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Francis Nyamnjoh: Decolonising the Academy - A Case for Convivial Scholarship (Carl Schlettwein Lecture 2019)
Everything moves – people, things and ideas – in predictable and unpredictable ways. The circulation of things, ideas and people is not the monopoly of any particular group, community or society. Mobility and circulation lead to encounters of various forms, encounters that are (re)defining in myriad ways. If people, their things and their ideas circulate, it follows that their identities, personal or collective, move as well. And through encounters with others, mobile people are constantly having to navigate, negotiate, accommodate or reject difference (in things, ideas, practices and relations) in an open-ended manner that makes of them a permanent work in progress. No mobility or interaction with others leaves anyone, anything or any idea indifferent, even if such interactions are not always equal and do not always result in immediate, palpable or tangible change. No encounter in mobility results in uncontested domination or total passivity. Even as some may wilt completely in the face of domination, some resist it fervently, and others are able to navigate and negotiate the tensions and contradictions brought about by the reality of domination in complex, creative and innovative ways. Sometimes this holds potential for new and more convivial forms of identity, practice and relating.
To revisit a debate such as that on ‘Africa and the Disciplines’, is to afford ourselves the opportunity to use old questions as a springboard for exploring new ones. If Africa and the Disciplines was about interrogating the social production of knowledge, the production process and those involved, as well as the resources that make knowledge production possible, how does one draw on such dynamics to inform current and persistent clamours for decolonisation of knowledge production and consumption globally, and on and about Africa and Africans in particular, and especially in their complexities and mobilities? And how does one proceed with the understanding that increasingly, African knowledge producers, aware that the predicaments of those they research, teach and publish on are not discipline-bound or confined to a particular geographical space, and that doing justice to them requires working in teams, within institutions and in local and global networks of cooperation, as well as with stakeholders beyond the ivory tower?
In view of the nimblefootedness of being African and related considerations above, and providing for the unboundedness of being, becoming and belonging as Africans or otherwise, this address invites us to build on the debate on Africa and the Disciplines of the early 1990s, by recognising and providing for a disposition of incompleteness that lends itself to convivial scholarship. Recurrent clamours for universities in Africa (and indeed, elsewhere) to provide for greater inclusivity, are a continued reminder that, although intended as convivial spaces par excellence, universities are not as convivial in practice as one would expect. Equally unconvivial are processes of knowledge production that champion delusions of superiority and zero-sum games of absolute winners and losers. Disciplines tend to encourage introversion and emphasise the exclusionary fundamentalism of the heartland rather than the inclusionary overtures of the borderland. Frequenting the crossroads and frontier conversations are frowned upon, if not prohibited. If and when allowed in principle, inter-, multi-and trans-disciplinary dispositions are more claimed than practised, as scholars stick to their spots like leopards and quills like porcupines.
Despite our quest for distinction through science and reason, we scholars are equally as much creatures of habit as those beyond the walls of the academy. Scarcity of conviviality in universities, among and within the disciplines, and scholars suggests that the production, position in and consumption of knowledge are far from a neutral, objective and disinterested process. It is socially and politically mediated by hierarchies of humanity (informed by with not confined to factors such as race, geography, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and age) and human agency imposed by particular relations of power. Given the resilience of colonial education in Africa and among Africans, endogenous traditions of knowledge popular across the continent, do not receive the recognition and representation they deserve. Conviviality in knowledge production would entail not just seeking conversations and collaboration with and across disciplines in the conventional sense but also, and even more importantly, the integration of sidestepped popular epistemologies informed by popular universes and ideas of reality. Such scholarship is predicated upon recognising and providing for incompleteness as a necessary attribute of being, from persons to disciplines and traditions of knowing and knowledge making.
Francis B. Nyamnjoh is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. He earned his BA and MA at the University of Yaounde, Cameroon, and his PhD (1990) at the University of Leicester, UK. Before he joined the University of Cape Town in 2009 he served as Head of Publications at CODESRIA. Nyamnjoh has taught sociology, anthropology and communication studies at universities in Cameroon and Botswana, and has researched and written extensively on Cameroon and Botswana, where he was awarded the “Senior Arts Researcher of the Year” prize for 2003. In October 2012 he received a University of Cape Town Excellence Award for “Exceptional Contribution as a Professor in the Faculty of Humanities”. He is recipient of the “ASU African Hero 2013” annual award by the African Students Union, Ohio University, USA; of the 2014 Eko Prize for African Literature; and of the ASAUK 2018 Fage & Oliver Prize for the best monograph for his book #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa. His scholarly books include: Africa’s Media, Democracy and the Politics of Belonging (2005); Insiders and Outsiders: Citizenship and Xenophobia in Contemporary Southern Africa (2006); “C'est l'homme qui fait l'homme”: Cul-de-Sac Ubuntu-ism in Côte d'Ivoire (2015); #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa (2016); Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd: How Amos Tutuola Can Change Our Minds (2017); Eating and Being Eaten: Cannibalism as Food for Thought (2018); and The Rational Consumer: Bad for Business and Politics: Democracy at the Crossroads of Nature and Culture (2018).
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