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Thirsty in the middle of a spring: Making knowledge of Africa useful to Africa

‘Knowledge is useless if it’s not used to improve the livelihood of people sustainably’



Who produces knowledge of Africa and for what purpose is knowledge of Africa produced. How do we know Africa and how does how we know Africa influence our views and attitude to Africa? From which ideological perspective is knowledge of Africa produced? How appropriate is this knowledge for Africans in understanding Africa? What is the history of knowledge of Africa and what is its contemporary legacy? For whose interest is knowledge of Africa produced and whose interest does it serve? Is contemporary knowledge of Africa programmed to ensure its sustainability or exploitation? What does Africa need to know to ensure its survival and sustainability? Are there unique African ways of knowing and is there African context specific knowledge that is appropriate for understanding and application in Africa?

The Devils Journal




As a result of our colonial past, the body of expertise of Africa is now erected from an ideological perspective that degrades Africa to the status of a mere object by warping its history and disregarding its psyche. This ensures that , in furthering their own investigations, Africans must rely on knowledge of Africa which is designed for the clear purpose of its exploitation.

The colonial machination.



The history of inquiry in and of Africa, is undeniably part of the colonial machination.  Since Africans do not seek to exploit themselves, the body of knowledge developed and organized by the west is more useful to aspiring neocolonialists than to civic minded Africans. As a result, the knowledge Africa needs for its sustainability may not lie in “universal” knowledge.


As rightly argued in various forums, what stands between African development and sustainability is knowledge. This is because what Africans lack is neither natural resources, human capital or a conducive climate for its holistic development, but the understanding of their own resources and how to harness them for their own benefit.


Perishing for lack of wisdom



With regard to Africans, our situation in relation to knowledge and sustainability is akin to being thirsty in the middle of a spring, it is a case of “my people perishing for lack of wisdom”.  This is unfortunate and ironic given that Africa has historically been and continues to be a source of knowledge. There is no continent more studied and researched than Africa as seen in the research agenda and focus of international research institutions, academia and private corporations.


Giving too much



However, a major problem of progress in Africa is the challenge that Africans rarely produce, store or access knowledge of Africa for African socio-cultural political economic interest. This is a lamentable situation which Africans must be committed to challenge by taking heed of Paulin Hountondji criticism of the objectionably “selfless” nature of Africa’s research output.




The situation, as he argues, which we cannot deny is that ‘too often we tend to investigate subjects which are of interest first and foremost to a Western audience. We publish most of our articles in journals located outside Africa which are meant therefore for a non-African readership. Even when we happen to publish in Africa, the fact is that readers outside of Africa read African scholarly journals more than readers inside Africa’.





As noted by Patrick Harris who traced the changing dynamics of knowledge production in Africa occasioned by imperial conquest, ‘while knowledge became more abundant and was more easily obtained, through public schooling and the networks created by modern technology, and could be seen as liberating, it also became tied more indefatigably to the European metropole. From this perspective, it could be seen as controlling and even dehumanizing’.

Thus he argued that although ‘some Africans found an upward mobility and a source of power in this new definition of knowledge; but for many it was a means of exclusion that confined them to a world of ‘tradition’ and ‘superstition’ strictly separated from the ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ associated with the colonial project’.


A Western Product


This exclusion according to Harris ensured that in time, ‘science’ became a western product that overlooked the long contribution of ‘indigenous knowledge’ to its development, leading to the emergence of a new concept of science and, with it, an accompanying narrative of transfer of ‘western science’ from the imperial centre to the colonial periphery; and from hubs on the outskirts of empire to a grateful hinterland’.


The Colonial Science Narrative



As any historian knows, the consequence of these processes, was that ‘local ways of naming, ordering and explaining nature were lost or ignored, and the power of ‘science’ was irrevocably tied to a modernising project underscored by a mission aimed at bettering and ‘civilizing’ native peoples’.


The pursuit of self knowledge


One major task of the African historian is therefore to uncover the contribution of African peoples to ‘western science’ and acknowledge the global nature of knowledge and in the process to show how fragile and tentative the ‘expert opinion’ that dominates modern life today is.’ ‘In this perspective, the set of disciplines called African Studies will certainly not have the same meaning in Africa as in the West. In Africa it is or should be part of a wider project: knowing oneself in order to transform.


African Studies in Africa should not be satisfied with just contributing to the accumulation of knowledge about Africa, a kind of knowledge that is capitalized in and managed by the west as all other sectors of scientific knowledge. African scholars involved in African Studies should have another priority, which is to develop first and foremost an Africa-based tradition of knowledge in all disciplines, a tradition where questions are initiated and research agendas set out directly or indirectly by African societies themselves. This is to ensure that knowledge of Africa is produced in Africa, and not always or exclusively outside Africa.



Furthermore fairness to the continent demands that we appropriate all the knowledge accumulated throughout centuries on different aspects of African life. It is therefore imperative that adequate measures be taken to facilitate a lucid, responsible appropriation by Africans of the knowledge of Africa produced anywhere in the world. Such appropriation should go hand in hand with a critical appropriation of Africa’s own endogenous knowledge and, beyond, a critical appropriation of the very process of knowledge production and capitalization’


There is thus an urgent need for appropriation of knowledge produced in Africa for the generation of solutions for Africa’s socio-cultural, political, economic and environmental sustainability problems. It is necessary to recognize the geo-politics of relativity and the cultural, social, political, historical and environmental specificity of knowledge. It is also imperative to recognize the necessity of uncontested domination of knowledge in Africa by Africans if African socio-cultural sustainability is to be guaranteed.


Olusegun Morakinyo,

Director of Research, African Institute for Knowledge and Sustainability (AIKS)


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