ALMA Reviews Blog: Learning from Student Dissertations: Lessons from Kenya
Learning from Student Dissertations: Lessons from Kenya
Rather than reviewing one academic piece for the ALMA Reviews Blog, in this post I wish to draw attention to the value of university dissertations written by African students at African universities. I propose that engaging with such underused literature offers scholars access to precious local perspectives while also supporting African students by helping them to develop their international visibility.
First, a bit of context. In the early 2010s, I was living in Nairobi, collecting data for my doctorate in anthropology focused on religious mobility in urban Kenya. Although the topic of religious mobility was widely discussed all around me – my research mainly kept to mainstream forms of Christianity and was conducted at the height of the Pentecostal boom – I was struggling to find recent and relevant academic publications grounded in Kenyan case studies. Keen to draw on local voices, I began collecting church brochures and pamphlets from street vendors, memoirs written by church elders and Kenyan novels that highlighted religious themes. I made myself a folder for Kenyan TV news clips and listened to popular gospel musicians and, perhaps most usefully, skimmed the daily newspapers in search of religious content. Religion – and Christianity in particular – being much revered in Kenya, these sources largely took strong ideological positions and for the most part aligned themselves with the pious rhetoric of the church.
A month before my departure from Nairobi, I decided to try my luck among local university libraries. I already knew Mbûgua Wa Mûngai’s (2004) fantastic PhD dissertation on identity politics in Nairobi through the prism of the matatu (minibus) subculture, and wondered why I hadn’t seen more of Wa Mûngai’s work. As dissertations in general, and African dissertations in particular, suffer from low visibility, I asked myself what other scholarly treasures of Kenyan origin I might have missed. Although the early 2010s were a time of proliferation of private institutions of tertiary education in Kenya, as elsewhere in the region, I nonetheless decided to keep my search to well-established universities such as the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University, as well as theological colleges such as Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (today under Africa International University), where religion naturally presents itself as a central area of research.
Through these visits to university libraries, I identified a total of about 100 dissertations on religion in Kenya. Crucially, the works were recent, with nearly all of them written after the rise of neo-Pentecostalism and the massive liberalisation of the religious market around the 1990s. The works—supplemented by others over time (e.g. Lowoton 2018)—were mostly written at the Master’s level, but also included a number of doctoral theses. In going over them, I was especially curious to see which questions Kenyan students pose to their own society with regard to religion.
Thematically, the dissertations I found shed light on a range of topics barely treated by the international literature familiar to me, such as interdenominational mobility (Wafula 2003) and informal religious gatherings (Ezekiel 1995; Samita 2004). Authors often used their first-hand access to data in a creative manner, such as in a Master’s dissertation by Peter Atoyebi (2008), who looked at a church’s membership records over a ten-year period to argue for the efficacy of home fellowships for evangelisation. I followed with interest as some authors did not shy from controversial topics, such as the reintegration of ex-convicts into local churches (Tokpa 2005) or the place of atheists in Kenyan society from legal and Christian perspectives (Lowoton 2018).
To be clear, many of the dissertations were also riddled with what, from my point of view, seemed like flaws. Many seemed to suffer from editorial omissions, sweeping generalisations and assumptions that I considered academically dubious. At times, I was taken aback by an unapologetic moralising tone: many pieces, especially those written within church-sponsored institutions, were conceived with the explicit intention of elucidating “the appropriate ways to engage the Muslims into dialogue and […] to win them for Christ” (Chepkirui 2008: 45; also see Mutamba 2007, Wahinya 2008). In their structure, too, such faith-informed dissertations maintain an engaged stance, following a fixed format that concludes with a “recommendations” section.
In retrospect, however, I find it difficult to discern the extent to which these seemingly problematic elements might have been the result of divergent academic conventions between Kenyan academia and my habitual academic milieu (which, to use a sweeping generalisation, I would conceive as the Global North). However they may be characterised, these discrepancies reveal divergences in the production of knowledge that impede Kenyan scholars-in-the-making from breaking into the international academic community. This is part of a wider problem of communication and omission, one that confronts us with the usual suspects regarding the intellectual marginalisation of academics from the South, but even more intensely in the case of research students. In recent years, I have noticed that more and more Kenyan student dissertations are uploaded online. This development certainly increases their visibility and allows researchers like me to find them more easily – and hopefully, by citing them, boost their authors’ academic reputations. At the same time, however, the fact that sometimes excellent dissertations are uploaded unmodified rather than reworked into publications in well-regarded academic outlets could be taken as an indication of a broken system, as such uploads fail to optimise the academic capital that the authors could have gained from their work. This course of action also misses out on the opportunities associated with the reviewing processes itself, not only as a means to refine the final product but also for the author, as an opportunity to build one’s confidence and become integrated into an international community of peers.
The role of well-meaning mediators, such as thesis supervisors and informal mentors, is essential for helping students everywhere to grow into independent scholars, but is even more crucial in contexts suffering from the consequences of an uneven global playing field. Wherever mentorship support and academic infrastructure is lacking, Global North actors, including journals, may step in and offer writing workshops and other programmes aimed at preparing Global South academics-to-be to meet international publication criteria. Absent that, I believe that helping to increase visibility and publication avenues for dissertations will go a long way towards supporting young scholars from the South. Such support will also benefit Global North researchers by allowing them access to local perspectives on their subjects of interest.
Reviewed by: Yonatan N. Gez*
*The author wishes to thank Ruthie Wenske for her helpful comments on a draft of this piece.
- Atoyebi, Peter Olusola. 2008. “The Impact of House Fellowships in Numerical Church Growth: A Case Study of New Dandora Pentecostal in Nairobi, Kenya.” MA dissertation, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.
- Chepkirui, Catherine K. 2008. “A Survey on Members’ Perception of Faith Cathedral Church on Muslim Evangelism and Its Implications for Mission.” MA dissertation, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.
- Ezekiel, Grace Bosibori. 1995. “Popular Religion: A Study of Some Lunch Hour Religious Assemblies in Nairobi.” MA dissertation, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.
- Lowoton, Oliver Erupe. 2018. “The Place of Atheists in Kenyan Society: Legal and Christian Perspectives.” MA dissertation, University of Nairobi.
- Mutamba, Evans K. 2007. “The Role of Miracles in the Process of Conversion of Muslims from Islam to Christianity: A Case Study in Voi.” MA dissertation, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.
- Samita, Zacharia Wanakacha. 2004. “Christian Evangelistic Crusades and their Contributions to the Growth of the Church in Kenya with Reference to Nairobi.” PhD dissertation, Kenyatta University.
- Tokpa, Eddie. 2005. “Reintegration of Ex-convicts into the Local Church: A Case Study of Philemon Ministry at Nairobi Chapel.” MA dissertation, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.
- Wa Mûngai, Mbûgua. 2004. “Identity Politics in Nairobi Matatu Folklore.” PhD dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
- Wafula, Elizabeth Were. 2003. “Inter-denominational Mobility of the Faithful among Churches in Nairobi.” MA dissertation, University of Nairobi.
- Wahinya, Robert K. 2008. “Understanding Teenagers’ Church Participation in Mugoiri Location of Murang’a District in Kenya.” MA dissertation, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.
Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe