Language, Power, Exclusion and Decoloniality in Africa

 

by Lily Mburu, Inaugural Fellow – ALU

 

On 8th April 2017, African Leadership University (ALU) students with support from the ALU community organized Kwibuka23, to commemorate the lives lost during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. The rallying call of ‘never again’ reverberated through the assembly space on the Mauritius campus, with sombre musical harmonies in Kinyarwanda, Swahili and English. A student play depicting the turn of events leading to the genocide was a chilling reminder of the horrifying 100-day massacre of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Prior to colonialism, ethnic identities in Africa were dynamic in character and overlapped with multiple social identities (1). Colonialism changed the fluid nature of ethnic identities by enforcing administrative classification of these identities into distinct ‘tribes’ (2). Examining the colonial legacy of reconstruction of Hutu and Tutsi identities is instructive to understand how these identities evolved in post-colonial Rwanda. Distortion of Hutu and Tutsi identities during colonialism emerged from racialized notions of superiority of Tutsi over Hutu based on lineage and in spite of commonality of language (3). This reconstruction of racialized identities resulted in Tutsi being labelled as ‘alien’ and Hutu as ‘indigenous’. The issuance of ethnic identity cards by Belgian authorities cemented these identities which morphed into “distinct legal and political identities” (4).  Notably, such “static, fixed identity categories that hold with them stereotyping and ‘othering’ tend to be at the root of violence” (5). Rwanda’s path to reconciliation over the last two decades has included abolishment of all official classification of Rwandans based on ethnic affiliation.

Language is interwoven with cultural identity and has been viewed as “storehouse for ethnicity” (6). Commonality of language and ethnicity is said to create unity, a sense of belonging and kinship bonds. The underbelly of language merits evaluation through the prism of power and identity as exemplified by the Rwandan context. What then is the role of language in the tapestry of identity, power and exclusion? Ngugi wa Thiong’o illustrates the centrality of language during the colonial conquest in Africa which he describes as having been a means of “spiritual subjugation” (7). The dual nature of language as a mode of communication and embodiment of culture is underscored in Ngugi’s seminal work on Decolonising the Mind in which he interrogates the systematic subordination of African languages, and makes a strong case for decolonisation of language.

Ngugi’s choice to write his literary work in his Kikuyu mother tongue was precisely to counteract the imperialistic and pervasive post-colonial suppression of indigenous languages. A salient question emerges: is the promotion of African languages in and of itself emancipatory? Is there an underlying risk of essentializing African languages while overlooking the nuanced ways in which language as an expression of ethnicity perpetuates exclusion? Ngugi himself echoes the limitations of writing literature in African languages noting that this “will not itself bring about the renaissance in African cultures if that literature does not carry the content of our people’s anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control” (8). The exercise of power and the manner in which this intersects with language and ethnicity is therefore instrumental in examining the extent to which decolonising language might- contrary to its pursuit, result in ‘othering’ and exclusion.


One of the pernicious features of colonialism was the dichotomy between the concepts of ‘indigenous’ and ‘western’ which falsely conflated the latter as meaning ‘civilized’ and the former as ‘uncivilized.’ The Eurocentric “modernization theory” sought to explain poverty in Africa by locating poor countries as being in the early stages of development with evolution to ‘modernity’  projected to occur over time (9). This undermined African heritage whilst elevating western externalities leading to what Ngugi describes as a state of “colonial alienation”. Decoloniality could therefore be understood as a process that encompasses reclamation of cultural heritage and liberation from colonial systems of oppression which remain prevalent.

The Social Science architecture at ALU is envisioned to be “fundamentally decolonial from its inception” as expounded in the inaugural blog post by Auerbach. The decoloniality reading group was one of the most intellectually stimulating spaces I was a part of during my time at ALU. Students and staff primarily from Social Sciences meet every fortnight to dissect literature on decolonisation (Wa Thiong’o 1987, Biko 2005) (10),  share reflections, draw meaning from individual experiences as well as insights on fostering decolonial thinking and action not only within ALU but also on the African continent and beyond. The late evening conversations take place on a rooftop overlooking starry skies, the splendid view reminiscent of the beauty and depth of the discourse.

While discussing Ngugi’s Decolonising the Mind, a Nigerian student of Yoruba descent expressed how he often questioned the privilege attached to English. He pointed out that a student with good academic credentials who speaks Yoruba and is not proficient in English would be disqualified from accessing scholarship opportunities solely on account of language. He posed a question: if the relegation of Yoruba is premised on the classification of the language as ‘vernacular’, what precludes this classification from being reversed? He further pointed out that Ngugi’s writing gave him a theoretical underpinning of decoloniality on issues that he had been grappling with but for which he did not have a label. Decoloniality thus presented an overarching framework to locate his disaffection of language as a means of fomenting exclusion. On the same occasion, a Tanzanian student expressed her frustration at depictions of Tanzania as backward or ‘being in the dark’ due to the status of Swahili rather than English as the national language in the country. She highlighted that this stemmed from misrepresentation of English in terms of enlightenment which consequently attached a perverted connotation of African languages as backward. A repercussion of this has been the debasing of informal knowledge systems rooted in African traditions.

 


language wall

The language wall in the Ngugi wa Thiong’o Social Sciences Lab at ALU: students, staff, and visitors are invited to write on the wall whenever they choose, sparking dialogue, often heated, and often not in English, and serving as a teaching tool in a variety of contexts. 

As a Pan-African institution aspiring to transform leadership on the continent, there is merit in giving consideration to the role of African languages at ALU. The Social Sciences team is already considering the introduction of ‘language tables’ which would create spaces in which languages such as Swahili, Arabic and Mauritian Creole can be taught at ALU. These spaces can also facilitate knowledge sharing in various languages. Another worthwhile consideration is with respect to students whose first language is not English: to what extent is their academic progress prejudiced by limitations of proficiency in English and how can ALU support these students to bolster their learning? The construction of a decolonial Social Science program at ALU is laudable and ought to go further by permeating the decoloniality discourse in other spheres at ALU. The decoloniality reading group for instance need not be confined to the ‘social sciences corner’- contribution of the wider ALU community to the discourse would be valuable. Participation of students majoring in Business Management in the reading group has been heartening in this regard.  

References:

(1) Berman, J. B. (1998) Ethnicity, Patronage and the African State: The Politics of Uncivil Nationalism African Affairs, Vol. 97, No. 388, pp. 305-341

(2) Lynch, G (2006) Negotiating Ethnicity: Identity Politics in Contemporary Kenya Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 33, No. 107, pp. 49-65

(3) Wielenga, C (2011) Genocide and Identity: Stereotyping, ‘othering’ and Violence in Rwanda http://www.genocidescholars.org/sites/default/files/document%09%5Bcurrent-page%3A1%5D/documents/IAGS%202011%20CORI%20Wielenga.pdf

(4) Mamdani, M (2003) Making Sense of Political Violence in Postcolonial Africa Socialist Register, Vol. 39, pp. 132-151

(5) Wielenga, C (2011) at p. 2

(6) Fishman, J (1999) Handbook of Language and Ethnicity. Oxford University Press

(7) Wa Thiong’o, N (1987) Decolonising the Mind The Politics of Language in African Literature. Zimbabwe Publishing House

(8) Ibid at p. 29

(9) Ferguson, J (2006) Decomposing Modernity: History and Hierarchy after Development, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

(10) Biko, S (2005) I Write What I Like. University of Chicago Press  

 

 

Response to Conversation Article

It’s been a wonderful few days! Many people have written to us or followed this blog in response to the article in The Conversation, and many have asked to be involved. We are a tiny program at the moment – on Wednesday we welcome our third faculty member, and we only begin our second official term next week. We are still building our program from the ground up, and are often completely preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of curriculum design, teaching, and assessments.
That said, there are ways that those interested in joining us can directly be involved:
1) Join our global advisory group. This will simply be a database of individuals who we reach out to from time to time with questions pertaining to the program that we feel merit wider discussion. In cases where our students have particular research interests, we might approach individuals on that list for direct mentorship. We hope to keep the level of email traffic relatively low. If you are interested in joining this list, please email me your name, contact details, institutional affiliation (if you have one), and a brief bio. 
 
2) We are looking for new and interesting contributions to  this blog – we’d love to have you write one! Please email all contributions directly to me.
3) If you have publications that you would like to add to our open source project, please email them to me too! Alternatively, if you have objects that you think would be appropriate for teaching with, let us know.
4) ALU has several job openings. There is a posting for a position in Social Science, but until our student numbers grow we are unlikely to be hiring directly. Please do submit a CV, I’d just encourage you to consider other roles in the organisation as well as it seems important to be realistic with regards to our size and actual impact at the moment.
5) If you’d like to visit us and share your work and insight with our students and our community, let us know.
5) If you’d like to be involved in a way we haven’t thought of yet, please feel free to reach out. This is partly just to help manage the email traffic whilst also continuing to prepare for a very busy teaching term!
Many thanks and warmest wishes,
Jess Auerbach
jauerbach@alueducation.com

Teaching Race Across Space and Time

 

By Dr. Abena Ampofia Asare (Stonybrook)

(a partial response to the Original Questions posed on the blog).

 

 

Global history is a critical tool for decolonizing the social sciences in the 21st century.  From Terence Ranger’s recognition that “useful histories” were necessary to add ballast and heft to the emergent African nationalism or the Nazi Holocaust’s memorialization imperative, preserved in the cry, “Never Again,” the importance of history in creating the future is a cliché.[1] However, the task of marshaling history for the purpose of pedagogical decolonization is distinct from George Santayana’s warning about the risks of historical obliviousness and even from the Akan sankofa proverb reminding us that it is never too late to pursue that which has been lost to us.[2] Global history, rigorously taught, may dislodge the various ideologies (ethnicity, race, religion, gender, neoliberalism, etc.) that are the basis of legalized discrimination and others forms of social violence.

A decolonizing global history is profoundly disorienting. The foundational role of colonial economics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics in our modern world means that a decolonizing pedagogy will necessarily alienate a student from the world in which she lives. When I speak of alienation here I do not refer to rejection or disaffection, but rather to the creation of distance. A pedagogy of decolonization must not seek to substitute one ideology for another (i.e move students from center/right to the left or vice versa) but instead will provide students the analytical tools to disembowel, examine, and reconstruct the ideologies through which they think and live.

Over the past five years of teaching Africana Studies at a public state university in the USA, I have observed how confusion about what race is and is not hampers the possibility of anti-racist action and thought. In North America, combatting ideologies of race and racialism is ground zero in the work of decolonization. Race has been the conduit and the cover for the perpetuation of all manner of state-sanctioned violence. And yet, our higher education courses often do little to expose and/or challenge the premises of our racialized society. Indeed, I fear that our North American misunderstanding of race is only being heightened by diversity and inclusion curricula that approach racism as primarily an ethical failing or an obstacle to community cohesion. After all, diversity is not anti-racism.

I have created a syllabus for a history course which propels students into a novel mental terrain in which the racial categories we inherit and inhabit are neither inevitable or natural, but instead are created, preserved and re-invigorated by our national economic, political, social, and institutional choices. We can combat neither systemic nor individual racism until we first understand that race exists not as an artifact of the past, but as something that we choose, daily in the present.[3]

The value of this syllabus is that that it alienates diverse students from their received knowledge about race within the context of the college classroom. There are three intertwined learning outcomes that propel students outside the race-tinted glasses that color our collective vision.

First, the course explores the idea of race as historically constituted. Through readings exploring how African American, European American, Native American and Asian American communities have been assigned a racial identity, this class takes seriously the idea that race is a product of history. I insist that understanding race as a social construct requires knowing when and how the borders of Black identity, White identity, Asian identity, Native American identity etc. have been drawn and redrawn in US history.[4] Through these readings, students consider how Black-ness, like White-ness, Asian-ness or American Indian-ness, is a product of economic, social, and cultural technologies (the transatlantic slave trade, Western expansion and genocide, dispossession of land, immigration restrictions, employment discrimination, wealth transfer and barrier to full citizenship rights, spatial and geographic segregation, media misrepresentation and cultural appropriation and erasure) that have created our social categories.

Teaching all these texts together, as branches of a single national history of racialization, is part of this decolonizing pedagogy. Usually, in the USA, racial injustice is framed as an historical exception attached to the bodies of people who are classified (because of skin color and phenotype) as ‘other.’ By contrast, this course identifies racialization as a cornerstone of the American national identity, an ideology which informs the life and thinking of all who land within the national borders. The students come to see that racialization is not an exception based on African or indigenous bodies, but instead is an ideology rooted in institutions, structures and practices which shape the thinking and lives of all within the national borders.

Second, the course describes race as geographically specific. By exploring the varied racial formations of other countries, specifically Australia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and South Africa, students perceive the artificiality of the racial categories that they have heretofore seen as commonsensical and/or natural.[5] Only when students understand that our current racial formations are constructed, handed down to us by our shared history, can they imagine futures which may or may not reproduce the ideologies that entrap the present.

Finally, students are required to interview a member of their local community in order to complete a micro-oral history focused on the construction of an individual’s racial consciousness. This project encourages students to wrestle with the course’s central argument– that racial ideology and identity is constructed and contingent– beyond the walls of the classroom. Wrestling with these ideas about race beyond the classroom is an opportunity to attempt to consider this critical question: how do the course’s insights translate/ apply to the non-academic sphere?

Together, these three learning objectives alienate diverse students from the received knowledge about the USA’s racial categories. By teaching with and through this history, students perceive the instrumentality of the race concept; the way it is always and everywhere deployed for sundry ends. They begin to understand how their own racial identity is inscribed within their location in time and space and is not solely the product of objective qualities like their body, their family, or their culture. While this syllabus has only been taught within a North American context, the central insight—that global history, rigorously and comparatively taught, is useful in changing how students understand and relate to categories of identity—is broadly applicable, even in Pamplemousses.

 

 

 

 

Citations

[1] Terence Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa” in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983). John K. Roth and Elisabeth Maxwell, Remembering for the Future: the Holocaust in an age of Genocide, (Palgrave, 2001).

[2] George Santayana, The Life of Reason, (1905-1906). To learn about the Akan adinkra symbols, of which sankofa is one, please read Christel N. Temple, “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States: A Modern History,” Journal of Black Studies, 41:1 ,2009.

[3] Barbara Jeanne Fields and Karen Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, (Verso, 2014) Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology” New Left Review, May/June 1990.

[4] A selection of some of the course texts include; Yaba Blay, One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race (Blackprint Press, 2013). M. Annette Jaimes, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance, (South End Press, 1999). Eva Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America, (University of California Press, 2003). Leland Saito, Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb, (University of Illinois Press, 1998). Natsu Taylor Saito, “Model Minority Yellow Peril: Functions of Foreignness in the Construction of Asian American Identity,” Asian American Law Journal, 1997. Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, (Verso, 1999).

[5] Some selected texts from this section of the syllabus include Henry Louis Gates, Black in Latin America: An Island Divided, PBS, 2011. Edward Telles, Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race and Color in Latin America, (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) Anthony Marx, Making Race and Nation, (Cambridge University Press, 1998) . Xolela Mangcu, The Colour of our Future, (Witswatersrand University Press, 2015). Jennifer Clark, Aborigines and Activism: Race, Aborigines and the Coming of the Sixties to Australia, (UWA Publishing, 2008).

 

Reflections on Teaching the Liberal Arts in Morocco

In spring 2013, I co-taught a seminar at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, and helped to redesign that university’s honors program. Al Akhawayn is Morocco’s only English-language university and the only institution of higher learning in the country that styles itself a liberal arts college.

Despite this designation, very few of the students were studying subjects that somebody familiar with the Western tradition would recognize as part of the “liberal arts.” More than half the student body was studying for a bachelor’s of business administration, usually in finance. Of the three undergraduate majors offered by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, one was “human resources development,” a course of study whose classification was justified by the assertion that “development” is a social science. It was a curriculum that left little room for the traditional foundations of a liberal arts education.

Throughout the semester, students would appear in my office to share their aspirations. One by one, they told me of their lifelong fascinations with art, or psychology, or poetry, or history, or even religion. After a few of these encounters, I learned to expect the sudden shift in the conversation.

The student would straighten his or her back, look down at the floor, and tell me, “Of course, I have to study finance.” This statement, once uttered, was non-negotiable, no matter how much I questioned the premises that led to it. Still looking at the floor, the students would begin to ply me with questions about how to apply for an American MBA.

Our seminar offered our best opportunity to introduce new modes of thinking. It was framed as a “great books” seminar, filled with short excerpts of classic texts. The syllabus mixed together important Western thinkers (everyone from Plato to Descartes to Darwin) with Arab writers (such as al-Farabi and Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi). It was a setup that allowed us to draw connections across cultures—to discuss, for example, how al-Farabi adapted Plato’s ideas for an Islamic context—and across genres. Our wide-ranging discussions were a significant departure from the style of teaching our students had previously encountered in Morocco. One student even confided that she had never before spoken in a class discussion.

The day I knew our seminar was special came in the third week, when my co-instructor began the discussion with what seemed like a silly question. We had just read a few chapters of Aristotle’s Ethics, including a section where Aristotle muses about the ideal number of friends that a person can have. “We’re going to go around the room,” my co-instructor said, “and you’re going to tell all of us how many friends you have on Facebook.” This opening question jumpstarted the discussion. For the next hour and a half, the students furiously debated the finer points of Aristotle’s philosophy, but they did so in a manner that was relevant to their own lives and relationships.

Thereafter, I increasingly understood that my job was not merely to teach these students about the texts on our syllabus, but to encourage them to be comfortable making connections. Part of my role as an instructor was to show students that it was okay, even in an academic setting, to be “playful.” In other words, students had to understand that there was merit in sharing and developing new ideas, even and especially when those ideas seemed bizarre, contradictory, or upsetting.

Accordingly, we tried to guide students to understand each class’s reading in a dialogue with what had come before. One of our most off-the- wall discussion questions—“what would Pericles and Confucius discuss at a dinner party?”—earned us five minutes of perplexed stares, followed by an hour and twenty-five minutes of thoughtful discussion.

One of the reasons it was so important to consider each reading in concert with the rest of the syllabus was because these students were so rarely taught to contextualize what they were learning. The Moroccan academic environment in which they were studying, like the French-inspired school system in which most of them had grown up, prioritized learning distinct skills over making connections. The limitations of this approach were made especially clear during a capstone project defense I observed for an honors graduate in computer science. I was alarmed to discover that this student’s interlocutors were interested in posing questions only about the code used to program the project, not about any of its potential social, environmental, political, or ethical ramifications.

In general, the students I encountered in Morocco cared deeply about their society and were eager to make their mark on the world, but they sometimes struggled to know how to pursue those aspirations. In an environment where the overwhelming majority of students pursued degrees in either finance or computer science, it was perhaps inevitable that many would come to view technology as the most attractive path. As undergraduates, they dreamed of making apps and starting companies. Many did so with noble intentions, believing they could create something capable of transforming Moroccan society. But I worried that many pursued these goals with little opportunity for reflection, pushed along by an academic environment that fetishizes entrepreneurship as both the object of an undergraduate education and the only legitimate avenue for promoting social change.

I emerged from my time in Morocco convinced that one of the most important tasks of any university is to help prepare its students to think critically about their place in the world. An important first step is to teach students to understand the broader context of what they are learning and to make connections across disciplines. After all, if we want students to come up with creative solutions to real-world problems after they graduate, we must begin by making a conscious effort to foster creativity inside the classroom.

 

Kyle Haddad-Fonda has worked at universities in both Morocco and China, as well as for a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing a global focus to K–12 education in rural communities in the United States.  He holds a DPhil in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.  His ongoing research focuses on China’s relations with the Middle East.

In Response to the Questions Raised

The Undercommons

The Undercommons is a freedom school that operates in Los Angeles, California, in the United States.  We work to equip social movements with the looted intellectual and material resources housed in universities.

“Is education for liberation, in the sense of Paolo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, and others, impossible in a for-profit institution? How might we think through both shareholder returns and critical pedagogy in the same breath?”

We want to fight the frame of the question.  By asking whether or not the for-profit institution is compatible with education for liberation, we are operating on the presumption that the institution’s goals set what is possible for the school.  But as students of the Black radical tradition know, that isn’t how power works, or how it has ever worked.  Resistance to oppression is, necessarily formed within the conditions of oppression. The self-emancipating slaves in Haiti and Brazil, didn’t need to step outside of capitalism to get free, and they didn’t need to exit the plantation to disrupt or co-opt its operation for their own ends.

If form determined possibility, these institutions of power wouldn’t need to be policed and securitized in the way that they are.  The questions actually in front of us are:  What resources do you have access to, regardless of why they were made available to you?  What leeway do you have to use them? In other words, what modes of subversion can you participate in? What kinds of surveillance and punishment manage the resources you have access to, and what can you do about them?

“How might we teach students to think in a way that is inherently decolonial as they go through their undergraduate curriculum? What kind of practical assignments do we set, what kind of theory do we read, what kinds of discussions do we ensure that we have?”

We understand colonial education to be the systems of education put in place by colonizers in order to protect and advance their colonial interests. Accordingly, we understand decolonial education to be abolitionist.  A decolonial education is one that contributes to destroying the relationship of colonialism (or neocolonialism) that holds one group of people hostage to the whims and interests of another.  On this understanding of decolonial education, it isn’t possible for a curriculum to be inherently decolonial.  Decolonizing is a political, material, and spiritual objective, not a methodology or a set of practices identifiable without reference to their effects.

Many of our most prolific and important decolonial scholars were trained in mission schools or what could have been considered colonial education, for example, W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James. When they realized the sham that was and still is western civilization, they turned their political objectives to decolonization using the very colonial education they received.  They used that very “colonial” education as a positive contribution to their decolonial political efforts.

As we know, no curriculum, no matter how woke or intersectional, can succeed at being decolonial unless and until it materially alters the relation of power between colonizer and colonized towards the abolition of that relationship.  We all also know that the form of experience for 28 students in the room, no matter how personally meaningful and liberatory, will not be decolonial for the millions of Africans who are not in the room.  That is, unless and until it contributes to the erosion and eventual abolition of the colonial structures they confront in their daily lives.

Curriculum is but one facet of education. The structure and location of education, who teaches, and who learns have all been infected by histories of colonialism and its attendant dislocations such as racism, patriarchy, etc. Yet we can’t then reject all forms of education that we believe to be European for the performative sake of not being European. Our selective rejections must be based on concrete decolonial objectives, and since plenty of European peoples have been colonized, there are decolonial traditions to be had everywhere resistance to colonialism has occurred, and it always occurred.

Igniting Decolonial Social Sciences at a University-yet-to-come

My colleague Janice Ndegwa and I have been given a very interesting, and very difficult task, and I write this post to request help from a global community of scholars, activists, thinkers, and actors.

This month we began a Social Sciences Program in a university-yet-to-come located in Mauritius with a student body who are from all over Africa. By university-yet-to-come I mean a for-profit institution not yet accredited as a university but as a college, partnered with an accredited institution in Scotland, established and run by MBAs with the explicit goal of “creating 3 million transformative leaders” though the meanings of leadership are rarely interrogated. This is to be done through a curriculum aimed explicitly at work-readiness rather than, say, intellectual exploration. The model for education is one that has come out of significant research into pedagogy and learning. It is based on “7 Meta Skills” that I confess I initially concluded read like a cross between Steven Covey’s highly effective habits, and the kind of tech-futurism that made me flee Silicon Valley thinking no, an app cannot actually end poverty in Africa.

Skepticism aside, the African Leadership U (ALU, nick-named by a few of us as the Albert Luthuli University when we are trying to present a serious front at conferences), is achieving what generations of liberation and post-colonial thinkers have dreamed. That is, creating a place and a network where young people from across Africa come together to imagine and bring into being a different vision of the continent and its place in the world, and to learn the skills that it will take to do so. Though much could – and no doubt will – be improved on the current model, ALU makes a genuine attempt to rethink the training and development of university students in the context of the 21st century knowledge environment.

All of this creates a very different tone to the institutions with which most of mine and Janice’s communities (scholars, activists, students, policy shapers, and those based in the broad NGO sector), align, and a certain amount of skepticism is a healthy response. Nonetheless, ALU’s founder, Fred Swaniker, can hardly be faulted when he says the solution to the higher education crisis in Africa is not forthcoming from the public sector. Globally too, tertiary education often appears completely dysfunctional. Perhaps, as Swaniker claims, the private sector can do something differently – and I really respect to him for genuinely trying. Whatever the result, there is no doubt that he has managed to bring together a phenomenal group of students. That in itself may guarantee a certain success. The first cohort of students are now in their second year, so two classes from all over the continent are doing problem sets, writing poetry, and learning intensively from one another as they go about the business of communal and intellectual life.

After spending their first year in a mandatory “Leadership Core,” which is followed by an internship in (usually) the corporate or NGO sector, students at ALU currently have four options for their majors. These are Business Management, Computing, Engineering, and Social Science, and the approach is to teach students ways of thinking, rather than necessarily an entire traditional canon from a subject such as, for example, sociology. We are all beginning, and we are all finding our way, but in Social Science we know – and our 28 founding students know – that the stakes are high, and fascinating.

Across the world, there have been heightened (re)calls for the Decolonization of Knowledge, for what Nelson Maldonado-Torres refers to as a “decoloniality” as a way of being, of thinking, of action[1]. Maldonado-Torres, building on a long history from Fanon through Steve Biko, Angela Davis[2], and far beyond, writes that decoloniality “involves an aesthetic, erotic, and spiritual decolonial turn whereby the damné emerges as the creator” (Maldonado-Torres, 2016). In this, Maldonado-Torres speaks to the very difficult work that “the damnés” – groups of people who have historically suffered from profound structural violence – must do to find not only voice and audience, but the intellectual and spiritual space in which to feel whole at institutions largely founded on exclusionary premises. #RhodesMustFall was not responding to something new of course, but something very old. The same can be said of the US American #BlackLivesMatter, or the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, or the 2011-2013 Chilean Winter.

So where might an institution like ALU fit into this history? What does it mean to begin a new program in such a space, and to found it in Mauritius? ALU is very new, and is very explicitly resisting “the pressure to conduct tertiary education the way it has always been done.” The institution is premised on “reimagining” education, to “create a more prosperous and peaceful Africa” – and presumably, given the interconnectedness of things, also the world. It has a student body that represents 32 countries, and the 276 young people in the founding two classes. Identity and race are read in multiple ways and with multiple lenses. They come from diverse political, cultural, and spiritual traditions, and to assume any obvious commonality due to shared ‘belonging’ in a place that represents over 30.37 million square kilometers of physical territory seems dangerously old-fashioned. Nonetheless, the point is that something akin to black excellence is assured, and articulated in a way that seems only to parallel the self-confidence of the American formally-black institutions such as Howard College, which was recently described by Ta-Nahesi Coates as the “Mecca” of black intellectualism (Coates, 2015).

Students in our founding classes know that they have potential, and they buy into “leadership” in some way. They’ve taken an enormous risk in getting their education at a university-yet-to-come, so they are deeply invested in making it work. They have been selected from an enormous pool of applicants because of the vision they have for their lives, which in all cases involves something different, and doing it well, but in most cases what exactly that is has not yet crystalized. They see the opportunity in being the first, but they are also a little nervous, because without the training in conventional social science and conventional disciplines that Janice, myself, and everyone I know has received, it’s hard for the undergraduates to figure out just what, exactly, they are supposed to be “disrupting.”

socscifounderswgcu

[Founding Social Science students with visiting Glasgow Caledonian University Faculty]

One of the students has already informed me he wants to do a PhD at Harvard, and he knows he needs a very solid training. Another plans to go into law. Another ‘simply’ wants to create systems whereby poor people in her home city are not patronized by the rich, that they are listened to, and supported. These students look to Janice and I to provide the scaffold from which they will do all these things, but Janice and I are limited by our own educational lenses, and our own biographies, and between facilitating a Scottish curriculum, designing supplementary material, and helping the university-yet-to-come turn into a university-that-is, the two of us alone cannot possibly accomplish the task of adequately preparing them to think in a way that we are able to envision, but not quite see.

Our project is to build a unit within a university that is fundamentally decolonial from its inception. To do this we would like to pose eight questions to the global community (of thinkers, whatever your age, position, location, view). We think that finding and enacting the best answers to these questions will make or break our program. We would like to invite submissions of essays in response to what is listed below, and then to publish one such essay every fortnight on our blog. We will then use it as the base for discussion with our founding Social Science students, and with the broader community at ALU. Then, we want to bring the contributors to ALU to think with the students face-to-face. We don’t yet know how that all might happen, and we do know it’s a big ask of busy people’s time and energy, but we think it’s interesting, and that it could lead to something of value to others beyond our community. Given the state of the world right now, some examples of overcoming barriers and building new forms of community seem utterly essential. At a time of such global fear and limitation, facilitating the emergence of an explicitly Pan-African department/unit/thinking space/approach from scratch is a unique and powerful opportunity, and we have more institutional freedom than most academics can even dream.

With this in mind, we ask our networks, and the networks-of-our-networks, to reflect on the following, and if the urge strikes to write a response, please email it to us at jauerbach@alueducation.com, and jndegwa@alueducation.com and/or leave your comments on the blog for the sake of global dialogue. Building the program for the future, we have a free slate, and though we have our own answers penciled out and already enacted in certain ways, there is so much more that we could do. We hope, in time, to also use this platform as a way of profiling best practices in what in the US might be considered “diversity” education, or in other places “teaching difficult questions,” in which the personal is always assumed to be political, and vice versa.

  • How might we teach students to think in a way that is inherently decolonial as they go through their undergraduate curriculum? What kind of practical assignments do we set, what kind of theory do we read, what kinds of discussions do we ensure that we have?
  • How do we engage with the local (in this case Mauritian community), when most of our students are not from here and do not speak Creole, and only some speak French?
  • How do we think of Africa, and of the world, from such a space, and how do we do so in a way that is the most deeply respectful, intellectually rigorous, and practically useful? Is there a way that we could model for others both institution building and engagement, such that we do not in some subtle way engage in our own version of ‘colonial’ thinking and action?
  • What might the role of African Languages be in our program? We currently have a founding class who between them speak 29 languages,[1] and though they are being assessed in English, it is clear that we could do a great deal to address the call for engagement with African Languages that has been called for from scholars such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for decades[2] but rarely manifests in actual institutions. How do we address the limitations of our own languages when working with students, helping them to master rigorous intellectual and narrative skills when we ourselves, as mentors, in many cases cannot speak the languages under discussion?
  • Is education for liberation, in the sense of Paolo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, and others, impossible in a for-profit institution? How might we think through both shareholder returns and critical pedagogy in the same breath?
  • Part of intellectual decoloniality as we understand it demands that we attempt to take seriously sources of knowledge that are not only textual. What techniques or strategies of engagement, summation, analysis and re-presentation might we engage as part of our pedagogy? How might we use this to effect change in the institution as a whole, as we lever such knowledges to widen the accepted scope of Africa-based epistemology and ontology in the world? How might we represent it, using both new and old technologies?
  • What are the best practices for engaging the truths of racialization and its effects, without racializing our students in turn? The same with nationalism, regionalism [#Africaisnotacountry], religious affiliation and social class? We want our students to be angry enough to change the world order, but in a way that is productive, thoughtful, and empowering rather than incapacitating.
  • What other questions should we be asking?

On this blog you will find short bio-essays from our students, and from ourselves, so that readers might understand this founding class as human beings. Our hope is that many other students follow in their path. We need to get it right, or if not quite right, to make a full-hearted attempt to do so. We are curious about what the wider community might think, and thank you all for engaging with us thus far.

 

Jess Auerbach

 

Pamplemousses, Mauritius

 

References:

 

Biko, S. B. (2001). I Write What I Like. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coates, T.-N. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Davis, A. (2015). Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. New York: Haymarket Books.

Fanon, F. (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality *. Cape Town: Institute for Creative Arts.

Mangcu, X. (2014). The Contemporary Relevance of Black Consciousness in South Africa. New South African Review 4: A Fragile Democracy.

Wa Thiong’o, N. (1986). Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Heinemann.

 

[1] Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, English, German, Maasai, Mauritian Créole, Fante, French, Ga, Igbo, Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, Luganda, Ndebele, Nyanja, Oromo, Portuguese, Russian, Setswana, Shona, SiSwati, Tigrigna, Twi, Venda, Yoruba, isiZulu.

[2] (Wa Thiong’o, 1986)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] (Maldonado-Torres, 2016)

[2] (Biko, 2001; Davis, 2015; Fanon, 2008; Mangcu, 2014)