This book addresses the often-silenced stories underpinning the experiences of PhD scholars in African universities:  The PhD Experience in African Higher Education. The chapters reflect the gamut of emotions that clearly capture the joys and traumas of being a PhD candidate in an African university. It shows that the doctoral journey places demands beyond possessing the requisite intellectual skills, including the highest levels of human courage and resilience. As Quatro Mgogo reminds us in his chapter, “the journey can be long, lonely, and exhausting, but quite rewarding.” The book revisits the challenges (and occasionally the opportunities) associated with being a PhD candidate and the ways in which scholars’ multiple identities as well as their socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds shape their doctoral trajectories. It also helps prepare them for what lies ahead, post-PhD: aluta continua. As another chapter contributor, Phuti Sepuru, reminds us, even after successfully completing the PhD program, one cannot really say they have “made it” because the “journey of learning and becoming” is a never-ending one, particularly for an academic like most of the contributors in this edited book.

 The PhD Experience in African Higher Education consists of nine chapters. Its introduction provides context drawing on the editors’ brilliant reading of the contributors’ reflections in their respective chapters, while the concluding chapter provides policy-oriented recommendations on “ways to foster transformative pedagogy” in higher educational institutions in Africa. The book is structured according to the contributors’ varied sociocultural backgrounds, genders, nationalities, institutions, professional backgrounds, and identities pointing to class, race, and (military) rank (as we learn from Arendse, the female soldier). Whether this was done on purpose or by coincidence (since perhaps these were the ones who accepted the invitation of the editors to contribute to the book), it worked so well in enriching the book, as each chapter is rooted in the unique experience of its author and shaped by factors including their institution, academic discipline, research topic, theory, and methodology that guided their PhD research. For example, Murambadoro and Inaka are international students in South African universities. Their chapters point to, among other things, the unique challenges international students face in South Africa. Murambadoro adds the silenced or rather less-known gendered challenges and even abuses some PhD candidates are exposed to and occasionally experience in academic spaces. Local (South African) fellows’ PhD experiences also reflect the sociocultural and political factors rooted in the past and present South Africa. Nomvete and Mmadi, for example, discuss the ways in which their sociocultural backgrounds as people from less-popular provinces in South Africa shaped their PhD journeys, including distinguishing themselves from the South African mega city-based scholars.

The book centers around the concept of “PhDeeing,” which the editors define as a journey of “seeing, being, discovering, shaping and reshaping.” In this journey, Murambadoro, Mashayombe, and weNkosi argue that it is almost impossible to separate the “personal from the academic.” Indeed, all the authors’ research topics are in many ways personal to them and are underpinned by the emotional and ethical challenges they encountered while “PhDeeing.” For example, Sepuru, a chapter contributor, is a jazz musician researching music, while Murambadoro is an international student reflecting on issues regarding transitional justice in her home country Zimbabwe. Another contributor who is also an international student, Inaka, is a Congolese academic whose research focuses on Congolese migrant labor in South Africa. Both Murambadoro and Inaka mention that it was the socio-political and economic crises in their respective countries that compelled them to pursue their postgraduate education in South Africa. As a scientific research project, the book relies on “autoethnography” as its methodological approach. As Belbase and co-authors put it, “the charm of [autoethnographic] research lies on how you enjoy reading it as a literary epic journey and reflect back on your own practices and encourage you in envisioning of your future.”1Shashidhar Belbase, Bal Luitel, and Peter Taylor, “Autoethnography: A method of research and teaching for transformative education,” Journal of Education and Research 1, no. 1 (2008), 88.

Autoethnography goes beyond a researcher writing about their research experience in the first person as it lays bare their emotions and vulnerabilities not just as researchers, but also as humans.2Ansoms, An, Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, and Susan Thomson, eds. Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021). This is why the editors argue that autoethnography is “political, ethical and axiological in practice.” The chapter contributors in general (perhaps less so in Murambadoro’s and Inaka’s chapters) share their ethical dilemmas and occasional opportunities they encountered during data collection for their PhD dissertations, in particular, those who conducted fieldwork research. Their research fieldwork experiences align with recent arguments among field researchers regarding the limits of the “insider” positionality.3Lizzi Milligan, “Insider-outsider-inbetweener? Researcher positioning, participative methods, and cross-cultural educational research,” Compare: a journal of comparative and international education 46, no. 2 (2016), 235-250. While sharing their views on research techniques that “worked” for them, some authors also point to the need to decolonize field research by problematizing the colonially rooted scholarship that still guides research in African universities. weNkosi’s chapter particularly points at the issues of continuity from colonial to postcolonial ethnographic research as he reflects on the process of information extraction in the field. He therefore challenges field researchers to self-examine themselves on how different our fieldwork techniques are from the colonial ethnographers, and even our attitudes toward our research “subjects” and the space we call the “field.” He reminds us of the power relations between the researcher and the researched, and the fact that the field of research remains largely limited to a place of information collection “without giving back” to the societies/communities or people.

The book is mindful of existing scholarship as it engages a range of literature on the topics in the chapters. I was particularly captivated by Mmadi’s approach to the concept of “space” linking it to the “socio-spatial dialect,” as he relates how his village in the Limpopo province, his high school, the University of Pretoria, and his sociology department shaped his learning and its outcomes. Likewise, Sepuru uses “analysis paralysis” to theorize the anxiety she experienced while trying to link her collected data to her research questions, as well as the difficulties she experienced in addressing the comments the supervisor made on her PhD dissertation’s draft chapters. The capitalist theory is used by authors such as Inaka to interpret the psychological and material hardship he experienced while studying for his PhD in South Africa. Likewise, Mgogo discusses “unequal epistemological access” that characterizes knowledge distribution to students in universities.

The book opens new avenues to rethinking decolonization broadly and particularly in tertiary education in South Africa. More than anything else, the book is about decolonizing knowledge production in the humanities and social sciences in Africa. Clearly, there is a degree of freedom, but also discomfort that comes with this kind of intimate writing. By reading each and every chapter, one puts a face—that of the author—to the text. The book being an (auto)ethnographic project, however, leaves one important question unanswered: what were the ethical challenges authors confronted in framing these personal, intimate experiences as scholarly work? As an ethnographer myself and a researcher of experience which is an important tool of oral history methods, I hoped that in the introduction, the editors would engage the politics with which the authors selected the aspects or parts of the experience they share in the chapters. Likewise, there are strong voices of enduring, overcoming, and winning at the end, which sit at the heart of every chapter. What I also found missing from the chapters was “confessions” in the sense of retrospection, related to the writers’ reflection on what, as PhD candidates, they did wrong. This includes admission of mistakes of their own, that indirectly or indirectly contributed to the challenges experienced during their PhD journeys. This could have enriched the book as a guide to PhDeeing in Humanities and Social Sciences.

In the end, the book is more about the silences it produces around the power dynamics between the researcher, the researched, and the higher educational institutions in (South) Africa. What is left unsaid stands out as one reads between the lines of each chapter. It is certain, however, that any attempt to fill up the gaps in the academic debates raised in such a topic can only engender more epistemological silences and questions. The PhD Experience in African Higher Education, as I see it, is a call for related research projects—ones that are more thematically focused as researchers elsewhere have done.4See for example, Susan Thomson, An Ansoms, and Judith Murison, eds. Emotional and ethical challenges for field research in Africa: The story behind the findings. (Springer, 2012); Ansoms, An, Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, and Susan Thomson, eds. Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021) Another gap in the book relates to the question about the extent to which the South African universities—where all the authors studied for their PhD (and the majority of them are South African citizens) —are representative of “‘African’ higher education,” as read in the title of the book. I found it curious that the editors did not problematize South Africa in terms of its own hegemony particularly for its contested economic, cultural, and political influence (and as a former colonizer), on the rest of the continent. Moreover, South Africa’s relatively particular and peculiar history of colonization and apartheid, as well as post-colonial/apartheid makes it even more problematic to make generalized arguments about decoloniality in Africa. There is a reason for that common saying, particularly among immigrants in South Africa, that there is Africa and South Africa. The title of the book in relation to its content—when not problematized—could reproduce the very same pattern of coloniality it was meant to critique or speak against.

Finally, scholars like weNkosi and others who are haunted by the problems we research, particularly in terms of the remorse they may feel about not participating in solving them,5See my chapter on my field research experience among fellow Congolese refugee migrants in South Africa: Rosette Sifa Vuninga, “Establishing Kinship in the Diaspora: Conducting Research among fellow Congolese Immigrants of Cape Town,” in Ansoms An, Bisoka Aymar Nyenyezi, and Susan Thompson eds., Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities, edited by Susan, 63-84. (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021), 63-84. must know they are not the first to deal with the discomfort of hiding “behind the myth of scholarly detachment or objectivity.”6Susan Thomson, “Scholar-Activist? On relationship accountability and an Ethic of Dissemination,” in Ansoms An, Bisoka Aymar Nyenyezi, and Susan Thompson eds., Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities, edited by Susan, 63-84. (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021), 120. The very fact that questions pertaining to the researcher’s humanness are raised in all the chapters is the very evidence that African scholars are already doing something about the social crises they research on with the platform they occupy—that of research/education. Sometimes all African scholars need to do is take a moment to (re)think why we chose our research topics, and we will realize that we are trying to raise awareness about/or against some social injustices. That is a form of scholarly activism to which this important book lends itself.

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References
  • 1
    Shashidhar Belbase, Bal Luitel, and Peter Taylor, “Autoethnography: A method of research and teaching for transformative education,” Journal of Education and Research 1, no. 1 (2008), 88.
  • 2
    Ansoms, An, Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, and Susan Thomson, eds. Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021).
  • 3
    Lizzi Milligan, “Insider-outsider-inbetweener? Researcher positioning, participative methods, and cross-cultural educational research,” Compare: a journal of comparative and international education 46, no. 2 (2016), 235-250.
  • 4
    See for example, Susan Thomson, An Ansoms, and Judith Murison, eds. Emotional and ethical challenges for field research in Africa: The story behind the findings. (Springer, 2012); Ansoms, An, Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, and Susan Thomson, eds. Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021)
  • 5
    See my chapter on my field research experience among fellow Congolese refugee migrants in South Africa: Rosette Sifa Vuninga, “Establishing Kinship in the Diaspora: Conducting Research among fellow Congolese Immigrants of Cape Town,” in Ansoms An, Bisoka Aymar Nyenyezi, and Susan Thompson eds., Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities, edited by Susan, 63-84. (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021), 63-84.
  • 6
    Susan Thomson, “Scholar-Activist? On relationship accountability and an Ethic of Dissemination,” in Ansoms An, Bisoka Aymar Nyenyezi, and Susan Thompson eds., Field Research in Africa: The Ethics of Researcher Vulnerabilities, edited by Susan, 63-84. (Woodbridge, Suffolk, (GB); Rochester, NY, (US): Boydell & Brewer, 2021), 120.