Projects to decolonize knowledge challenge hierarchically institutional(ized) writing and reading cultures through pivots of concrete everyday action as well as through visionary transformations.
This year Jimma University—one of Ethiopia’s leading public universities, located in Oromia State—was the location for a five-day workshop on the politics and practices of academic publication. What follows is a brief reflection from three of the conveners of this workshop, Odomaro Mubangizi, Maimuna Islam, and Amber Murrey.
Our collective approached the workshop space with three objectives, including the desires to:
This workshop was attentive to the issues faced by practitioners who are already, in their own creative and unique ways, combating and countering systemic disadvantages of working within the global South in a global higher education system that is dominated by the North. These issues include limited access to high-speed Internet (often at higher costs than other regions), government blockage of Internet sites, violence and threats of violence in response to student and youth movements, exclusion from academic publication databases, and other daily issues, such as routine load shedding of power and water cuts. These are quotidian difficulties that most scholars based in the global North do not experience.
Although there are very real limitations faced by scholars on the African continent, these limitations are surmountable without the need for extensive investment and restructuring. Because this workshop, conceptually, was not bound by Northern-based scholars coming to “train” people or by a large development group loaning funds and infrastructure, this model is highly replicable. The core agenda was not bound by geography, discipline, or personality. Rather, the agenda was philosophical: Our intentions were to collaboratively nurture an exploration of decolonization of knowledge through small pivots that would inherently include visionary approaches to and transformations of existing disciplines as well as institutional writing and reading cultures. This centering of the writer as teacher-researcher-citizen in practice in her community is part of what was exciting and thrilling about what we undertook in Jimma.
Despite important counter-movements, a global knowledge hierarchy persists (what some have called the "coloniality of knowledge" and the "coloniality of power"). This is because Africa-based scholars experience manifold forms of exclusion and oppression, from outright linguistic, epistemic, geographic, cultural, pedagogical, and spatial exclusions to psychological, cognitive, and political oppressions.
The workshop came to fruition within a sustained critique against and self-awareness of the “university in crisis” across the African continent (since the 1980s and the implementation of neoliberal agendas) and in Ethiopia in the last decade. This “crisis” includes the rapid growth of departments and institutions in Ethiopia, where the student population has more than tripled in the last fifteen years. Simultaneously, a university structure favors administrative posts over teaching positions. Through our discussions, we determined that very real limitations—including absences of institutional support for writing cultures and lack of access to resources, among others—impede scholars’ ability to research and produce publishable-quality work.
Moreover, a lack of clarity about the varying quality and reliability of different publication venues (among other factors) has meant that faculty is increasingly pressured to publish or stagnate. At the same time, promotional boards do not yet effectively assess the soundness of particular publications venue. As a result, faculty too often submit their work to sub-par, non-peer-reviewed predatory journals; payment for publication in such journals runs anywhere from $100 to $300 USD for one article, or roughly the equivalent of a month’s salary for a university lecturer in Ethiopia. In her introductory remarks, Amber Murrey addressed the pitfalls of predatory publishing. Ethiopian institutions, like many across the so-called “global South,” link faculty salary and promotion to numbers of publications.
During our conversations on the subject, one participant noted that the Ethiopian and other African university systems inadvertently encourage predatory publication: those faculty members who have been promoted, the participant speculated, have too often been promoted precisely due to their own predatory publications. How can we restructure our promotional policies to effect change when decision-makers themselves might have been promoted by amassing publications in predatory journals? If we are committed to decolonizing knowledge, we must combat predatory publishers and predatory conferences.
Decolonizing knowledge requires multi-pronged efforts: decolonizing publications, decolonizing research and decolonizing curriculums. We focused on the first two and touched upon the third, while maintaining an awareness that much of discussions around the geopolitics of “voice”–whose is heard and how to “give voice” to marginalized communities—continues to take place in the institutions of the North.
Dr. Patricia Daley (Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford) embarked on an exploration of mental decolonization, narrowing in on methodology as a space in need of decolonizing. She spoke of the present dominance of quantitative frameworks, which problematically propose to render social life quantifiable and, in so doing, simplify complex realities: lives become quantifiable, pain becomes quantifiable, and conflict becomes quantifiable. In such frameworks, knowledge becomes a commodity.
Another discussion dwelt on of the wisdom of African proverbs as a qualitative knowledge creation approach, stressing the need to rethink our methodologies. “Little attempt has been made to study African proverbs as a tool in knowledge production,” Dr. Odomaro Mubangizi asserted. Yet, “African proverbs are a concise expression of African ontology, epistemology, moral, social and political philosophy.” The exclusion of African proverbs from mainstream academia is a clear demonstration of how knowledge production in Africa is still a colonial project.
Dr. Maimuna Islam spoke about how radical nonwhite voices remain persistently absent in the US higher education and publishing, thus demystifying a commonplace idealized notion of the American academy as diverse. She connected the ongoing decolonial struggle in the global South to the almost 50-year ethnic studies movement for racial parity in representation in the US. In America, she informed us, 82 percent of book editors and 89 percent of book reviewers are white, while in higher education, 84 percent of full professors are white. She argued that despite these silencings, waves of minorities in the US have performed persistent and diligent radical work to curve out spaces for non-white, non-dominant perspectives and narratives.
Further discussion of the silences and suppressions of “voice” was evidenced in Safia Aidid’s discussion of #CadaanStudies. The emergence of the first Somali Studies academic journal with an editorial team and board absent of any scholars of Somali dissent triggered debate on social media. The racist reactions by some European scholars to conversations of these absences led Ms. Safia to create a hash tag (#CadaanStudies) in effort to bring the discussion of these absences to the fore. The workshop was the first occasion in which the #CadaanStudies conversation was publicly discussed in the horn of Africa.
Our efforts were both individual and collective as we worked through some of the challenges and tedium of the craft of writing (formatting, time management, brainstorming) as well as the difficulties and the obstacles of submitting and publishing (targeting journals, remarking linguistic and technical particularities, identifying publication venues, avoiding predatory publishers). A considerable amount of time was devoted to having open and semi-structured conversations, either in small group or large group format. Each participant was placed with a convener who read one of their articles and provided feedback and suggestions for reflection, revision, and publication. Groups of four to five scholars discussed their work, talked about particular challenges that Ethiopia- and Africa-based scholars face, noted past achievements, and made suggestions for colleagues.
Over the course of the week and through the peer editing process, we discovered that the drafted articles predominantly relied on standard academic methodology and drew from Western sources—even though our discussions demonstrated the thirst for more regional perspectives and a commitment to foregrounding African voices.
This practice made sense: After all, journal editors and peer reviewers of western journals would most likely respond to article submissions with questions about why has the authors not cited leading scholars from Northern institutions. In order to get published in western journals, one has to follow established rules and repertoires set by the global North, and the blind review process (where the reviewers are overwhelmingly from and located in Europe and the US), especially, is exclusionary and exclusive. In the workshop we acknowledged that western journals often privilege those trained in the west; however, there are also radical journals with editors who welcome alternate, creative, and audacious expressions and interpretations of our social worlds.
There were enthusiastic calls for subsequent events and collectives to be held and formed in Ethiopia. Participant feedback emphasized a sense of academic isolation at the same time that our commentary reasserted the necessity of critical, radical exchanges in Ethiopia and on the continent, many saying that the workshop was the very first event of its kind that they had participated in.
We had an honest conversation about how the workshop came to fruition, in part, due to collaboration with Northerners, who are presumed competent in Ethiopia. How can we ensure that academics from Ethiopia have been endowed with the opportunity to pursue such a workshop independent of external involvement?
While we have framed our engagements as “decolonizing,” our emphasis is not on large-scale decolonization per se, but rather on small-scale, slow, collaborative interventions as we set out to learn together. Such small-scale decolonization has a wide reach—encompassing land, place, food, music, art, history, architecture, thought. We consciously work together to excavate our pasts, to create and recreate our present, and to imagine our futures.
Image Caption: Participants and Conveners of the writing workshop gather in front of Jimma University's President's Building. Jimma, Ethiopia. May 2016.
The workshop was sponsored by Jimma University’s College of Law and Governance and the Vice President’s Office of Research and Community Relations. Thirty-six scholars from nine countries came to Jimma, Ethiopia, with seven conveners from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Egypt, Canada, Somalia, Uganda, Jamaica, the UK, and the US. Thirty participants came from across Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa, and the UK. All of the participants were faculty members at universities on the African continent.
A much longer version of this reflection is available on the African Review of Political Economy blog and is available here.