Special Issue, Journal Diasporas: "African Students and the Making of a Postcolonial World: Circulation and Transfers (1960-2020)"

Anton Tarradellas, Université de Genève; Romain Landmeters, Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles
Anton Tarradellas

Since Antiquity, African students have travelled to join or create education centres. They first went to Alexandria for its inexhaustible library. Then, during the expansion of Islam, itinerant scholars took their disciples with them or sent them to Koranic schools: students left for Karawiyyin University in Fez or that of Al-Azhar in Cairo, others joined the intellectual centres of Timbuktu, Gao or Kano. At the end of the fifteenth century, from the very first contact with Portuguese navigators, princes of the Kongo Kingdom were sent to Portugal and during the Atlantic slave trade, young slaves were sent to Europe to become teachers, administrators or priests. During colonization, student mobility was further developed, as training in imperial metropolises was often the only option for higher education. Finally, this attraction for studying abroad was reinforced after independence, when large state and private grant programmes that participated in institutionalizing and sustaining African student mobility were created. Today, more than 500,000 Africans study outside their home country, making them the world’s most mobile students.

Analyzing the Impact of Student Mobility

As evidenced by this long tradition of study trips in and from Africa, African student flow is an important phenomenon in the history of the continent. The creation of scientific, cultural or political knowledge and practices in Africa is closely linked to this training mobility. Students themselves have played an often-decisive role in the ever-changing dialogue between Africa and the rest of the world. This was particularly the case during decolonization when they were put at the service of new state building projects. The multiplication of study destinations and of departures made it possible for the students to create lasting contacts between their continent and an ever-increasing number of other regions of the world, thus initiating and developing globalization dynamics.

The importance of the phenomenon of African migration for studies has led to a growing interest in the last twenty years. Three major research trends in this area emerge. The first was interested in African journeys in the (former) colonial metropolises, focusing on the analysis of individual or collective trajectories and student mobilizations in anti-colonialist struggles. A second historiographical trend emerged following the opening of the former Soviet bloc countries’ archives and produced a great deal of research on the training of African elites in the East. Finally, the trajectories of African students have been studied in the context of globalization, usually through a sociological or anthropological approach.

These three approaches struggle to meet. For example, there is little cross-sectional work which echoes the experiences of students from the East and West during the Cold War. In addition, some major destinations remain under studied - the United States and China in particular - as well as mobility between African countries or to other countries within the "Global South". Finally, three important themes deserve to be better known: the impact of student mobility on African contexts (on the building of postcolonial states, the emergence of national elites, the re-composition of local communities, etc.), the historical genealogy of current “globalized” mobility and the profiles and mobility experiences of African women students.

On the basis of these observations, this special issue of Diasporas proposes to open up the history of students trained abroad and to gather contributions that cross the already tested approaches and offer new perspectives. In practical terms, the aim is to study the impact of these African students’ mobility on the evolution of African states and societies and on the development of relations between Africa and the rest of the world since independence. Through the analysis of this mobility, we wish to assess the role played by African students in the emergence of postcolonial Africa and in the processes of globalization. For this purpose, two main lines of research are a proposed to contributors: tracking student circulation and identifying the transfers they have produced.

Tracking Circulation

As a phenomenon that occurs "between nation states, but also above, beyond and below them"1, student mobility is seen primarily as a transnational phenomenon. We will therefore seek to reconstruct the trajectories of students across continental, national or ideological boundaries. To this end, we want to put at the heart of this issue the experience of the students themselves: from the moment their initial project is envisaged to the moment of their return, through their stay abroad. This option also aims to highlight the African students’ agency. While it is true that important contingencies – inherited from the colonial past, linked to the East-West opposition or the offer of scholarships – have greatly contributed to shaping this student mobility, personal, economic or professional considerations have also played a role. Applicants for studies abroad paid attention to the quality of the training offered, the cost of living on site, the possibility of having their diplomas subsequently recognized or career prospects and symbolic capital that a given destination could offer them.

By following student movements, we also want to question their role as mediators between Africa and the rest of the world. Students abroad, placed in an "in-between" position, played the role of connectors and thus forged lasting links between sometimes very distant regions. These connections were made on the basis of individual meetings, but also by the creation of social networks. In this sense, African student communities abroad formed an ephemeral but strongly connected diaspora. It has connected Africans from the same country or region and contributed to strengthening a sense of identity, be it national, ethnic, pan-African, or globalized. It has led to various collaborations with students, professors, etc., which have sometimes resulted in scientific collaborations, the creation of development assistance programmes or even weddings.

Identifying Transfers

Training mobility put people in motion, but also ideas and practices. To identify this transfer process, we will seek to find out how African students abroad were involved in redefining and modulating the way ideas were circulating between their country of origin and place of study. To this end, we want to highlight the reciprocal dimension of training mobility: rather than a mere phenomenon of brain drain or “educational diffusionism”, we analyze it as a complex process that has had an impact both in Africa and in the students' training countries.

Of course, African students took part in the dissemination of the political, scientific and cultural influence of the countries in which they were studying. In this sense, they were at the heart of the balance of power between their country and the former colonial powers that sought to keep one foot in Africa; likewise, they were involved in the attempts of the United States, the USSR, China and international organizations (IMF, World Bank) to establish themselves in Africa. But students have also allowed African states and societies to have some leeway with these foreign interlocutors. In fact, African students were active in the transfer process by taking back the knowledge, practices and values acquired during their training and trying to adapt them to the context of their country. We will seek to know how they have assumed – within their state’s administration, their professional environment, their families – the role of agent of integration of global dynamics put at the service of local practices.

To reflect African student mobility in its diversity, we want to focus on all types of education provided to students (academics, sports, artistic, professional, military) as well as on gender issues. Finally, anthropological, sociological and psychological approaches that shed light on the history of training mobility are also welcome.


Proposals (maximum 500 words, in French or English) with biographical notes must be submitted by January 31 2020, to Anton Tarradellas (anton.tarradellas@unige.ch).

Articles should be sent by 30 September 2020 (double peer-reviewed process). The drafting instructions will be communicated to the selected authors.

Selective Bibliography

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Anton Tarradellas
Email: anton.tarradellas@unige.ch

Special Issue, Journal Diasporas: "African Students and the Making of a Postcolonial World: Circulation and Transfers (1960-2020)", 30.09.2020 Genève/Bruxelles, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 08.11.2019, <www.connections.clio-online.net/event/id/termine-41748>.
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