Students at South African universities are planning a major expedition into Africa in the hopes of recovering lost knowledge about the continent.
The initiative started at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW), where students are planning to trek through Africa, visiting universities, museums and cultural centres, to revive relationships between South Africans and other African people.
”South Africa’s history has left it isolated from all Africa,” says Alex Mmethi, a UDW student. ”We need to reintroduce ourselves to the rest of the continent in a way that will make a lasting impression.”
Mmethi and other UDW students aim to leave during the September holidays so they don’t miss too much of their course work. Their itinerary includes Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Egypt.
Other academic institutions and businesses have endorsed or sponsored the trip, and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki added his approval to the project last week. Other universities are also sending students.
UDW is also planning to build a multi-disciplinary Centre of the African Renaissance.
Staff and students have pinned their hopes on it fulfilling a brief from the Department of Education to transform UDW into a ”truly African” university.
Those involved in the centre are going all out to establish much-needed links with the continent to enrich local knowledge of its language, history and heritage, science and technology.
Co-ordinated by academic and artist, Professor Pitika Ntuli, the centre also aims to offer students courses in ”African renaissance” theory.
”In South Africa there is a general perception that Africa has no history and that Africans have no technology,” Ntuli says.
”What ‘African renaissance’ teaches is that each culture has its own forms of science, culture and art. There are many indigenous technologies.”
Ntuli wants to introduce modules of ”African renaissance” learning into every UDW degree, from the ”hard sciences like engineering” through social sciences and humanities.
He believes every student needs to learn something of the history of the black peoples of South Africa, to regain a sense of the country’s identity. Also on the cards is an elaborate mentoring programme.
Elder members of local communities – who may be illiterate in a Western sense – will mentor senior staff at the university, teaching them what has been passed down through oral tradition.
The staff will then pass this on to students, who in turn will take the knowledge back to their own communities.
Ntuli says the range of knowledge covers science, health care, architecture and art – subjects which have been a part of African life since 2000BC.
The centre has been designed to fill the gaps left by apartheid and Western curricula.
”Through research we can retrieve history that was obliterated by colonialism,” he says.
”We are trying to restore the dignity of people whose history has been denied them.”