The 2019-2020 academic year has been a year of not-doing.
Oxford has always been a paradox for productivity: it promises both perfect solitude and a wealth of distractions. For example, every year the African Studies Centre, in conjunction with AfOx, invites Africa-based scholars to the University for two months, so that they can escape everything they have to do back home and hunker down to write. Yet, nowhere do the daily interruptions for lunch, or coffee, or dinner proceed so lazily. Coming from LSE where every conversation is cut short by someone looking at their watch and rushing off, these deviations from constant motion are a guilty pleasure. The African Studies Centre’s Thursday seminar is a first-rate example: lunch with the speaker in the clattering din of the Hilda Box can turn into coffee, by which time people are arriving for the seminar, with drinks after, which continue to the Royal Oak and then it’s dark and time to go home to bed.
In October 2019, as students arrived in Oxford from across the world to enjoy this mix of secluded industriousness and slow-motion conviviality, national politics was threatening to break lose from its established rhythms. In order to move forward with his domestic and international agenda, the Prime Minister Boris John announced that Parliament would be paused. We learnt a new word for not-doing: prorogation. As I was in the middle of reviewing Gavin William’s re-released State and Society in Nigeria on the turbulent politics of the 1970s, the spectre of a strong man suspending politics to better allow politicians to serve the national interest was familiar. Brexit continued to not happen, as it had been not happening for three years already.
In the middle of Michaelmas, Johnson called a General Election. We – British and Commonwealth citizens - had an opportunity to vote out the Conservative government and reverse the changes that had made Universities and British society as a whole a hostile environment for our visitors from Africa and people of colour. Writing was put on hold and for a couple of weeks you were more likely to bump into the leading lights of Oxford African Politics on the rainy streets of what we optimistically termed ‘swing seats’ in Wycombe, Reading or Swindon than in the corridors of the library.
Late November and early December saw eight days of strike action, where we painstakingly did nothing together. In an the increasingly competitive world of higher education, securing the conditions for life and work to be sustained required us to stop. As Cathy Elliot recently wrote in Renewal:
“As students and academics, we are accustomed to feeling good about ourselves because we are working. Being busy is our virtue, our achievements are our identities. But striking brings it all juddering to a halt. Suddenly our solidarity and our political commitment reminds us that we have to stop all this dashing around. We are required, instead, to stand around on picket lines, to engage in the patient work of making signs and banners, to talk to each other without the discipline of … the tightly-timed meeting agenda.”
We’d barely started up again after Christmas, when another strike was called, the second in two months. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this strike marked the start of the process by which our plans for the rest of the year were unpicked. At first, it was a carefully controlled cessation of activities: seminars and lectures cancelled in solidarity. I found myself with a collection of unused train tickets to Leicester, Cambridge and Leiden, and wondered if I could include on my CV thing that I meant to do but didn’t.
Everyone will have their own story of what happened next. For some it will have been a gradual slowing to stop, for others a mad scramble through airports and visa queues to get to a place where they could safely do nothing, and go nowhere. Securing the basic conditions of life has taken on a new centrality: buying food, caring for loved ones.
Amidst the disruptions described, I have nonetheless been lucky enough to get stuff done. During the few months we were together, I went to stimulating talks by Carli Coetzee, Simukai Chigudu, Nanjala Nyabola and Miles Tendi, and listened to students question documentary makers, elections observers and state governors. I went to the “20 years of Democracy in Nigeria” conference, which crammed two decades’ worth of effervescent discussion into one day. My work on interfaith peacebuilding in Nigeria has been accepted for publication, another article on political thought in Kenya revised and resubmitted, and draft two of ‘What Nigeria can teach us about good governance’ is starting to look like a real book. This carving out of a space to keep doing, in the face of disruption, has been a privilege and a joy. Yet, it is a joy that has to be put to work to sustain the privilege: work is the route to the financial security necessary to secure the ever more precarious conditions of life.
In the 2019 African Studies Centre newsletter
Muhammad Sanusi II, CON, Emir of Kano wrote about his connection to the African Studies Centre and his plans to re-establish a library in the Emir’s palace:
“Centuries from now, when hopefully this library will have millions of volumes, the Kirk-Greene collection will remain at its core.”
Anthony Kirk-Greene arrived in Oxford in the 1960s and worked on Nigeria for over 60 years. Amidst the pandemic, such time horizons are difficult for many of us to imagine. In comparison, the time we will spend as members of the Centre is a mere speck. This year’s masters students have served barely two thirds of their allotted nine months in Oxford. Among my post-docs peers, employed across a patchwork of colleges, grants, consultancies and departments, a contract longer than a year is a luxury. We are temporary.
Libraries and universities are monuments to the transmission of knowledge over a scale that outstrips any one human life. In a moment when the idea of ‘the foreseeable future’ has melted away, we have to hope that the things we have done and the things we have carefully not done in the past months stand the test of time. In different ways this year it has shown how sometimes we have to drop everything to secure the conditions needed for us to live and to do our work. This was a lesson to me but no doubt obvious all along to my African colleagues; I hope it can be the basis of a renewed solidarity.