Decolonising knowledge 101

05 January 2015

Prof Amina Mama
University of California, Davis

The curriculum of the university, the core business of higher education, must be taken seriously as a site for decolonisation and transformation. Some really valuable knowledges, experiments and teachings are continually 'disappeared' under new layers of rhetoric and endless structural changes. This means that some of the most valuable intellectual interventions get lost, fall through the cracks, or are otherwise no longer available to subsequent generations.

Transformation is not just about bringing black bodies onto white campuses. Beyond the body counting, it is the ideas that those bodies bring in their heads to the academy that really matters in academic institutions.

Black scholars' and students' exclusion experience in African universities is largely shared by their counterparts in American institutions. Here on our continent, however, we have the power of numbers. We are the majority.

African universities have been diverted from their primary mission and turned into servants of first neocolonial and now neoliberal regimes, as has for long been discussed by people as eminent as the late Edward Said and many others.

Yet we continue to exclude our own minorities and sometimes majorities, and this lies at the heart of the failure of the intellectual decolonisation project, because the founding idea of the African university was that it would be part of a much broader decolonisation and liberation.

Western thinking is hegemonic to the extent that universities are often still organised in a manner resembling 'the master's house'.

While it is true that African governments have failed to maximise their universities' contribution to postcolonial development, there are now other obstacles: Nowadays we have to reclaim both Said's discussion of neocolonial academics and the Kampala Declaration of 1990, because both of those presume - and at the time it was true - that the authoritarian state was the major suppressor of academic freedom. The main force threatening academic freedom today is the market. So the reconfiguration of state and society is in fact very severe on universities' service to society and as institutions accountable to the public.

Finally, what does it mean to decolonise our hearts and minds? For me, it means liberating the radical ingenuity and intellectual labour of Africa's people. Secondly, this has to be a continuous aspect of people's liberation. Finally, it means overcoming the epistemological hegemonies, the hierarchies of knowledge, the separation of disciplines and the Western university's 'classificatory' structure.

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