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RA5a: Structure,environment and staffing policy

The Centre of West African Studies (CWAS) is a multi-disciplinary department with an established international reputation for its research on Africa and the African diaspora. Formerly a separate School, the Centre now has the benefit of belonging to a larger grouping, the School of Historical Studies, which comprises eight departments and offers valuable opportunities for inter-departmental research links.

The Centre brings together an exceptionally wide range of disciplines - history, geography, anthropology (both cultural and development-oriented), language, literature, and politics - and fosters interaction between them at every level. Its standing in research derives from the collaborative as well as individually pursued research of its staff. Individual members of staff, focusing on particular regions of Africa from their own disciplinary standpoints, are in most cases the focus of a research cluster involving research students, research fellows and/or colleagues in Africa, Europe and the UK. At the same time, the Centre promotes interaction between these clusters through several tiers of structured activity ranging from regular interdisciplinary colloquia and seminars to larger research projects. This has allowed the Centre to build up considerable expertise and international renown both for specific area-focused research and for wider interdisciplinary and comparative studies. The diversity of regional and disciplinary perspectives is unified by a common focus on local knowledge and on-the-ground African experience, which informs all our work, and which involves long-term field and archival research in Africa and the diaspora. Prominent foci of such research include:
• local knowledge, gender and environment
• pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial histories of the state and civil society in Africa
• African cultural studies: performance, media and text
• medieval West African epigraphy
• African links with the Caribbean and the Islamic world

A major expansion of the Centre's research horizons was achieved with the recent appointment of a new member of staff (Keith Shear, see below) whose research area is South Africa. The intention in making this appointment was to link the Centre's existing expertise on West Africa to the impressive and fast-expanding body of research on Southern Africa - two fields which have by and large hitherto existed side by side without significant interaction. The Centre's commitment to comparative and collaborative research, already strong, has thus been further expanded and consolidated.

At present there are seven full-time members of the teaching staff and one on 33% time. Affiliated research fellows and retired, but still research active, staff are also encouraged to retain links with the Centre and to contribute to its research ethos through their continued participation in the intellectual life of the department. Three research-active Honorary Senior Research Fellows (in African and Caribbean literature and in environmental studies), and two research-active Honorary Professors (in economics and history) are included in the return. Other Honorary Research Fellows, not returned as research active for the current census period, nonetheless contribute in significant ways to the intellectual life of the Centre. The main areas of departmental research activity are summarised below:-

Under Professor Karin Barber's direction CWAS has established itself as an international centre for Yoruba cultural studies and for the study of African popular culture more widely. Her ethnographic history of a Yoruba popular theatre company, The Generation of Plays (2000), is the culmination of twenty years of research into Yoruba performance genres. She has also co-authored two other books on West African popular theatre. Her edited collection Readings in African Popular Culture (1997) has been influential in African cultural studies in the USA and South Africa as well as in Europe. Three research students are working on media, popular theatre and Yoruba poetry under Barber's supervision, and visiting research fellows have also been attracted to the Centre to work with her on Yoruba topics.
Dr Stewart Brown is a central figure in African and Caribbean literary studies, as well as a creative writer of distinction. He has been pivotal in fostering both publication of, and critical engagement with, creative writing in Africa and its diaspora having authored, edited or co-edited eight volumes of poetry, short stories and critical essays during the census period. He has been a key figure in instigating research, through the identification and acquisition of archival material (see below), and convening international conferences and workshops (see below). His research cluster includes one of CWAS's Honorary Research Fellows, Dr Philip Nanton, with whom he jointly made a successful bid for a Leverhulme Research Grant for a project on the BBC's "Caribbean Voices" archive. Brown's creative writing is a mode of engaging with and analysing African and Caribbean experience in parallel with more conventional scholarly writing; by integrating the subject matter and the analytical procedures in a single genre, he contributes uniquely to CWAS's effort to develop an experience-rich scholarly approach. He currently has nine research students working with him on African and Caribbean literature. Also associated with Brown is Dr Adebayo Williams, an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre who has published extensively on African literature and postcolonial theory.
Dr Lynne Brydon's work focuses on social change, both in rural and urban areas in southern Ghana, and the gendered implications of such change. Her book (with Karen Legge, 1996) on Ghanaian responses to "economic recovery" is a major contribution to debates on grassroots effects of adjustment. Her current work develops long-standing ethnographic interests in social transformation in SE Ghana. Her interest in gender has attracted several PhD students, and she is also co-supervising in the International Development Department. She currently co-ordinates two gender-based British Council Links: with the University of Ghana and with the University of Sierra Leone.
Dr Reginald Cline-Cole's work on local environmental knowledge has been influential in current initiatives to rethink Northern approaches to Southern geography. His recent co-edited book Contesting Forestry in West Africa is a major contribution to these developments. He has undertaken extensive individual and joint research and publication on woodland use and conservation in northern Nigeria and, more widely, West Africa as whole. He is supervising four research students working on NGOs and development. He has been responsible for the active development of a British Council-sponsored research link with Usumanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, and is currently putting in place a second such link with the Geography Department at the University of Sierra Leone. The Sokoto project also involves the collaboration of Dr Ken Swindell, a CWAS Honorary Research Fellow and former member of the department. Swindell is known for his extensive research and publications on population-environment interactions, most recently in northern Nigeria, which have helped to pioneer interdisciplinary approaches to the study of African geography.
Dr Paulo Farias has worked mainly in Francophone African countries. His major research activity in the last six years has been to bring to fruition a long-term field-based project on medieval Muslim epigraphy in Mali, reopening and redefining a field the importance of which is recognised by both Islamic and Africanist scholarship. He has already published significant findings during the review period, and a major volume presenting, contextualising and interpreting a corpus of some 250 hitherto largely unpublished inscriptions has been accepted for publication by the British Academy. He is now focusing on the completion of a collaborative project with Béninois scholars on the oral history of Borgu across the Francophone/Anglophone divide. Two research students working under his direction have recently completed theses on aspects of West African and diasporic history.
Professor Arnold Hughes completed his work as the consulting editor and contributor to the Africa sub-series of The Marcus Garvey Papers (Volumes VIII, IX, and X) a prestigious ten volume series spanning the political career of the renowned Pan-Africanist, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hughes' other major research area is the politics of The Gambia and the Centre is now an internationally recognised location for research on this part of West Africa. He has completed the first volume of what is intended to be a two-volume Political History of The Gambia (with David Perfect) covering the period 1816 to 1965. Two PhD students have completed theses on Gambian topics in the review period. Although Hughes has now moved onto a 33% appointment prior to retirement in September 2001, the attraction of the Centre as a focus of Gambian research has not diminished, and we have a new Gambian research student this year working with other members of the team on aspects of democratisation and development. Swindell has also contributed to the Centre's expertise on the Gambia through his research and publications on the agricultural history of that country, and Brown has edited a special issue of Wasafiri on the literature of The Gambia .
Dr Tom McCaskie is widely recognised as the world's leading authority on Asante history. His 1995 book State and Society in Pre-colonial Asante, an innovative study that reintroduces local cultural perspectives into Asante history, has been hailed as a landmark in African historiography. His new (2000) book Asante Identities: History and Modernity in an African Village, 1850-1950 draws on a unique and neglected ethnographic archive of the colonial era to produce a "micro-historical" investigation of the genealogies of social change in a small Asante community. It has already been recognised as a major and ground-breaking contribution to African social history. McCaskie together with Professor Ivor Wilks, one of the Centre's two Honorary Professors, is the leading figure in a collaborative project on the Prempeh papers which also involves two distinguished Ghanaian historians, Professors A. Adu Boahen and Emmanuel Akyeampong. McCaskie was a founding editor of the journal Ghanaian Studies, and two AHRB-funded research students are working under his direction on aspects of Ghanaian and Togolese history.

Professor Douglas Rimmer, formerly a Director of CWAS, has remained closely associated with the department as an Honorary Professor. His work on Ghana and Nigeria makes a major contribution to the literature on West African economies and places him among the leading international scholars on African economic development. Most recently, The British Intellectual Engagement with Africa in the 20th Century, jointly edited by himself and A. Kirk-Greene, represents a summation of the Africanist scholarship to which he has contributed so much.

Dr Keith Shear, the most recent appointment to CWAS, replacing Hughes, maintains and enhances the department's specialism in African politics. Shear, who was awarded his PhD in December 1998 and joined the department eight months later, is our youngest member. He is already well known in Africanist circles in the USA - where as a doctoral student he won high praise for his contributions to research seminars and conferences - and has attracted four research students to work under his direction on aspects of West and Southern African politics. His appointment represents both an investment in the future and a widening of the department's research horizons: his research field is South African political history, focusing on policing and its implications for the theorisation of the South African state. Shear's arrival will thus not only strengthen and contextualise our existing interest in South African culture (seen in Williams's work on Thomas Mofolo and Barber's on SeSotho oral poetry), but also expand and consolidate the department's commitment to comparative work within and beyond Africa - already represented in Farias's study of Islamic links between West Africa and the Middle East, Brown's exploration of Africa's links with the diaspora, Hughes's work on Marcus Garvey, as well as his editorship of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, and Barber's comparative work on popular culture and oral genres across Africa.

The department's productive research environment is based on its collaborative and interdisciplinary structure. The Centre actively fosters interdisciplinary and comparative work between and beyond the above research clusters through (a) larger research projects, (b) conferences and colloquia, and (c) seminar and events programmes.
(a) Larger research projects:
(i) "The role of the media in the constitution of new religious publics in Yorubaland": co-directed by Barber and Farias jointly with two colleagues at SOAS. This project was successful in a bid for funding from the British Academy, and involved the appointment of three Institutional Research Fellows for a period of three years (1996-9). The field-work phase of the project culminated in March 1999 with a successful international workshop. Collaborative work is now under way on the interpretation and dissemination of findings - which will involve the creation of a multimedia web-based document as well as a book.
(ii) "Social Histories of Reading in Africa": a comparative and interdisciplinary ESRC-funded research seminar, initiated by the CWAS, which brings together scholars from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durban and the Witwatersrand in a two-year programme of workshops and meetings. These have included a larger international conference in July 2000 which attracted additional funding from the British Academy, the Smuts Memorial Fund and other bodies. The programme has stimulated comparative research on hitherto neglected archives of unofficial written materials across sub-Saharan Africa. The participants, led by Barber and McCaskie, are now working on the production of an edited book of texts and essays opening up this new field of inquiry.

(b) Interdisciplinary conferences and colloquia:
(i) CWAS has collaborated with other departments and/or institutions to convene major international interdisciplinary conferences, on subjects ranging from West African forestry relations (Cline-Cole, with the Geography Department, Leicester University, 1996), creative writing in African languages (Barber, with Professor Graham Furniss at SOAS, 1997), Henry Swanzy and the "Caribbean Voices" programme (Brown and Nanton, with the University of the West Indies, Barbados, 1999).
(ii) CWAS has also sustained a long-standing series of small but intensive interdisciplinary colloquia, involving distinguished UK and overseas scholars as well as staff and research students from CWAS. These have given rise to the publication of five volumes of essays in the Birmingham University African Studies Series, which have been widely and favourably reviewed. Recent meetings have included: the Ghana Symposium (1994); Yoruba-English Interfaces colloquium (1995); popular culture workshop (1996); genre workshop (1997); Ghana Day in honour of the 40th anniversary of independence (1997); roundtable on British-Nigerian academic and intellectual exchange (1998); a series of one-day conferences, in collaboration with the Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, on Derek Walcott (1998), Linton Kwesi Johnson (1999) and Martin Carter (2000).

(c) Seminar and events programmes:
(i) Graduate Forum: research students in all fields attend regular half-day meetings in which they present extracts from their on-going work; CWAS staff contribute talks on research methodology, and the meetings culminate in public seminar presentations by invited outside speakers. In addition, CWAS organises occasional seminars in connection with the Ghana and Sokoto link and other distinguished visitors.
(ii) Cultural Events: In association with West Midlands Arts, CWAS has for many years run a fortnightly programme of events featuring African, Caribbean and Black British writers who read and discuss their work.

Mechanisms for facilitating research productivity among teaching staff include provision, on a rotating basis, of a one-semester study leave after every six semesters of teaching. Staff are encouraged to attend national and international academic conferences to present their research findings, and the School supports these activities with awards made from its research and conference grant fund. All CWAS staff have individual PCs, and electronic database searches and conferencing with overseas researchers now take place on a regular basis. The department is fortunate in having a dedicated West Africa Travel Fund of approximately £5,000 a year to support fieldwork locally and overseas, and additional funding is provided by the department to enable staff to attend academic conferences. The department also underwrites the cost of colloquia and in-house publications and makes a contribution to cartographic and photographic costs relating to staff publications. Staff are also expected to apply for, and have been successful in obtaining, external funding for research, conference travel and to support colloquia at Birmingham. In addition, the School makes special provision of teaching relief for new, probationary staff while they undertake the mandatory two-year teaching certificate programme. Priority in the allocation of School conference and research grant funding is given to younger staff.

High quality postgraduate research students form an essential part of the department's research culture. Active recruitment, supported by the the School policy of funding up to three bursaries a year for students at CWAS, strongly backing candidates for other scholarships, and encouraging part-time registration, has enabled us significantly to increase enrolment, from a total of 32 research students in the previous census period to 52 in the current one. We have also succeeded in fostering an increasingly active culture of discussion and debate among research students. They participate fully in the organisation and successful running of the Graduate Forum, in which they present their own work and learn from each others' different disciplinary and regional standpoints. They are also encouraged to hold their own occasional workshops, and a lively staff-student research reading group has recently been inaugurated. It is School and departmental policy to support all research students financially by making available book and conference allowances. They have their own study room in the department, as well as access to the university-wide provision of postgraduate computer clusters which enable them to access campus information sources and the Internet system.

One of our greatest assets, and a stimulant to new research, is our African research fellows and other scholarly visitors, who spend periods ranging from a few weeks to a year at the Centre, updating their library research and writing up materials, often in consultation with CWAS colleagues. These visitors have included Commonwealth, Leverhulme and Alexander von Humboldt award holders as well as recipients of the Centre's own John Cadbury Visiting Fellowship, which permits at least one distinguished African scholar to visit Birmingham annually. Such visitors give and participate in seminars and colloquia and offer guest lectures. They stimulate debate on current issues and in some cases are invited to collaborate in on-going CWAS research projects. Successful symposia have been held around the research interests of those visiting scholars whose work links in with the work of Centre staff: for example, the Ghana symposium in 1994 built upon the work of Professor Kwesi Yankah (Legon University); the Yoruba/English Literature symposium in 1995 upon the work of Professor Niyi Osundare and Professor Bisi Ogunsina (Ibadan and Ilorin Universities); the creative writing in African languages conference built on the presence at CWAS of the distinguished novelist and playwright Oladejo Okediji. Professor Isaac Ogunbiyi (Lagos State University), a Yoruba Arabist of international standing, was able to contribute extensively to the work of the "Yoruba Media and Religious Publics" project during his fellowship in 1998-9, and Dr Bhekizizwe Peterson (University of the Witwatersrand), our Cadbury Fellow in 1999-2000, made important contributions to the Social Histories of Reading research group. The former Vice-President of The Gambia, B.B.Dabo, who also held a Cadbury Fellowship during the review period, was able to collaborate with Hughes in his research on recent Gambian politics. Obare Bagodo, of the National University of Bénin, who visited as a Cadbury Fellow in 1998, worked with Farias on the transcription, translation and editing of oral texts in connection with the Borgu project. In addition, we have had many shorter-term visitors from Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria sponsored by the British Council Link scheme: these have included six scholars from Usumanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, ten from the University of Ghana and three from the University of Sierra Leone. Two of these visitors have gone on to enroll as research students on "split PhD" programmes run jointly by CWAS and the University of Ghana at Legon. Among the Centre's Honorary Research Fellows, Dr Femi Oyebode is a highly regarded published poet who has played a key role in the Cultural Events programme and in two of our interdisciplinary colloquia; Dr Keith Nicklin continues to research on West African art and artefacts, and has contributed to the development of plans to make the Danford Collection more accessible through the creation of a web-based descriptive guide; and Professor John Fage has recently completed a volume of his memoirs, to be published by the Centre

Research is also facilitated and stimulated by our substantial Africanist research resources, to which significant additions have been made during the review period. In addition to the considerable research holdings of individual members of staff, the Centre has an important collection of early West African newspapers on microfilm. It also houses the Danford Collection of African Art and Artefacts, a major collection of over 400 items from a number of West African countries. Both collections are regularly consulted by visiting researchers, as is the holding of over 100 doctoral theses by former research students at the Centre. The University Library, one of the largest in Britain, has a substantial collection of African research material: including the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Papers (transferred to Birmingham because of the strength of its West African collection); the Cadbury Papers, 1890-1960, the Joseph Chamberlain Papers, the Matacong Island [Sierra Leone] Collection, the British Cotton Growers Association Papers (which include documents for northern Nigeria), a collection of Onitsha Market Literature, the Benin field notes of the late CWAS anthropologist, Dr R.E. Bradbury, the papers of J.F.Schon (the German missionary and pioneer of Hausa studies), and, on microfiche, the William Bascom Yorùbá Collection. Two recent new acquisitions are: the Swanzy Papers, a valuable archive of correspondence relating to the 1940s BBC "Caribbean Voices" programme, which is the focus of new research on the history of Caribbean writing; and the research papers and field notes of Dr Margaret Haswell, the leading rural economist of The Gambia, donated because of the Centre's established expertise in this area. These collections are regularly used by British and overseas researchers and have provided important materials for several PhDs at the Centre.


Users of this website should note that the information is not intended to be a complete record of all research centres in the UK

Copyright 2002 - HEFCE, SHEFC, ELWa, DEL

Last updated 17 October 2003

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