End of Year Message from the Faculty Director

May 27, 2021

As the academic year draws to a close, so too does my time as Interim Oppenheimer Faculty Director of the Harvard Center for African Studies. Despite the challenges we have all faced through the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been an honor to serve in this capacity, and I remain as positive and enthusiastic as ever about African Studies at Harvard. While the university may have been remote, CAS remained fully operational to our commitment that Africa matters at Harvard. Thanks to the CAS Executive Committee and to our Africa Advisory Board and Leadership Council for all that you have done to ensure that we remained on track and indeed thrived during this past year. These efforts would not have been possible without the significant contributions of our faculty affiliates and staff as we worked together with partners to better support our students and advance our academic mission.

            The COVID-19 pandemic was a clear reminder that global public health is central to all aspects of our lives and livelihood. As the pandemic sent the world into lockdown, the Center for African Studies responded with a partnership with the Africa CDC that led to a webinar series reaching more than 3,000 participants from across Africa, Europe, and the U.S. The webinar series was representative of what made so many of our efforts this year a success – partnership with organizations and individuals based in Africa; participation from our multidisciplinary faculty affiliates across the university in convening research and discussions around cross-cutting, contemporary issues in African Studies; and support from senior leadership at Harvard.  At the same time, we engaged our students in the research and writing that is part of these efforts, while we enabled their access to student grant programs that provided virtual research and internship opportunities with organizations in the US and on the continent.

            Of course, COVID-19 was not just a healthcare pandemic. It has had and will continue to have far reaching implications for the economy, for education, and for our social wellbeing. Much of our work this year—from the inauguration of the Motsepe Presidential Research Accelerator Fund for Africa to the relaunch of our Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program—supports an expanded agenda for the Center for African Studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Yet, the core of our work remains an interdisciplinary agenda in which the humanities and social sciences inform our work as Africanists in fields ranging from public health to political science, from engineering to linguistics.

While the U.S. is beginning to see a pathway forward out of the pandemic with increased vaccination rates and dropping caseloads, we recognize that globally there is more to be done. Despite the progress, we cannot lose sight that in Africa and much of the global south, more progress is to be made on stopping the spread of COVID-19, and global cooperation is essential to ensuring equitable vaccine access. The need for partnership across countries and regions in these efforts was underscored during our recent Africa-Asia Roundtable on Pandemics: Preparedness, Surveillance, and Response, where we were encouraged by the participation of the Africa CDC, U.S. CDC, and China CDC as well as colleagues from academic and policy organizations.  

            A recurring theme at our convenings this year—from our October conference on Women and the Changing Face of Entrepreneurship in Africa to our April convening on Africa’s Water Opportunity: Science, Sustainability, and Solutions—was the importance of stakeholder engagement at all levels. As an academic community, we connect with and inform policy makers, and support and learn from communities and leaders across multiple sectors. The move to virtual programing enabled us to connect and engage with the world in new ways, to hear directly and more frequently from the African voices and perspectives that inform our research and scholarship. We were able to reach a wider audience outside Cambridge and Johannesburg, with approximately half our audience joining from across Africa.

At Harvard, we will begin a gradual return to campus this August, with plans for the research and teaching mission of the university to be accomplished in-person this Fall semester. The Center for African Studies will continue to be part of the solution, convening research and conversations around strategies that enable the response to major global challenges, and advancing research and education initiatives between Harvard and our African partners.

Now, it is time to celebrate the graduates of 2021! We offer our heartfelt and warmest congratulations to you. We are pleased we could be part of your journey at Harvard, and we look forward to seeing where your future journey takes you.