The Dilemmas of Building Africa’s Ebony Towers

Odilile Ayodele

Sunday Independent, 9 July 2017.

The call for decolonized education is one that is necessary and misunderstood. In the South African context, the call for a decolonized education has been unfairly branded as a move towards anti-intellectualism and “primitive” thinking. This is nothing short of a caricature of the movement towards developing knowledge that is contextually relevant and future-focused.

Colonialism, apartheid, and all other forms of oppressive subjugation are rooted in the denial of humanity. This logic flows into the mythology that Africans do not have any knowledge of value to contribute to society and permit authors such as American, Dinesh D’Souza, to make the outrageous claim that blacks have a “civilisation deficit”.  Such thinking permeates every part of society including so-called neutral disciplines such as medicine. There are numerous studies such as a 2014 journal article by Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter highlighting the fact that the erroneous belief that black people feel less pain than whites has led to doctors in the 21st century to underprescribe pain medication for black patients. We also cannot forget that the father of modern gynaecology, James Marion Sims, experimented on slave women in the US state of Alabama.

It is this denial of humanity and the ignorance of indigenous knowledge systems that has allowed for the decimation and hijacking of non-Western knowledge systems.  But the claims that science or mathematics are wholly Western concepts erase the tremendous contributions from Egypt, the Arab world and the Orient.  Moreover, it ignores the fact that Africans across the continent have been engaging with mathematical concepts long before Jan van Riebeeck and his ilk arrived on our shores. For example, there is evidence that Africans have been using Indigenous African fractals – a form of geometry – in every aspect of life from architecture to hair styles for centuries. Nigeria’s ancient city of Benin and villages such as Ba-Ila in southern Zambia’s Namwala District are but a few examples of the use of fractals in Indigenous architecture and town planning.  American mathematician and computing expert, Ron Eglash, has produced fascinating research highlighting the potential use of African fractals in modern computing.

From 16 to 18 June 2017, the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation hosted an interdisciplinary conference that critically examined the intellectual and contributions of 35 thinkers from across Africa and its diaspora. The three-day conference spanned various topics from politics to philosophy to literature and economics. This meeting was important, particularly at this point in the continent’s history because we need to explore additional ideas to confront societal crises such as poverty, lack of infrastructure, and poor literacy rates. In his address, the outgoing UJ vice-chancellor, Professor Ihron Rensburg, argued that decolonization of the curriculum is not a crude process, providing local examples to Western thoughts and ideologies. Instead, what is needed is not a replacement of Western thought with Afrocentrism, or the continued assimilation of Western knowledge systems, but rather, as first argued by Palestinian-American Intellectual, Edward Saïd, through synthesis. There is nothing that bars us from synthesizing various forms of knowledge to be able to tackle various challenges in a contextually relevant way. Rensburg correctly pointed out that before we can get to the point of synthesis of knowledge, it has to be with agency and self-awareness.

The June UJ conference was potentially a concrete step towards agency and self-awareness in 21st Century African intellectualism.  The seminar also marked the promise of the “Johannesburg School of Pan-Africanism”. We have the benefit of history to avoid the pitfalls faced by former attempts at achieving agency by movements such as the Ibadan School of History. One of the biggest dangers facing this movement is not critically challenging the myths surrounding knowledge systems – both Western and African. Knowledge is built upon previous knowledge. Considering the challenges that 21st Century Africans face, it can only help us to look for solutions from our past so that we may reimagine, and create, a more prosperous future.