CSUDH Professor of History Bianca Murillo has received a 2022 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship through the Awards for Faculty program for her next book, Financing Africa’s Future: A Socio-Economic History of Ghana, 1950-1980. The highly competitive NEH faculty awards support advanced humanities research by scholars at Historically Black Colleges, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities. A total of 25 grants were awarded nationally.
This is Murillo’s second major project involving Ghana—her first book, Market Encounters: Consumer Cultures in Twentieth-Century Ghana was published in 2017. That book traced the evolution of consumerism in the colonial Gold Coast and independent Ghana from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s. Her new book project looks to build on that work.
Financing Africa’s Future will focus on the nation’s post-independence period, from the late 1950s to the 1980s. “There are several overlapping themes, but I’ve added new characters to the story,” says Murillo. “The new book adds international businessmen, private investors, and World Bank consultants to the mix. I’m also investigating some notorious cases of fraud and scandal.”
Murillo’s primary goal in writing the book is to help readers understand how the global economy works, and how banks, multinational companies, and global financial institutions have affected the economic aspirations and autonomy of places like Ghana. “I’m not sure that people think about how larger global financial systems shape their everyday lives and opportunities,” she says. “I want the book to offer that perspective; it’s important to make these links between the world of global finance and the world of everyday people.”
Murillo developed her interest in African history while taking undergraduate African studies courses at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). “Ghana always kept popping up,” she recalls. “It was one of the first African countries to gain independence. It had a really dynamic, charismatic leader in Kwame Nkrumah, who is considered the father of Pan-Africanism. Plus, at that time, UCSB had a number of West African specialists, and a few that focused on Ghana. All the stars were aligning, and I became fascinated by Ghana’s history.”
Murillo continued her graduate studies at UCSB, eventually earning a PhD in history with concentrations in African history, colonialism and empire, and feminist studies. She has spent the last 17 years living in and working Ghana off and on, staying in the capital city of Accra most summers.
Why has a professor from California devoted her scholarship to this subject? “African history is world history,” she answers. “Anyone interested in understanding contemporary political, economic, and social issues from a global perspective must study the history of Africa and the African diaspora.
“People often think of Africa as a poor continent, but it’s actually the richest—in raw materials and resources,” she adds. “African economic history can teach us a lot about how global economies work and give us a better understanding of the global disparities of wealth we see today.”
Because the world of international finance is global, Murillo has done a lot of traveling while researching her latest project. “It draws on sources and evidence from Ghana, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. Many of the files I’m looking at haven’t been digitized, so part of my research involves researching documents and files at libraries and archives abroad.”
One of Murillo’s goals with the project is to drive home the importance of an historical approach to understanding African economies, particularly in issues of foreign debt. “What’s missing from the discussion is a history of foreign investment in ‘developing’ countries, and an analysis of how new efforts to sell off nations’ national debts are exacerbating the ballooning debt crisis we see today.”
Murillo knows that the history of the economic exploitation of Africa by Western countries dates back well before the twentieth century, but her research has convinced her that the post-independence period deserves further examination. “I argue that the negotiation of international contracts, credit, and massive loans were part of the African nation-building process,” she says. “A history of the individuals and institutions that funded newly liberated European colonies is necessary to construct a richer and more accurate picture of the current economic landscape, not only across Africa, but also in other heavily indebted countries.”
For Murillo, winning the NEH award “is a reminder of how important the arts and humanities are in understanding the economic and political questions of our time. Without the NEH grant, I couldn’t finish this book—having the time and resources needed to complete such a transnational project is rare.”
When the book is completed, Murillo hopes that it serves to “breathe life back into economic history,” she says. “Who are the major players? What financial scams have taken place? Where is the money coming from and going? Who are all these bankers, government officials, and corporate executives who are profiting off of this? They’re not just faceless characters—they’re all real people doing real things, and we deserve to know who they are and what they’ve been doing.”