Decolonising local knowledge, and transcending the boundaries of‘colonial science’

With regards to the enduring influences of colonialism on epistemologies in Africa, Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ (2018) notion that colonisation is a

‘cocreation’ between colonisers and colonised — in the sense of a programmatic relegation of Indigenous ways of knowing into the realm of pseudoscience, subaltern knowledge or ‘savage science’ — holds remarkable significance. Indeed, the call for ‘cognitive decolonisation,’ needs to be informed by the precondition that ‘however asymmetrical, decolonising entails decolonising both the knowledge of the colonised and the knowledge of the colonizer’ (Santos, 2018, p. 107). According to Santos, the way out of the current colonisation-driven epistemological deadlocks is to devise a cognitive ‘third space’ in terms of theory and methodology development ‘along the lines of a decolonised mestizaje in which the mixture of knowledges, cultures, subjectivities, and practices subverts the abyssal line that grounds the epistemologies of the North’ (2018, p. 107).

Consequently, there is a need to decolonise the concept of Indigenous knowledge along with the preconceived negative ranking by its comparison with modern science. As a rule, Indigenous forms and ways of producing, archiving, and disseminating knowledge are put in opposition to scientific research as if they belonged to two radically contradicting realms. A thorough deconstruction of the concept of ‘science’ is accordingly also necessary for decolonised higher education in Africa. The decolonial project needs to interrogate the enduring consignment of traditional knowledge(s) to the ‘periphery of the periphery’ (Hountondji, 2002, p. 252) within institutional scientific knowledge.

The varied but complementary views expressed in this edited volume show an acute awareness of this important task of deconstruction. The focus on the ontologically hybrid nature of knowledge is based on the conviction that beyond broadly admitted Manichean distinctions, Indigenous, traditional or local and scientific, modern or global knowledges are complementary (see also Silitoe 2007). Beyond criticizing suppressive Western epistemologies, a responsible posture on decolonising science requires a clear articulation of the ‘silent coexistence’ (Hountondji, 2002, p. 252) between ‘scientific’ discourse and traditional knowledge. ‘Voices from the Academy’ (Semali & Kincheloe, 2011) interrogating the status and role of Indigenous knowledge in higher learning actually speak from a position of legitimacy bestowed upon them by their professional practice as scientists and the subsequent awareness of the fundamental unity of knowledge. Furthermore, the task of constantly questioning the ideological fundaments and implications of science and research is also a requirement of the profession of scientist; particularly for the postcolonial scholar and researcher. Donaldo Macedo argues that it is only through the decolonisation of his/her mind and heart that the African scholar ‘can begin to develop the necessary political clarity to reject the enslavement of a colonial discourse that creates a false dichotomy between Western and indigenous knowledge’ (1999, p. xv). In a well-balanced education system, ‘the learning process should be a two-way affair, not only facilitating the adoption of scientifically informed ideas by local communities, but also the informing of scientific understanding with local knowledge’ (Silitoe, 2007, p. 3).

All this should not conceal the equally relevant facts that all quests for knowledge strive for universality and that at the same time, there is no ontological marker of locality or indigeneity as radically divergent from universality. Law and Lin (2017, p. 5) argue accordingly that ‘the claim that all knowledges are situated is self-contradictory’ and amounts to a ‘formal paradox.’ For instance, cognitive standards are universal but not necessarily the ways and means people choose the object(s) of their knowledge and how they proceed to incorporate them into their mind and life experience. Scientific or academic knowledge is no exception to this general rule (see also Sarewitz, 2010, p. 1001).

Nevertheless, from a strictly theoretical point of view, the most important issue about knowledge is not so much its relation to particularity or universality seen in their respective spatial configurations but about the relation of knowledge to truth, i.e., of what people can believe in, and human wellbeing. The challenge for a hybrid conception of knowledge in decolonising academic contexts is to hold on to the unstable balance and mutuality among endogenous and exogenous sources of knowledge; what is considered local or particular one day, may well become global and universal another day. Ultimately, as Appiah (1992, pp. IX-X) cautions, ‘ideological decolonization is bound to fail if it neglects either endogenous “traditions” or exogenous “western” ideas.’ This implies that the decolonial project must transgress theoretical academic realms of higher education and be mainstreamed into or rather feed by society as a whole. Decoloniality, in its essence an anti-monolithic endevaour, has to rhyme with and be aware of other forms of social agency taking place in African societies outside the confinements of scholastic practices.9

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