Lessons for universities as diaspora scholars return home

Completing doctoral studies in Germany and returning home was never a dilemma to us. It seemed the natural thing to do. However, for our colleagues in Ethiopia, Cameroon and other parts of West Africa, there was an understandable hesitation to return home after the doctoral degree. For some, it was the hostile political situation at home, and for others, it was a dominant discourse that made it natural to pursue an academic career in the West. For several others, the superior working conditions in the West are irresistible. In the 90s, countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria faced a haemorrhaging brain drain of their top academic. Recently, countries such as Zimbabwe and Togo have seen hordes of scholars pursue academic careers in countries such as South Africa, Canada, France and the United Kingdom. For countries like Cameroon, their most decorated academics have little motivation to return home even today.

However, the tide is changing, and more and more diaspora-based academics are finding it useful to develop some kind of relationships with local universities. The usefulness of African academics in the diaspora to African universities is obvious for two main reasons. First, many African universities are short of teachers and researchers with doctoral and post-doctoral qualifications and expertise. Most African countries are currently facing a shortage of highly qualified personnel in the fields of natural, applied, medical sciences, technology and engineering, as well as agriculture and health. In Senegal, the largest university in the country is facing shortages in teaching staff due to large numbers of retiring professors, while in Kenya, universities are facing a shortage of professors, largely because of the low numbers of qualified lecturers with doctoral degrees in universities.

Paradoxically, there has been explosive growth in enrollment in institutions of higher learning in Africa. According to the 2017 World Bank report, Sharing higher education’s promise beyond the few in Sub-Saharan Africa, enrollment figures in sub-Saharan African universities rose from 200,000 to 10 million between 1970 and 2013.

While some African doctoral graduates choose not to return home to support higher education efforts, another group of highly skilled African doctoral graduates are beginning to return to African universities. These include experienced scholars, who were already well-established in European and North American universities, returning to Africa to teach in local universities. What is the rationale behind this kind of decision? One might imagine that behind this choice lies a question of ethics or sense of national commitment; the feeling of some African scholars that they have a moral obligation to give back to the continent. In conversations we had with African scholars previously based in the West, we found interesting reasons for scholars choosing to return home. First, a number of African academics based in the West live in what anthropologists call a ‘liminal’, in-between space, where you never actually settle in the host country, and never actually leave your home country, leading to a loss of rootedness and an abiding sense of longing for home. For these returning academics however, homesickness, is not enough to explain the decision to return and it is always accompanied by other reasons.

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At the heart of a desire to return home is a longing for social fulfillment needs, which sit at the apex of the famed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Western-based African academics feel that even if they strived to exceed expectations in their workplaces in North America and Europe, they would not receive the expected recognition or acknowledgment. While jobs in Western universities pay comparatively well, and provide social security, they do not necessarily lead to satisfaction, nor do they translate to a sense of value and respect in comparable ways to local academic experiences. Indeed, while local academics feel a sense of respect both individually and in the wider society, diaspora-based academics scarcely experience societal recognition beyond the confines of their own departments.

Meanwhile, for Africans based in the West, there appears to be a ‘ceiling’, an invisible upper limit that prevents or makes it more difficult for minorities to rise to the highest ranks in Western societies. As a result, returning academics feel they can best grow and achieve their full leadership potential in the continent. Further, in the context of widespread secularism and amoral Western societies, some academics based in the West consider ‘conservative’ Africa a much better place to raise families.

However, for returning African academics, the hardest thing is not to return, but rather to stay. There are reports of ‘unsuccessful’ returns. Low wages are still considered a disincentive to pursuing a career at a university in Africa, but this is not the foremost reason for the failure to reintegrate into the society they left long ago. The determining factor is the difficulty of adapting to the social dynamics. Those who had stayed in the West for long — and sometimes their families as well — find some difficulty in locating themselves socially and even materially meaningful once they return home. There is also the difficulty of doing research in an environment with inadequate infrastructure, which involves the risk of “unlearning” or losing touch with mainstream academic discourse and international networks.

Apart from funding university education and building infrastructures, African governments can attract and retain their returning scholars by supporting research and using merit-based packages of incentives and also the development of a robust academic and learning culture. On their part, African scholars and high-level professionals in the diaspora who plan to return home to teach in universities should, at least for the first few years, avoid getting bogged down in administrative roles that may make it difficult for them to effectively carry out their teaching and research responsibilities. They should also avoid cutting off their connections with research networks and ecosystems in other African and Western universities, even as they seek to immerse themselves into the academic communities at home.

In conclusion, academics returning to Africa have to make necessary sacrifices to reintegrate themselves and adapt to the working conditions in African universities. While this may take some time, it opens up opportunities for such scholars to contribute meaningfully to the development of their home universities and societies.

(A version of this article was published in Kujenga Amani’s APN blog) Dr Alemdjrodo is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Lomé in Togo and Dr Omanga is a lecturer at Moi University, Department of Media and Publishing Studies).

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