Neither guilt nor sentimentalism should drive an African diaspora scientist’s choice to return home, writes Sara Suliman, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University in the United States.
Africa’s global diaspora harbours a disproportionate share of the continent’s top scholars and thought leaders. In 2014, the United States Census Bureau reported that Africa-born immigrants had the highest educational attainment in the country, adjusted for their population size, compared to other foreign-born immigrants.
This concentration of credentials in the US alone renders Africa’s diaspora an untapped resource for developing researchers and professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in African countries.
But what should drive their choice to go back home? What does ‘home’ mean to them anyway? And what internal resolve and external support are needed to make sure such transitions are successful? As a diaspora scientist myself living in the US and studying tuberculosis, which disproportionately affects Africa, this is something I have pondered.
I was born in Sudan and my family has strong ties to the continent. But I spent the vast majority of my life between the Middle East and North America places my family, like many others, moved to in order to endow us with better economic and educational opportunities. Although my ties to Africa remained relatively strong, I often considered my position of relative privilege and how to channel it to serve Africa without feeding into the narcissistic ‘saviour’ trope.
Consequently, I spent a few years in South Africa where I
Reasons to leave
I know I’m not alone. Many of my diaspora friends and colleagues grapple with the same feelings of longing and guilt. On the face of it, conditions for our return have never been better. We are living through a period of unprecedented growth in STEM innovation in Africa. Research output between 2003-2012 effectively doubled compared to the previous decade, and it continues to grow exponentially. A lot of growth is still needed: Sub-Saharan African research still accounts for less than 1% of the world’s output, although the region accounts for 14% of its people. To increase this proportion, Africa needs a lot more scientists.
But there are still good reasons to leave, at least temporarily. Junior African scientists are expected to spend more time on infrastructure and capacity development than young researchers in wealthier parts of the world while scavenging for resources, sometimes within very challenging political and economic contexts. This can curtail their scientific productivity.
By contrast, if they go overseas they will have access to better equipment, build networks, and learn how to compete for funding—things that will position them better to contribute meaningfully when they do return. One example of this is Zambian chemistry professor Kelly Chibale who built a network of academic and industry partners during the early stages of his career in the United Kingdom and
And for those of us pondering whether to return, there is further complexity. In post-colonial Africa, artificial borders drawn up by colonists became the boundaries of modern-day countries. We may claim one of these countries as home by virtue of our place of birth, passports, or parental ancestry. But our desire for ‘home’ may not be about returning to a particular country.
Some diaspora scientists may feel that their best way of giving back to the continent is to relocate to one of its scientific
Conditions for our return have never been better. Africa’s research output between 2003-2012 effectively doubled compared to the previous decade, and it continues to grow exponentially.
More support needed
Unfortunately, there are few mentors who can encourage young scientists to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the intra-African diaspora for collective African benefit. I, for one, would like to see a wider discussion about this collective benefit of scientific mobility within Africa. This could shape research into pressing issues like healthcare systems, infectious disease control, mass
There isn’t a universal formula for the trajectory of young African scientists, particularly when personal circumstances
There are still good reasons to leave, at least temporarily
Importantly, diaspora scientists can’t do it alone. Policymakers in Africa need to address the reasons behind the current exodus of African scientists and facilitate funding streams to create sustainable opportunities, retain young scientists, and facilitate their work of advancing STEM in Africa. Local institutions need to devise career trajectories to help diaspora scientists integrate upon their return. But these
Sara Suliman is a post-doctoral fellow studying the immunology of tuberculosis at Harvard Medical School in the United States .