Faisal Garba Muhammed wins 2020 Emerging Researcher Award

11 May 2021

Dr Faisal Garba Muhammed, winner of the Faculty of Humanities' 2020 Emerging Researcher Award

11 May 2021

Dr Faisal Garba Muhammed, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, has won the faculty's prestigious Emerging Researcher ard for 2020.

We sat down with Dr Garba and asked him to take us through his academic journey so far and his plans for the future.

Congratulations on receiving the award. What does the Emerging Research Award mean to you and for your career?

Thank you for the wishes. It is humbling for one’s work to be recognised by peers and colleagues, most of whom are much more senior. The award is humbling, and I am very grateful. Such an award also carries some responsibility – it is an indication of what is expected of one in the future.

In terms of my career, I think signifies the capacity for growth. That one can continue learning and getting better at what one does. It is a boost to know that my chosen research foci are useful. It is an additional reason to keep learning and finding out new things about society.

Tell us about your academic journey so far.

I was trained in Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ghana, Legon. I fell in love with critical theory and decided to go to what in my undergraduate mind was the home of critical theory – Frankfurt, Germany. After spending some months in Frankfurt, bettering my German and trying to begin my Master’s, I realised that I was at least 50 years late - there wasn’t much Critical Theory left in Frankfurt. I then chanced upon the Global Studies Programme in Freiburg. That was how I spent a semester at UCT as part of my master’s studies. And that marked the beginning of my relationship with UCT. My training has been varied. I studied geography for two years during my undergrad days. I studied and work on political economy, and African history. I have some training in financial planning in the midst of crisis. My journey has seen me train in Africa, Asia and Europe. It has been very nomadic. Perhaps it is no wonder that I study migration.

How did you come to be interested in issues like migration, class and social theory, African historical sociology and so on?

My interest in migration was rather an attempt to systematically understand something that was always around. Many members of my family live across West Africa – in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso. I also have relatives in Germany and other parts of Europe and North America. I come from a clerical Islamic home. Some of my forebearer spent a lot of time travelling and teaching the Quran, Hadith and other Islamic texts. So, movement has always been a part of my upbringing and imagination.

An uncle of mine has lived in Germany for close to 30 years. He and his friends visit family in Ghana, and I happen to encounter a lot of them whenever they visited. In Ghana they are called “burgers” an adaptation of the German equivalent for citizen. It is an appellation for a “been to” – people who are worldly and urbane. And many young people hope to achieve the status of “burger”. My uncle who is an ex-footballer and an Islamic/Arabic teacher was part of this “burger” trend.

His friends who visit Ghana from Germany will often complain of the power outages in Ghana, the heap of waste, blocked drainage, mosquitoes and many other things about Ghana. They contrast the failings of Ghana with the efficiency of their “place”, meaning Germany. Just before I began University, I went to Germany to visit my uncle and his wife. I encountered the same set of people in my uncle’s circles that regularly complained of all the bad things about Ghana whenever they were in Ghana. The difference is that this time they were fondly speaking about “home” and the humanity, warmth, freedom and happiness that home assured. Home meant Ghana. They complained of the rigidity, passiveness, mental stresses, discrimination and exploitation they experienced in German society. Germany was no longer “our place”. I was puzzled by this. I was then writing for a left-leaning newspaper in Ghana. I was thus aware of the lop-sidedness of the global political economy and labour exploitation. But I did not have the tools to make sense of the divide between their view of Germany while in Ghana, and the view of Ghana when they are Germany.

I was keen to understand this difference in views depending on location. At the university of Ghana, we study for four years towards a BA (honours) degree. By the 4th year you wrote a long essay if you were majoring in a subject. I majored in Sociology and minored in Philosophy. In my second year, I was to visit Germany so I approached a lecturer and asked if she could supervise my long essay. She was a bit surprised as I was only in my second year. I explained my ideas to her and that I wanted to use my visit to Germany to collect data for my long essay which was due in about 2 years. She agreed to supervise me and that was the beginning of my work on migration. I wrote a long essay on the social participation of Ghanaian migrants in Frankfurt, Germany. My supervisor, Prof. Akosua Darkwah of the University of Ghana’s Sociology Department remains a mentor.

I went on to write my MA thesis on African migrant workers in Germany and SA and wrote a PhD on solidarity and precarity among African Migrant workers in Germany.

Historical Sociology is something I came to later in my studies. As a student of sociology, the past is very important in understanding social structures. How societies come to be is crucial in framing problems, in thinking conceptually and in arriving at situated analysis. This is important in avoiding mechanical analysis, and in order to think in context and comparatively.

My interest in social class just like migration, came out of my surroundings. I grew up seeing young girls working as maids in the houses of the well-to-do. I saw many young boys of my age not in school. As I grew older, I saw more poverty and more inequality around me. I also came to know that Ghana is a very rich country in terms of resources, it is the second largest producer of cocoa in the World. Yet, many cocoa labourers struggle to feed themselves while they produce what keeps beverage multinationals rich. It was really an attempt to understand the stark inequality in society. As I read and learned I realised this was replicated in many other parts of the world. I remember seeing homeless people sleeping outside in very extreme conditions during my first visit to Germany. I turned to social class to understand the poverty and inequality that I saw around me.

Theory, as Amilcar Cabral said, was a weapon that enabled me to make sense of the divide that I grew up seeing. Theory thought me to holistically understand why we have inequality, how it is sustained and what to do about it. Theory is very important in life. We all move around with one or more theory about something or the other.

Why is it important for sociologists, and society in general, to grapple with these issues?

If we take migration, the world is rapidly urbanising, 3 years ago the urbanisation rate in Africa was 41 percent. By 2050 the vast majority of Africa’s population is projected to live in urban areas. People will keep moving in search of livelihood, for refuge and as a normal part of human existence. Migration is fundamental to the making of human society. More so in Africa where historically polities had to attract people as a measure of prestige but also for labour and taxation purposes. This has given rise to heterogenous societies and a shifting relationship and outlook to place and identity. This trend will continue. Africa is the youngest Continent in the World – about 60% of people in Africa are under the age of 25. Young people want to explore. Every aspect of our societies will come to be defined more and more by heterogeneity and difference. What we do with this is important. Do we exclude or do we rethink the existing means of social incorporation? The path that a society chooses will come to define its future – for good or for bad. As students of society, this is very a important area of inquiry for us. And wider society needs to grapple with it too

How is the UKRI/GCRF Migration project going? Could you tell us about its aims and raison d’etre?

The project has just been hit by the recent cuts to UKRI funding. A significant part of our funding for the 2021/2022 financial year has been affected. We have had to scale back on some of our planned activities. Nonetheless we are proceeding. We have a round of fieldwork starting in May. The UKRI/GCRF South-South, Migration, development and Inequality Hub is still the biggest migration project in the World. It brings together researchers working in 16 countries across the Global South to study the dynamics of mobility in societies of the South with a focus on how migration relates to: Poverty and inequality; the movement of goods, ideas and people; gender relations; the usage of ICTs, access to rights and forms of mobilisation and solidarity, among others. An important part of the work is the need to shift the basis of migration studies and knowledge production. While the bulk of human movement happens in the Global South - for example, the majority of Africans who migrate move within in Africa, and most of those who intend to move want to go to other African countries - migration research agenda is dominated by the policy imperatives of the European Union and individual European countries largely aimed at stopping movement and in furtherance of a fortress Europe. Our agenda is different.We are proceeding by viewing migration as a normal social reality that defines human society – from its peopling to its sustenance. We therefore study migration historically and comparatively. One of the objectives is to ground the production of knowledge on migration in Africa and in the South, while at the same time engaging in a worthwhile conversation with the world. To sustain this, we hope to train a crop of students who will ask original questions and, in the process, expand our understanding of human movement in all its complexities.

Any other comments you’d like to make, please feel free.

I want to thank my colleagues in the Sociology Department for their support. It is a an intellectually enriching and humane environment. I am also grateful to colleagues across the University and beyond for allowing me to learn and share with them. My students and many community activists and movements have thought me to learn and be grounded in things beyond me. I am most grateful to all of them and many others that are too numerous to be mentioned.