Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms

Ngugi wa Thiongo is a giant in the decolonization community, in 1986 he wrote Decolonizing the Mind, he also wrote Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Secure the Base, Something Torn and New, amongst many others (including a list of fiction works). This post shares some notes from his 1993 book Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Several notes from this excellent book:

"I am concerned with moving the centre in two senses at least. One is the need to move the centre from its assumed location in the West to a multiplicity of spheres in all the cultures of the world... The second sense is even more important although it is not explored extensively in these essays. Within nearly all nations today the centre is located in the dominant social stratum, a male bourgeois minority. But since many of the male bourgeois minorities in the world are still dominated by the West we are talking about the domination of the world, including the West, by a Eurocentric bourgeois, male and racial minority. Hence the need to move the centre from all minority class establishments within nations to the real creative centres among the working people in condition of gender, racial and religious equality." (p. xvi-xvii)

"The political struggles to move the centre, the vast decolonisation process changing the political map of the post-war world, had also a radicalising effect in the West particularly among the young and this was best symbolised by the support the Vietnamese struggle was enjoying among the youth of the sixties. This radical tradition had in turn an impact on the African students at Leeds making them look even more critically at the content rather than the form of the decolonisation process... In the area of culture, the struggle to move the centre was reflected in the tri-continental literature of Asia, Africa and South America. It was more dramatic in the case of Africa and the Caribbean countries where the post-war world saw a new literature in English and French consolidating itself into a tradition." (p. 3)

"Hegelian Africa was a European myth. The literature was challenging the Eurocentric basis of the vision of other worlds even when this was of writers who were not necessarily in agreement with what Europe was doing to the rest of the world. It was not a question of substituting one centre for the other. The problem arose only when people tried to use the vision from any one centre and generalise it as the universal reality." (p. 4)

"I have noted from a spell of teaching in the USA that Third World literatures tend to be treated as something outside the mainstream. Many epithets and labels ranging from 'ethnic studies' to 'minority discourses' are often used to legitimate their claims to academic attention.. It is therefore not really a question of studying that which is removed from ourselves wherever we are located in the twentieth century but rather one of understanding all the voices coming from what is essentially a plurality of centres all over the world." (p. 10-11)

"The wealth of a common global culture will then be expressed in the particularities of our different languages and cultures very much like a universal garden of many-coloured flowers. The 'flowerness' of the different flowers is expressed in their very diversity. But there is cross-fertilisation between them. And what is more they all contain in themselves the seeds of a new tomorrow." (p. 24)

"Scandinavians know English. But they do not learn English in order for it to become the means of communication among themselves in their own countries, or for it to become the carrier of their own national cultures, or for it to become the means by which foreign culture is imposed on them. They learn English to help them in their interactions with English people, or with speakers of English, to facilitate commerce, trade, tourism, and other links with foreign nations. For them English is only a means of communication with the outside world. The Japanese, the West Germans, and a good number of other peoples fall in the same category as the Scandinavians: English is not a substitute for their own languages." (p. 30-31)

"The encounter between English and most so-called Third World languages did not occur under conditions of independence and equality. English, French, and Portuguese came to the Third World to announce the arrival of the Bible and the sword. They came clamouring for gold, black gold-in chains, or gold that shines as sweat in factories and plantations. If it was the gun which made possible the mining of this gold and which effected the political captivity of their owners, it was language which held captive their cultures, their values, and hence their minds. The latter was attempted in two ways, both of which are part of the same process. The first was to suppress the languages of the captive nations. The culture and the history carried by these languages were thereby thrown onto the rubbish heap and left there to perish. These languages were experienced as incomprehensible noise from the dark Tower of Babel. In the secondary school that I went to in Kenya, one of the hymns we were taught to sing was a desperate cry for deliverance from that darkness. Every morning, after we paraded our physical cleanliness for inspection in front of the Union Jack, the whole school would troop down to the chapel to sing: `Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on.' Our languages were part of that gloom. Our languages were suppressed so that we, the captives, would not have our own mirrors in which to observe ourselves and our enemies. The second mode of captivation was that of elevating the language of the conqueror. It became the language of the elect. Those inducted into the school system, after having been sifted from the masses of the people, were furnished with new mirrors in which to see themselves and their people as well as those who had provided the new mirrors. In short, they were given a language called English or French or Portuguese. Thus equipped with the linguistic means of escape from the dark Tower of Babel, the newly ordained, or those ready to be ordained as servants of the new order, had their minds systematically removed from the world and the history carried by their original languages. They looked, or were made to look, to a distant neon light on a faraway hill flashing out the word EUROPE. Henceforth Europe and its languages would be the centre of the universe." (p. 31-32)

"Fortunately things will never go the way intended by the oppressor for the simple reason that the dominated have always resisted and will always resist. In fact imperialism would never have taken so much trouble to invest so heavily in its repressive machinery or in cultural engineering if the exploited and the oppressed had themselves merely succumbed to their economic fate of fforever being the unquestioning drawers and hewers of wood" (p. 54)

"Culture carries the values, ethical, moral and aesthetic by which people conceptualise or see themselves and their place in history and the universe. These values are the basis of a society's consciousness and outlook, the whole area of a society's make-up, its identity. A sense of belonging, a sense of identity is part of our psychological survival. Colonialism through racism tried to turn us into societies without heads. Racism, whose highest institutionalised form is apartheid, is not an accident. It is an ideology of control through divide and rule, obscurantism, a weakening of resistance through a weakening of a sense of who we are. Thus psychological survival is necessary. We need values that do not distort our identity, our conception of our rightful place in history, in the universe of the natural and human." (p. 77) 

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Whose Voice Matters in IPE?

New open access publication: Whose voice matters in the teaching and learning of IPE? Implications for policy and policy making

Abstract: Critical decolonial assessments of International Political Economy (IPE) curricula have found a continued dominance of Euro-Western perspectives. However, these critical assessments have often been of specific programs or courses. In this article, we open the canvas wider in our quantitative assessment of privilege and marginalization, by conducting an analysis of IPE curricula from universities from around the world as well as of one of the most widely used introductory textbooks in the field. We find that scholars based outside of the Euro-West are marginal, while those based in the Euro-West continue to be dominant – in all the assessed course offerings. We also find that female voices are marginal, in all locations. Knowledge production systems privilege Euro-Western male voices and perspectives, furthering a process of systemic cognitive and epistemic injustices. Building upon our analysis of teaching and learning content, this article critically reflects on the implications of when IPE meets policy, and offers avenues for the policy engagement to avoid the same processes of privileging and marginalizing, and thereby better situating policy making to avoid repeating failures resulting from the identified entrenched biases.

Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14494035.2021.1975220 

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14494035.2021.1975220

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Epistemic Freedom in Africa

For students looking for an introduction to decolonization, or faculty looking to catch up on conversations they have been missing (or conversations they have avoided or actively sought not take part in), Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni has brought it together for you in Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization (2018). As the title implies, this book is rooted in the African perspective of decolonization, which makes it somewhat unique that books written from other vantage points (e.g. Mignolo). For those deeply embedded into these conversations, Sabelo's other work presents more of his own contributions, whereas this book summarizes much of what the major leaders have contributed (the book includes a lot of quoted content from these leading thinkers, which is a resource for those not familiar with those works). Two chapters are Open Access here.

Some notes:

"This affirmation and validation take the form of publication in the so-called international, high-impact and peer-reviewed journals. Europe and North America constitute the 'international' and the rest of the world is 'local'. Consequently, international, high-impact, and peer-reviewed journals and internationally respected publishing houses and presses are those located in Europe and North America. Highly ranked universities are located in Europe and North America. Taken together, these realities confirm the existence of epistemic hegemony. The signature of epistemic hegemony is the idea of 'knowledge' rather than 'knowledges'" (p. 8)

"Hountondji (1990: 10) distilled 13 "indices of scientific dependence". The first is dependence on technical apparatuses made in Europe and North America. The second is dependence on foreign libraries and documentation centres for up-to-date scientific information. The third is what he termed "institutional nomadism, a restless going to and fro" European and North American universities. The fourth dependence manifests itself as 'brain-drain'. The fifth is importation of theory from the North to enlighten the data gathered in the South. The sixth dependence is aversion to basic research and sticking to the colonial ideology of instrumentality of knowledge. The seventh problem is in choice of research topics that is determined by interests of the North where knowledge is validated (Hountondji 1990: 12). The eighth dependence is confinement to territorial specialisations in which African scholars are often reduced to native informants. The ninth form of dependence is that African scholars are engaged in scientific research that is of direct service to coloniality. The tenth issue relates to research into indigenous knowledge which eventually is disciplined to fit into the modes of Western science. The eleventh challenge is that of linguistic dependence on six European languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese) in teaching and research. The twelfth index of scientific dependence is a lack of communication among African scholars as most prefer "a vertical exchange and dialogue with scientists from the North than horizontal exchange with fellow scholars from the South" (Hountondji 1990: 13)." (p. 25-26)

"What emerges from these questions is the importance of the material to which students are exposed and the consciousness of the teachers in the delivery of the material. Most often one gets the impression that it is the quality of students that is discussed and very little is said about the quality of the teachers and their consciousness. There is a lot that is wrong with the academics produced by Western-style universities... If indeed the key problem with the African academics is that of consciousness caused by miseducation, then the focus on changing the very idea of the university as the factory that produced the academics and intellectuals should be accompanied by re-education of its products." (p. 84)

"It is not surprising that, as an institution, the Westernized university in Africa is today the key site of struggles for decolonization. In the first place, it is the universities that promised freedom of thought only to stifle it through religiously adhering to a Eurocentric epistemology and Western-centric cultures and practices. In the second place, the university has the highest concentration of young people who are eager to understand why the institution is still maintaining alienating Eurocentric cultures and is not resolving and question of cultural and practical relevance of what it delivers. In the third place, despite the institutional constraints, the university is still the space where ideas are explored endlessly. Finally, it is within the confines of the Westernized university located in Africa that the youth encounter face-to-face epistemic and pedagogical brutalities that provoke them to rebel." (p. 163) 

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Secure the Base

Secure the Base (2016) is a collection of speeches that Ngugi wa Thiong'o gave. His other works include Decolonizing the Mind (1986), An African Renaissance (2009) and Theory and Politics of Knowing (2012), amongst many others. A few quotes:

"It is fair to say that 'tribe', 'tribalism' and 'tribal wars', the terms so often used to explain conflict in Africa were colonial inventions. Most African languages do not have the equivalent of the English word tribe, with its pejorative connotations that sprung up in the evolution of the anthropological vocabulary of eighteenth -and nineteenth-century European adventurism in Africa. The words have companionship with other colonial conceptions, such as 'primitive', the 'Dark Continent', 'backward races' and 'warrior communities.'" (p. 9)

"It is not hard to see the roots of this identification with cultural symbols of Western power. The education of the black elite is entirely in European languages. Their conceptualization of the world is within the parameters of the language of their inheritance. Most importantly, it makes the elite an integral part of a global-speech community. Within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the language of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce administration and even culture." (p. 42)

"For a long time now, I have advocated moving the centre from a handful of European nations to marginalized nations, and then creating conditions for a healthy dialogue and equal exchange among them all. Although this has been couched in mainly linguistic and cultural terms, my concerns embrace the wholeness of a community - the economic, political, cultural and psychic." (p. 59)

"I want to suggest that our various fields of knowledge of Africa are in many ways rooted in that colonial tradition of the outsider looking in, gathering knowledge with the help of native informants, and then storing the final product in a European language for consumption by those who have access to that language." (p. 71)

"We cannot afford to be intellectual outsiders in our own land. We must reconnect with the buried alluvium of the African memory - that must become the base for planting African memory anew in the continent and in the world. This can only result in the empowerment of African languages and cultures and make them pillars of a more self-confident Africa ready to engage with the world, through give-and-take, from its base in African memory." (p. 76) 

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