African research boosted by new alliance

Pooling their expertise in the field of African research in the African Studies Rhine-Main alliance are Goethe University Frankfurt, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and TU Darmstadt. The work of the alliance is particularly characterized by its interdisciplinary nature. Not just the disciplines of Anthropology and African Studies are involved; Egyptology, Linguistics and Literature Studies, Geography, Botany and Economics - among other subject areas - are also participating. The pivotal institute that serves the African Studies Rhine-Main alliance that was formed in May 2016 is the Centre for Interdisciplinary African Studies in Frankfurt, at which many of the various aspects of the project are coordinated.

Various publications of the Frankfurt-based Centre for Interdisciplinary African Studies

The new African Studies Rhine-Main alliance will be using to a large extent the structures that have already been put in place by the Centre for Interdisciplinary African Studies of Goethe University Frankfurt. (Photo: Stefan F. Sämmer)

Dr. Karen Hahn and Dr. Stefan Schmid are in charge of the Centre for Interdisciplinary African Studies in Frankfurt.

Dr. Karen Hahn and Dr. Stefan Schmid are in charge of the Centre for Interdisciplinary African Studies in Frankfurt. (Photo: Stefan F. Sämmer)

Prof. Thomas Bierschenk of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Prof. Thomas Bierschenk of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz welcomes the establishment of the African Studies Rhine-Main alliance as it will promote the further integration of research and teaching in the discipline at the three Rhine-Main universities. (Photo: Stefan F. Sämmer)

Items from the Ethnographic Teaching Collection, the African Music Archives and the Jahn Library for African Literatures at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Major holdings of African cultural artifacts are owned by Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in the form of its Ethnographic Teaching Collection, the African Music Archives and the Jahn Library for African Literatures. (Photos: Stefan F. Sämmer, Peter Pulkowski)

A selection of views of Lake Malawi adorns the walls of the offices of the Centre for Interdisciplinary African Studies (ZIAF) of Goethe University Frankfurt. There are fishing boats to be seen - some silhouetted against the blue of the water, others colored red by the sundown. It was Dr. Stefan Schmid who took these photos while he was in East Africa. Schmid, who holds a doctorate in geography, and his colleague, the biologist Dr. Karen Hahn, coordinate the projects, activities and events organized by the ZIAF. “The ZIAF has been in existence as a separate organization since 2003, but what makes us special is that we are one of the few such institutes in Germany that is not linked to one specific academic discipline. We work on a completely interdisciplinary basis,” explains Schmid. The President’s Office of Goethe University originally decided to establish the ZIAF and made the necessary finances available.” 

Following the formation of the African Studies Rhine-Main alliance by the universities in Frankfurt, Mainz and Darmstadt in May 2016, all three locations can now benefit from the support of the ZIAF. "As we already have the required structures in place, it seems only reasonable to allow all three universities to profit from what we have to offer,” adds Hahn. “When we got down to forming the African Studies Rhine-Main alliance, we were all agreed that there was no need to specifically formalize this aspect of our work. What we concentrate on is the actual research, although at the same time we do take a very pragmatic approach when we consider what the ZIAF should be coordinating.”

The ZIAF in Frankfurt currently counts among its members some 80 academics from seven faculties of Goethe University together with affiliated organizations, including the Senckenberg Nature Research Society, the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) and the Frobenius Institute, and it thus plays a correspondingly important role in the new African Studies Rhine-Main alliance. In addition, Hahn and Schmid are also witnessing the generation of innovative synergies as a result of the collaboration with the universities in Mainz and Darmstadt. "For instance, we are already seeing a close partnership developing between the botanists in Mainz and Frankfurt,” points out Hahn. "They are looking at each other’s work and determining whether this can help with their own research.” Related disciplines have expressed interest in participating and plans for a new research network in the field of gene evolution and ecology are already on the table. "In addition, several postdoctoral researchers and doctoral candidates have formed their own group. There will be plenty going on there, too." 

Hahn also expects there will be fresh input to the DFG-sponsored AFRASO or Africa’s Asian Options project, which researches the connections between Asia and Africa. "The project is at present in its phase-out period and we will be drafting new concepts for a follow-up project.” Schmidt considers it possible that one potential topic could be the links between Africa and a wide range of other countries. "Many people in Germany are unaware of the fact that Turkey is among the major investors when it comes to Africa.”

The objective of the new alliance is not to reinvent African Studies as such, but this discipline will be given new life through the collaboration between Frankfurt, Mainz and Darmstadt and, at the same time, will be put on a broader footing. "In many areas, we are able to tie in with what is already in place,” clarifies Schmid. “One feature of the program of the ZIAF was an event for young researchers on the subject of the ethics of research in Africa. We have since developed these individual events into a seminar, and can now invite our colleagues in Mainz and Darmstadt to participate.”

The general intention is to considerably facilitate access to existing resources for all three partners. Schmidt cites the examples of the Rock Art Archive held by the Frobenius Institute and the former DFG African Special Collection in Frankfurt’s university library: "The latter is by far the largest collection of works in the fields of the humanities, culture and social sciences focusing on Africa south of the Sahara.” JGU also has unique and valuable holdings in this respect in the form of the Jahn Library for African Literatures and its African Music Archives. "You’ll only find something similar in the USA,” avers Prof. Thomas Bierschenk of JGU’s Department of Anthropology and African Studies.  "And our Ethnographic Teaching Collection would be enough to start furnishing a museum.” 

Schmid looks across to his photos of Malawi. "Of course, we’ll also be sharing the infrastructures we have already established in the various African countries, such as our centers in Mali and in Malawi.  Looks to me inevitable that these could provide the bases for mutual teaching or research trips. Someone in Mainz has recently written a dissertation on our Cultural and Museum Center in Karonga."

Prof. Bierschenk does not merely have his eye on the continent of Africa when he talks about the African Studies Rhine-Main alliance from the point of view of JGU - for him, it is the research landscape as a whole that is important and the role that the project will play in that context.   "There are only very few major African Studies centers in Germany,” he says. "Admittedly, there is a lot going on in Berlin, but their activities are not particularly well coordinated. The subject has traditionally been a research focus of the University of Bayreuth and this probably represents the main center of African Studies in Europe. But our alliance means we can certainly compete with them. Our centers in Frankfurt and Mainz are influential in their own right - together with Darmstadt we are now a major player.”

The participating researchers are busy on many different levels deciding on the direction that this new consortium should take. "A project already in the pipeline involves appointments to two professorships in Frankfurt and Mainz that became vacant at more or less the same time,” asserts Bierschenk. Both locations currently only each have a single professor of linguistics working in the field of African Studies. "In view of the fact there are more than 3,000 languages spoken in Africa, our professors seem rather thin on the ground. So we intend to supplement them: in Frankfurt, they’ll be focusing on empirical linguistics while we will be appointing a professor of sociolinguistics - and together we plan to develop a shared degree course. This will enable us to extend and round out our linguistics curriculum.” Bierschenk believes that this concept could well set a precedent: “In the near future, we’ll see a whole new generation moving into place in both Frankfurt and Mainz. It will be necessary to make new appointments to quite a few professorships in the coming years. This will be an opportunity that we can exploit.”

In structural terms, the African Studies departments in Mainz and Frankfurt complement each other perfectly. “In Frankfurt, their core unit specifically devoted to African Studies is actually relatively small, but many other disciplines there are extensively involved in the subject in one way or another.” The corresponding core unit in Mainz is more extensive. “With its more than 30 personnel, the Department of Anthropology and African Studies on the Gutenberg campus is one of the largest university centers for sociological and cultural research on Africa in Germany.” Darmstadt has its own special role to play. “It’s true that they do not have a dedicated African Studies department, but the Darmstadt academics have particular expertise in the fields of urban planning and the history of technology. They are very useful cooperation partners when we are dealing with aspects such as the development or sociology of African settlements.” 

Frankfurt, Mainz and Darmstadt aim to construct an African Studies network that brings together the three universities, coordinates their teaching and research capacities and - last but not least - takes new directions within the discipline. At the same time, they propose to retain and improve on those aspects that are already tried-and-tested. The alliance is large and will be able to achieve much.

Africa research Rhine-Main