‘It’s time for Africa’: The Africa Awareness Initiative tells UBC to wake up

UBC has been offering a minor in African Studies since 2006, but few students are even aware of its existence. On February 27, UBC’s Africa Awareness Initiative (AAI) hosted a conference to discuss how to develop the program and why UBC — an institution that claims to create global citizens — has devoted so little attention to engaging with the African continent.

“As a student, sometimes you set an alarm at 6:55 a.m.,” said African Studies Representative John Michael Koffi. “You snooze that alarm, then you find yourself waking up two hours later. You have missed your first lecture. You sleep again, and 30 minutes later you wake up. Then you start your day.

“UBC as an institution has been in that state. It is still in that awakening moment. Hopefully this is 10 a.m. when it finally wakes up and starts functioning.”

Koffi used this analogy to open the conference, speaking to an audience of AAI members, UBC faculty and other interested students in a cramped room in Buchanan tower.

The conference, which could have very easily turned into a space to vent frustrations, was instead a thorough and thoughtful look at the current challenges facing the program and the concrete actions that can be taken to address them.

The challenges presented at the conference, which included a lack of contemporary and interdisciplinary courses, waitlists for introductory level courses, confusion surrounding the requirements of the minor and a general unawareness that it even exists, were identified through a survey headed by African Studies Representative Caroline Lempert.

The study revealed that only six per cent of the students who had heard of the program had done so from UBC. Most students have been exposed to the minor either through the AAI, word of mouth or in their Africa-focused courses.

The research also highlights the fact that there is a demonstrated interest for courses with African content. Classes are full and students are waitlisted. For the past four years, Introduction to African Studies (AFST 250) has seen consistent enrolment of 124 to 135 students, and a third section is being added next year to accommodate demand. Despite this, only six students are currently enrolled in the African Studies Minor.

For Koffi, growing this number is incredibly important.

“UBC’s official website says the purpose of UBC as an institution is pursuing excellence in research, learning and engagement to foster global citizenship. … If we can find a niche specifically for African studies, at least that’s one step to decolonize the institution.”

Lempert agreed. “It actually is reflecting poorly on the university to not invest in the African Studies Program because … it’s such a critical part of our world. To be a global institution and not have a focus on Africa that’s strong and thorough starts to be a statement that the university is making.”

While students want a minor that will help them gain access to future career opportunities, the programs also helps to foster a greater understanding of an integral part of global society.

“There are a lot of stereotypes, a lot of generalizations, a lot of lack of knowing about Africa and Africans,” said Koffi. “You have the most diverse continent in the world in terms of ethnicity, in terms of language, in terms of natural resources ... when you ask someone what comes to your mind when you hear the word Africa, some of the things they come up [with are] war, hunger disease, HIV/AIDS. They are there, but they are not the only ones.”

For Koffi, the minor can help address this. “By coordinating the program with different afro-communities on and off campus we are hoping that students can engage with it and learn something, even if they are not taking the minor program.”

At the conference, students and faculty collaborated to fill out documents stating “what students will do,” “what faculty will do” and “demands to UBC.” Koffi and Lembert plan to analyze this feedback to create a list of manageable demands that they will present to the university, in the form of a petition if necessary.

“Students have been doing a lot to keep this program alive,” stated Lempert, “so what we’re asking for is also having faculty and administration listen to what the students are saying and use their experience and their roles within the university to strengthen the program.”

In regards to the rest of the UBC community, Koffi just wants its attention. “We need more support from the students. ... If it comes to us launching the petition, we need everyone to sign so that the institution leadership can wake up. It’s time for Africa. It’s 10 a.m.”