“Africa at a Crossroads: Challenges and Prospects” is a two-year program funded by the Trans-Institutional Program (TIPs) initiative at Vanderbilt. Working from this broad theme, this project brings Africanists from colleges and disciplines across Vanderbilt together to explore the widespread notion that contemporary socio-economic, cultural, and political indicators demonstrate that Africa now stands at a pivotal point—marked by both infinite possibilities and lingering challenges. Those who engage the region from scholarly, policy, or mercantile perspectives are compelled to reckon with a plethora of positive trends—growing economies, slowing rates of HIV infections, declining infant mortality rates, a rising middle class, democratic consolidation, entrepreneurial innovations in the physical and virtual worlds, and the reverse migration of Africa’s best brains. However, these upward trends sometimes run counter to persistent and problematic tropes of the continent that define it one-dimensionally in terms of war, poverty, and disease and mask an enduring multi-pronged malaise.
There is a series of pertinent questions that are seldom thoroughly explored: who/what drives change in Africa and what implication does this have in sectors such as health, education, music, culture, religion, economics, technology, migration, and politics? What historical reference points have placed Africa at a crossroads in the early twentieth century, and what are the international ramifications of an Africa that is increasingly part of interconnected global processes? How do current changes and problems connect to earlier, more familiar historical phenomena, such as slavery, colonization, missionization, nationalism, and the mixed outcomes of independence?
Such queries have drawn inadequate scholarly attention to date and have largely been tackled through the isolated lens of individual disciplines. Bringing the investigative and analytical toolkits of their disciplines to bear on the topic, this project seeks to answer foundational questions as well explore the persistent narrative of Africa’s socioeconomic dysfunction alongside counter-narratives of its socioeconomic rise. To do so, we draw from multiple disciplinary perspectives in order to analyze the extent to which the current state of affairs indicates that Africa stands at a crossroads ripe with challenges and prospects.