Lack of nuance in media dialogues about the current state of the African continent detracts from the mission of professors, political scientists and students across the globe who are seeking to understand how democracy is developing and what challenges it faces in African nations, according to Richard Joseph, professor of African Studies and Political Science.
Joseph was the keynote speaker for the African Student Association’s (ASA) Africa Week, a weeklong celebration of African culture from May 21-25. In Wednesday’s event, Joseph articulated his previous research on democracy in Africa, and expounded upon the importance for college students to approach issues of democracy in this region.
“The defense of democratic rights matches the determination to dilute and even crush them,” Joseph said. "That struggle is also taking place in the United States; there is no sideline today.”
Media coverage of Africa tends to focus on a few common narratives—widespread inequality, corruption, and infrastructural malaise to name a few—that refuse to take nuance and specificity into account when discussing the continent, according to Joseph.
“One of the main goals of Africa Week [is] to educate people on Africa-related issues,” ASA President and Weinberg sophomore Linda Nwumeh said. “Rather than just expose people to African culture through music and dance, we want people to understand some of the fundamental issues that people face in these countries.
Joseph works with Northwestern undergraduates in the African Studies department on the Freedom Gates Project, which involved working with six other Northwestern undergraduates to unearth documents discovered via Carter Center initiatives. He engages in what he coined “freedom work,” that is, work to promote democracy in African nations.
“Freedom work in Africa involves tackling overlapping and mutually reinforcing phenomena,” Joseph said. “[This includes] the denial of citizenship rights, the destruction of political philosophies, and the pursuit of dynastic control over the state and its resources.”
Joseph emphasized how Northwestern faculty and students can work to contribute to solving issues pertaining to democracy in Africa.
“It is important to take off blinders regarding misrule, misgovernance, corruption, and denial of democratic rights,” Joseph said. “[We must] Grapple with [democracy] frankly. It is important to challenge the university community to engage with many countries in Africa in which this global wave of authoritarianism is being resisted. ”
Senior Brandon Ayersman, who attended the event and also works as a research assistant for Joseph, said Joseph’s work adds a layer of nuance to discussions surrounding Africa, but also in grounds his discussions on shared themes he notices.
“I think Professor Joseph’s work provides a different perspective,” Ayersman said. “I’ve personally studied Liberia a lot, and that has a whole different set of problems than the other countries he discussed. [However], there are common themes that come through, especially on topics of corruption as well as a thirst for democracy.”
Africa Week continues with a African music event on Thursday, May 24 at Annenberg Hall from 7-8:30 pm, and with a cultural food event on Friday, May 25 at Parkes Hall from 4-6 pm.