Tag Archives: Epistemology of African Knowledge

The African Renaissance is a farce without de-westernizing ‘truths’.


Without de-westernizing ‘truths’, the African Renaissance would be nothing but farcical, to say the least. This rebirth should be alive to the fact that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But how do we remember this past if we cannot even authoritatively describe/define it? In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries judged and ranked human intelligence and civilization by whether the people practiced alphabetic writing. Towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the measuring stick for human intelligence and civilization was history and no longer alphabetic writing. That ‘people without history’ were located in a time ‘before’ the ‘present’. Thus people with history could write the history of those without.[1]This has fostered the notion of equating history, with writing about history as if before writing there was no history. [2] Wa Thiong’o notes that words name thought and the tongue voices the words. Words don’t come out of our mouths in written form; they come out as voice, spoken.[3]

That Africa didn’t have a written history is a stereotype that has been reinforced by the entrenched institutional ignorance and ‘epistemological oppression’ that to borrow Ngunyi’s words, bestrides the discourse in our institutions of higher learning like a colossus. However, nothing could be farther from the truth, as depicted by more or less one million manuscripts recently found in Timbuktu covering both physical and social sciences:

Explorers just brought new proofs which could explicate ‘’African inferiority.’’ Since Africans could produce nothing of value; the technique of Yoruba statuary must have come from Egyptians; Benin art must be a Portuguese creation; the architectural achievement of Zimbabwe was due to Arab technicians; and Hausa and Buganda statecraft were inventions of white invaders (Davidson 1959; Lugard, 1905; Randall-Maclaver, 1906; Sanders, 1969; Mallows, 1984) observes Mudimbe.[4] Azikiwe holds that the ‘’renascent African’’ must know that his ancestors made definite contributions to history. Undeniably, this ‘ahistorical’ view of science, technology and mathematics that deliberately leaves Africa and its peoples out of evolution of humanity’s science, technology and mathematics[5] has to be the starting point for this odyssey that is the African Renaissance. As Ki-Zerbo maintains, the curse of Africa is not the chronic ‘poverty’ of its countries but the ignorance of its children of the true history….of the continent. The renascent African, it follows, has to reclaim their history from the West.To quote Mwalimu Nyerere, ‘we, in Africa, have no more need of being ‘converted’ to socialism than we have of being ‘taught’ democracy. Both are rooted in our past- in the traditional society which produced us.’

The sources of knowledge are either science or philosophy. Discourses not only have socio-historical origins but also epistemological contexts, and the latter makes them possible.[6] To this extent, (Mudimbe,1983) poses pertinent questions: to what degree can one speak of an ‘’African knowledge’’ and in which sense? Who has the right and credentials to produce it, describe it….or at least present opinions about it? Is it only ‘’real’’ Africans or Westernized Africans as well? He thus posits, in a strict sense, ’the notion of African philosophy refers to contributions of Africans practicing philosophy within the definite framework of the discipline and its historical tradition.’ Critics however hold that with the globality of epistemology today, which they say is no longer Western, there can’t be such a thing as ‘’discourse authenticity’’.

‘Truths’ are today dominantly based on a Western episteme. European philosophy,concepts, identities and ‘truths’ have either been imposed by seduction or force. Statehood as the primary form of political organization among nations, or the conception of power as well as its management in today’s Africa as Ki-Zerbo puts it, has nothing African to it. [7] And Western-style democracy I’d add. Evan Mwangi reckons  that even the word ‘’Africa’’ is not African just as much as ‘’Kenya’’ is not a Kenyan word. ‘’Kenya’’ is a European mispronunciation of Kirinyaga, the pre-colonial Bantu name for Mount Kenya, adds he.[8] Every language has its way of organizing meaning and Ngugi challenges us to develop knowledge, philosophy, and other arts through African languages. The monetization of poverty is yet another conceptualized ‘truth’ we so gladly, and unquestionably at that, embrace. ‘’The so-called developed countries have regarded poverty as being something external to them and as such a defining feature of the quote-unquote, Third World. This view has provided justification for the former to help ‘develop’ the latter by promoting further integration into the capitalist market. A community that provides for itself outside monetized cash transactions and wage labour, such as a hunter-gatherer group, is thus regarded as poor’’…. and ‘primitive’.[9] This orthodox view of development promotes reliance on external ‘expert knowledge’, usually Western in lieu of participatory, appropriate often indigenous knowledge and technology.Is Westernization the hallmark of modernity? Objects which perhaps are not art at all in their ‘’native context’’ become ‘art’ by being given an aesthetic character by some odiero. In Half of a Yellow Sun– in cinemas this month, Odenigbo reiterates that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe: “…my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe…I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.” Professor Ezeka counters: ‘’But you became aware that you were Igbo because of the white man. Tribe as it is today is as colonial a product as nation and race.’ Identity is undoubtedly of the essence when talking about the African Renaissance for without identity ‘’we are just a mere object of history, a prop in the play of globalization, an instrument used by the others. A utensil.’’ The African literary renaissance  will contribute greatly to the discourses that shape Africa’s rebirth in the political, economic and cultural spheres of African people’s lived experiences.[10] Sankara knew how important identity was when he renamed his ‘’fatherland’’  Burkina Faso- the land of the upright people from the colonial Upper Volta  and introduced le Faso dan Fani, the traditional  cotton-made Burkinabe cloth, later nicknamed by civil servants as ‘Sankara arrive’. This was underpinned by the policy that required that every civil servant had to consume local products. Today, to a large extent, Africa produces what it does not consume and consumes what it does not produce.

Many an African analyst/academician has up to now been using conceptual systems supposing a non-African epistemological locus. Even in the most explicit ‘’Afro centric’’ descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.[11] In what constitutes an unequivocal indictment on the African Renaissance, Okpanachi and Andrew reckon that a brief glance at course outlines in some African universities shows the course instructors in these schools rely on Western theories, sometimes even to teach domestic politics.[12] Few African scholars receive mention. The tragedy of our times, huh? READ @SiyandaWritesAcademia is Africa’s last hope

Our institutions of higher learning are no longer citadels of knowledge, an assertion disputed by some. ”Professors spend most of their time scavenging for wealth, lecturers are competing hawkers in the markets and students dread reading,” writes Kabaji in the Saturday Daily Nation. Africa contributes not more than two percent of knowledge generated worldwide, much of this produced in South Africa and Nigeria. In Kenya, ”how many new ideas have been patented from our various universities?”[13] Indeed, how many patents do we have continentally? Through bio-piracy, Africa’s genes, plants, and related traditional knowledge are being patented by Western Multinational Corporations. Consequently, Africa is losing in the region of not less than US $15 billion from its biodiversity annually. We have to design  curricula in institutions of higher education that reflect our needs. Education rooted in African realities; much of the social sciences are rooted in a Western episteme. They have to be alive to political, socio-economic and technological needs of our nations.SEE @ChikaforafricaEducation in Africa: Whose education, anyway?

Genealogy-the ‘history of the present’, prescribes that by looking into the past, we see alternative ways to conceptualize humans’ relationship with certain concepts and gain an understanding of the discursive and material structures that underpin the present.[14]

Illustrating the ‘epistemological oppression’ that has consigned ‘authentic’ African discourse to what I’ll call ethno ‘truths’- knowledge bereft of a universal quality,regardless of whether it is in colonially inherited European languages  or  mother tongues, Hamid Dabashi asks why European philosophy is “philosophy”, but African philosophy ethno philosophy, the way Indian music is ethno music. Mignolo rightly argues that African philosophy and European philosophy, ”are (potential) epistemological equals, the former has been subordinated by the coloniality of power.” The coloniality of knowledge has consequently led to an emergence of a dichotomizing system, and with it a great number of current paradigmatic oppositions have developed: traditional versus modern; oral versus written and printed; agrarian and customary communities versus urban and industrialized civilization; subsistence economies versus highly productive economies. On the continent, a great deal of attention is generally given to the evolution implied and promised by the passage from the former paradigms to the latter (Mudimbe, 1980). It should be noted too that ‘truths’ are not opposed to power- as in the classical phrase ‘speaking truth to power’- but is integral to power itself. ‘The way Western scholars have ‘gained knowledge’ about non-Western peoples by describing them as inferior, backward, underdeveloped, and sometimes threatening’[15], makes a good illustration of this. Knowledge is not immune from the workings of power. Instead, as Foucault argues, power in fact produces knowledge. All power requires knowledge and all knowledge relies on and reinforces existing power relations. From a publisher’s perspective, the control of knowledge will always be a political question that makes the arena for cultural production a site of struggle for dominance and struggle for the power to define, legitimize and consecrate ideas, producers and products.[16]

But if Confucianism offers the possibility of desubalternizing ‘truths’ and expanding the horizon of human knowledge beyond the academy and beyond the Western concept of knowledge and rationality, this possibility is also open to forms of knowledge that were hit harder by the colonial tempest.[17] African social scientists address African realities in borrowed languages and paradigms, conversing with each other through publications controlled by foreign academic communities, and producing prescriptive knowledge.[18] Bemoaning the fact that the continent has vast resources and ostensibly lacks  ‘intellectuals’, @cobbo3  points out that there no longer exists a single prestigious peer-reviewed pan-African journal. That, all the better journals are produced by Western institutions and universities

We’ve got to move beyond where colonial discourse assigned us. The question that the Africa Renaissance in effect should address as entails knowledge is how African philosophy  ”can reach self-consciousness and evident universality, not at the cost of whatever European philosophers may think of themselves for the world at large, but for the purpose of offering alternative (complementary or contradictory) visions of reality more rooted in the lived experiences of people in Africa.’’[19] Education thus ‘either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practices of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.’[20] The latter ought to be reflected in our education systems.


[1]  Mignolo D.W.  Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. http://pages.ucsd.edu/~rfrank/class_web/ES-270/MignoloIntroCh1.pdf                                                                                                                                      

[2] Tongue and pen: a challenge to philosophers from Africa, a translation of ‘Rũrĩmĩ na karamu: ithoga harĩ athamaki a Abirika’ Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Journal of African Cultural Studies, 2013.



[4] V.Y Mudimbe. The Invention of Africa; Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge,1988.

[5] Biao, I & Dipholo B.K. Rethinking Education for Sustainable Development in Africa, The African Symposium, Volume 13, No.2, December 2013.

[6] V.Y Mudimbe. African Gnosis Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge: An Introduction. African Studies Review, Vol. 28, No.2/3 1985. http://www.jstor.org/stable/524605 .

[7]Amy Niang. Joseph Ki-Zerbo: The Historian and His Struggle,2006 http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/34532

[8] Evan Mwangi. Through New Writing, Africa is roaring again. Daily Nation, March 2nd 2014.http://mobile.nation.co.ke/lifestyle/Africa-Literature-Books-Fiction/-/1950774/2226326/-/format/xhtml/-/r8awe2z/-/index.html

[9] Thomas, C. & Evans, T. Poverty, development, and hunger in Baylis, J. Owens P. and Smith, The Globalization of World Politics. An Introduction to International Relations.2011.

[10]Contributions of African literature to the African Renaissance; Maurice Taonezvi Vambehttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/18186874.2010.534848

[11] V.Y Mudimbe. African Gnosis Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge: An Introduction. African Studies Review, Vol. 28, No.2/3 1985. http://www.jstor.org/stable/524605 .

[12] Andrews N & Okpanachi E. Trends of Epistemic Oppression and Academic Dependency in Africa’s Development: The Need for a New Intellectual Path. The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.5, no.8, December 2012

[13] Egara Kabaji: How Scholars lost the plot: https://www.flickr.com/photos/albertkenyaniinima/12026782336/in/photostream/ .Saturday Nation,18 2014.

[14] Hansen L. Postructuralism in Baylis, J. Owens P. and Smith, The Globalization of World Politics. an Introduction to International Relations.2011.

[15] Ibid

[16] Mbakwe T. Arise Nana Ayebia. New African, June 2011

[17] Mignolo D.W.  Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. http://pages.ucsd.edu/~rfrank/class_web/ES-270/MignoloIntroCh1.pdf

[18] Zeleza, P. T. “The Politics of Historical and Social Science Research in Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 28, no. 1 2002

. [19] Dabashi, H. Can non-European think? http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/2013114142638797542.html Aljazeera, 2013.

[20] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.