P107 – Decolonizing Knowledge: Alternative Visions for Scholarship and Everyday Life
9 July, 16:00 – 17:30

MacGonagle Elizabeth / University of Kansas
Myers Garth / Trinity College


Ongoing work in African Studies challenges standard forms of disciplinary knowledge shaped in the West and continues to offer intriguing alternatives to dominant canons that emerged out of the colonial period.  This panel’s focus on processes of decolonizing knowledge allows for the examination of recent research that articulates the enduring relevance of African-centered perspectives for scholarly work and human liberation. By starting from the South, the bonds of global developmental categories are called into question. At times, changing the flows of ideas has led to a significant bypassing of expected global North comparisons, and sometimes changing the flows has meant reversing them for South-North comparisons that begin in the South. There are serious consequences for these divides, past and present, and this panel will reflect on the extraordinary promise of work in African Studies that decolonizes disciplinary knowledge. Standard forms of disciplinary knowledge often masquerade as positionless reflections on objective reality bearing the (unseen) imprint of colonial power. Papers will focus on the development of concepts and scholarly practices rooted in everyday experiences of life in African settings. Panel contributions from history, geography, and other fields will demonstrate how these experiences provide foundations for broader human liberation by addressing attempts to decolonize knowledge through action.

Descolonizando o Conhecimento: Visões Alternativas para o campo acadêmico e a Vida Quotidiana
Estudos recentes sobre o continento africano desafiam as formas tradicionais de conhecimento no Ocidente, rigidamente dividida em disciplinas, e oferecem alternativas aos cânones acadêmicos dominantes que surgiram no contexto colonial. O objectivo  deste painel é facilitar a discussão sobre a descolonização do conhecimento, priorizando pesquisas recentes que articulam a relevância duradoura de perspectivas centradas numa visão africana em trabalhos acadêmicos para com libertação humana. Enfatizar uma perspectiva vinda do hemisfério sul, exige repensar as categorias desenvolvimentistas globais. A alteração da direção do fluxo de ideias conduz a comparações globais, com o intuito de reverter os fluxos das comparações Norte-Sul, elegendo o sul como ponto de partida. As consequências dessas divisões são sérias, tanto no passado como no presente, e este painel irá refletir sobre a importância e o potencial dos estudos africanos para a descolonização do conhecimento acadêmico. Os padrões fixos de conhecimento disciplinar muitas vezes mascaram reflexões tidas como objetivas porém que tem a (invisível) marca do poder colonial. Contribuições da história, geografia e outros campos de conhecimento irão demonstrar como as experiências do quotidiano fornecem fundamentos para a libertação humana completa, abordando as tentativas de descolonizar o conhecimento através da ação.

Paper 1

Myers Garth / Trinity College

African Ideas of the Urban

Many cities in Sub-Saharan Africa are growing rapidly. Some patterns and processes of urbanization are familiar – they follow conventional expectations of urban theory, where industrialization and agglomeration have multiplier effects which draw rural population and growth adds to growth. But urbanization in the region appears to upend the rules in other cities which grow rapidly in population and area without formal economic growth. Rather than continuing to see African cities through colonialist theoretical lenses as cities that don’t work or aren’t right, scholars of African urban studies have begun to argue that new ideas of the urban are emerging in Africa of relevance to global urban studies worldwide. This essay explores concepts which emerge in the works of these African urbanists about African cities, in terms of their relevance to cities of the global North, and specifically cities of the US northeast. I use this reverse comparative device to suggest that city learning is a two-way street, and there is no a priori justification for that learning to only flow from the global North to cities of Africa. Such a rethinking of the direction of flow of ideas ought to form a crucial potential basis for decolonizing knowledge about cities in Africa.

Paper 2

MacGonagle Elizabeth / University of Kansas

Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism on Mozambique Island

Ilha de Mozambique, a maritime crossroads that became the capital of Portugal’s Indian Ocean empire, is a small island where memories of foreign encounters and histories of enslavement loom large. This paper examines legacies of the Portuguese colonial encounter within island spaces connected to the history of slavery and indentured labor. The imprint of colonial knowledge is both powerfully present and also quietly hidden. A history of violence and suffering looms behind the tall walls of the sixteenth-century Portuguese fortress and in a recent garden of memory created on the site of a former slave market. Mozambicans live amidst old Portuguese churches, colonial buildings, and statues of men like de Vasco de Gama and Luís Camões. How do these vestiges prompt visions of a romantic colonial narrative that overshadow a horrific history of violence and enslavement? Might the recent re-installment of something as symbolic as a statue of Vasco de Gama (removed after independence) signal a reckoning with a past that was perhaps too painful to examine and interrogate around the time of independence? Has a decolonization of historical knowledge occurred in Mozambique to unsettle the imprint of colonial power? Insights from tour guides and other local residents enhance arguments in this paper about how historians deal with ghosts of the past at profound sites of meaning where stories of colonization and liberation disrupt standard forms of knowledge shaped in the West.

Paper 3

Foley Ellen / Clark University

Disciplining Subjects: Sex Workers and Development Knowledge in Dakar, Senegal

This paper explores the ways in which public health and development frameworks—each with its own particular colonial genealogy—produce knowledge about sex worker subjects in Senegal. This population, and surveillance of it, is of key significance to Senegal’s successful HIV/AIDS prevention strategies. Yet in order to maintain this success, the state must create a docile population of known subjects upon whom it can intervene. In this paper I present my analysis of how socio-medical approaches to prostitution in Senegal produce both opportunities and dilemmas for decolonizing knowledge production. I examine the biopolitics of the state system for registering and tracking sex workers, and then I explore how Dakar-based sex workers manage their social, legal, and economic marginality. While registering as a legal sex worker affords women access to development resources and a degree of economic stability, it also means embracing new social roles and often internalizing and reproducing the stigma associated with prostitution. What might decolonizing knowledge production about sex, gender, and prostitution look like in this setting, and does anthropologically-informed ethnography have the tools to do so?

Paper 4

Baptista João Afonso / University of Hamburg

Eco(il)logical Knowledge: Sensorial Reasoning and the Role of Representations in Angola

In my presentation, I analyze what counts as legitimate ecological knowledge in Angola. In particular, I discuss the relations people have with the forests and how the character of such relations is central in the production and institutional validation of forest knowledge in the country. Drawing on four years of intermittent ethnographic fieldwork with local forest dwellers in rural Angola, I address the challenge of placing sensing as constitutive of reason. This, in turn, calls for a shift in the dominant epistemological thought and North Atlantic modern tendency to overprize only the disembodied, calculable, and representable. Concretely, by contrasting situated corporeal ways of knowing with universalized disembodied knowledge from development, scientific, and political fields, I hope to contribute for the task of “decolonizing disciplinary knowledge” in Africa. Finally, I intend to expose the underlined and concrete tactics of geographical appropriation and local residents’ marginalization that are inherent in the expansion of technoscientific ecological knowledge in Angola.

Paper 5

Mercer Claire / London School of Economics

Building Suburbia? The Middle Class and Urban-Rural Relations in Dar es Salaam

This paper examines the social life of the new suburbs emerging on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Despite the interest in the form and nature of ‘global suburbs’, African suburbs have received little attention to date. This is perhaps because the notion of ‘the suburb’ jars with the established social scientific lenses through which African cities are analysed, such as the slum and the peri-urban fringe. These categories seem far from the Anglo-American model of the suburb that came to dominate in the mid-20th century, which characterised the suburb as a uniform low-density residential space where the car-dependent, conservative middle classes congregated.
Drawing on interviews with suburban house-builders in Dar es Salaam, the paper considers the ways in which these new suburbs are both the same as the putative Anglo-American suburban ‘model’ – low-density residential spaces on the edge of the city – but also different in significant ways. These are not copies of suburban forms from elsewhere. Architecturally they are dominated by the suburban bungalow, but here they are built with different materials and architectural features. Socially the new suburbs are dominated by the middle classes, but there are also pockets of mixed housing and other communities who also live there. Dissimilarities arise from the specificities of African cities, which include the dynamics of urban-rural migration, the propensity to self-build, and pervasive informality and inequality.

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