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Richard Dowden is Executive Director of the Royal African Society in London ( Richard worked for the Times until 1986 when he became Africa Editor of the Independent and in[…]

The journalist tells the story of the world’s leading organization for African affairs.

Question: What is the history and mission of the Royal African Society?


Richard Dowden: The Royal African Society; it’s just over a 100 hundred years old. And it was founded to take Africa seriously. It was founded by a mixture of academics and business people and it became an academic institution. And its journal, “African Affairs,” is the world’s leading peer-reviewed academic journal on Africa.

I came in about 5 years ago and gave it some other programs. A political one, we worked in Westminster. And [my toll] with government, trying to get them to take Africa seriously and understand it. We worked closely with the African Diaspora in Britain, and with several other partners. And we, now, publish books which are not academic books, write reports, hold meetings. We run the London African Film Festival last year. We’re doing some big cultural events for Africa at the end of this year. So its programs have really diversified but its core messages to get a better understanding of Africa and promote that better understanding.


Question: How do you negotiate Royal African Society’s colonial overtones?


Richard Dowden: We did think about it and we couldn’t come up with another one. It’s very strange. In Africa, in West Africa, where there’re a lot of kingdoms, they love it. The royal Africans have full of respect. South Africa, the opposite. They see it as; you must be trying to recolonize Africa. East Africa, it’s kind of mixed.

And in the end, we thought long and hard about it and we decided to keep the title because it does have a reputation. It had its very distinguished Africanist academic background. And it’s a punch line, if you like, promoting Africa. A better understanding of Africa makes it clear that we’re not about trying to colonize it.

The person it was founded by, in memory of, was this extraordinary woman, Mary Kingsley. She was an anthropologist but she did some amazing travels in West Africa. She was actually very anti-colonialist in many ways. But she said, “If you’re going to do it, do it properly.”

And her agenda was today’s agenda, schools, education, health, you know, development, and treating Africans as equals, as partners, not as a race of people to be civilized, which was the current thinking at the time. So she was already quite a farsighted person.


Recorded: March 16, 2009