SOAS, a Long 40 Years Ago. (Diaspora: Africans in Britain)

By Goodwin, Clayton | New African, January 2002 | Go to article overview

SOAS, a Long 40 Years Ago. (Diaspora: Africans in Britain)


Goodwin, Clayton, New African


Forty years ago, our correspondent Clayton Goodwin was a student at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the same school that other former students have accused of academic racism. "The Battle of Adwa, won by the Africans and not by the Europeans for once, was described by our female lecturer as a 'humiliating defeat' whereas the battles lost by the Africans were not seen as 'humiliating'," wrote Ursula Troche, a former SOAS student in New African February 2000. Last month, we asked our now "Good Old" Clayton Goodwin to revisit his old haunts at SOAS and find out what was happening. This is his report.

It was a strange homecoming. I had not crossed the threshold for almost 40 years. Yes, I have walked past the premises almost once a week since then, and from time to time have used its pathways as a shortcut. However I had not passed through the doors of SOAS in the heart of London for ... since a very different age.

And, it isn't only me that needed to lay a few old ghosts. So many stories carried in our pages have referred to personalities, events and research from SOAS that our editor thought that I had better go back to school.

Yes, it was a different age. Then the students, a mere handful compared to the many more swirling around from other nearby colleges, were the children of British/white administrators looking to continue their connections in what were still "the colonies", British/white radicals looking to bring about the end of that colonialism and, in the process, alter their own societies, and an increasing collection of Africans, Arabs and Asians looking forward to running those soon-to-be-independent countries.

There was also a smattering of Belgians looking to follow in Henry Morton Stanley's footsteps, military men seeking a career "East of Suez" and Americans wondering what the "Third World" was all about.

The atmosphere crackled with political anticipation. Africans took to the street, and to their voices, on hearing of the murder of Patrice Lumumba.

Old-colonials wept when the South Africa of apartheid walked out of the Commonwealth -- or, as they would say, Empire.

Liberals of all nationalities wound their way to Westminster Central Hall to nod sagely at the wise words of Pundit Nehru.

And all of us shuddered under the threat of nuclear annihilation in the Cuban missile crisis.

SOAS today

Today's SOAS, now a campus rather than a single building, teems with life as a nest of termites. The number of Japanese students is remarkable -- and all seem to be so much younger!

German, I was told, was the most common language outside of English: it is the age of the European Union.

In fact, the School, whose raison d'etre in "my day" seemed to be the teaching of language, now offers comparatively few Oriental and African languages -- including Amharic, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Yoruba and, possibly, Zulu. There is so much more to life than merely learning how "the other half' speaks.

The Afghanistan "crisis" was then at its height. Surely, here with the Middle East, Near East and Far East departments was the place to hear students debating vociferously -- and maybe coming to blows -- on the merits of the Taliban, Bin Laden, Bush-Blair and the Northern Alliance.

If it is true that the greatest impetus to the School's development was in the teaching of Japanese to the military, the administrators and to spies during World War II, then I was in the right place to find out what the politicians were not telling us. Alas, I heard many subjects discussed in several tongues, but the right buzzwords were not there. Ah, in this modern age even students are not what they were!

From the brochure handed to me was re-assured that the original purpose of SOAS, which received its Royal Charter and became a college of the University of London in 1916, was the teaching of Asian and African languages. …

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