Inside Africa’s search for meaning

In our book Africa-Centred Knowledges: Crossing Fields and Worlds we question how knowledge is made in African contexts, as a way of exploring the nature of what we term Africa-centred know-ledges. Africa-centred knowledges are predicated on the recognition that Africa is highly diverse but, at the same time, there is a geopolitical and historical unity that continues to underpin the continent.

This requires that we acknowledge the multiplicity of understandings on the continent, which come forward as forms of knowledge, needs and questions.

Moving away, then, from the idea of universal truths and realities, we focus instead on the process by which knowledge is made. In so doing, it becomes clear that we need to understand “knowledge” as plural. Instead of one knowledge, there are multiple knowledges, and this is a necessary complement to the recognition that Africa is not homogenous or monolithic.

Our contexts are political, historical and ontological; our starting point is knowledge itself and the epistemological question of how we know what we know. In this collection we aim to raise different aspects of this complex question, rather than bring it to closure with definitive answers.

This brings us to what it is that unifies a book that includes chapters by, among other contributors, literary critics, marine biologists and city planners. It is the focus on know-ledge production that enables us to scrutinise concepts such as those of indigenous knowledge and modernity alongside issues such as the success rates of pupils living in poverty in a Zimbabwean high school and the fiction of Ben Okri or Helen Oyeyemi.

Our authors consciously contribute to what sociologist Raewyn Connell has called “Southern theory” (in her 2007 book of that name), which emphasises “relations – authority, exclusion, inclusion, hegemony, partnership, sponsorship, appropriation – between intellectuals and institutions in the metropole and those in the world periphery”.

Chosen angles
All the chapters are organised around the question of the nature of the knowledge that is produced about a chosen angle on Africa. We say “chosen angle” advisedly because the book works within a familiar paradox: we cannot generalise about Africa and yet we must do so.

Although African knowledge cannot be generalised, it has been filtered predominantly through the lens of its colonial and postcolonial (including apartheid) pasts, and this makes some continental unities real.

Generalisation is, moreover, appropriate within the particular terms of this book because the specificity and differences of each of the chapters’ concerns are united by their shared scrutiny of codes of meaning-making that lie behind their particular research fields. This guides the outcomes. This is what working at the meta-level, at the level of epistemology, entails. All the contributors problematise the assumptions, hypotheses and benchmarks that silently mediate the knowledge outcomes with which they engage.

In other words, each chapter demonstrates its own particular struggle with meaning. The substance of the struggle in each chapter is unique, but the battleground in each case is familiar. And within these struggles, the possibility of Africa-centred knowledges emerges. Neither Euro- nor Afrocentric, what are these Africa-centred knowledges?

Between a bad place and an immovable rock
This collection is poised in a creative and productive third space between the polarisation of the bad place of Eurocentrism and the immovable rock of Afrocentrism.

Africa-centredness is premised on an understanding of the African continent as multiple, global and dynamic. It is a concept that assumes that knowledge, wherever and by whomsoever it is produced, is available for transgressive, emancipatory and counterhegemonic use, even as it will necessarily be contradictory, contested and fluid.

Africa-centredness insists that, unless we are aware of our tools and concepts and the politics to which they are linked, we will invariably reproduce old forms of oppressive power and new orthodoxies.

In his 1988 book The Invention of Africa, the philosopher VY Mudimbe deplored the “dichotomising system” that is built on “paradigmatic oppositions” such as “traditional versus modern, oral versus written and printed, agrarian and customary communities versus urban and industrialised civilisation, subsistence economies versus highly productive economies” and so on.

In opposition to these binaries, Mudimbe evoked “an intermediate, a diffused space” between these extremes. This is a space that is hard to pin down – precariously pertinent and dangerously important. It is a “locus of paradoxes”, revealing as it does the fault lines “between a modernity that often is an illusion of development and a tradition that sometimes reflects a poor image of a mythical past”.

We locate Africa-centred know-ledges in such an intermediate space, and focus on the processes that give rise to it. We understand the dangers and precariousness of this space. Whereas rocks and hard places are fixed in place and time, this tricky intermediate space is a maelstrom – or, as Achille Mbembe characterised processes of transition and change in Africa in his book On the Postcolony, they do not move “in a closed orbit”. For Mbembe, these processes are neither smooth nor unilinear but point in several directions at once.

Further, they are occurring at different speeds and on different time scales, and take the form of fluctuations and destabilisations (sometimes very sharp ones), periods of inertia and spurts that appear quite random but actually combine several regimes of change: stationary, dynamic, chaotic, even catastrophic.

Mbembe sums this up in one word: “entanglement”. Entanglement is the diametric opposite of binary oppositions. In Mbembe’s writing, this everyday word thickens into a theoretical concept designed to capture the complexities, variations within and unruliness of knowledges in what he calls the postcolony.

Entanglement captures the subjective locked into the objective, time as historical and simultaneously not linear, and it embodies a visceral understanding of privilege and poverty. Africa-centred know-ledges are entangled, contextual and contingent.

Western dominance
At the same time, we acknowledge the stubborn and continuing dominance of theory, methodology and research practice originating from Europe and North America. This dominance is what could be termed a bad place. It is a bad place because it perpetuates the legacies of colonialism and of racism; it buttresses privilege and presents obstacles to education for emancipation and local relevance, as many scholars have shown.

This is the place in which Mudimbe declares that both Western and African scholars use “categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order”. He asks: “What does this mean for the field of African studies?” In attempting to transform this field, he is (as we are) “directly concerned with the processes of transformation of types of knowledge”.

At the same time, it is important not to conflate the use of Northern theory with Eurocentrism. What this collection suggests is that know-ledges can become Africa-centred regardless of where they originate. But they do so only when they get entangled in African realities, lexicons and matrices and are shaped by these contexts. This particularly includes conceptions of identity, agency and subjectivity, which emphasise relatedness rather than individuality.

Mudimbe himself later defends the fact that “the idea of Africa” may seem “too dependent upon Western texts”. What he realises, however, is that, given the world capitalist system of which Africa is obviously a part, it is impossible not to consider Western writing.

Going further, those striving to achieve the millennium development goals, for example, are attempting to give priority to development and the problems afflicting millions of people on the planet. Advances in knowledge have, at times, undoubtedly been used to benefit poor and marginal people. The question remains how to decide which advances best serve the interests of the planet and its people, not just a small, rich percentage.

Put differently: What forms of knowledge are appropriate to the multiplicity of issues, needs, questions and dilemmas of researchers on Africa – and, more broadly, those working in resource-poor, historically disadvantaged and politically marginal countries?

This optimising and global view of knowledge sits apart from the immovable rock that dreams up the notion of a pure precolonial goldmine of African knowledge, and suggests that only nuggets mined from this source may be categorised as African knowledge. For those adopting this approach, being African provides privileged access to a precolonial past.

This view makes knowledge an effect of history, location (geographical or racial) and origin, and results in static and essentialising versions of reality, which we term Afrocentric.

Our preference for the term Africa-centred suggests the more fluid formulation that Irene Gedalof captures in the title of her 1999 book, Against Purity. She argues for an approach that acknowledges that identities and knowledge are fluid, and that all social categories are “impure”.

Along the same lines, Mudimbe believes that “it would be illusionary to look for pure, originary and definitively fixed African traditions, even in the precolonial period”. Mudimbe insists on the existence of “historical and intellectual discontinuities, social ruptures and political negotiations of African traditions” and concludes that “discursive formations in Africa … offer tables of intellectual and epistemological dissensions witnessing to fabulous acculturations”.

“Fabulous acculturations” is an evocative phrase. It resonates with ruptures, compromises and negotiations that are not exclusive to, and predate, European drives and interests; it insists that tradition, as a source of unmoving and solid indigeneity, is a fabrication.

Tradition, as fabulously acculturated, challenges what Mbembe critically calls “nativism”.

“Nativist currents of thought” claim “that Africans have an authentic culture that confers on them a peculiar self irreducible to that of any other group”. This results in an emphasis on producing “endo-genous knowledge” that demands “an ‘African science’, an ‘African democracy’, an ‘African language’ ”.

While there are obvious differences between them, the immovable rock and the bad place are also the same; they are flip sides of each other. In other words, Afrocentric and Eurocentric knowledges may appear to be at loggerheads but, in fact, they are structurally very similar.

They both have a single, monolithic benchmark by which to judge and value the world; they share a view of history that denies change and multiplicity, as well as the movement of people and things in more than one direction. Eurocentrism deludes itself that “the West” has lit a path to a universal state of advanced humanity, technology and religion, under the umbrella of so-called modernity. Afrocentrism peddles the myth that Africa cradles the origins of all knowledge and that, although denied by colonialism, these knowledge sources may be unearthed and reused in their original forms.

Unequal powers
A degree of caution is called for in making this point, however. The positioning of the immovable rock and the bad place within similar know-ledge paradigms is only one arm of a many-tentacled history and politics; it is also necessary to recognise the differences in power between Europe and Africa, both in the past and in the present. Africa and Europe do not play on the proverbial level field. And the struggle over knowledge is no game. The “third” Africa-centred space, which refuses both Afro- and Eurocentricity, is a political one that opens up new forms of policy and practice.

In other words, knowledge is not made in an egalitarian way; not all voices make the same (or equal) contributions or have the same authority. Some voices are louder, some marginalised and others inaudible. The balance of authorial voices in knowledge-production processes depends, in part, on their respective epistemological powers, which in turn reflect histories of inequality.

This the German anthropologist Richard Rottenburg understands all too well in his book Far-Fetched Facts: A Parable of Development Aid (2009). He demonstrates that, in order to capture the visible and invisible workings of power in a concrete development context, scholars need to use different tools of writing from conventional academic modes of expression. He evokes fiction, writes a parable and creates a narrative of multiple players whose inheritances and interests negotiate a complex web with sometimes unforeseen outcomes.

The framework of Rottenburg’s research rests on the hypothesis that knowledge production involves agreement about both what know-ledge is and the codes by which it is negotiated. He examines the roles of various actors in a process of know-ledge production in a development setting in Africa using a water-supply project in a fictional country where the actors include representatives of a Western development bank, a foreign consultant, an anthropologist (who is a different kind of “expert”) and local expertise vested in waterworks engineers in the project.

All the power appears to lie with the foreign funder and his consultant, and to be vested in a knowledge consensus that Rottenburg calls the “metacode”. Locals and foreigners alike buy into this knowledge as universal truth – its claim to universality being that it is “scientific” and neutrally technical. In reality, the metacode is steeped in the rhetoric of a burgeoning capitalist modernity that purports to benefit everyone. Without the terms of reference offered by Rottenburg’s metacode, there can be no common ground for co-operation in the development projects that characterise African economic and political life.

The metacode contrasts with what Rottenburg ambiguously calls the “cultural code”, which is a mix of construction and context, of local knowledge, tradition and belief. The foreign expert packages this mix together and identifies it as a problem of the Africans not understanding what needs to be done. The cultural code contrasts, in the foreign expert’s mind, with the universal wisdom of the metacode.

But are things this simple? Rottenburg shows how listener and speaker are connected by their shared use of the metacode, even if they have other understandings that do not fit it.

In fact, conversations proceed by way of code switching between the consensus of the metacode and the rhetoric of the cultural code. In this process, knowledge is contested, broken down and recreated.

Because the balance of power is uneven, local and other stakeholders engage in struggles over know-ledge and the interests that it carries. Neither code provides the answer to meaning-making in development contexts as the codes are in constant tension. One way to deal with the tension is for those who participate in the process of knowledge production to be reflexive, and to reflect critically on their own knowledge codes.

In the language of this volume, the metacode of Eurocentrism (for all its universal posturing, and the tendency among local players to buy into it) is at odds with the cultural code of Afrocentrism.

In negotiating between these two codes, the reflective meaning-maker has the opportunity (we would even say the duty) to unpack the mechanisms by which the codes and their switching operate.

Taking this opportunity is a choice that prevents one from “being trapped by one’s own blind spots”, as Rottenburg puts it. When know-ledge-makers reflect on their own frames of reference, the possibility of Africa-centred knowledges emerges. And this is so despite all the maelstrom, mobilities and multiplicities that accompany such knowledges.

All the contributors to this book seek to transcend the immovable-rock-and-bad-place binary. Creating space is a constitutive act, not simply an act of occupying what already exists and is mapped out. Given the imbalance of world power, as reflected in its knowledge assumptions, those who choose to occupy this creative, suggestive third space struggle to enlarge its archives, its case histories and its theoretical concepts.

For us, it is vital that the space is expanded, and that methodological tools are developed for this work.

Concepts and cases
A cursory reading of the book reveals the artificiality of the division between theoretical concepts and cases. All of the chapters are simultaneously theoretical and context driven. We have been interrogating binary thinking and it would be a big mistake to wheel the distinction between local and global know

ledges, or between theory and practice, into the organisation of this book. Rather, as Clifford Geertz puts it, there is “a shifting focus of particularity”. All knowledge is local and the shift is rather “between one sort of local knowledge … and another”.

The distinction offers us a useful organising device for the book. Key conceptual themes are raised and treated in some depth in the first part of the book, and are used and tested in the second part, more or less.

More importantly, what this division foregrounds is how the basis on which knowledge is produced soaks into the fabric of everyday lives. Questions of how meaning-making happens (through the lenses of Eurocentrism, of modernity or of indigenous knowledge) are scrutinised in the opening chapters.

Then, in the second part of the book, each chapter substantiates the urgency and concreteness of these daily contestations over (and translations to create) meaning.

At the same time, epistemological foundations are laid in the first part of the book through questions of gender, literature, popular music and the South African HIV and Aids debate. The everyday issues of the second part are embedded in the tools and concepts raised in earlier chapters.

The everyday predominates here, and shows itself in a new light when viewed alongside the silent codes that drive and motivate it. This includes the pressures on doctoral students in a South African university, the crisis in knowledge about declining marine fish populations, perplexities around why certain information and communications technology provisions fail, or how some Zimbabwean students, despite being beset by poverty, succeed.

The light thrown on the mechanics of how knowledge comes into being, and in whose interests, illuminates the popularity of charismatic religions, as well as the spiritual and physical ill-health of many citizens of modern African cities who are subjected to inappropriate European city planning models.

Dr Brenda Cooper is an honorary research associate at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.

Dr Robert Morrell is co-ordinator of the Programme for the Enhancement of Research Capacity at the University of Cape Town. 

This is an edited extract from their co-edited book, Africa-Centred Knowledges: Crossing Fields and Worlds, published by James Currey in the UK and distributed in South Africa by Blue Weaver. Visit

How postgraduates grapple with the codes of academic writing

Linda Cooper and Lucia Thesen grapple with knowledge production from an intriguing angle in chapter 11 of Africa-Centred Knowledges. They enter into the institution of the university, an exemplary knowledge-producing machine, and examine how novice researchers – postgraduate students – are inducted into the accepted, and also unacceptable, codes and conventions mediating this knowledge production.

In 2013 the two contributors co-edited a collection titled Postgraduate Writing, Risk and the Making of New Knowledge. Here, various authors examined how dominant codes within academic-writing practices either enable or constrain postgraduate students’ abilities to write up their research. 

This concern is particularly justified in a situation in which universities, such as the University of Cape Town (where they both work), operate within “a global academic terrain that is dominated by ‘Northern theory’”, as Cooper and Thesen phrase it in their chapter in Africa-Centred Knowledges. 

Where does this leave PhD students, who may be the first in their family to reach university and whose language and experience appear to be at odds with the demands and traditions of the institution? 

Cooper and Thesen take seriously the imperative of self-reflection and they foreground the process of sharpening their own theoretical tools for their book to assess, critique and provide alternatives to the codes that govern academic writing. 

They do not throw out the dominant archive but recognise the existence of the traces of transgression against it, which are closer to the experience, language and politics of some postgraduates. Instead of deleting these traces, they, like many of the other contributors to this volume, call for a conversation and a debate between these dimensions. – Brenda Cooper and Robert Morrell, introduction to Africa-Centred Knowledges (James Currey publishers)

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