Last year, anthropologist Phillip Thebe from the University of Hong Kong spent nine months in Krems as part of the Ernst Mach Research Fellowship of the ÖAD. We asked the PhD student, who is currently researching the situation of African immigrants in China, for an Interview.

Dear Phillip, in which three words would you spontaneously summarize your research stay at the Department of Migration and Globalisation? 

Educative, adventurous and serene!

Are there any experiences from this time that you will particularly remember?

Yes, there are many experiences that I will cherish about being in Krems, but maybe let me just outline two. The first is the research cluster meetings because that is where I presented a few chapters of my PhD when they were in the early stages. I received a lot of helpful feedback from the collegues in the migration drivers research cluster. I will always appreciate other discussions within the cluster as well, especially on writing research proposals. This is a more than valuable experience for the near future, beyond the PhD. The friendly academic staff and a big office, conversations with fellow PhD students in the entire department – these memories stand out for me. 

The second point I would mention is the environment outside of work. There is a stereotype that Germans are racist, and to be honest, a few Germans I met while in Belgium expressed the same about their compatriots. So, I was not sure what I would see in Krems or Austria as a whole. But, no, people were typically friendly, and this culture is everywhere I went in Austria, including Vienna. They may not speak English, but they will offer a smile, wave a hand, and start a friendly conversation, even if in their local language. They will lend a helping hand. This is honestly heartwarming for an expatriate. 

You are a young, aspiring PhD student in Anthropology and Development Studies; however, you have already gained extensive work experience on three different continents. Are there any similarities or differences in terms of study or research in Zimbabwe, China, Belgium, and Austria that you would like to tell us about?

Researching in different continents has been a window of opportunity for me to learn the different learning and work dynamics. In Africa, being a student was mostly about comprehension of concepts and theories — likewise, lecturing in Africa had to be about the same. We emphasized examinations wherein the learners had to regurgitate what they have been taught. Researching in Africa was also different. It was more about quantity (e.g. how many publications do you have?) than quality (e.g. where have you published?). We had limited resources to engage in research (no funding, no access to the latest academic materials, limited peer-review), which affected our research output. Only those privileged individuals from institutions that hire foreign-trained professors or hold memorandums of understanding with foreign universities could benefit from a more enabling research and learning environment with adequate resources. 

In Europe, both Belgium and Austria, application is crucial. There is an emphasis not only on the comprehension of theories and concepts but also their application to practical situations and lived realities. Policy and institutional environments become essential here. Grassroots narratives become relevant, too. Europe offers more opportunities and funding for research, access to international libraries and recent academic materials, conferences, etc., making studying and researching or working there more permissive or enabling personal and academic growth. Many international students benefited from a wealth of internship experience that enhanced their professional growth. Further still, Europe, being positioned higher in the echelons of academic intelligibility means working or studying there is glorified and reified in many parts of the world. However, in these environments, outside of one’s African comfort zone, one has to deal with cultural and sometimes language differences. For me, this was not a big problem as I was mainly doing researching on Africans and working in departments where the English language was used in a relaxed way. 

Now, over to Asia. Asia is a competitive place growing to be an academic hub. Many universities in Asia rank highly, and it has a wealth of experienced international staff. The urge for competition means Asian institutions emphasize hard, if not overwork — I would say the culture of Asian academia is work, work, work. Resources in Asia, as is the case in Europe, are in abundance, and opportunities for research are plenty – especially looking at my research field of migration. However, the everyday Asian environment is totally different from Europe, where colonial ties with Africa make it easier to resonate with the European environment and cultures. In Asia, the feeling, from my perspective and that of my student interlocutors, is that it is an entirely different world— different religions, cultures, population patterns, languages, work behaviours, etc. This makes it more challenging to integrate compared to Europe, but nevertheless, quite fulfilling once you learn how to negotiate the differences. These are the conditions under which one studies or conducts research. I have been fortunate to work and study in the best institutions in Europe, Asia and Africa that have catapulted me to greater heights. 

This year, you contributed to an exciting open access publication on the topic of "Revitalizing Anthropology". Can you tell us the main theses of your article entitled "An Anthropology for the People"?

This publication began out of my curiosity and interest to test my writing abilities at an international stage. It started as a global student writing competition where I simply wanted to see if my ideas could be relevant, especially in the United States of America— where I have had little exposure. When I was selected as the winner alongside colleagues from Australia and the USA, I felt proud to represent Africa and to grow as an individual. In the essay, published as a chapter in a book edited by professor Robert Borofsky of the Centre for a Public Anthropology in Hawaii, as well as an essay in the esteemed American Anthropological Assossiation’s journal Exertions, which publishes short essays, I explored the systemic and practical challenges that make it difficult for anthropology as a discipline to contribute to development practice (you can replace anthropology with any discipline you want. That is how relevant the publication is for all academic disciplines).

I highlight disciplinary biases and rigidity (e.g., its theories, communication patterns, hierarchical structures etc.) that cocoon it and prevent it from making a positive impact to the general populace. I then proffer solutions, that is to say, the discipline must be more robust in communicating itself to the world, in plugging internal systemic loopholes, in decentralising centres of power, and in using its strengths (especially ethnographic research strengths) to the public’s advantage. I also highlight that whether academic disciplines become effective in solving global challenges depends on individuals that staff such disciplines  whether they have the ethical and moral drive and motivation to make their work relevant for solving global conundrums. 

Please tell us about your current research interests: What topic(s) do you currently find particularly relevant?

While I was in Krems, a few colleagues published articles on return and onward migration. One of my chapters also looks at the future of Zimbabweans and other Sub-Saharan Africans beyond Hong Kong and Mainland China (or Greater China), finding that while a few want to remain in Greater China, a majority in the immediate future want to move onward to other countries in the West, and in the distant future return to Africa. This informs my current and future research aspirations.

When I arrived back in Hong Kong, I began some conversations with my research informants about where they would rather be in the future. Surprisingly, people from West Africa hardly talked about returning to Nigeria, Ghana, etc. But when I conversed with Southern or East Africans, they willingly expressed a desire to return to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania etc. Why do we have these dynamics? This makes it exciting for me to investigate attitudes toward return migration and return migration aspirations amongst African migrants (i.e. Africa to the West, Africa to the East, and Africa to Africa migration corridors). I have already started this work, partly in the context of my PhD, but also through a contribution to the journal International Migration (in progress) where I and other collegues are writing about the lived realities of elderly returnees in Zimbabwe’s Tsholotsho district. 

Phillip, thank you very much for this conversation and sharing your ideas. 

Selected Publications

Thebe, P. and Maviza, G. (2023) "Working from home and the triple role of women in the context of COVID-19-induced lockdowns in Zimbabwe." Journal of Asian and African Studies

Thebe, P. (2023). An anthropology for the people: delving into systemic and practical issues. In R Borofsky, Revitalizing Anthropology Through Benefiting Others: Graduate Student Visions from Australia, Canada, China, Guatemala, Japan, the United States and Zimbabwe.

Thebe, P. (2022). Home Remedies as Agency in the Face of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe. The Oriental Anthropologist22(2), 313–335. https://doi.org/10.1177/0972558X221122253

Philip,  T.  (2019). Determinants of  Feminization of  Migration in  Tsholotsho District of Zimbabwe. Advances  in  Social  Sciences Research Journal, 6(10)297-306

Thebe, P., & Maviza, G. (2019). The effects of feminization of migration on family functions in Tsholotsho district, Zimbabwe. Adv. Soc. Sci. Res. J6(5), 297-306.

Thebe, P., & Ncube, G. (2015). Street entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe: Survivalist or growth-oriented?-A case of Bulawayo city centre. https://isdsnet.com/ijds-v4n2-1.pdf


Philip Thebe, M.A.

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