African culture on campus

Why is African language and culture so undervalued at the University of Sydney?

Art by Lilly Aggio

Throughout this year, the issue of racial equality has remained a persistent topic, dominating election campaigns, social activism, media and education globally. Many people have spent time during lockdown educating themselves on racial discrimination, often coming to the realisation that they were not as informed on the topic as once thought. A recurring argument regarding this issue relates to the lack of education surrounding issues of race, more specifically the study of historical events through a Pan-African perspective. This field of study is generally referred to as African studies, which focuses on the societies and cultures in the African continent and its diaspora communities. 

The African studies field covers numerous major events in recent history, including but not limited to Slavery, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, Apartheid and the colonisation of Africa. Internationally, many institutions of higher education such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge already boast African studies departments or majors within a specific degree. However, the University of Sydney and its Group of Eight counterparts lack any African studies departments or majors within their Arts faculties. Notably, the University of Sydney includes departments representing the Arab world, Asia, South America, Greece, Japan, Italy and numerous others within their School for Languages and Cultures. The absence of the second largest continent in the world is a cause for concern, considering most continents have the benefit of a dedicated department within the School of Languages and Cultures. 

In order to investigate this omission, I requested an email interview with Dr. Yixu Lu, the head of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney. After submitting questions intended on discovering the reasoning behind the omission of the African continent as a major in her department, I was provided a paragraph long non-answer stating that the School of Languages and Cultures provide courses in two widely spoken languages in Africa, Arabic and French. Furthemore, Dr. Lu stated that her department offers content on Africa through the Department of Arabic studies, listing two units focusing on North Africa. In the end, I was informed that measuring the University of Sydney’s interest towards the African continent through the absence of a major in her department was a narrow assumption. 

While the comments from Dr. Lu are greatly appreciated, some points are relatively unpalatable. Firstly, it is not a narrow assumption to base the department’s interest on an entire continent based on the majors offered. The Arab studies major does cover some nations in Africa but leaves out approximately fifty African nations containing over a billion people. Is it not rather narrow for a major university’s entire syllabus on a continent to not include over a billion people?

The university’s argument that the African continent can just be covered by Arab studies, an entirely different culture to most of the continent, is inaccurate at best and culturally insensitive at worst.

Dr. Lu mentions that two predominantly spoken languages in Africa, French and Arabic, are represented in the school of languages and cultures. It is important to note that neither are African languages and that the French language has a complicated history in Africa due to it being initially introduced through colonisation. This substitute for African languages is insulting, not only to Africans that have no relation to the language but to individuals that have directly experienced colonisation and its effects. 

She also attempts to make the distinctive lack of African language and culture units look more acceptable by listing units in the Arabic studies major that cover the African continent, though there are only two in total that are related to North Africa. In comparison to the dedicated African studies departments of other celebrated international universities, the list of units on African culture provided by the head of the school of languages and cultures implies an active decision to ignore the study of African culture. 

Another perspective to consider regarding the absence of African studies is that of Black students at the University of Sydney. As students of African origin, the issue regarding the omission of our culture from the School of Languages and Cultures syllabus has a considerable impact. In a year in which many non-Black individuals came to terms with a lack of education on African studies, the absence of this major is all too apparent.

In writing this article, I interviewed Sophie Pereyra Bowdler, the events co-ordinator for the Sydney Pan-African Association, a society that represents Black students on campus. In our interview, Sophie highlighted the importance of African studies, a major that would include relevant topics such as the Civil Rights movement and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Furthermore, she considered it essential to reflect upon past horror such as apartheid, slavery and colonisation, in order to never repeat them. She indicated that there are students on campus, both Black and non-Black that would appreciate the content of these courses. 

I also discussed with Sophie the impact the lack of an African studies department has on the Sydney Pan-African Association. Many cultural societies at the University of Sydney benefit from having a representative department. The existence of an African studies department, according to Sophie, would provide necessary support to the society, which is currently fully student run. 

In regards to Dr. Lu’s statement, Sophie agreed that it was an inadequate response to a question held by many students on campus. She also notes the controversial nature of French being considered as an African language, a sentiment I share. As for reforms, Sophie notes that the University of Sydney could start with an Open Learning Environment unit about either the politics or languages of Africa, with the view of establishing a department representing the continent. 

The absence of African studies at the University of Sydney was not solely limited to myself and members of the Sydney Pan-African Association. Amanuel Woldemariam, the president of the Economics Society at the University of Sydney, noticed the absence of an African studies department when advising the Sydney Pan-African Association about a potential event. As president of the premier society for economics students on campus, Amanuel has worked closely with the School of Economics, providing much appreciated assistance to the society. Therefore, the first task of priority for Amanuel in order to assist the Sydney Pan-African Association was to find a department on campus that represents African students, only to discover that there is not one. 

It must be noted that the absence of African studies is not only detrimental to African-Australian students but to wider Australian society. The study of a culture at university provides students with a cultural and societal context about a specific region. Graduates of Asian, Pacific and Middle Eastern studies have proved beneficial in better educating Australian and international students about these respective regions. This benefits foreign relations between Australia and these regions as well as domestic relations between the government and communities from these regions. The absence of African studies at any major Australian university, let alone the oldest, provides a bleak picture regarding relations between Australia and its African communities. 

In recent years, the African-Australian community has been the target of controversy, most notably the “African gangs” comment by Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton that dominated political discussion in Victoria. As a population, the African-Australian community numbers approximately 380,000 individuals, remaining a smaller population than their overseas counterparts in the United States and Europe. In spite of this, the Australian government maintains numerous embassies across the African continent. The Australian embassy in Ethiopia located in Addis Ababa, home to the African Union as well as several UN agencies, is the most prominent. However, it must be noted that Ethiopia, unlike many other African nations, does not have any European languages as an official or recognised language. This means that Australians that are not proficient in Ethiopian languages will find it difficult to communicate in Ethiopia. Australian universities do not provide African culture or language studies, meaning the number of Australians that are diplomatically inclined yet fluent in Amharic are minimal.

The absence of African studies as a department or major in Australian universities, especially the University of Sydney is considerably important. It affects individuals of African descent on campus, the wider Australian society as well as Australia’s diplomatic relations abroad. As an individual of African descent at the University of Sydney, I would be greatly appreciative of a major that represents my history, culture and society, a sentiment that is shared by many of my peers.