Academics in African Diaspora Reach Back to Help Universities Rebuild

Those who fled chaotic conditions look for ways to support colleagues who stayed By Megan Lindow…

Georgia (Dec 15, 2009)

Those who fled chaotic conditions look for ways to support colleagues who stayed
By Megan Lindow
Ibadan, Nigeria
Before Akanmu Adebayo left Nigeria, in 1992, he knew he was treading on dangerous ground. As the country languished under a military dictatorship hostile to academics, Mr. Adebayo, a professor of West Africa's economic history, worried that his lectures on topics like the role of institutional corruption in the region's underdevelopment could make him a target.
"You would have spies in your classes, reporting you anytime you mentioned anything," he recalls. "Colleagues would get home and the police would be waiting for them, or they would come in the middle of the night. It didn't happen to me, but you wouldn't want to wait for it."
So he took a job teaching history at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, joining the ranks of thousands of other African academics who have fled ugly political situations and poor working conditions on the continent or have been drawn by better opportunities elsewhere.
This brain drain has proved catastrophic for African countries, which collectively spend some four billion dollars a year hiring foreigners to replace professionals who leave, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone, among other countries, face critical shortages of expertise, in part because they have lost tens of thousands of doctors, scientists, and professors to the United States and Europe.
Some African universities, however, are finding new ways to tap the expertise of the diaspora, which includes world-renowned academics in engineering, medicine, and literature.
The trend is particularly strong in Nigeria, where higher education enjoyed a golden age during the oil boom of the 1970s before economic and political woes overburdened the university system and drove promising academics away. Now, as the country begins to stabilize, many academics who fled are helping to rebuild, some returning to Nigeria and others engaging from afar.
The Diaspora as a Resource
After 17 years, for example, Mr. Adebayo is back in Nigeria. Still employed by Kennesaw State, he has come to spend a semester's sabbatical teaching and collaborating in research at the University of Ibadan, the country's oldest and most prestigious university.
Dozens of other collaborations involving diaspora academics are springing up, breathing new life into institutions withered by decades of isolation, repression, and under­financing, say observers of the trend.
"Our diaspora is part of our resources. And in a resource-strapped environment, we must draw on all of our resources," says Adigun Agbaje, deputy vice chancellor for academics at Ibadan, who says the university now has 135 international collaborations, many of them involving academics who have left Africa.
"We had superb training. We had no loans. We got government scholarships," says Sola Olopade, a pulmonologist who graduated from Ibadan and has spent the past 25 years at the University of Chicago's medical school. His wife, Funmi, a geneticist whose work on the molecular genetics of breast cancer in African and African-American women earned her a "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2005, also works at the medical school. "As long as we have been here, we have been sensitized to that issue and the need to give back," he says.
"We're using our position here to open doors for higher-education institutions in Nigeria," says Dr. Olopade, who serves as president of the newly formed Nigeria Higher Education Foundation, which was established by prominent academics from the diaspora to support Nigerian universities, with seed money from the MacArthur Foundation.
For Nigerian academics faced with challenges that include power shortages and professional isolation, such connections provide lifelines of support, says Adeyinka Falusi, a professor of hematology at the University of Ibadan's medical school, who works closely with the Olopades and is scientific director of the Healthy Life for All Foundation, an organization that the couple helped to found to promote academic health research in Nigeria.
Such relationships, she says, have channeled much-needed financing into the medical school, but, more important, have also provided Nigerian academics with opportunities to work on papers, attend conferences, and gain specialty training overseas, all essential for building careers.
During a tour of the medical school's facilities, she points out defunct machinery in the hallways and describes how even the most basic diagnostic tools are undermined by constant power outages because temperatures cannot be maintained. The foundation bought a generator, but it consumes too much diesel to be used regularly, she says.
"The government will just pay your salary and give you a four-walled room," she says. "We want good facilities for research so that we can compete with our peers around the world. Every lab that is actually functioning is part of an international collaboration."
The lab that the Healthy Life for All Foundation supports here at Ibadan's medical campus, she says, has built on Funmi Olopade's work in Chicago and has received financing from the National Institutes of Health, among other sources. Researchers here study the genetic basis of breast cancer in African women and are also running the region's first tissue-banking project.
Home and Away
In an era of internationalization, the partnerships that strengthen Nigerian universities from afar can have an impact beyond what scholars could have achieved had they stayed in Nigeria, says Akinyinka Omigbodun, provost of Ibadan's medical school.
"I don't know where the balance lies," he says. "We've lost a lot of talented people, but we are very proud of Funmi. She has achieved so much, and I'm not sure she would have been able to achieve so much if she had stayed at home."
Meanwhile, technology is enabling less-formal collaborations, too, to take root. These often involve such simple actions as e-mailing journal articles to a colleague who can't get them, says Ebenezer Obadare, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, who left Nigeria in 2001 to pursue a doctorate in London after teaching at Obafemi Awolowo University for six years.
"Under the radar there are everyday collaborations that are not institutionalized," says Mr. Obadare. "All you need is a friend who is affiliated with a Western institution. I do a search, download articles, and send them off as a PDF. Or you send text messages."
Formally, he is part of a three-way collaboration among Mr. Agbaje, at Ibadan, and a Nigerian academic at the University of California at Davis, Wale Adebanwi.
This year the trio began producing a journal called the Review of Leadership in Africa, which Mr. Obadare says is the first African publication devoted to exploring the problems of political leadership on the continent. Featuring the work of African and American scholars alike, he says, the publication provides a further platform for collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
Despite his decision to leave Nigeria, Mr. Obadare says he remains engaged in its academic and political life.
"I still write for a Nigerian newspaper," he says. "I'm an opponent of every backward political maneuver. I stand fervently for something. But I won't survive in Nigeria the way it's constituted now. I would die of frustration."
Mr. Adebayo, too, says he feels some ambivalence about returning. "I'm excited by the university culture, the debates, and the heightened level of awareness of Nigerian academics," he says. "But I'm disappointed by the way things still move so slowly, and the system seems to be corrupted."
But for Olutayo Adesina, a lecturer in history and a former student of Mr. Adebayo, his presence on campus is a godsend.
His collaboration with Mr. Adebayo began when Mr. Adesina contacted his old professor asking for help paying his membership fee for the American Studies Association, which had become exorbitant after the Nigerian currency, the naira, collapsed.
Over the years, that simple relationship has grown into a partnership between the two universities and has produced books, faculty and student exchanges, and a conference on globalization that brought some 200 international scholars to Ibadan.
"For those in my generation, the diaspora become our lifeline, our stimulus package," he says. "The diaspora is keeping alive our intellectual output."


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