Is it Ethical to Study Somalia? Reflections of Diasporic-Continental Asymmetries of Power

Studying and researching Africa as a member of the diaspora is fraught with its own ethical challenges.

I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’ This is not just a grab-bag candy game. 

                                                                                                           —Toni Morrison  

During my masters in African Studies at the University of Oxford in 2018, the first text I read was Professor Amina Mamas Is It Ethical to Study Africa? Preliminary Thoughts on Scholarship and Freedom which explores identity, location, and the ethical challenges of being an African scholar studying Africa, with all the allegiances and tensions of working in ones own backyard.  In this seminal piece, Professor Mama affirms that Africas radical intellectuals have effectively pursued anti-imperialist ethics and cultivated regional and national communities of scholars working for freedom. However, she argues that the liberatory promise of the anti-colonial nationalist eras has not been fulfilled. In order to do so, she suggests that scholars address the intellectual challenges of Africas complicated and contradictory location in the world and ensure that our unique viewpoints inform methodological and pedagogical strategies that pursue freedom. If ethical considerations are indeed framed around identity, epistemology and methodology, as Professor Mama asserts, I frequently wondered what responsibility my diasporic identity placed on me as I endeavoured a decolonial liberatory approach to my study of Africa. This question stayed with me whilst researching and writing my dissertation, The Politics of Famine Relief: Diaspora & Local Humanitarian Work in Somalia, and my questions have evolved into reflections every year, since graduating.   


Reflections on diasporic and continental asymmetries of power are an intra-community discourse. For me, it is also the attempts to epistemologically reconnect the corporeal and spatial gap caused by being one generation removed from the continent. I approach research as one tool of many to seek to ‘know’ Somalia and further transformative justice, and yet intention does not alone mitigate the challenges of studying Somalia from a distance. When Professor Mama asked ‘What does having an African identity demand of our scholarly ethics?’, I reckoned with a diasporic African identity and being educated in the imperial core. There is legitimacy in my choice to study Somalia, but also a deep responsibility. 

My reflections, surprisingly, did not contain the conflict of ‘being neither from here nor there’. The diasporic experience of feeling ‘out of place’ is one which many writers have explored, thoroughly and eloquently, but truthfully it is an experience I have largely come to peace with, with multiplicities I enjoy. Yet, unpacking identity is an essential component of acting ethically and morally. Identity requires us to render with positionality, privilege and power. A complete rejection of considering identity or lived experience, in fear of advocating for ‘identity politics’, often leads to epistemic violence—people speaking on behalf of others, taking space, and silencing or tokenizing people already rendered marginal. 

This has not yet permeated the most stark inequalities in African Studies, namely the continued dominance of white scholars claiming ‘expert’ knowledge of Africa. Followers of Somali studies may remember the Cadaan Studies hashtag and the essential piece Can the Somali Speak? Despite this open and well-known disparity, many white academics continue to simply pick a country in Africa. This country becomes their niche and career, and it is a cause and consequence of the marginalization of Black scholars. These ‘experts’ often make reference to the ‘variation’ of their departments when they finally do get a Black (male) colleague and may vocalise doubts about the ability of African scholars to conduct ‘objective’ research.


Objectivity as ethics is itself a white fallacy. Objectivity is a performance of respectability politics and the preservation of the intimate connection between academic pseudo-science and European imperialism and colonialism. A lot of ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ historical research on Africa, despite being debunked, still has social, economic and political consequences for Africa and the African diaspora. For example, the origins of the Rwanda genocide can be traced to racializations which were imposed by Belgian colonial rule.

Racialized people are rarely considered objective. In this sense, objectivity for racialized people is still measured in degrees of proximity and distance. The diaspora, distanced from the continent is considered more objective and thus more respected and more privileged than scholars on the continent. During and after conducting my research, I spoke to many people who highlighted the benefits that a Western education, fluency in English and a British passport, would give someone working in the international humanitarian sector in Somalia. But I could think only of the students in Somalia who speak fluent Somali, and how the last mile of humanitarian aid in the most unsafe areas is delivered by them. The politics of knowledge production still refuses to recognise lived experience as expert knowledge. 

When Professor Mama wrote of the intellectual challenges of the independence era, she wrote of continental African intellectuals and the new age of anti-colonial and pan-Africanist academic research and approach on the continent. As a member of the diaspora, doing a master’s in African Studies at a university in the UK, I questioned the extent to which I could ‘know’ Somalia from this position. In writing my thesis, which examined diaspora-local transnational humanitarian work and collective action, I bridged the gap in my knowledge by conducting remote semi-structured interviews across Africa and Europe. It was a solution which suited my research and solved practical problems such as university security clearance for fieldwork in Somalia and funding. While I gained a lot through this method, alongside my institutional education, I may have lost a lot too. By studying Africa from Europe, had I learnt more about how Europeans study Africa, than about Africa itself? This is still an education but just not the one I intended. 


I have witnessed many African academics from the diaspora relocate to their country of origin after graduating, out of an earnest intention to transfer their privilege and knowledge to positive change. Many enter into institutions and receive pushback on any plans or recommendations that could establish material change but would first require structural change. They are churned out, disillusioned but resolved in their conviction that they can be helpful through solidarity, not charity. Nonetheless, I have also spoken to many in the diaspora who view Africa as a vast space, a vehicle for individual and neoliberal social mobility, an untapped market to profit from, to start businesses, become multi-property landlords, join international NGOs or even governments.  

With reference to the machinery of free-market capitalism and post-Cold War militarism, Professor Mama highlights how Africa has borne the discontent of globalization. I would argue that the diaspora is also a manifestation of globalization. Our role, however, is neither inherently harmful nor inherently ethical. Many of us are well-meaning, wanting to use our relative privilege to create meaningful positive change. Many also attempt to use Africa extractively, using it as a resource, in a manner similar to European colonialism in Africa, to bolster themselves privately, cautiously avoiding any ‘threats’ to their careers such as taking political action against neo-colonialism. 

Studying and researching Somalia has required me to deeply reflect on what we do with knowledge and intention. To research ethically is to constantly question. It is to beat against an endless torrent of epistemic injustice with the intrinsic will to ‘do no harm’. It is not only to be aware of power imbalances but to actively counteract them. It is to consciously deploy a decolonial approach; to stand with oppressed people against systems and people that oppress them. It is, as Professor Mama asserts, to ‘question and challenge global hegemonies’, rather than to aspire to be a part of them. 

On the last day of my studies, I contemplated Fanon’s final prayer in The Wretched of the Earth. He wrote: 

Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe. 

I often feel like we are still stuck at the crossroads which compelled Fanon to write these words

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