This sentence drives me crazy, and I have heard it from many researchers – Africans and non-Africans alike. I recognise and acknowledge many of the challenges related to compiling, accessing, and storing (digitally and manuscripts) data in many African countries. These challenges must be addressed so that we do not lose valuable contribution to world’s history, mathematics, economics, etc. The challenges must be addressed so that knowledge seating at the periphery could also become mainstream.
During my doctoral research, I have conducted some work in the national archives of the country and found “treasures” that debunk the overly repeated notion, “there is no data in Africa”. These findings further question the validity of the transactional nature of some fieldwork, especially in non-western contexts. How can you find data (in any form) when some fieldwork lasts at times lasts one or two weeks? There is a wealth of data, often unexplored or seating at the periphery of conventional sources of knowledge. Some of the most reliable sources of information are the libraries within old traditional palaces where the works of the likes of Nana Asmau laid “dormant” to the rest of the world until uncovered by contemporary scholars.
The sad truth is that when repeated, this notion about the unavailability of data becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which impacts what we think we know and how we engage with certain places. This impacts even the very nature of what we teach and learn. If enough researchers repeat “there is no data in Niger”, for instance, then surely, it becomes acceptable when certain extrapolations are made… even if untrue.
Researchers need to stop being lazy and stop perpetuating single narratives about research in Africa based on their inability to search deeply, patiently, and differently. Furthermore, this is one reason why we need people with personal stakes to also research these issues because they would (hopefully) do it with their whole heart, settling for nothing but the very best, searching until they find (or at least try really hard), being patient with the challenges however long it takes…
To all researchers, especially venturing in a context that is not your own, before you utter the infamous “there is no data in [cite any African country]“, ask yourself some critical questions: Have I looked long enough? Have I looked in the right places? Did I ask the right people? Have I asked local researchers? Have I looked outside of what is usually considered a “source”? Am I doing justice to this community that has existed for centuries when I dismiss their forms of creating knowledge by saying ‘there is no data’? In what language(s) did I look for that data?