Facing up to the challenge of scholarship in Africa

Decolonising the mind – and the university – requires African scholars not to reject Western thinkers like Kant and Hegel but to go beyond them and push the frontiers of knowledge further.

A country is much more than just a piece of territory, the sovereignty of which is recognised by the international community. A country is a home and like a proverb says in South Africa, home is where they bake bread. Baking bread is sharing values, the values of care, solidarity and community.

Now, how many of us live in the kind of home into which we were born? I think we are aliens in this world. We have become guests in a world that has moved on through change and transformation. In this sense, our continent of Africa is an illegal alien trying to accommodate itself in a world which it did not create.

If you think I’m exaggerating, take a guided tour through the Cape Town Castle and listen to any guide showing you around, telling you with a straight face that the Dutch discovered this place in the same breath that he or she will tell you that the same Dutch were welcomed by the natives on the beach… Home for most of us is elusive.

Recreating home

What we do when we live is to try and recreate this elusive home. Sadly, there are many ways of achieving this, or of trying to. We can recall those values and in the manner of appeals to Ubuntu seek to carve a space into which we invite all others to come and share. But we can also throw stones, chase people across streets and burn down their attempts at securing a livelihood in a desperate attempt at recreating a sense of home that continually eludes us.

This will not be about xenophobia. And I certainly won’t single out South Africans for criticism on account of the bad news that some of them are producing. But there is an elective affinity between the acts of rampant violence on the streets of Pretoria and Johannesburg, and what I have in mind when I propose to talk about the challenge of scholarship in Africa.

The affinity comes from the formal features shared by xenophobia and our relationship as African academics to scholarship. Xenophobia in this country, as many have pointed out, is black-on-black violence. In some ways, it is violence based on the failure (or refusal) to acknowledge our kinship.

Difference constituted by killing

Arjun Appadurai suggested in a little known text on the genocide in Rwanda a particularly chilly way of making sense of the violence there which is relevant here: killing a Tutsi or a Hutu was the constitutive act of Tutsi and Hutu as identities. You became Hutu or Tutsi by being killed as it were. Difference was not prior to killing. Difference was constituted by the very act of killing.

Our relationship to scholarship as Africans shares this morphology. We constitute ourselves as African academics/scholars by questioning (or even rejecting) that which confers upon us our identity as scholars.

It is a complex situation and I hope I can spell it out as clearly as possible. Ambivalence is the constitutive moment for us academics. It is expressed through the discomfort we feel about being the purveyors of ways of knowing the world that have played an important role in denying our humanity and in acknowledging our right to render the world intelligible in our own terms.

That is, in a nutshell, my claim here. I want to discuss the conditions of possibility of scholarship in Africa under the historical conditions within which we came to be subjects of our own lives.

Moment in history

Allow me to take you back briefly to an important moment in the history of reclaiming our right to render the world intelligible in our own terms. This was back in the 1950s with the publication of an anthology of poetry by black writers from Africa and the Caribbean. The anthology was honoured with a preface by the hottest philosopher at the time, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. The title which Sartre gave to that preface is very interesting: The Black Orpheus.

Alright, there are issues here, of course, to do with this annoying penchant for making Greek mythology relevant to everything worth thinking about in the world. But that is a minor issue for now…

Sartre used that image to accomplish two things. The first was to extol the literary virtues of the poetry by comparing it to this gifted Greek chap who could enchant every creature, human or otherwise, with his beautiful singing. The second, however, was arguably deeper. Sartre drew from Marx to suggest that the Black Orpheus was history becoming aware of itself pretty much in the same way that the rising of the proletariat would lead the world into a better future.

There is something extremely perceptive in Sartre’s claim which is at the centre of my own claim today. What he meant was this: if the world makes you suffer, then make sure you draw the right lessons from the experience. You are not made to suffer because of who you are (even if that is important, of course). You are made to suffer because of the way the world is, so if you feel strongly about that, don’t change yourself. Change the world!

Here is what he writes about this:
    "In a word, I am talking now to white men, and I should like to explain to them what black men already know: why it is necessarily through a poetic experience that the black man, in his present condition, must first become conscious of himself; and, inversely, why black poetry in the French language is, in our time, the only great revolutionary poetry."

    "The unity which will come eventually, bringing all oppressed peoples together in the same struggle, must be preceded in the colonies by what I shall call the moment of separation or negativity: this anti-racist racism is the only road that will lead to the abolition of racial differences."
So, how does this play out in scholarship? It plays out through the manner in which what we call science and, in particular, the social sciences, has been, right from the word go, not only a resource to render the world intelligible and thereby improve the human condition, but also a tool that we, unwittingly perhaps, deploy to render our own world intelligible to us on the basis of criteria which are not necessarily our own.

Social sciences as language

I am aware that there is a lot of potential for misunderstandings in what I am saying, so I need to tread carefully. My notion of the social sciences consists in the idea that they are a language which Europeans developed under very specific historical, economic, political and social circumstances to account for their own condition, including their imperial ambitions.

Seen from this perspective, there is nothing intrinsically racist or demeaning to others in the manner in which they set about building up the vocabulary of that language. Anyone familiar with pragmatics will tell you that one reason why languages work and convey to all of us the impression that we understand one another rests on the number of things which they take for granted.

So, if you are born into a community that is in the process of conquering the world you are more than likely to take it for granted that, first, your relative advantage is owed to something intrinsic to your culture (which is not shared by anyone else, for if that were the case there would be nothing special about you…) and, second, that there is something fundamentally wrong about anyone who is not like you.

Under these circumstances, the vocabulary of the language which you are developing to make sense of what is happening to you will sure as hell take these assumptions as self-evidently true. That vocabulary will describe the world which it assumes, but not necessarily the world assumed by those who, to use Aimé Césaire’s words, invented nothing. The world of those who invented nothing will be, in Mudimbe’s words, an invention itself which will, to recall Edward Said, be an artefact of the power held by some to represent us.

Companions in crime

In other words, every time we engage in knowledge production without distancing ourselves from the things taken for granted by the vocabulary of the social sciences, we are making ourselves companions in crime of those accused by Jack Goody of having "stolen History". The descriptions and analyses filling up the pages of our peer-reviewed articles are, to use Jean Baudrillard’s fortunate word, massive simulacra, that is, accurate descriptions of that which does not exist.

Concepts do not necessarily help us grasp the complexity and diversity of the world in which we live. They are black boxes concealing the processes that constituted the world which we take for granted, and imposing upon us ways of looking at things which mistake outcomes for processes and for the natural order of things. This is how we come to look at democracy, just to take this one notion.

We look at democracy as that which pertains today in successful democracies, but we do not look at the process that produced that positive outcome. We become completely oblivious to how recent democracy in Europe is and how it failed to avert two great European wars, but still worry that consolidating democracy in Africa is a formidable challenge.

We join in the chorus that deplores Africans’ inability to be democratic and, wittingly or unwittingly, we lend our support to those who would want us to believe that encountering the same difficulties encountered by Europeans at some stage in their own history is a curious sign of how different we are from them!

Accepting the gauntlet

Now, I hope I am not conveying the impression that the social sciences are, at best, a European conspiracy against us and, at worst, utterly worthless. This is not my point. My point is much simpler than that. What I am saying is that being a social scientist is a conscious decision to learn a language, not to become the slave of a language. One resists becoming a slave not by rejecting the social sciences wholesale, but rather by accepting the gauntlet which they represent.

It consists in freeing the concepts from the suffocating embrace of the taken-for-granted. Doing social sciences is doing what Kwasi Wiredu, the Ghanaian philosopher, once described as appreciating the basic untranslatability of concepts. Now, what Wiredu meant was not that because concepts are not translatable there is nothing we can do. No. What he meant was that we need to appreciate the limits of concepts because they mark the limits of our understanding.

It is only when we do not understand that we will begin to understand. In other words, doing social sciences is engaging in conceptual work that takes the vocabulary of the social sciences out of its comfort zone.

The challenge of scholarship

And this is precisely where the challenge arises for scholarship in Africa. Owing to the pressing problem of securing better livelihoods for our African brethren, a growing consensus has established itself in most minds that research on Africa should be about solving problems by offering practical solutions. This is good and noble, but highly problematic.

I make a distinction between basic and applied research. The key idea in that distinction is that one type of research is concerned with eliminating problems while the other focuses on enabling our understanding. Applied research is about the former, and basic research is about the latter.

Underlying this distinction, however, is a caveat which makes the elimination of problems dependent on the knowledge of the problem. In other words, applied research assumes knowledge of the problem in need of a solution. Basic research, however, makes no such assumptions. It concentrates on making problems visible. You could also say, for the sake of simplicity, that basic research is about creating problems. Real scholars are trouble-makers, as it were…

This takes us back to the normative assumptions of the vocabulary of the social sciences. Indeed, anyone who sets out to solve problems is someone who assumes knowledge of them. My question here is: What is the nature of the problems for which we are looking for solutions? The answer is that the nature of those problems is determined by the things taken for granted by the vocabulary of the social sciences. What we know is what we can know within the narrow normative confines of the assumptions underlying our conceptual language.

Knowledge here is familiarity with the world imagined by the vocabulary of the social sciences. It is not necessarily an engagement with possible worlds. And if you are African, then knowledge in this particular case becomes a form of mimicry.

Conceptual problems

What we need is a greater concern with conceptual problems, as opposed to a concern with practical problems. We need to focus our attention on the kinds of problems which challenge us to rethink the assumptions underlying our conceptual vocabulary, so that we can see their limits and constraints.

Now, this takes me back to what I was saying at the outset when I mentioned Sartre and the potential that he saw in the Négritude movement. When he claimed that Négritude was history becoming aware of itself, he meant what I’m suggesting here: you don’t transcend the limits of what you feel uncomfortable about by solely withdrawing into what Samir Amin calls provincialism. You identify in it that which makes the problem a genuinely human one, and you try to transcend it. This is the challenge of scholarship in Africa.

There may not be any such thing as “African” knowledge. Rather, there is knowledge of the world that can be made richer by the experience of Africa.

This is, incidentally, also my idea of “decolonial” knowledge. It does not consist in rejecting the Western intellectual legacy, forsaking Kant or Hegel because of all the negative things they wrote about Africa and extolling the qualities of their angry critics like Fanon. No. Decolonising the mind, and the university for that matter, is to go beyond Kant and Hegel (not behind them!). It is to press forward with whatever is left of the Enlightenment project.

You don’t abandon a good project only because those who claim it as their own have disowned it. It’s for us to push the frontiers of knowledge further. That’s the challenge of scholarship in Africa. We should face up to it.

This is an edited version of a public lecture delivered by Professor Elísio Macamo, professor of African studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland, as the first African Diaspora Public Lecture Series of the newly-launched Doctoral Studies in Higher Education in the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.