Reflections on #CadaanStudies


In February 2015, a debate was sparked by the hashtag #CadaanStudies. Created in response to the launch of the new journal Somaliland Journal of African Studies, the hashtag drew attention to the Journal’s exclusion of Somali scholars (cadaan, appropriately, is the Somali word for white or whiteness) and initiated a discussion about the conditions of knowledge production within Somali Studies. 1 While the ensuing conversation raised important questions, it remained largely tethered to issues of academic legitimacy–thus stopping short of asking whether and how non-academic producers of knowledge might be taken seriously, as well as what constitutes an “area” as a position from which to speak. In other words, how and why do we imagine Somalia or Somali Studies to be a discrete and self-evident area of expertise? And how might producers of knowledge outside the academy be given a voice as something other than representatives of such an area?

In a desire to expand the debate, we invited responses from three scholars of African studies. The comments that follow are the provisional result to think through #CadaanStudies towards about the broader problematic of knowledge production in area studies.

Amiel Bize, Wendell Marsh, and Elliot Ross


Safia Aidid

The hashtag #CadaanStudies and the social media debate it sparked called for a critical appraisal of the concepts, disciplines and institutions associated with the study of Somalis and the Somali territories. It highlighted that the enabling condition of academic study of the Somali – the construction of Somalis as objects of knowledge to be understood and represented by an external, objective researcher – was that of colonial domination, and that this relationship of domination has continued and taken on new forms following the collapse of the Somali state and the global War on Terror. Many of the foundational texts in Somali Studies were produced and made possible under these conditions, and many of the concepts that continue to dominate analyses of the Somali territories – for instance, clan as the unchanging essence of Somali social and political life – were crystallized during this period. Most importantly, Somali Studies has historically been a Western enterprise – the scholars were Western, the audience was Western, and Somalis figured only as objects of knowledge to be spoken for and represented. This history has structurally positioned Somalis as objects of knowledge rather than its legitimate producers, and through #CadaanStudies, we sought to make explicit the implications and consequences of this for scholarship – both in the privileges it accords to non-Somali researchers, and the obstacles it creates for Somali researchers, routinely overlooked and marginalized as serious scholars.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the debate has been the life it has taken on in social media spaces – its spirit of accessibility, of transparency and of democratized knowledge production. Many Somalis were unaware that Somali Studies even existed as a field before #CadaanStudies, let alone that a Somali Studies conference of primarily Western scholars was scheduled to take place that very summer. Yet, the social media aspect was also used to discredit and delegitimize the critiques, referred to by some as “aggressive,” “inappropriate” and not worth taking seriously unless articulated in a more academic medium (i.e., a peer-reviewed journal like the Somaliland Journal of African Studies). Such responses showed a profound discomfort with public scholarship – the exchange and engagement with the very people with the most at stake in knowledge production about them – and signaled that Somali Studies was a closed circle unwilling to engage with critique except in ways that were legible and credible to its primarily Euro-American gatekeepers.

What has become apparent now is the need to go beyond confronting, deconstructing and responding to these power dynamics in ways that reinscribe and recenter the West, to move towards producing different genealogies of knowledge altogether that are indigenous and non-Eurocentric, and creating alternative spaces for knowledge production and exchange that are open and inclusive. In other words, we need to move towards imagining a decolonial Somali Studies.


Natasha Shivji

The language of legitimacy, credentials and representation imposes a set of limitations and, in effect, conceptual restrictions on how we produce knowledge. These restrictions are of the kind that interrupt and prevent serious engagement with the very structures through which that language is imposed. The limitations are clear in the types of questions we ask: who has the right to speak for whom, in which circumstance and to what end? However, underlying such questions are an assumption about the systemic inequalities that necessitate re-presentation. So perhaps our starting point should be the very problematic of these systemic inequalities in which the confidence to speak, to think and to intellectualize is in the hands of a few. This trajectory takes us deeper than just asking who speaks to interrogate what are they saying and how are they saying it. It moves us away from questions of authenticity and representation that simply legitimize the existing power structure.

While authenticity is deeply grounded in one’s positionality in a certain context, a word like credibility has nothing to do with one’s origins or position. It is determined through struggle and one’s relation to that struggle. It is this very struggle I believe, a space in which the structural and social contradictions are most revealed, in which knowledge can and should be produced. For me, then, the questions are not who has the right to speak and who’s voice is represented but rather what are we saying and how are we radically interrogating the limits of knowledge. How do we produce knowledge in the space of the masses, the oppressed, the workers, the peasants rather than speaking about them?

In relation to African studies, I think there is a need to move away from defensive posturing and towards a reintegration of Africa in a historical, political and intellectual space. Pan-Africanism historically held out such a vision for the continent. The main problematic has been masked as a cultural one: “How do you get all the Africans to come together? We are all so different with so many (constructed) identities.” Perhaps, again, we are moving in the wrong direction. Of course, there are great differences but we are talking of a politico-historical unity formed on the perils of oppression and the struggle against it. A Pan-Africanism produced through struggle and revolution does not presuppose some sense of inherent authenticity. Quite the opposite.

Hence we are speaking of a necessarily antiimperialist, bottom-up approach to analysis and knowledge production, one that is produced not by the dominant forces – be they colonial, neocolonial or comprador-ial – but by the exigency of crisis, revolution and struggle. In this, we have a basis for a conceptual framework for us to create a space in which we can form broader discourses oriented towards the Global South. It no longer has to do with how many Africans, Sub Saharan or North African, East or West Africans, Somali or East African, Coast or Mainland, etc. have a voice but rather from which class are we speaking, from which historic moment are we producing knowledge, what is our conceptual framework, and to where are we oriented. How do we form intellectual and social movements of solidarity and not merely “the authentic and their allies”?


Basil Ibrahim

“Towards a flatter pedagogy?”

#CadaanStudies came into my Twitter timeline by way of a passionate East African social justice campaigner living in the U.S.  Thus, long before I even fully understood what had provoked the hashtag (or what Cadaan meant), her reputation and tweets situated this debate for me in a continuing anticolonial struggle. What was clear was that a northern academic was publicly enforcing and justifying a hierarchy of knowledge production about an African people. This academic sought to explain the marginalization of those who imagined that their voices and opinions counted, but who hadn’t undergone the qualifying rites of passage that would make what they said worthy of attention in and of themselves. He explained the authority won by himself and other academics like him over an amorphous population of East Africans, or what in Swahili are dismissively referred to as wananchi, the children of the country on whose behalf others speak.

On further investigation I encountered individuals like Safia Aidid and Markus Hoehne (a member of SJAS’s advisory board) as I explored the lines along which a multitude of voices were deploying the hashtag against patriarchal authority, the invisibility of African scholars, race thinking and the enduring denigration of Somali people, the north-south divide, hyper-competitive macho academia, and the mirage of meritocracy. It was an articulation of the process by which knowledge producers and distributors gain legitimacy.

I’d like my contribution to this debate to focus on the role of higher education in structuring and justifying exclusion and domination in the world in which we live. It is more than ethnic or national representation. What opinions and points of view are available for consideration matter materially to those who will be governed by the knowledge produced. Who has education, who doesn’t, where and at whose feet were they instructed, what was its content, how is it conveyed to others, in what language does it speak, and what is its relation to other knowledge? The answers to these questions construct an ideology by which we order society and through which exclusion and representation become accepted as necessary.  Communication technologies may invite a broad church into conversations, but the heights that explain and create our world – whether in academia or in media – remain fortresses against the insurgency of the uninitiated. What, after all, would they be for if they weren’t ideological state apparatuses?

So it is that even those of us who imagine ourselves to be against racism, patriarchy, colonialism and the oppression of marginal ethnicities participate in these exclusion. In this way, we allow the outcomes of exclusion and oppression, no matter how unjust, to be blamed on its victims and their lack of education. Sure, there is an understanding that poverty, war and displacement may impede even the most ardent scholar’s efforts, but we seem satisfied to live in a world in which our valuation of human knowledge and our sense of what voices may contribute to public discourse excludes the vast number governed by the consequences of our scholarship. Education, once hailed as the means by which the oppressed and marginalized might come to address and undo their exploitation and improve their collective welfare, now serves to propose for individuals a path to the top of the pyramid where insulated from their previous condition they can share in the governing priesthood that reproduces and justifies domination.  I find it interesting that many East African governments, following the path of Western colonial regimes, describe their primary goal as the eradication of hunger, disease and ignorance. In Kenya and Tanzania, this was translated as kuondoa njaa, ugonjwa na ujinga. “Ignorance” – the lack of knowledge – is translated here as “stupidity”: the people were found stupid, a defect for which school was the cure.

Hopefully, many of us going out into the field to conduct research grapple with the privilege of our position. We flit in, our questions already framed and our mission set. We make persuasive pitches, dissemble as ethically as possible to purchase willing contribution to our investigation, minimize and discourage efforts at expropriation, extract and then leave. All the while, we marvel at the resolute courage with which our new friends face lives of deprivation and hard toil. We understand ourselves to be trained to analyze and synthesize in ways our interlocutors couldn’t manage. We might not allow ourselves an arrogant superiority but we certainly understand that we are implicated in an exclusive level of the hierarchy. For penance, some of us will propose – though few will implement – projects to give back to our subjects, those who connived at our insinuation into their lives.  In this way we show gratitude for their subjection, for their contribution to our intellectual and material advancement. We balm that privilege of ours that has broken out as an itchy rash. We imagine that the knowledge we have come into will benefit these communities, even the world, in some way. At the very least, we are determined not to harm those who welcomed us into their homes and hopefully remember them with great fondness. Aren’t Hoehne and the promoters of the SJAS similarly afflicted?

I’d like to think about Markus Hoehne’s earnest justification for the composition of the Somaliland Journal of African Studies, especially as it is clear that he imagines himself a champion of the Somali people. The Twitterverse reacted to the gender and racial makeup of the body on which Hoehne’s hierarchy rested, but his ideas constitute a more widespread and entrenched practice of representation and exclusion in knowledge production than can be explained through race and gender alone. It embodies an unquestioned tradition by which voices qualify to participate in legitimized spaces of discovery, transmission, exchange and dissent. This tradition is widely accepted as democratic and meritocratic for the promise of social and economic elevation it holds out to the marginalized. To follow Hoehne’s formulation, the excluded remain marginalized from the conversation only if they do not want to put in the effort everyone else had to put in to qualify to speak. Reading Hoehne clarifies an expectation that his audience – the Somali subjects of his work and of the journal – would find him persuasive. The exclusion of Somali academics from the journal’s board and contributors is plainly indefensible. Even so Hoehne, assuming a shared ideological position, hopes that his audience would be nodding along in agreement as he explains this undesirable outcome. He anticipates that they should blame themselves and seek to remedy their exclusion in the manner he prescribes.

What is decolonization if the apparatus that creates the exclusive order by which we are governed persists? #CadaanStudies marks the beginning of an important and urgent debate about the place of the university in our society. Alive to the centrality of higher education in the production and sustenance of an ideology that defines losers and winners, leaders and followers, speakers and audience members, the rich and the poor, we ought to think of the decolonization of the university in more than nationalist or racial terms. As some in the decolonization movement in South Africa make clear, this campaign must include an erasure of the institutional culture and practices that define higher education and its purported purpose. This debate is revealing of much more than it says on the tin. It forces those of us criticizing Hoehne to confront an aporia: at once included and excluded, we are compelled through this debate to witness the full meaning of our privilege, to ask ourselves what sorts of perspectives are excluded by the knowledge culture of which we are a part.


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Bize, Amiel, Wendell Marsh, Elliot Ross, Safia Aidid, Natasha Shivji, Basil Ibrahim. “Reflections on #CadaanStudies.” CSSAAME Borderlines, 13 February 2016.


  1. For a fuller account of the controversy, see Safia Aidid, “Can the Somali Speak? #CanaanStudies.”