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What to expect at the 2019 Africa Week at King's

With the lead up to King’s Africa Week fast approaching, we took the time to speak with ‘Funmi Olonisakin, Vice-President and Vice-Principal International, and Professor of Security, Leadership & Development.

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King’s is at the heart of contemporary discussions about global issues. How important is Africa Week to those discussions?

Whatever way you dice it, Africa sits at the core of issues of conflict, security, poverty and progress, climate and terrorism. It’s become a theatre for responding to these issues, but also for discourses and the testing of ideas.

King’s is at the cusp of very innovative and deeply engaging work in Africa. We are differentiating ourselves from those who study Africa at a distance. With Africa Week, we want to show what Africa is like and understand Africa.

The week of activities also offers a space to think about how we can build bridges and synergy into the work that we do and make even more impact in Africa. You can think about research impact differently by thinking about the change you want to make first, and then framing the research in a way that works with the location and with those in mind. Impact is automatically made as a result and felt over time. These are some of the conversations I’m hoping Africa Week will allow us to have.

How important is academia and university research for Africa?

Many institutions in Africa are replicas of what the colonial system produced, and they are suffering as a result. Policy processes are preventing universities from reaching their capacity to produce knowledge and educate the next generation. And they are preventing a discussion around the role of research in the university area.

We need to develop the capacity of African universities to produce research and knowledge that is relevant to the society where it is located. We also need to ensure research is done well inside the university space, rather than in nongovernmental organisations. In no other period has this been as urgent as it is today, when 60% of a population of one billion plus is between the ages of 19 and 30.

Why is it important that research invokes a dialogue with Africa?

If the people we are studying, who are experiencing these issues first-hand, are not part of the process of developing research ideas than what is it that we are researching for?

Likewise, there is a difference between studying a region and living and breathing the life of the region. King’s has a fine mixture of Europeans and Africanees that know Africa very well and are very interested in Africa. Professor Martin Prince comes as an example, as well as our colleagues at the Global Health Institute. And if you look at the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy and the African Leadership Centre, it’s really Africans studying the continent first hand, whether they are based in the UK or go to the continent. You also have first generation British people of African descent who are here at King’s.

It makes a world of difference – because knowing Africa in theory is different to knowing Africa in practice. This is what we want to showcase – I think we can now say there is something to show at King’s.

In the Department of War Studies, there are a lot of people researching Africa and there is a lot of interesting work taking place there. As for the School of Global Affairs, we think of problem-solving a lot and when we have a research idea, we do think about the impact it could have in Africa.

As co-founder, why is the African Leadership Centre so important to this discussion?

The African Leadership Centre (ALC) is an example of this very issue we are talking about – in terms of what role the voice of an affected target population plays in research or in the interventions that we make.

The ALC was created to respond first-hand to this problem of studying Africa at a distance. And it responds to the absence of voice of African youth, across the board. The value it brings to the table is really a radical shift in the way that knowledge about Africa is produced – bringing African researchers, academics, policymakers and activists to the core of way in which we study Africa and involving them in our co-creating and collaborating process.

Is that where leadership and empowering future leaders comes into play?

Leadership comes into play because, when I was at the United Nations, we always talked about leadership deficit. But what does leadership look like? Are we talking about individuals? Are we talking about a way of life? There were many questions at the back of my mind when I was leaving the United Nations to return to academia. I thought that researching what it means and how it is practiced has to be at the core of preparing the people who will go on to change the world.

So, the leadership in African ‘Leadership’ Centre is deliberate – and it’s interdisciplinary. It’s not sufficient to simply say you want to go and lead. You need to conceptualise the problem and theorise leadership if you want a forward look, in terms of what you are going to change. It’s about making academic work and something you can translate into practice.

Nancy Adimora is co-hosting an event on the future of African literature at Africa Week. As an alumnus, is she an example of the ethos and leadership coming out of the ALC?

Yes, she is one of many examples. I find Nancy and the work she and her colleagues are doing is an example of excellence and using that excellence to drive change in Africa. From one’s vantage point, if you have the commitment to change Africa, you would use your expertise in literature to transform the narrative. You would use your engineering expertise or legal expertise, whatever your talent is – you would deploy it in a way that offers direction towards change.

On the final day of Africa Week, there is a conference focusing on the Horn of Africa. How key is the Horn region to discussions around Africa and security?

If you look at the Horn of Africa – every country in the region is either at war with itself, or there’s something happening across the border. It’s like we take two steps forwards and one step backwards. Yet, all the attention on the area says a lot about the way in which the external world sees the Horn as a strategic entry point into Africa. Think of the number of military places in Djibouti – the whole world and its grandmother is in Djibouti at this moment.

The big question therefore is why? What accounts for this scale of intervention in the Horn of Africa? Is it telling a larger story about the interest of the world in Africa? Is it sufficient to only think about Africa as a place where you find poverty, disease and disaster or is there much more to Africa?

Of course, there is. Africa has framed dynamic leadership around these issues and listening our colleagues about this will be very interesting. The keynote delivery includes Professor Medhane Tadesse, a top scholar from King’s, who has worked on this region and provided leadership on policy. He has a lot that is new to say, as far as a UK audience is concerned.

To colleagues thinking of engaging with King’s networks, what would you say to excite them about the opportunities to work with and on Africa?

I think for colleagues who want to work on Africa, they should seek authentic connection with Africa, as well as with people who are deeply engaged with the continent, are committed to the continent and have extensive networks with the continent. And they should be looking along interdisciplinary lines. That’s what collaboration with us will looks like.

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