“Covid-19 cannot keep me from going on the field. I need to be paid to survive in these difficult times, when there is no government help for those who have nothing. Moreover, let us not forget I have conducted research on Ebola, cholera, etc. Even worse, I have risked my life in war zones. Compared to all that, Covid-19 is nothing.”
— a Congolese research assistant, Bukavu, March 2020.
In the spring of 2019 the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, presented an exceptional collection of colonial art, titled Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse.1In collaboration with The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery and Columbia University. The exhibition, consisting mainly of nineteenth-century portraits, attempted to humanize depictions of exoticism, racism, and colonial propaganda. The paintings did not show, or allow the viewer to imagine, their subjects engaged in the inhumane labor with which they were still, at that time, associated.2Through the Freudian process of introjection, most evident in melancholy. See Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (London and Vienna: International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1922). The Black Models exhibition is an analogous representation of the colonial relationship that has plagued the social sciences for the last four centuries, which often has made invisible the work of local researchers from the Global South. These parallels are particularly evident in the unequal racial distribution of roles, and of vulnerability, in difficult research contexts. Such inequality of conditions has led to a universalist monologue monopolized by discourse from Global North researchers that is already pervading the social sciences with regards to post–Covid-19 scenarios.
A similar colonial dynamic can be seen in the pictures from an amateur photo exhibition held in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in June 2018. The photos depict anonymous Black men carrying white explorers on their discovery tours through Africa, dependent on the bodies of Black men to traverse the “difficult terrain” for the church and the academic community. The imagery of Black bodies exploited in the name of “civilization” and scientific progress was also at the center of an exhibition of cartoons by Congolese artist Tembo Kash at the Université Catholique de Louvain, in March 2020. Dozens of testimonials from African research assistants who are exposed daily to the dangers of difficult fieldwork as part of research projects funded by Western academics amplified the cartoons’ purpose.“When the time comes for “difficult” fieldwork in Africa, research assistants become body-instruments, an extension of the bodies of Global North researchers.”
Kash wished to restore the humanity of those research assistants by giving them faces and names, as Black Models did. At the same time, the artist could not deny the similarities between the research assistants’ working conditions and the nineteenth-century photographs exhibited in Bukavu. When the time comes for “difficult” fieldwork in Africa, research assistants become body-instruments, an extension of the bodies of Global North researchers. Kash’s work also highlights the paradox of Western modernity, of which the social sciences are a central part: The simultaneous adherence to humanist discourse3This is the discourse that defends a set of values aimed at the human fulfilment and emancipation. See Léopold Sédar Senghor, Liberté 1: Négritude et humanisme, discours, conférences (Le Seuil, 1964). and the refusal to renounce privileges that result in the subordination and oppression of subjects at the margins.
In the time of Covid-19, a question arises: How will those body-instruments continue to be used for data collection in dangerous and difficult African contexts? Covid-19 offers an opportunity to question the new discourse of Western academics4Be they naïve, strategic or constrained by systems of knowledge production. who commission studies in the Global South. For research assistants, this new discourse is just another contradictory monologue, in the same way that Black Models is. For them, Covid-19 is not an “event,”5“Evénement” in Foucault’s original French and refers to “the interruption of a historical singularity.” See Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 32-50. an accident that radically reverses the normal order of things. It does not contain the conditions for a radical change in the phenomenon of the exploitation of certain bodies for research purposes. Those bodies have a color: Black.
March 2020, lockdown measures are announced in the DRC. Artists react immediately and produce a series of beautiful paintings in the typical style of the Kinshasa art scene. They represent the absurdity of the stay-at-home orders adopted in a society where people’s daily existence depends on casual labor.
Complying with lockdown measures is also impossible for research assistants who depend on temporary contracts for their livelihoods. Even though the public health context means no new contracted work is in sight, there are still ongoing commitments that need to be honored before those researchers can receive their salaries. Such work is essential for their livelihoods.
These are the assistants Kash depicted in his cartoons. Like those Black men before them carrying white explorers, researchers from the Global North decide the focus and the design of the research, and commission it. They control publication mechanisms, which render the work of research assistants invisible, despite the key role that African research assistants play in the success of a study. While giving advice on how to “navigate spaces of armed conflict” as a research assistant, a Congolese colleague wrote:
“Collecting data in complex security zones requires rigorous preparation and a tailored approach to navigation…If actors in the field come to regard the researcher as a spy, or to see him as a threat due to one of his meetings or interviews, then there is reason to fear that the entire research project will be called into question. It eventually can also put the researcher’s life in danger.”6Josaphat Musamba, « Naviguer entre des espaces de conflits armés : à quel prix ? », in La Série Bukavu. Vers la décolonisation de la recherche, eds. Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, An Ansoms, Koen Vlassenroot, Emery Mudinga, and Godefroid Muzalia (PUL, 2020), 81.
The above assertion describes the difficulties and risks that researchers from the Global South face when they work in dangerous areas, where they daily face the possibility of their own death. The researcher quoted above does not question the necessity of sending local researchers into “dangerous areas” where most white, Western academics are not willing to travel. He places the issue in its systemic context, where any easy answer could be likened to demagoguery. Thanks to their extensive experience, “local” researchers know that the position of the African researcher in dangerous contexts is part of a larger colonial system7This coloniality consists precisely in the inability of Western rationality to be reflexive about its own conditions of production. Yet, this production is part of a Western and metonymic ethnocentrism that claims to understand the totality of human experience on the basis of a specific rationality, while at the same time considering itself exclusive and universal. For this, see Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, L’Affaire de la philosophie africaine. Au-delà des querelles (Karthala-éditions terroirs, 2011); Boaventura De Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (Routledge, 2014); Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Collection Critique, 1967). linked to the geopolitics of knowledge production, which has been subjected to heavy criticism over the last decade.8Routledge, 2018More Info → Moreover, in his analysis of the global relations of knowledge production, this research assistant includes under the definition of research assistant all researchers in the South depending on who depends on the commissions from Global North academics. For him, Covid-19 is not an event, insofar as it does not truly deviate from the normal state of affairs.
Image courtesy of Tembo Kash.
Monologue of the powerful
For researchers in the Global North, Covid-19 is also not an event. This is a problem requiring the re-organization of the whole system of knowledge production. It allows Global North researchers to avoid exposure to dangerous fieldwork. Covid-19 represents a logistical challenge—reductions of flights, the reticence of insurers to pay for costly repatriations, fears related to quarantine procedures—yet it will also influence how researchers in the North delegate fieldwork risks to researchers in the South. As one Northern-based researcher told me recently:
“With Covid-19, we are facing many more months without being able to travel to Africa. You see, we have many ongoing projects. We have also already scheduled restitution workshops in which field researchers must share the results of their investigation on conflict minerals and armed groups.”9A Global North-based researcher, London, April 2020.
From this excerpt, these chercheurs-bailleurs (researchers who fund field studies in the Global South) seem to understand Covid-19 to be an issue concerning researchers in the field. However, a sort of Western narcissism assumes Western and African researchers face the same problems in the same way. The generalization emerging from this monologue aims to construct a fictitious reality and, by doing so, prefigures unequal solutions. Black bodies continue to brave the risks of difficult fieldwork, including those posed by Covid-19. As a Congolese researcher based in the field reported:
“Nothing has changed here. We keep on working normally. We never had an insurance policy or decent work contracts in the first place. Our work is precarious. We work on daily contracts, and we are lucky to have them (…) Covid-19 is not going to change things for people in the North coming here, who are going to strengthen protection measures for themselves, not for us. We have seen worse than Covid-19 during our research trips, I really cannot see how this changes anything.”
For researchers both in the Global North and South, the impact of Covid-19 stems from a larger event, colonialism. In the social sciences, colonialism has always defined fieldwork in difficult contexts in Africa. The instrumentalization of Black bodies is rooted in racism and colonialism. It is at the intersection of these two that we also find arguments for the decolonization of knowledge. Covid-19 is not an event, it is a reminder of the actuality of such debates.
Covid-19 and the colonial event
Contrary to widespread opinion,10Roger-Pierre Turine, Les arts du Congo: d’hier à nos jours (La Renaissance du Livre, 2007). the popular art of Kinshasa that criticized the Covid-19 response is not a naïve form of art, in the sense that it is not an amateur form of art. It is, rather, negro art.11CNRS, 2011More Info → Its subversive relationship to perspective, dimensions, and intensities is a feature of vital artistic expression, in which all reproduction of déjà-vu is absurd. Its multiple disproportionalities aim to forcefully capture emotions so as to show that every piece of art points intensely toward aspects of life that need emancipation.“The movement toward the decolonization of knowledge at the onset of the twenty-first century is a reaction to the enslavement produced by colonialism.”
In Kash’s art, we find such strong distortions in conjunction with a cry for emancipation from the fetishization of knowledge in dangerous settings. Such fetishization emerged contemporaneously with the social disciplines in the seventeenth century when they were still imbued with racist and colonialist ideology. The movement toward the decolonization of knowledge at the onset of the twenty-first century is a reaction to the enslavement produced by colonialism. From this standpoint, debates on the relationship between Covid-19 and difficult fieldwork in Africa are inserted in arguments for the decolonization of knowledge in the social sciences. The aim of such arguments is to show that, after four centuries, there remains a racist element to the production of who is vulnerable in the field and, more broadly, in the production of knowledge.
Covid-19 asks us to take these criticisms seriously, as they pose not only ethical questions (regarding the choice of research topics, fieldwork, and the racial distribution of the roles they produce), but also political (in the fight against the geopolitics of knowledge, the power relations structuring it, and its epistemological, political and symbolic consequences) and epistemological ones (to criticize the scientific validity of data produced in the southern fields in these conditions).
From the point of view of négritude, the decolonization of knowledge is not an injunction to be declared, but rather concerns the recognition of power relations tied to the contestation of privilege and the strength of the emancipatory momentum produced by the power relations themselves. The quest to decolonize knowledge should not become a new form of humanitarianism in which researchers from the North, once again, play savior to researchers from the South. The decolonization of knowledge pertains to issues of alienation, and requires awareness and responsibility on the part of researchers from the South as they navigate unequal power relations. The fight starts in Africa, where governments should commit to developing a political vision, and commit resources for academic research. There is nothing given about such an ambition. It is a strenuous fight consisting of ups and downs, as it takes on the historical structures that have produced the North-South division of labor, concerning their material living conditions. This African fight can be joined by allies supporting African initiatives, but without minimizing the structural and institutional underpinnings of the issues, nor diverting and transforming them into a new cause for their own good conscience to pursue.“Will the social sciences finally take decolonization criticism seriously after Covid-19?”
An analysis of the relationship between Covid-19 and fieldwork in difficult contexts should start from the deconstruction of the community of fieldwork-based social scientists and the distribution of privileges in that community. It should, then, define the struggles existing within it and the conditions that would allow for improving the situation of marginal groups. This is the precondition to thinking of Covid-19 as a central experience in the social sciences, one that points to aspects of the lives of human communities still fighting for emancipation. Will the social sciences finally take decolonization criticism seriously after Covid-19? Or, will the supposed neutrality of science continue to legitimize amnesia about the shameful realities of knowledge production?
Time will tell. But in any case, by persisting on the subject of emancipation, the artistic performance “on” Africa and “in” Africa will never stop whispering in our ears this simple and profound appeal to humanity by Fanon, and more broadly by decolonization criticism. When talking about anti-Semitism to non-Jews, he declared: “When you hear bad things about the Jew, lend an ear, we’re talking about you!”12Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Seuil, 1952), 81. After all, in the Fanonian logic, the oppression suffered by these researchers from the South is founded on the same rationale that discriminated against Jews, dehumanized Blacks, discriminated against women, incarcerated people of color, tyrannized Muslims, and exploited workers, undocumented migrants, and others. These are the humans produced by a modern world phenomenon that Mbembe called the “global becoming negro.”13Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017More Info → This phenomenon is an “event,” and therefore the main challenge for social science today.