About a month ago, “Re-Imagining Somali Studies: Colonial Pasts, Postcolonial Futures,” a paradigm-shifting Somali Studies workshop, took place at Harvard University. Its catalyst, #CadaanStudies, began a little more than a year ago with Safia Aidid’s call to action about erasure and the nature of epistemic violence on Somalis through an academic discipline known as Somali Studies, of which most Somalis had no knowledge of despite its real political and practical consequences on their lives. Scholars working in Somali studies often inform policy decisions and have for too long had a monopoly in a field where few Somalis are able to “talk back” and correct misrepresentations that have deadly consequences. When they have done so, their work was dismissed as bias, unobjective, and lesser than the knowledge produced within colonial and securitized frames. The #CadaanStudies critique, too, was dismissed for not being “academic” enough, for being on social media and allowing people who, shockingly, did not have Ph.Ds to discuss their own encounters with Somali Studies. This is certainly not an adequate response, and that the recent workshop brought together only some of the many young Somali graduate students working on questions relating to Somali Studies is further proof that we exist, despite every attempt to render us invisible.
The title of the workshop, “Re-Imagining Somali Studies,” suggests an urgent need for new paradigms and epistemologies in Somali Studies. Its location, outside the Somali Studies International Association, which had a recent hostile encounter with #CadaanStudies, proves that existing models can be replaced if they’re unwilling to sufficiently engage with critique. The two-day workshop began with a keynote lecture, delivered by Ali Jimale. On the second day, there were four panels covering orality, sexuality, gender, identity, sovereignty, and the state and a closing roundtable with senior scholars reflecting on the trajectory and history of Somali Studies. The workshop was open to the public and livestreamed, with many Somalis and other interested people joining the workshop in person or following online.
It’s hard to capture in words the energy and excitement in the room during the keynote speech and the panels (sidenote: you can still watch videos of the panels here). Being in a space surrounded by brilliant and critical young Somalis, most of whom were women, who are interested and engaged with historical, cultural, and social questions that relate to all aspects of Somali life is unparalleled. It is a feeling that will likely be hard to replicate, especially for those of us away from metropolitan areas with many Somalis. It was rewarding to think through these questions together, have small discussions between breaks and at dinner, but also to know that these people are your peers. Even though all of us—and many more of us who aren’t in academia (yet?) or weren’t in that space—may not all constantly be in the same room at all times, it’s reassuring to know we exist, despite what some may say about Somalis’ capacity to produce knowledge.
One of the many critiques that #CadaanStudies had of the existing Somali Studies infrastructure was that Somalis remained an object of study, to be examined by non-Somalis, without much change in that formula since the colonial period. Sure, there were some Somalis who were able to enter the field but these remained few and far between. Not only that, but the logic of existing system dictates that any work produced by a Somali has been tainted by some form of bias, whether clan, gender, or locale (diasporic, regional, etc.), whereas any work produced by a non-Somali, and especially a white scholar, is inherently objective, or more objective than anything that could be produced by a Somali. At the workshop, one of the final questions asked of Ali Jimale Ahmed, the keynote speaker, was how should young Somali scholars respond to this constant undermining of their scholarship. His response to this was that we should ignore this and strive for finding the the ultimate truth, despite the naysayers.
This is instinctively frightening and disappointing to hear. This is because many of us, at the deepest levels, want to believe that there should be an even playing field from which our work is judged. In reality, the university, and Somali Studies, was not created for us. The tenure system does not exist to validate our scholarship. It is this that makes me appreciate Robin G. Kelley’s call for us to be in the university and not of the university. Still, this is not comforting to hear for those of us with student debt, family expectations, and other responsibilities that rely on us being “of the university”. How do we reconcile these contradictions?
To end, the last issue I hope we can think about is on the the limits of knowledge production in the academy. For example, the “Re-Imagining Somali Studies” workshop was as accessible as possible—through livestreaming, livetweeting, and youtube—but it still had the trappings of a workshop in a university space—the language, the ways of speaking, and the literature being referred to were still largely inaccessible to the average person. This thus begs the question, when we re-imagine Somali Studies, is it just the methods and narratives that we should re-imagine or should we also re-orient the study of Somali life in a way that holds Somalis as the intended recipients of knowledge? And, is this possible in the academy?