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As there are different authors for the articles on this blog, each article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bokamoso Leadership Forum.

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04 April 2011

The personal and the creation of knowledge

Oumar Ba is a graduate student in Political Science and African Studies at Ohio University.

In his 2005 text titled “The Seven Dirty Shoes”, Mozambican novelist Mia Couto gave a striking example about Zambia. On June 5 1966, then Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda gave a speech on the waves of Radio Luanda to announce that one of the pillars their country’s future had just been built. He thanked the people of Zambia for having helped build the first university in their country; an answer to his call a few months earlier by all segments of the society. The peasants donated maize, the fishermen donated fish, and the salaried donated money. In that eloquent example of a country coming together, an uneducated people invested in what they hoped would be the ticket to a brighter future for their children. They told themselves that donating food today meant tomorrow their children would not go hungry. Couto writes “Forty years later, the children of those peasants are still hungry.” Zambia did not experience any war, and the country has enough natural resources. So, what went wrong? Did the university fail the peasants?

To keep in the spirit of celebrating local knowledge production and its dissemination in Africa, this article seeks to investigate the ways in which the personality of the knowledge producers affects the role that their intellectual production plays on improving the conditions of the society, and the connection or lack of thereof, of the intellectual’s production and activism in the people’s struggle.

As it has been argued in the precedent articles, elitism and class anxiety plague the African intellectual personality and negatively affects the production and sharing of knowledge, and even its relevance in the African context. In a continent where the vast majority of the people are still excluded from the formal channels of knowledge acquisition and production, in addition to the privileges attached with the status of the intellectual, must come also the duty of serving the society, thus Chinua Achebe’s notion of the “black writer’s burden.”

Formal education is not just a right in Africa, the reality being that it is also privilege for those who have been lucky enough to have accessed it; hence it is important that we make sure that elitism does not become the end result that creates the schism between the segments of our societies. By combing through the intellectual elite of and in Africa, one can only wish we will have more people like Jean Paul Sartre, who sided with Frantz Fanon, and the Algerian people, and all the freedom fighters when doing so meant also being ostracized in one’s own country. How many among us, aspiring intellectuals, or our elders, African intellectuals would decline a Nobel Prize? How many of us would courageously realize that "Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it”. Would we join the battlefield if that is what our generation has identified as its mission, like Fanon did?

Academic work must be coupled with civic engagement and social activism if the African intelligentsia is to have any meaningful impact on our societies. As the previous articles have discussed the need to “move the centre”, African intellectuals must also turn around and speak to the people. We must dare to break away from the established academic circles and move towards reclaiming African languages, vocabulary, and paradigms in order to break down the clusters in which different segments of our societies engage in dialogue and exchange of ideas.

Moreover, the African intellectual must move his/her center of gravity towards those who are often called voiceless when the reality is that it is us who are not listening. We ought to create more Cornel West and less ivory tower intellectuals on the continent. We must dare to be a “bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas.” Even in the case we decide to (if we can afford it) always be dressed in “a hand-tailored three-piece black suit with cufflinks of 25 karat Ethiopian gold, each featuring a tiny image of Africa” as Brother West does, we must also be humble and loving out loud enough to give a big hug to everyone that we greet.

The African intellectual must also embrace the fierce dedication to African languages of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and be able to speak to an African audience. Speaking of and to political authorities the language of truth is also a route that is still not fully paved in our academic circles. In his latest book “Sortir de la grande nuit: Essai sur l’Afrique decolonisee” published in October 2010 (and dedicated to Frantz Fanon and Jean Marc Ela “two thinkers of the unlimited future”), Achille Mbembe calls the current African political elites “satrapes”, which can be loosely translated in English as “bloodsuckers”. He also writes that in many instances, the African political elite conducts itself as foreign occupiers who view their countries resources as war bounty subject to pillages. Mbembe explains the reasons of his spiritual detachment from his homeland of Cameroon to the fact the elite refuses to acknowledge and recognize those who sacrificed themselves for the independence of the country, those whose names are banned from the history books: Um Nyobe, Pierre Yém Mback, Félix Moumié, Abel Kingué, Osendé Afana, Ernest Ouandié, etc.

The politics of selective memory are as disastrous to our societies as the pillage of our natural resources. Finally, to be an African intellectual aware of local knowledge creation and diffusion is also to be an agent of action for a better change, and as Fanon said, “what matters is not to know the world, but to change it.”


Nadia said...

Excellent piece, "what matters is not to know the world, but to change it." It is indeed not enough to have African theorists, they should be positively impacting change in the continent itself. How do you think we can make use of this forum to begin to fulfill this goal?

Oumar Ba said...

Thanks Nadia! I think that just by having this dialogue, we are engaged in an endeavor that will hopefully result in a meaningful change in our societies. We must be careful not to confine ourselves within the academic world, being member of larger communities, we must always strive to engage in critical dialogue with other segments of our societies. We all have different views on the need to be politically engaged, but at least I think we would all agree that scholar activism should not be a matter of choice for the African intellectual. The task is so large that it is not enough to only engage ourselves in theoretical debates.

Nadia said...

Increased engagement and involvement within all spheres of society, I like that!

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