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Inside the Programme

Fanidh Sanogo: Going sideways to see differently

Meet Burkinabé anthropologist Fanidh Sanogo (Burkina Faso & UCT, 2020)

Published 2 August 2021

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Fanidh Sanogo is the first Mandela Rhodes Scholar from Burkina Faso. Her parents were human rights activists who were part of the first postcolonial generation in her country. They named her after the Fondation Aimé Nikiema des Droits de l’Homme (FANIDH), a foundation created by the late Burkinabé political activist, Aimé Nikiema. To Fanidh, her name simply means “fight for human rights”. Fanidh grew up in the decade after revolutionary socialist Thomas Sankara was removed from the presidency and assassinated in a coup. Sankara had renamed his country from the French colonial title of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, a name which combines words from the Mossi, Jula and Fula languages and translates to “land of the upright people”.

Asked about what she was like as a child, Fanidh shares the story of a time when she was a small child going to visit family in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on the train. She had trousers on and was running up and down the train. A perplexed fellow-traveller called her over and asked if she was a boy or a girl. “I replied and said ‘I’m Fanidh’.” Names matter, and Sankara’s desire for freedom and true self-determination echoes through this anecdote and alludes to who Fanidh is today.

Growing up, her parents had endless debates, contradicting each other and attacking one another’s ideas. There were no sacred cows – her parents were thoroughly immersed in their politics (which were Marxist and anti-colonial), but they were critical thinkers and eventually began to ask questions about the movements they were in. The seeds of a self-reflective anthropologist were planted. “We have a culture of debate in my family – I learnt to be critical and question everything from a young age,” she says. Fanidh speaks slowly and with feeling, laughs often, and shares openly, thinking out loud.

Fanidh’s journey has been atypical. Many of her peers left home to study in northern, francophone countries like France and Canada. She went to school in Ghana, where she learned English. On being the first Mandela Rhodes Scholar from Burkina Faso, Fanidh was at pains to explain that she is not the smartest or best young Burkinabé in the world: she says that speaking English is a huge factor in accessing opportunities. She won a scholarship to attend the African Leadership University in Mauritius, where she discovered Anthropology.

“In my first year of social science, I was getting information but not understanding, getting the facts but not the roots. I wanted to know more."

Anthropology provides a deep engagement with structural causes, and this quest for the bigger picture has become a theme in Fanidh’s research journey. “Anthropology is a powerful tool and such a detailed way of understanding human experience. It deals with the self and others, and relationships with oneself and others. I was in love with it.”

As a discipline, anthropology has its origins in western thought and was a tool of inquiry used in “foreign” contexts that framed different others as inferior to western subjects (and inquirers). For Fanidh, coming to terms with how her discipline viewed black Africans like herself was a shock. “I read a lot and realised that okay, I am the other. It’s been heart-breaking to realise that this is how I am seen in the discipline that I want to use to make a difference in my society, my community, and the world.” In spite of this, Fanidh says it’s a good time to be an anthropologist. There is a lot of conversation happening about decoloniality.

“We are trying to reconcile its ugly past and present realities. It’s very timely – reconciliation is so relevant and I’m grateful to the MRF for exposing us to this theme. I see it everywhere and in everything.”

She is inspired by the work of first and second generation African anthropologists who write about and theorise African experiences in a respectful way, and hopes that this will be possible in her own research.

When she applied for the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, Fanidh wanted to do research on the practice of female genital cutting (also called female genital mutilation). She had discovered that many development actors in Burkina Faso didn’t know the local names for these practices, and their understanding was therefore limited. She had the idea of creating a dictionary and began working on it to bridge this gap, but as she began to grapple with the discipline of anthropology itself, her questions deepened. She was concerned that her work might end up doing more harm than good, as academia often feeds on “exotic” cultural practices, ultimately contributing to othering. “I was trying to reconcile with the oppressive history of the discipline. I decided it was a bit too much. I was focusing on the topics, not the fundamental questions I was passionate about. Understanding reconciliation has played a big role. I realised that I wasn’t interested in GBV – I was interested in the clash of knowledges. How do we reconcile on sites that have previously been sites of violence and conflict? Through the MRF I realised I have to do a lot of shadow work.” Going deeper has helped Fanidh change her orientation and her approach, and she says the MRF has helped her see that we all have blind spots and favourite sets of lenses with which to see things. “I have felt really held by the MRF and my supervisor at UCT, which has helped me to care for myself and understand myself. I’m in the process of decolonising my approach to research and to myself, and finding my identity as a researcher.”

Fanidh’s Masters is now focused on methodology, which she says is the key to reversing the problems of anthropology’s lens. She says she will do her fieldwork in Burkina, but notes that she wants to be extremely careful about who the participants are, how she talks to them, how their experiences are theorised, and who gets to read the research. She says that she will apply for a PhD after her MA. “When I was in Mauritius everyone was like, ‘which Burkinabé goes to Mauritius?’” She laughs. “Now I’ve got the idea of going to South-East Asia or South America, to continue my decolonial education journey. I am exploring the other, disrupting this North-South relationship and going sideways.”

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