by Sharon A. Otieno & Aaliyah O. Ibrahim
This year’s BIEA annual lecture was graced by the indefatigable presence of Prof. Micere Githae Mugo, a distinguished professor, playwright, poet, author, activist, and literary critic from Kenya. Held online via zoom, the attendance of over a hundred participants from around Africa and the world reflected both the influence of Prof. Mugo’s scholarship as well as public anticipation of this gathering after its postponement in 2020. The lecture, aptly titled “Decolonizing Scholarship: Excavating Indigenous Sites of Knowledge, Using utu as a Theoretical Framework,” aligned with the contemporary yet longstanding call for African scholars to move beyond colonial paradigms towards critical considerations for utu as a scholarly practice.
For Prof. Mugo, utu or ubuntu means the essence of what it is to be human. Utu, she lectured, is what or rather how we assert our humanity and affirm the humanity of others. Prof. Mugo modeled utu right at the onset of her lecture as participants were encouraged to engage in an oratory practice of call and response. The call of “Hodi Hodi”, or “Can I enter?” marked the beginning of a lecture interspersed with check-in questions of “How are we doing?” These questions and invitations from Prof. Mugo gave the audience time to respond and digest several intellectual promptings but even more notably, the direct engagement with her audience reflected Prof. Mugo’s assertion of a shared experience of humanity as utu.
It was within this shared experience of humanity that Prof. Mugo called on scholars to excavate “burial sites of indigenous knowledge” with urgency, creativity, and a bearing sense of invention. According to Prof. Mugo, these burial sites symbolize forgotten sources of knowledge that were violently replaced by the colonial education system. Pointing to practices of indigenous knowledge such as orature, literature, and film, Prof. Mugo comprehensively defined indigenous knowledge as an educational content that embodies ways of knowing, understanding, and learning which require skills rooted in specific and special rotations evolved within a contextualized cultural locale. To the professor, educational content and skills instilled through formal and informal schooling is culturally unique to each place of origin and require preservation.
Recognizing that colonial “domination has attempted to exterminate indigenous knowledge,” claiming it as harmful and “antithetical to human development,” Prof. Mugo emphasized how “scholars should accelerate their effort in negating these neocolonial and demonized sites of knowledge.” Of particular interest to the professor is the role of African institutions which have taken part in excavating burial sites of indigenous knowledge. From universities and schools such as the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature to organizations like CODESRIA, among many others, Prof. Mugo pointed out how urgently the humanities and social sciences have taken up decolonizing scholarship through new theoretical frameworks. She further challenged participants to develop analytical frames, paradigms, and methods to excavate and analyze data from indigenous sites of knowledge, stating that “it is one thing to have colonial occupiers…destroy our sites of knowledge and another for us to do it ourselves.”
Tracing the history of the quest for indigenous knowledge, Prof. Mugo drew examples from the figure of Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved person whose nostalgic descriptions of the beauty of Igbo culture, specifically, orature, was centered in his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. For Prof. Mugo, these were early attempts to excavate, document, and remember indigenous knowledge from people who had utu.
From FESTAC 77, a historic gathering of artists in 1977 Nigeria, to plays like Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga and Trials of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo, the professor herself, the lecture recognized how artistic interventions to excavate indigenous knowledge have created a long history that direct us to deconstruct and rebuild these sites of knowledge. Further noting the contributions of writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga, author of bestselling novel Nervous Conditions, and Ousman Sembène, writer and film director of the classic Xala, Prof. Mugo explicitly invited listeners to think of how African artists have done African orature “in a critical way and in a corrective way.”
Ultimately, the powerful and thought-provoking lecture was a call to action. Prof. Micere Mugo urged African scholars to promote and excavate sites of indigenous knowledge especially in curriculums to truly join in the chorus of decolonization. As in the excerpt of the poem below from her collection which she recited to participants, utu in the light of her lecture is a principle that asks us to collectively remember and make a song of decolonial freedom.
what do you remember?
i have forgotten
my mother’s song
my children will never know
this i remember
mother always said
sing child sing
make a song
Sharon Adhiambo Otieno recently graduated with an MSc. in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies from Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). She also obtained a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Nairobi (Kenya). Her research interests include the intersection between livelihoods, health and environment, disability, and gender. Sharon’s current research project at the BIEA focuses on Deaf identities and culture in Nairobi. You can reach her at [email protected]
Aaliyah O. Ibrahim is an independent social researcher and community educator with academic interests in health equity and human rights. Within the health field, she is especially passionate about community health programs and women’s health in Africa. She ethnographically explores the nexus of health, development, and culture with a primary focus on Nigeria and Uganda. She is currently researching mental health landscapes for African women and the implications of related mental health cultures and policies.