Tarzan of the Apes: Misplaced Hubris in Conservation Graduate Students

Broadly speaking, there are 3 kinds of students who seek to interview Dr. Mordecai Ogada as part of their research.

Firstly, there is the lazy one. These are (mostly Kenyan) students who are looking for a shortcut. They know I am knowledgeable in their chosen field, but above all, they don’t want me as their supervisor because they know I am serious and will make them work (read; THINK). The lazy supervisors they have chosen advise them to come to me for ideas and even give them my contacts. They expect me to be flattered because they were referred to me by a professor.

Secondly, there are the foreign students (mostly from the UK and the US). They have obviously read enough of my work and seen enough about me on the internet to know that my thinking is important in the field of conservation. However, due to racial prejudices, they feel that having an (indigenous) African name on the references list at the end of your paper on conservation in Africa will compromise its “Tarzan” value and your credentials as an ‘Africa expert’ (whatever that is). They are also extremely averse to having me as a supervisor, because my name on their thesis could imply that they have been exposed to the truth and compromise their chances of getting a ‘Tarzan’ (or Jane) job at the Nature Conservancy, WWF, and the like. I’m still trying to work out if it is an anglo-saxon thing, because this attitude is completely absent from students I have dealt with in Germany and India.

Third (and frankly, the greatest threat to my mental health) are the Kenyan students in western universities (they combine the worst of the 2 above categories).They want to impress their peers and teachers with their knowledge, but don’t want to quote an African name in their writings. This is because they want to show their hosts how much they have embraced the knowledge being imparted on them, and they also want to reassure the host that the scholarship is ‘developing Africa’ and that there is no substantial knowledge that preexisted what he or she is going to take ‘back home’. They always want to do these zoom interviews and ask ‘casual’ questions on serious policy issues in a manner that cannot be referenced in any literature. The most vexing part of this is the ubiquitous reference to time (‘The interview will take 45 minutes of your time’). It takes an intellectual invertebrate not to realize that the knowledge they are seeking to pilfer from me took over 20 years to gain.

This isn’t ignorance, it is hubris and internalized prejudice. Most importantly, this particular scholar won’t stand for it

This post is just to rebuke those whose pretensions of academic work irritate us. There are the wonderful ones who ask to be supervised, who quote our works, challenge our writings, and even write to us asking for clarifications of our work. The ones who listen to our talks and conversations and reach out to us. You’re the reason we do all this. Aluta continua.