Alexander Zheltov was a student of Dmitry Olderogge, one of the founding fathers of the St Petersburg school of African studies. He was also in touch with his uncle, the renowned Africanist and human rights activist Nikolai Girenko. Today, Professor Zheltov continues the tradition of studying African languages ​​and cultures, trying to get first-year students interested in Africa.

Dmitry Olderogge used to ask the newly enrolled students of his academic department, ‘How did you get here?’ In such a kidding manner he wanted to find out why they had decided to embark on a journey with African studies. This is probably one of the very first questions that one would like to ask people who have chosen such an exotic field of study. First-year students always answer in approximately the same way: ‘just interesting’, ‘exotic’, or ‘Africa is rich in valuable natural resources’. Alexander Zheltov is sure Africa is worth exploring for quite a number of other reasons too. He told the St Petersburg University journal why African studies can be useful in solving the global problems of humanity.

How did you ‘get here’ yourself? Did you decide to delve into African studies right after leaving school?

The interview was published in the St Petersburg University journal, issue No 02 (3922) dated 17 March 2020.

I knew for sure that I wanted to do something dealing with humanities, related to people, culture and society. Yet the whole situation in the country was unfavourable for such studies at the time: I became a University student in 1984, in the Era of Stagnation. Many questions of the humanities were to be answered only from the perspective of ‘the conflict between productive forces and production relations’. The statement itself is fair, but if the entire history is reduced to that, it becomes boring. With Africa, it was not like that at all. Africa made it possible to study man and society without using this rigid framework. There was, of course, a craving for African exoticism. I think, every person has such a craving.

My choice of profession was partially influenced by my mother’s cousin, the well-known Africanist Nikolai Girenko. He told us a lot of interesting things about Africa, touching upon the serious problems that this continent was facing and their reasons. His explanations were difficult to perceive. To understand everything, I had to make serious efforts, but that was exactly what attracted me. School lessons were quite the opposite: too simple and therefore not interesting to me.

My uncle never told me directly, ‘Sasha, you should pursue African studies’. Moreover, he believed that he even discouraged me from choosing this speciality. However, his many-sided personality was attractive: he was not only a scientist but also a perfect singer and guitar player. He was also a fluent speaker of Swahili. For me, all these skills and talents were associated with uncle Nikolai and, of course, with African studies.

Which of the answers to the question ‘Why did you choose African studies?’ do you prefer: ‘Because it's just interesting’ or ‘In order to mine diamonds in South Africa’?

The first one: there are 55 countries in Africa, with 2,000 languages ​​spoken. They need to be studied. For science, no further explanations are required. Africa is so diverse and therefore particularly interesting. I prefer such an answer than that dealing with diamond mining. Of course, Africa can be studied for the sake of exploitation of its valuable resources, yet therein lies the danger of ‘geopolitical football’ playing. It happens when a continent is looked upon only as a target area. The conventional field is occupied by the ‘old players’, Europe and the USA, and the new ones, China and Turkey. They are pushing each other. I do not think Russia should adopt this approach: to exploit this troubled continent even more. It seems unpromising to me, because such an attitude is a good tactic but a bad strategy. Let me give an example. In a way, the Soviet Union's policy in Africa turned out to be more proactive than that in Eastern Europe. It is not associated with either exploitation or control. It arouses sympathy in African people due to its particular ‘altruism’. This is manifested, for instance, in Soviet assistance rendered in the construction of factories, cultural centres, hospitals, universities, and other socially important objects.

Besides keen interest and pragmatic considerations, what other motives are there to study African languages ​​and cultures?

Modern society needs people, including Africanists, living not only within the framework of their cultural dimension. Humanity has gone through three major information revolutions. First, language appeared, a unique tool for transmitting information; then writing was invented; and finally, mobile telephony and the Internet. The speed of information transfer helped us triumph not only over time but also over space. All people were immersed in a single information field: now you can instantly learn about an event happening anywhere in the world. The existing global information space is radically changing the world and society, which is still divided into socio-political systems. People who understand the language, culture, literature and lifestyle of other ethnic groups and have the ability to see the world from different angles will help others to cope with this challenge. They will integrate themselves into the information space. If a society has a sufficient number of such people, it will develop successfully.

Could you please explain using specific examples how exploring Africa can help us solve global problems?

My teachers kept reminding me that studying Africa helps us better understand ourselves and the world around us. Many important humanitarian ideas were formulated by the scientists using evidence from the African continent. For example, Nikolai Girenko described in his works the division into cultural and social dimensions. This theory can be applied, for instance, to a television debate related to whether ethnicity should be indicated in passports. The answer to this question can be approached as follows: the national passport is a document of socio-political reality, while the ethnic group is a cultural identification. These two dimensions must not be mixed. A person's ethnicity indicated in the national passport can be either useless or cause discrimination or protectionism on account of this person's ethnic descent. Let me give another example: a discussion about the acceptability of wearing a hijab at school. In my opinion, it is impossible to restrict access to social institutions on the grounds of cultural identifiers. At the same time, the attitude towards the niqab (a veil that completely covers the face) should be different. In this case, cultural identification violates the social norms – this is also wrong.

How did so many problems such as poverty, ethnic clashes and so on, arise in Africa?

The crisis phenomena in Africa are partly caused by the unnatural borders that developed after colonialism. They follow the lines drawn by Europeans. As a result, internal political and ethnic conflicts arise. They pose a threat to the life of the local population. People flee from Africa to Europe and other places – that is how the problem of migration arises. This is an example of the consequences of exploitation of other states and ethnic groups. That is why it is necessary to stop exploiting Africa and perceiving it as a source of income.

Our exploitation of the riches of the equatorial provinces without a legal right to do so could have some material success. However, it would have a disastrous impact on our moral influence on Abyssinia. In addition, the imperial government, guided by the principles of legality and justice, cannot allow a violation of these principles by a society under its protection.
The 12 June 1902 memorandum of Konstantin Lishin, Russian Empire's Resident Minister in Abyssinia (Ethiopia)

Nikolay Leontiev, an adventurer and retired lieutenant of the guard, organised a commercial society in Abyssinia. The legality of this enterprise was rather doubtful. The possibility of the Russian government's taking custody of this society was being considered, and in his note Lishin expressed his opinion on that matter. To my mind, this is the right strategy for any country's behaviour in relation to Africa.

How can Africa be helped?

There is no simple answer to this question. Sending free food there means undermining the local economy, which will become uncompetitive. Regular flights delivering food supplies to the continent with a population of one billion people is an almost unworkable idea. Such actions are a short-term solution applicable only in case of emergency. It is inefficient to provide the African economy with financial incentives without an effective system of socio-political organisation and resource distribution: the money will go straight to the pockets of officials and the population will have no chance to use it. The development of a settlement framework for the existing inequalities between different African regions is a serious humanitarian problem. It can be resolved by the efforts of the international community, with the African population being actively involved.

‘Fieldwork’: on African expeditions

In the Soviet era, it was extremely difficult to be sent on an expedition, so scientists were mainly concerned with theoretical problems. My first travel to Africa was in 2002. I was accompanied by Valentin Vydrin, a lecturer at St Petersburg University. At present he is Professor at the National Institute for Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations in Paris. Valentin Vydrin organised an expedition to Côte d’Ivoire to study the Mande languages – many African languages ​​have not yet been described. The expedition was funded by a Swiss foundation, and the participants were Russians. In general, starting from the early 2000s, our lecturers who were Africanists began to actively travel across the African countries that they were studying. Yet the problem with trips remains burning: some countries are not safe; there are difficulties with logistics; and sometimes there is lack of funding. St Petersburg University teachers usually go on expeditions in winter, after the mid-term exams, because in summer the weather in Africa is bad and intensive rains make many locations unreachable by car. During the rest of the academic year the teachers are busy with academic work. Sometimes we take students with us, so that they could also engage in fieldwork in Africa.

I mainly go on linguistic expeditions, and these are not romantic trips but hard work. While on an expedition, I need a computer, electricity and good informants – native speakers. Recording informants is about 10-20% of the work, the rest is analysis of what has been heard.
Alexander Zheltov, Doctor of Philology, Professor, Head of the Department of African Studies, St Petersburg University

For example, one word can be pronounced in seven different tones. It can be fixed not only by ear but also using special software. The scientist’s task is to understand whether, in one particular case, the fact of the informant's pronouncing the word in different tones means anything or not. Also, does the meaning of the word change if it is pronounced in different registers. If the language of the informant has not yet been described by other scientists, the task becomes extremely difficult.

If people ask me to tell them something interesting about the expeditions, I usually speak about my expedition to the Nigerian province of Adamawa. It was there that I had the chance to video record a Nyong initiation rite: boys' symbolic transition into adulthood. This material is unique, because this rite gradually becomes archaic as the local population is increasingly adopting Christianity or Islam. I walked all around the place and made videos using non-professional equipment. It was a successful expedition from the perspective of linguistic material collection. Besides, I had an interesting informant: the first Nyong with higher education. He worked as a judge at a local arbitration court. However, it rather complicated our work: he had a lot to do, so he was often distracted by phone calls. Another expedition, a sociolinguistic one, was to Kenya and Tanzania in 2013. Such a big trip was made possible because there were five of my students in East Africa at the moment and they helped me a lot. I explored the Swahili language then. I studied its varieties and its variability depending on the region and the ethnicity of the speaker. Swahili is the language of interethnic communication in East Africa. It is spoken by about 100 million people belonging to different ethnic groups.