The Next Generation Social Sciences program responds to an emerging dilemma within higher education in the global South caused by the extraordinary emphasis on increasing undergraduate enrollment without proportionate investment in faculty development. This situation erodes the ability of universities to produce the next generation of researchers, leaders, and practitioners. The program currently operates to strengthen higher education in Africa through a series of fellowships designed to create a pipeline for the development of faculty invested in research on peace, security, and development issues.
This story is one fellow’s journey to earn a doctoral degree with the help of the Next Generation Social Sciences program and to improve the situation for women in Southern Nigeria regarding matrimonial property rights.
Anthony C. Diala was a 2013 and 2014 recipient of the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Fellowship. He is currently a University Research Committee Fellow at the Centre for Comparative Law in Africa, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
In 2013, I was a new PhD student worried about my ability to balance research at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, with a full-time, poorly remunerated teaching position at Madonna University, Nigeria. All PhD students are intellectually super confident, right? So, my worries eased when I learned of the SSRC’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellowship in mid-2013. I meticulously put together a dissertation proposal fellowship application and harassed two academics into giving me references. Mercifully, I won the fellowship. Emboldened, I left Madonna University on study leave and devoted full attention to researching how customary court judges in Southern Nigeria recognize women’s matrimonial property rights.
A new world
My proposal development fellowship opened several doors. First, it exposed me—very forcefully, I dare say—to the world of empirical research methods. As a dyed-in-the-wool lawyer, I had little exposure to social science methods. Even worse, I had alarming ideas about empirical research. In my favor, however, I learn easily. The SSRC fellows’ workshops in Accra and Cape Town helped me tremendously to become adept in archival research, developing questionnaires, asking effective questions, and managing focus groups. The stimulating discussions in our thematic sessions gave my research better focus by revealing new perspectives to my research problem. I will never forget my excitement at finding the “Holy Grail” of my research question. I managed to proverbially smite two birds with one stone: (a) I ‘unpacked’ my research question (b) I embarked on a theoretical journey, which culminated in a redefinition of the meaning of living customary law, a redefinition which has just been accepted for publication in a leading journal, The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law.
Finally, the fellowship provided funding for my fieldwork in June 2014 and January 2015.
After data collation, I faced three challenges. One, I was commuting between South Africa and Nigeria for family reasons. Two, my study leave was about to end, meaning a potential return to full-time teaching. Three, I had to transcribe and analyze lengthy audio recordings and hundreds of case files and archival materials. Mercifully, I received a Next Generation Social Sciences dissertation completion fellowship in March 2015. It enabled me to extend my study leave with teaching relief, hire professional transcribers, and relocate my family to South Africa. I went on to finish my research in early 2016, graduating later that year.
My dissertation completion fellowship provided more than financial empowerment. It propelled me into an aspect of academia that I was unfamiliar with: the world of international networks, conference attendance, and publications in rigorously peer-reviewed scientific journals. From 2014 to 2016, I presented at six conferences in Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. I received awards from the Institute of International Education/Carnegie Corporation, the South African Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation, and the University of Cape Town. I published three refereed articles, taught classes of varied racial backgrounds at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape, and took part in the inaugural Harvard Institute for Global Law and Policy (IGLP) African Regional Workshop. At the University of Cape Town, I served on the Law Faculty Board, the Executive Committee of the School of Advanced Legal Studies, and the Transformation Committee. My academic potential had been unleashed.
Sobering reality of the field
The best and most humbling aspect of my fellowship experience occurred in the field. I investigated a very sensitive issue for my PhD dissertation. As a judge told me, “there is no happy divorce.” Interacting with widows, divorcees, judges, traditional leaders, clergy, nonprofit organizations, and social welfare officials opened my eyes to the harsh realities of matrimonial property rights in Southern Nigeria. I constantly found myself explaining to judges and traditional leaders how the application of customs that emerged in agrarian settings causes conflicts when applied in today’s modern conditions. I found myself giving several impromptu presentations to social welfare officials and nonprofit organizations on strategies for negotiating improved matrimonial property rights for women within Nigeria’s restrictive legal framework. I like to think that my efforts and findings will help to improve the matrimonial property situation of women in Nigeria.
My experience in the field motivates my current book project on rethinking legal pluralism in Africa. This project is part of my postdoctoral work in the Centre for Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Cape Town. The SSRC’s Next Generation Social Sciences fellowships have positioned me as a potential academic leader in the field of legal pluralism in Africa.