As we embarked on the Graduate Attachment Scheme with the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) at the start of this year, we anticipated being involved in interdisciplinary research and colleagues spanning continents. Unsurprisingly, our cohort was made up of students from various disciplines, countries, and perspectives. This month we came together to discuss ‘How to Write About Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina (Wainaina, 2019) in our weekly reading group. A satirical, unpretentious, frank, explosive, and erudite piece which shifted our perspectives as we explored it. It made us all wonder about the ways in which we had all incorporated at least one stereotype in our own lives and writing. It also reminded us of the known ways in which scholars, institutions, research papers, and media platforms subscribe to the neo-colonial biases and perspectives when writing about Africa.
This initial discussion has inspired our cohort to think more and undertake research into our various disciplines’ efforts in decolonisation and the nature of knowledge production. Are we stuck in a hegemony of Eurocentric perspectives and ideologies which repeatedly exclude indigenous and non-western ways of knowing from the metaphorical table? A starting point could be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s suggestion that we should reconsider the sources from which we get our knowledge and sensitize ourselves to the need for bringing in alternative means for knowledge production (Ted, 2009).
In every power structure and institution that governs social, political and economic lives of the world the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised has endured.
‘During the last 520 years of the “European/Euro-North-American capitalist/patriarchal modern/colonial world-system” we went from “convert to Christianity or I’ll kill you” in the 16th century, to “civilize or I’ll kill you” in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “develop or I’ll kill you” in the 20th century, and more recently, the “democratize or I’ll kill you” at the beginning of the 21st century.’ (Grosfoguel 2017: 158).
In academia this dynamic of ‘giver’ and ‘taker’ has continued in the formation of discourses that are bound by a single trajectory framework of knowledge production. Such work is seen as necessary because colonisers deconstructed the worlds they occupied and forced them into one unified philosophical and ontological system of knowledge production and exchange. Within this system knowledge was considered scientific and philosophical, outside of it knowledge was belittled as plebian or indigenous (Santos 2007). This is the system from which our modern disciplines, research methods, academic institutions and understandings of knowledge have developed. As an antidote, decolonization offers a process that goes beyond formal political independence and forces people, including academics, to rethink, reimagine, and reshape the structures and systems of knowledge production.(Ndlovu-Gatsheni, n.d.) The concept of plurality encourages linkages, dialogue, and respect amongst different disciplines, voices and ways of knowing.
Exposure, through the BIEA, to researchers based in East Africa experimenting with innovative research methods has helped us begin to do this. One of the popular narratives that has come out of the decolonisation movement in the social sciences is the concept of the ‘pluriverse’. Arturo Escobar argues that rather than a ‘universe’, the world is a ‘pluriverse’ which includes all the different voices and viewpoints the world’s communities produce. It encourages scholars and activists to address their academia’s responsibilities for the damage to cultural, epistemological, and ontological resources of the countries not occupying the Global North, during and after the colonial regimes ended (Escobar, 2012; Sundberg, 2014). This effort of
decolonising academic research and knowledge production is prominent in universities, a space where transformative and informative work is possible and contributes to a reimagining of what we mean by knowledge, what we know, and how we know it (Tuck and Yang, n.d.). This includes challenging the trends of Westernization and modernization in education which has conditioned the curricula to reflect a dynamic of ‘The West and the Rest’ (Hall, 1992).
When the world is seen from an understanding that African modernity and knowledge production, sources, and perspectives differ from their Eurocentric counterparts, it heralds a new system for understanding philosophies. The academic space, with this awareness, becomes fueled with a hybridity of influences and a deeper appreciation of the differences that need to be respected, evaluated and used to create a world that is inclusive, expressive, and dynamic (Osman Zein-Elabdin, 2011).
An important question is: what is required to change in order to usher in a new age of research and knowledge production in which everyone is heard and given the credit they deserve for the context, scope and achievement of their work?(Hutchings, 2019) Considering this as Attachés to the BIEA we have investigated how we can be part of this movement of decolonisation. The key questions that tease and provoke us are: How are the current universities and institutions like the BIEA contributing to this process? What is at stake for the scholars in this movement? What are the implications of a decolonized academia on the systems that are currently in place? And how can we contribute?
- Escobar, A., 2012. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400839926
- Grosfoguel, R., 2017. Decolonizing western universalisms: Decolonial pluri-versalism from Aime Cesaire to the Zapatistas. In: Paraskeva, JM (ed.) Towards a Just Curriculum Theory: The Epistemicide. New York: Routledge, pp. 147–164.
- Hall, S., 1992. The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power https://doi.org/10.1215/9781478002710-009
- Hutchings, K., 2019. Decolonizing Global Ethics: Thinking with the Pluriverse. Ethics Int. Aff. 33, 115–125. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0892679419000169
- Kebede, M., 2011. African Development and the Primacy of Mental Decolonisation, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvk8vxw4
- Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J., n.d. Discourses of Decolonization/Decoloniality 28.
- Osha, S., 2011. Appraising Africa: Modernity, Decolonisation and Globalisation, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvk8vxw4
- Osman Zein-Elabdin, E., 2011. Postcoloniality and Development: Development as a Colonial Discourse, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvk8vxw4
- Santos, B., 2007. Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of. Review. 30.
- Sundberg, J., 2014. Decolonizing posthumanist geographies. Cult. Geogr. 21, 33–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474013486067
- Ted, 2009. Dangers of a Single Story. Available at: <https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
- Tuck, E., Yang, K.W., n.d. Decolonization is not a metaphor 40.
- Wainaina, B., 2019. How to Write About Africa. Granta, [online] (92). Available at: <https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
Beth Hermaszewska graduated with a first class BA in Human, Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge 2020. Since joining the BIEA, her research has focussed on Kenya’s 2011-2012 Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission and how justice was articulated by witnesses. She is an aspiring lawyer and will begin her legal studies in September 2021 at the University of the City of London.
Sakshi Agarwal recently finished her postgraduate MSc in Global Prosperity from University College London. Passionate about philosophy, social service, literature, and history, her research with the BIEA focuses on indigenous knowledge production and its implications with regards to envisioning a pluralist society.