By Ahmet Sait Akcay
Doctoral Student, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Nowadays, any issue on Africa graps international attention and travels around the world. But when the news is circulated it is also converted or transformed somehow. This is how it works! And it is very common to say that knowledge has no borders, but this holds completely true for outside Africa. For Africa, the knowledge is a contested site that acquires affirmations, claims and dealienations. İt has to operate in many layers. Is Africa a discourse, or an idea or concept? These are the questions begging for one another. Rethinking Africa always invokes Harlem poet Countee Cullen’s calling for Africa, `What is Africa to me?` Those thoughts were preying on my mind when I reflected on this year’s ASAA Conference in Cape Town.
For any African scholar, it is tempting to start any conversation with a bold claim “we have to decolonize this or that”. What does this actually mean? Do we have any tools to deconstruct or debunk the regime of knowledge? And how should one be able to engage with the process of decolonization that has been constantly arrested (to refer to Jeyifo Beidon’s term ‘arrested decolonization’) since its inception after the independence of African countries. We keep citing that bold statement to position ourselves in the global context. Such questions have been raised and challenged somehow by young scholars who really treat Africa dearly. At the very beginning of the conference, when Cheikh Thiam said, `Antropoceen is a White Man’, he already made a strong case for the challenge scholars face while accommodating knowledge of ‘the other’.
The producing knowledge has two sharp-pointed edges seen as embodiment of accomodating and producing at the same time, where one requires the other, namely the rule of reciprocality plays at this unnamed flirtation. The African Studies Conference, with its overarching questions and implications, invites us to rethink the continent and humanity as a body of knowledge. The theme of the conference was “Africa and the Human: Old Questions, New Imaginaries.” It speaks volumes somehow. It must be encouraging not only for the continent but also for humanity to see young and dynamic academics from all over the world seeking a new language that covers not only questions from the past but also of the future.
‘Africa is on the rise’ saga is both true and controversial in many ways. The African Studies Conference not only shows us that the parameters between the Global North and the Global South open deep rifts, but it also reminds us that these hegemonic knowledge productions are not well protected from the crisis and that their resistance to that is solid as well.
I can summarise the issues and implications raised by the International Conference on African Studies under the following categories:
- Being human in Africa means coming to terms with the global humanist values determined as "racial and sexist".
- Decolonizing knowledge is essential.
- Africa has the capacity to reproduce knowledge beyond the disciplines and paradigms it has been excluded from, and we cannot ignore the continent's contribution to global knowledge production.
Let's not forget that the biggest challenge to the Global North paradigm in the world today comes from Africa and the African Diaspora. When the colonial powers left the continent, they not only destroyed the bureaucracies and the state mechanism, but also paralyzed the administrative mechanism and cultural and social formations so that they could not be restored.
In a conversation with the outgoing president of ASAA, Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, she elaborates on the main theme of the conference: “During the Covid -19 pandemic, we were being hit with different ways or strong ways of exaggerated forms of questioning how we are experiencing humanity. It's not only that we are suffering because people are not sharing Covid vaccine. It is also things like what was happening in Nigeria with police brutality. Some of our own governments and their treatment of citizens etc, just a lot is going on and we were wondering, can we have conversations about humanity.” On the possibility of decolonization of knowledge, Ampofo provides us with some very provocative arguments implying the necessity for the whole world to decolonize knowledge, curriculum, and she adds: “We have to decolonize, not just because we Africans are sad, we are not telling our stories, but decolonizing the classroom is important for everybody whether you are black or white, European, Asian, African. Decolonization is not only for Africans. Even the European curriculum has been colonised. Students in Europe or Japan or America or in the Middle East don’t have the full story. We all suffer... For example, medical knowledge has been erased from history.”
“Africa and human” and “continuity of decolonization” dominated most of the academic discussions in the conference. The fact is that scholars thinking about Africa should be aware that the decolonization must be at least twofold. When we liberate African knowledge from colonisation, you have to violate the knowledge system produced by the hegemonic discourse as well.
I think the greatest challenge here is the ways we capture knowledge. The discourse on Africa tends to not just alienate the individual's mind but also infiltrates the capacity of thinking. In conceptualising aliniation problem and its impact, we shall also remember the groundbreaking works of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Chinweizu Ibekwe, Decolonizing Mind and Decolonising the African Mind respectively in this regard. Since there is a prior discourse against which comment by an African about Africa is deployed,`(Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 5) I think, every specific language on the continent has to be debunked to ensure the safe haven in knowledge production. We should also pay tribute to towering pioneers such as Harry Garuba (my mentor and supervisor, also remembered in the conference) and Abiola Irele and Bhekizizwe Peterson (also remembered in the conference) whose impact is immeasurable and always inspiring, and paving way to the emerging scholarship in knowledge production of Africa.
While talking about the possibility of an African ontology, Thiam pointed out the epistemic potentials in African geography that would suggest the ontological continental reality. In this context, there are structures that foreground the philosophies of life on the continent. For instance, Teranga, ujamaa, ubuntu. Thiam also suggested `Africa-centred knowledge` rather than `Afro-centricity`.
While I was covering the conference for The Independent Turkish news portal, I had a chance to speak to some of the participants to record their engagement as well. It was quite telling to see provocations rising out of the young generation of Africa. What I observed through the conference, most of the academics sought to construct their own reality of Africa rather than problematizing the discourse on Africa, this shifting position marks a potential of scholarly work bringing new ideas which are Greek to the rest of the world. It also engages in changing the landscape predetermined by the western logic and accordingly, it shows how they are mostly willing to replace the basic imperatives indicating the values.
It is also worth noting that women have recently made the biggest contribution to African knowledge production. The process of decolonization of the Western, male and dominant language, now is led by women scholars. I think this feminine voice has its own potential to raise and question knowledge and to create a different perspective for both the continent and the world.
As Shose Kessi, the dean of Humanities at the University of Cape Town, speaking at the inauguration of the conference, has stated, although the global information system and infrastructure excludes the continent both internally and externally, we have the opportunity to see the potential of knowledge production on Africa thanks to the ASAA [Association for African Studies in Africa] conference and the like. According to Kessi, knowledge production is not only a response to global questions, but also a way to reach answers urgently with the right questions.
In this regard, we can talk about a knowledge production that considers Africa's own social and cultural values. But we shall always remember that it is impossible to talk/think Africa without problematizing the Global North paradigm.
The question of decolonizing knowledge is not only an issue of the African continent, but, as Professor Ampofo put it, it is actually a common problem of the whole world that everyone should be worried about. So, we cannot achieve the liberation of knowledge without questioning the regime of historical and scientific knowledge.