging the movement this time around, at least on my timelines. People share resources and hashtags, seem to be learning about racism and allyship just like myself, and express support. I especially liked a post talking about “black people’s joy and thriving” as the goal beyond black lives matter.
While the protests continue, at home we have daily conversations on what it means to be black or white in Ghana, Sweden, and the world today. I know many other families in Sweden have similar conversations. We think about the changes over time and frankly, we are impatient with the slow change.
I watch the clips. I read everything I can find. I unlearn and learn my own role. I shudder at the evil in this world.
I also smile when I see how many of us support the struggle. Will we live to see racism wiped out, will we experience a broad understanding of that black lives matter and see racism replaced with true humanism, respect for life, and black joy?
A few ways to support the cause in Sweden: (Please add more in the comments!)
In my chapter, Digital Communication Tools in the Classroom as a Decolonial Solution: Pedagogical Experiments from Ashesi University in Ghana, I argue digital communication tools like Twitter and Wikipedia can decolonize not just minds, but classrooms too, as the tools support students and lecturers together to rethink, reimagine, and reshape knowledge production.
In the chapter, thought hard about the idea — at this point-in-time almost catchphrase — “decolonizing the university” and what it really means, like HOW do we DO it? As part of understanding the many possible meanings, I outlined five aspects of decolonizing the university. I deduced it is ultimately about sharing power with students, examining implications about what we include and exclude in our classroom conversations and course outlines, changing the content, providing epistemological access, and finally decolonizing also the institutions.
After arriving at these five aspects of decolonizing the university, I wanted to say something about how digital communication tools can address or bridge these aspects. See figure below.
If you click on the linked button below, you can get a preview of my chapter.
I would love to hear what you think of my ideas and the operationalization of decolonization of universities into five aspects. What did I overstate or miss entirely? Do you agree digital tools can be of help or are they merely new, sexier methods to further colonize the world-at-large by the few?
Today, it was #AfricaDay and I did not celebrate very much from my bland WFH reality, but I thought I would share what little things I did do!
My friend Emmanuel Gamor of the podcast Unpacking Africa sent an email with this video and I really enjoyed it. Check out the pod which is full of interesting voices!
Africa Union Day or Africa Day for short is a holiday in African countries and celebrates the African Union and efforts of African unity. In Ghana, children wear traditional clothes for school the day before the holiday and learn about other African countries.
As it is a holiday, there is a lot of merry-making. Two videos I came across on Instagram which made me smile came from these accounts – not sure though if they are meant to be #AfricaDay themed…