Some Reflections on the ASAA Conference: Decolonising Knowledge and its Challenges

- Ahmet Sait Akçay -

Nowadays, African issues can grab international attention and travel around the world. But when news is circulated, it is also converted or transformed. It is commonly stated that knowledge has no borders, but when it comes to Africa, the story is more complicated.

For Africa, knowledge is a contested site that acquires affirmations, claims, and delineations. İt has to operate through many layers. In fact, is Africa a discourse, or an idea or concept? These are the questions begging to be asked. Rethinking Africa always invokes Harlem poet Countee Cullen’s calling for Africa, "What is Africa to me?" 

These thoughts were preying on my mind as I reflected on this year’s African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) conference in Cape Town. For African scholars, 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 in different ways by young scholars who care for Africa dearly. At the very beginning of the conference, when Cheikh Thiam said, "Anthropocene is a White Man", he made a strong case concerning the challenges scholars face while accommodating knowledge of ‘the other’.

Knowledge production has two sharp-pointed edges – accommodating and producing at the same time – where one requires the other; the rule of reciprocity plays within this complex flirtation.

The ASAA 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.

The ‘Africa rising’ saga is both true and controversial in many ways. The ASAA 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 summarize the issues and implications raised by the conference 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 state mechanisms but also paralyzed the administrative mechanisms and cultural and social formations so that they could not be restored.

The outgoing president of ASAA, Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, 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 the 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 and curricula, adding:

“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. Decolonizing is not only for Africans. Even the European curriculum has been colonized. 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 much of the academic discussions at the conference. The fact is that scholars thinking about Africa should be aware that decolonization must be at least two-fold. When we liberate African knowledge from colonization, we also have to violate the knowledge system produced by the hegemonic discourse as well. 

I think the greatest challenge here is the way in which we capture knowledge. The discourse on Africa tends to not just alienate the individual's mind but also infiltrates into the capacity of thinking. In conceptualizing the 'alienation' problem and its impact, we  also remember the groundbreaking works of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinweizu Ibekwe, Decolonising the 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 examined to ensure a safe haven in knowledge production. 

We should also pay tribute to towering pioneers such as Harry Garuba (my mentor and supervisor, remembered at the conference) and Abiola Irele and Bhekizizwe Peterson (also remembered at the conference) whose impact is immeasurable and always inspiring, paving the way to emerging scholarship in the 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 suggests "Africa-centered knowledge" rather than "Afro-centricity". 

As I was covering the conference for the news site The Independent Turkish, I had the opportunity to speak to some of the participants to record their thoughts and responses. It was quite telling to see provocations rising out of the young generation of Africa. 

What I observed was that 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 for scholarly work to bring new ideas which are alien  to the rest of the world. It also engages in changing a landscape determined by the Western logic and, accordingly, it shows how they are mostly willing to replace the basic imperatives indicating those 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 conference inauguration, 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 conferences such as the ASAA. 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 for the African continent, but, as Professor Ampofo put, it is actually a common problem for the whole world, which everyone should be worried about. We cannot achieve the liberation of knowledge without questioning the existing regime of historical and scientific knowledge. 

Ahmet Sait Akçay is a Turkish literary critic and short story writer and an African studies scholar.  

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