Decolonizing Digital Humanities
Africa in Perspective
Babalola Titilola Aiyegbusi
Historically, digital humanities has flourished more in developed countries. Scholars who have a grasp of its dynamic multifaceted scope have mostly one thing in common: the Western world. This notion is supported by a list of DH centers provided by CenterNet, an international network of digital humanities centers, which accounts for about 190 centers spread across the world; most of these are located in developed parts of the world, that is, North America, Australia, and Europe; a few are in Asia and South America with just two in Africa (CenterNet). The clustering of DH centers in these developed parts of the world explains why DH activities are more prominent in these locations; it also reinforces the notion that DH is a West-driven phenomenon. Such labeling challenges digital humanities’ reputation as an all-encompassing interdisciplinary practice. As a result, scholars in developing African countries tend to view DH as a Western phenomenon practicable in technologically advanced locations, and this notion presents the problem of inclusion and comprehension. Perhaps the problem is not with digital humanities as a new field, but with the development of humanities as an academic arena in African countries. While the scope of the humanities in North America continues to extend beyond its traditional confines, enhanced by an educational system characterized by decentralization and diversity, humanities in Africa remains quite conservative as a result of a system that is built on enforcing standardized curricula (Etim). As such, DH practice is recognized within such a conservative system as a tool, and not as a discipline. In this chapter, I focus on the issues surrounding our understanding of the digital culture and the regional academic structure and customs in Africa with Nigeria as a focal point, and how these affect not only the development of digital humanities as a field in Africa but also the way digital humanities is perceived.
Writing about digital humanities in Africa often poses an arduous task. It becomes relatively harder when compared with giving talks and presentations about the same topics, simply because scholarly writing often requires a grounding of one’s ideas in prevailing discussions. The thrill of adding the African voice to debates, thereby bringing new perspective to discussions, quickly dissipates as soon as one tries to tackle the haunting questions: Who is my reference? Who else out there is talking about digital humanities in Africa? It will be wrong to assume no one else is, as I have read and listened to quite a number of interesting pieces and talks on digital humanities from African scholars like Justus Roux (South Africa), James Yeku (Nigeria), Babatunde Opeibi (Nigeria), Laila Shereen Sakr (Egypt), and Omolara Owoeye (Nigeria). However, Africans who participate in the DH discourse are few in number, and our voices are sparsely scattered across the digital humanities space. Therefore, most of my ideas are founded mainly on my understanding of African customs and practices as a native African, my experience as a Nigerian researcher, and recent discussions with Nigerian academics in diverse fields and institutions.
Conversations about activities in Africa are crucial to the DH discourse for at least two reasons. First, as an interdisciplinary field that is focused on the enhancement of humanistic research and teaching through both methodological modeling of humanistic datasets and intellectual reasoning that improves human communication and understanding, geographical underrepresentation has had severe negative implication on the field’s impact. Discussions within the field appear lopsided because DH projects, including those about Africa, are mostly initiated and/or executed in Europe and North America. Some examples of these include Africa Past & Present (Michigan State University), Slave Biographies (Michigan State University), AfricaBib by David Bullwinkle (University of Arkansas), The Yoruba Architectural Reconstruction by Steven Nelson (UCLA), Accra Mobile by Jennifer Hart (Wayne State University), and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (Emory University). Although many of these projects are affiliated with local universities—for instance, Accra Mobile is linked with Ashesi University Ghana—the absence of Africa-based DH centers affiliated with them tends to create a disconnect between the project and the targeted audience and users, and may reduce accessibility and incorporation into academic research circles. Second, Africa has witnessed a significant loss of cultural heritage, literature, and language due to modernization and poor documentation. Local languages and dialects appear to be the most affected by this problem. As at 2016, Ethnologue identified over 530 languages in Nigeria, twenty-two of which were categorized as nearly extinct, and eight as extinct (Lewis, Simons, and Fennig). The extinction of languages and other cultural traditions can be delayed or halted when archiving projects are targeted at solving these issues.
Although efforts have been made recently at achieving a global representation in the digital humanities discourse, it seems there is still a lot of ground to cover. Some special interest groups and individuals have made this their objective; they focus on finding ways to enhance global representation in digital humanities by connecting worlds. GO::DH (Global Outlook::Digital Humanities), for instance, is a special interest group that is, as stated on its website, interested on breaking down “barriers that hinder communication and collaboration among researchers and students of the Digital Arts, Humanities, and Cultural Heritage sectors in high, mid, and low income economies” (Global Outlook::Digital Humanities). In 2013, the group had an essay competition that looked at aspects of digital humanities practice across the globe. Essays included an array of topics from different countries and were in several languages. The competition reflected the diversity in scope, voices, and experiences of digital humanists across the globe, giving insights to peculiar issues associated with specific localities. Another is the Digital Media and Learning Competitions organized by the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC); this is aimed at finding and inspiring the most innovative uses of new media in support of learning. The competition has advanced the frontiers of DH by awarding $13 million in five years to over one hundred projects that explore how technologies are changing the way people learn and participate in daily life (HASTAC).
Apart from these groups, digital humanities conferences in recent times invite participants from different parts of the world (at the 2015 Canadian Society for Digital Humanities conference held in Ottawa, I was thrilled to meet with Yasmine Portales Machado, who had traveled from Cuba to present papers at the conference). Also, there has been a wave of people talking about DH practice and development in their parts of the world: Isabel Galina writes about Mexico and the geopolitical and linguistic diversity in digital humanities, Yasmine Portales Machado talks about digital humanities practice in Cuba and the challenges facing LGBT groups in a digitally censored Cuban community, James Yeku calls for the mobilization of a digital humanities drive in Nigeria, Lara Owoeye talks about DH in Nigeria and the function of big data in Nigerian humanistic research, and Sneha P.P. contextualizes DH in India, just to mention a few. Their contributions reveal the extent to which regional idiosyncrasies impact the spread of DH, and the importance of approaching global representation bearing these particular traits in mind.
As such, having knowledge of the customs, the digital culture, and the regional academic structure of Africa is pertinent to understanding the development of digital humanities as a field in Africa. In addition, DHers need to know the elements and issues within the DH community that make the discipline resistant to global integration. I consider these issues as belonging to two categories: internal and external factors. With their combined strength, they hinder not just the spread and development of digital humanities as a field in Africa but also its recognition as a universal mode of acquiring and enhancing knowledge. While the external factors are closely linked to the economic state of developing African countries, the internal represent the forces within the digital humanities community that restrict its spread to other parts of the world.
The external factors are entrenched within the economic, political, social, and cultural systems of a country, dictating its involvement in, or receptiveness to, certain fields or areas of research. They impede the kind of research carried out in the digital humanities field, thus contributing to the low level or absence of activities; unfortunately, these cannot be directly affected or changed by the globalization of DH. Poverty is the most dominant of these factors because it births and cradles other issues, notably among which are network connectivity and power supply. Access to internet connection in Africa often comes at a prohibitive cost that may be unaffordable for the average income earner. Despite the high cost of internet access, users often experience slow, poor, or no connectivity. It is common to find that only a few universities in a country like Nigeria have functional Wi-Fi spots that are open to the public. The situation is the same in most public places, such as fast-food restaurants, hospitals, and hotels. Since Wi-Fi installed by corporate institutions or individuals is protected and inaccessible to the public, invariably, a large portion of internet users get access by purchasing airtime vouchers which are used at cybercafés or through digital devices such as mobile phones and laptops. These vouchers, despite being split into various affordable amounts, are expensive when considering the fact that as of 2010, the relative poverty level in Nigeria was 69 percent (National Bureau of Statistics). Also, lack of stable power supply unequivocally affects digital humanities research in Africa. However, the effect this has on DH research varies, depending on the aspect of digital humanities research a scholar explores. While “yacking”—a discourse-based aspect of digital humanities—may not particularly require a stable source of electricity, “hacking,” on the other hand, which is more of the practice and/or technical part of DH, needs an unfluctuating source of power supply.
Regrettably, many African countries do not have an efficient electric power system. For instance, Nigeria’s supply of power from the national grid is lower than its demand, and this has the effect of crippling most facilities that are dependent on electricity. In 2012, the Energy Commission of Nigeria made reference to an interview published by Vanguard Newspaper in January 2009 in which the chairman of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) Abia Branch, Dr. Frank Jacobs, disclosed that about 60 million Nigerians depend on power-generating sets for their electricity, and spend quite a bit to maintain these engines annually (Energy Commission of Nigeria). This is because the average Nigerian uses a generator as a supplementary power supply source, since electricity from the national grid is unreliable, and occasionally several parts of the country are thrown into protracted periods of partial or complete power outage. A more generic issue, which encompasses but is not limited to internet and power accessibility, is the low accessibility of infrastructure. Despite acquiring skills that are useful in digital humanities and having access to internet and computers for research purposes, digital humanities labs or the integration of digital tools into the educational system is very low in Nigeria. Many researchers in the country still rely on conventional methods of inquiry, because most of the technological tools that are required to reshape the traditional methods of teaching are not readily available. My personal experience during four years at university while completing an undergraduate degree in Nigeria has been that classrooms in most universities, with the exception of private schools, are rarely equipped with digital appliances such as computers and projectors. The same expense and lack of infrastructure that make it difficult to access the internet in countries like Nigeria prevent affordable access to standard digital humanities tools, resources, and methodologies. An example of this is the attitude toward crowdsourcing and data curation in Nigeria. Given the level of poverty in the country, one can understand why Nigerians are generally nonresponsive to online surveys that are not financially beneficial. The stipend attached to outsourcing tasks (if a stipend is attached at all) is not a good enough incentive when compared with the cost incurred on internet usage. For example, a student who pays about the equivalent of a dollar to purchase thirty minutes of airtime at a cybercafé will be reluctant to participate in an online crowdsourcing activity that pays nothing or a nominal sum per page. Unless such activities can be attached to grades or some other incentives, they are simply too expensive in time and money to allow the spread or adoption of DH into the Nigerian academia. The fact that Nigeria could in principle benefit from such an approach if it could be made economical makes the situation all the more tragic. As a developing country with a rich but threatened cultural heritage, most of which is orally transmitted, Nigeria would be ideally suited to the use of crowdsourcing as a means of cultural reserve and preservation if only ways could be found around the prohibitive economic constraints that prevent its update.
These problems result from a failing economy, and they buttress Daniel O’Donnell’s hypothesis that rich countries participate more in digital humanities activities than their poor counterparts (“In a Rich Man’s World”). This hypothesis is quite true considering the dire economic situation of most African countries. Many African countries are on the list of poorest countries in the world, and out of the fifty-four countries on the continent, only eleven have a GDP per capita above $10,000, according to the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook (“List of African Countries”). There is a distinct possibility that the economic condition of most African countries may affect the priority given to, and the type of research carried out in, the digital humanities field.
The internal factors, on the other hand, are dynamics within the digital humanities field that alienate researchers resident in non-West countries. These are also grouped into two categories: scope of definition and the issue of inclusion, and differences in regional educational structure and research ideology. Discussion about the internal factors hinges on these questions: how is digital humanities perceived in Africa, and to what extent do sociocultural and economic realities affect these perceptions? What role does the Western digital humanities community play in fostering this perception? Do the fluid definition, scope, and academic boundaries of digital humanities affect its development in Africa? And what is the way forward? These questions might not have direct answers, but attempting to provide responses to them will give insights into customs and norms within the African research system that are essential to achieving a global perspective of digital humanities.
The much-debated issue about the definition of digital humanities is a primary factor affecting its spread in Africa. Though there are several essays about what digital humanities is, and despite that most of these attempts to capture the main essence of what the field stands for, it seems they do not fully satisfy people’s curiosity. Even with Matthew Kirschenbaum’s assertion that essays on what digital humanities is (are) are already genre pieces (“What Is Digital Humanities”), this has not stopped people from asking, “What exactly is digital humanities, and what do digital humanists do?” One of the attempts to define digital humanities is a white paper published by UCLA, which states:
Digital Humanities is an umbrella term for a wide array of practices for creating, applying, and interpreting new digital and information technologies. These practices are not limited to conventional humanities departments, but affect every humanistic field at the university, including history, anthropology, arts and architecture, information studies, film and media studies, archaeology, geography, and the social sciences. At the same time, Digital Humanities is a natural outgrowth and expansion of the traditional scope of the Humanities, not a replacement or rejection of humanistic inquiry. In fact, the role of the humanist is critical at this historic moment, as our cultural legacy migrates to digital formats and our relation to knowledge, cultural material, technology, and society is radically re-conceptualized. (Presner and Johnson, 3)
Some, like John Unsworth define digital humanities (computing) as “a practice of representation, a form of modeling or . . . a way of reasoning and a set of ontological commitments, and its representational practice is shaped by the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other” (“What Is Humanities Computing,” 36). Others, like Rafael Alvarado, claim that there is no definition for digital humanities, because if by definition we refer to a set of established theories and research methods that are field specific, then DH “denotes no set of widely shared computational methods that contributes to the work of interpretation, no agreed upon norms or received genres for digital publication, no broad consensus on whether digital work, however defined, counts as genuine academic work” (“Digital Humanities Situation,” 50).
Given these two divergent views, perhaps the issue of defining the digital humanities has more to do with the fact that, despite existing for over six decades, the field is still emerging in the academic arena. As such, it consists of people with shared interests in ways to adapt computational modeling and analogy to texts, monuments, and any other aspect of humanistic research in order to improve quality of research and communication in the humanities field. As a result, the representation of digital humanities tends to align with these interests rather that the other way around: the field defining the interests.
Situating this within the context of enhancing the knowledge about digital humanities in Africa poses a significant challenge. When those who are expected to teach and/or practice DH grapple with its scope and specifics of description, the chances of embracing it as a field, not to mention bringing it into the classrooms, then become very slim. I had a firsthand experience of this challenge when I partnered with Lara Owoeye, who lectures at the Ekiti State University Ado Ekiti, Nigeria, in putting together a panel on big data in Africa for the Around the World Conference in May 2015. According to Lara, convincing people to be a part of the panel was difficult because first, they were hearing about the digital humanities for the first time, and second, there was insufficient or confusing information on the internet about the field and its practices due to self-definition. Scenarios like this are not exclusive to Nigerian tertiary institutions. Muriel S. had commented on Kirschenbaum’s statement about essays on the definition of digital humanities as genre pieces, saying that there are institutional settings where “digital humanities is not even a part of any conversation” (Muriel). While one can argue that having a unanimous definition is necessary for inclusivity in the digital humanities community, its absence could also be an opportunity for African scholars to impact the idea of what the field is by influencing the dynamics of DH research. To achieve this, one needs to understand what is and what is not digital humanities. Jeffery Schnapp attempts to explain this in his article “A Short Guide to Digital-Humanities,” establishing that
the mere use of digital tools for the purpose of humanistic research and communication does not qualify as Digital Humanities. Nor, as already noted, is Digital Humanities to be understood as the study of digital artifacts, new media, or contemporary culture in place of physical artifacts, old media, or historical culture.
On the contrary, Digital Humanities understands its object of study as the entire human record, from prehistory to the present. This is why fields such as classics and archaeology have played just as important a role in the development of Digital Humanities as has, for example, media studies. This is also why some of the major sectors of Digital Humanities research extend outside the traditional core of the humanities to embrace quantitative methods from the social and natural sciences as well as techniques and modes of thinking from the arts. (2)
Going by Schnapp’s explanation, DH has every reason to thrive in Africa, given the enormous untapped cultural material and landscapes existing on the continent. However, the fact that DH cannot be pinned down to specific guidelines and principles continues to create a sense of exclusion among African scholars. This is fueled by DH’s relationships with Western institutions and research funds. While it may seem disastrous if definitional work were to reach a conclusion before global participation is achieved, for some of the intellectual communities beyond the West, the definitional ambiguity promotes apathy.
Also, the reluctance to embrace digital humanities in African countries like Nigeria is intensified by the fact that the scope of activities reported in the community is geographically askew; information on DH activities in Africa and other developing countries is sparse. This is because DH research in Africa is more like what Jutta Treviranus, in her article “The Value of the Statistically Insignificant,” calls outliers. There is a high tendency that statistical facts that contribute to the evolving picture of DH presence may exclude some crucial activities in technologically disadvantaged regions, not because they are statistically insignificant but as a result of access to publicity tools and awareness. Thus, inclusivity of Africans in DH spheres is not only about having discussions; it involves becoming a part of the statistics. Recent conversations may have yielded good outcomes, like the annual African DH conferences hosted at the North-West University, South Africa, by Digital Humanities Association of South Africa (DHASA), but an exhibition of DH projects, executed and managed in Africa, will open up the minds of African scholars to the new methods of research provided through the field. Given that, as Treviranus says, “established research methods have always privileged the norm or majority” (“Value of the Statistically Insignificant”), the available statistics on DH activities tend to reflect more participation in the developed countries. Activities in Africa may be more than what is shown by these reports, but because African DH projects fall below the bell curve of DH statistical analysis, they are unintentionally omitted from research data. Examples of such projects are the UNESCO Digi-Arts project, an online initiative that “aims to contribute to the development of a program of digital arts that reflects the specificity of artistic practices of the African continent” with team offices in Nairobi, Dakar, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa and The Cartographic Database: “New Maps of Old Lagos” project by Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi, centered on analyzing and georeferencing the maps of old Lagos by exploring the city’s coastlines while using spatial analysis as a framework to narrate the historical events that connect the new look of the city to the landscape that lies beneath it (Adelusi-Adeluyi). When studies and projects on African humanities are properly researched and documented, they contribute to big data, and a proper account of the cultural heritage in such parts of the world may eliminate some of the challenges researchers face when dealing with source. They may also help African scholars to understand the theory and practice of digital humanities.
Difference in Regional Academic Structures and Research Ideology
In his article “Digital Humanities from a Global Perspective,” Domenico Fiormonte notes that having a contextual understanding of the ways and means of doing things within any given location is key to achieving a global perspective of DH because “methods that have worked effectively in one cultural setting may fail spectacularly in another (and vice versa) and certain reasoning of how things should work does not apply similarly to other frameworks.” Therefore, having a good knowledge of how local structures and models operate in African postsecondary institutions is necessary for the global integration of DH. Identifying some of the differences between the academic structures of North American and African universities is as simple as taking a glance at a cross section of students seated in a class: an American university class is typically made up of students from diverse fields with no particular combination of majors and minors, while students in an African university are from a range of specific fields, usually from one of two related faculties (e.g., arts and social sciences, or sciences and engineering) with common sets of majors and minors. Because digital humanities is more prominent in North America and has strong affiliations with the North American institutional and funding structures, it seems to have been naturally infused with the perspectives of the American educational system, adopting collaborative research as a core feature of its model.
While collaborative research is an inherent feature of DH scholarship given the extent of diversity in the field, in the American educational system it gradually evolved and gained prominence in the 1980s, when industrial corporations saw academic research as a way to enhance their work. Private industries started to invest in academic studies by providing funds that enabled and advanced research in diverse areas of interest. Some of these funds were packaged and aligned in ways that gave rise to situations in which “organized units were built in numerous areas that demanded collaboration across disciplinary lines” (Cohen, 415–19). This relationship between the private industry and the educational system reshaped the American higher education system, giving birth to a complex but highly successful contemporary structure with its diversity of forms (439–40).
Unlike the education system in many other parts of the world, the American educational system is decentralized, with control mainly at the state levels (Meyer and Rowan, 97). The marginal interference at the federal level allows the system to build a model that caters to local needs by creating variants of the curricula, which differ from school to school and student to student. The decentralization of the educational system has led to a research and development–focused approach to knowledge acquisition (Etim, 89).
The educational structure adopted by most African countries, on the other hand, is quite centralized. For instance, the Nigerian educational system, like that of other Anglophonic African countries, is modeled after the British standards, and it is controlled mainly by the Federal Ministry of Education, which regulates the education sector through parastatals assigned with the responsibilities of engaging in policy formation and ensuring quality control at the various levels of education (Etim, 88). While this system guarantees a uniform teaching and learning level across board, it does not consider specific needs of students along geographical, cultural, or demographic lines. While the American education model is quite flexible, allowing students to switch their major or minor multiple times if they so choose (with the exception of health sciences and engineering faculties), the African education model is relatively rigid, segregated, and compartmentalized; students are admitted to study specific courses, and they are allowed to take minor courses in selected fields other than their major.
The diversity of research interests and associations in the American educational system aligns with the DH ideology to reinvigorate humanities scholarship through collaborative research. However, collaboration in DH often emphasizes a unilateral relationship between academics and the technical group. It is usually viewed in terms of “difference” because it involves the convergence of researchers with a variety of expertise. It supports the idea that since no one has all the necessary skill sets to successfully execute a project, a partnership between academics and technicians has to be formed (Bradley). The rhetoric of collaboration in DH has then been about difference and complementation, but could collaboration be also about “likeness”? There are collaborations among digital humanists that are transdisciplinary coauthorships, which require no technical expertise; it is simply about scholars interested in similar areas of research bouncing ideas off each other. Such collaborations are born out of likeness and accumulation of ideas, and are geared toward achieving positive good.
Collaboration, whether of difference or likeness, is not a common occurrence in the African model of research because it exists within a system that has little interdisciplinary collaboration. The humanities researcher in the African educational system still fits into Sue Stone’s description as a traditional scholar who works alone, relying mainly on books, original documents rather than facsimiles (Stone, 300). Based on personal experience, when humanities scholars in Nigeria collaborate, it is usually with colleagues within the same field. However, this closed-off model is fast changing; several individuals and groups now strive to make scholarship in Nigeria a collective enterprise. An example is the Transcampus Interdisciplinary Research and Study Group. Composed of individuals who believe in creating a collaborative academic society by encouraging joint authorship, the group strives to eradicate the “tradition in which academics pursue their mission with insufficient attention to interdisciplinary interaction” (Transcampus Interdisciplinary Research and Study Group). Individuals like Grace Akpochafo also believe that the integration of research ideas from diverse academic fields in Nigeria can provide a comprehensive and valid understanding of some of the major problems plaguing the country (“Interdisciplinary Research”).
Essentially, understanding the difference between the academic structures in Africa and North America, and knowing the place of interdisciplinary research within both systems, is crucial to bridging the regional divide in digital humanities. At the moment, the way digital humanities is structured makes it less inclusive of African scholars because it adopts the American education model which encourages a much more interactive and integrative academic community where collaboration is encouraged.
In order to successfully become a global phenomenon, digital humanists need to start looking at the world through the lenses of other worlds. First, DHers need to be aware of the economic and social milieu of other countries, and second, they need to be sensitive to the differences in orientation and culture while finding ways to include diverse voices in the global discourse. While pinning down the definition of DH, as it appears, may not be feasible, there should be ways to circumvent this dilemma so that members of non-Western countries do not feel alienated. For example, activities that engage local scholars in the development and management of African-themed projects and access to local centers will help African researchers to create their own illustration of digital humanities through hands-on learning. Also, digital humanists in the West can follow Alex Gil’s advice on the best way to achieve a global perspective of DH, which he says is to “start collaborating with someone who lives very far away from you” (“Global Perspectives”). Inviting African scholars to collaborate on similar topics of interest will promote the acceptance, integration, and popularity necessary for a DH global enhancement. Other collaborative moves such as creating awareness by forming focus groups, aligning incentives to encourage collaboration among scholars, and co-organizing conferences in Africa can also help to build an inclusive global digital humanities. But it all must begin with debunking the notion that digital humanities belongs only to the West.
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