Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

African Knowledge Systems


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For the 2005 session of the Campus, the theme that has been selected is: African Knowledge Systems. This is by no means a new subject in the reflections of African thinkers. Indeed, the theme of African knowledge systems has been a self-conscious and integral part of the rise and development of African nationalism at the different stages of its evolution - from the time of the struggles for emancipation from slavery, the constitution of the black Atlantic and the rise of pan-Africanisim, through to the fight against colonial domination, the emergence of the post-colonial era and the inauguration of various experiments in self-reliance. At every stage, the question which has been posed has consisted of just how knowledge, as developed and/or appropriated by Africans on the basis of their own historical experiences, can be (better) valorised for the purpose of the realisation of various projects of emancipation. The abiding historical concern with knowledge for the purpose of self-actualisation and national liberation also underscores the contemporary pertinence of the theme at a time when Africa’s political leadership has declared itself in search of a suitable framework for the realisation of an all-round continental renaissance. After nearly three decades of unsuccessful orthodox economic reforms imposed by the international financial institutions under the guise of the so-called Washington Consensus, development thinking for the purpose of re-building the foundations of African economies appears to be at a dead-end and begs the question of alternatives that could enable the continent to turn the table of underdevelopment. Furthermore, a massive process of social re-ordering appears to be under way across Africa as various social players seek to adapt themselves to the prolonged crises of decline and decay in different parts of the continent, including the collapse of state legitimacy and central governmental authority. These developments call for a re-thinking of state, economy, culture and society in ways that depart radically from conventional wisdom. In addition, a fresh commitment to extend the boundaries of pan-Africanism appears to be in evidence with the launching of the new, bolder African Union in replacement of the Organisation of African Unity, a development that has been accompanied by pleas for a harnessing of African knowledge for the advancement of peace, stability and unity. And yet, in the face of the different changes occurring across the continent and the intellectual challenges which they pose, the inherited analytic tools derived from the European scholarly heritage by which African scholars have sought to grasp the transitions and shifts taking place in their societies, appear increasingly ill-adapted to the phenomena they are meant to capture and the environment to which they are applied. Also, the institutional context of knowledge production and dissemination, epitomised by the university, is undergoing a severe crisis of identity, mission and relevance.

Few will doubt that every society is imbued with an innate capacity to generate a dynamic world view that also serves as a framework for disciplining the kinds of knowledge which it produces in order, first, to make sense of its environment and then to master that environment according to its needs. Fewer still will disagree with the viewpoint that Africa stands a greater chance of overcoming its numerous problems through a valorisation of its own knowledge systems. In this regard, the protection of the wholeness and integrity of a knowledge system is a strategic issue of profound importance. However, there is a considerable amount of debate on what exactly constitutes the “African” in a knowledge system on the continent today and what the contemporary African knowledge system, in all its varieties, is made of after centuries of foreign direct and indirect domination, as well as the implantation of Western systems of knowledge and cognition. Related to this are the terms and conditions under which an African knowledge system might be (re-)constituted and who the bearers of such a project might be. Is it even desirable today to speak of an African knowledge system in the era of globalisation? Will not the continent be better served by a concentration of attention on the ways in which Africans appropriate knowledge produced within and outside the continent for the purpose of the advancement of African societies? Of what use is the quest for an African knowledge system if it does not have the potentiality or possibility of becoming the main organising principle around which politics, economy and society are constituted? The questions are many and the perspectives that have been expressed are diverse.

There is also no unanimity on the ways in which an African knowledge system can be valorised after decades of the socialisation of the peoples of the continent into European ways of “thinking” and “doing” in the name of “modernisation”. The project of Western “modernisation” has proceeded as though it was the only external encounter which the continent has had. And yet, exchanges which have impacted on the knowledge system have occurred between Africa and the Eastern civilisations, including a rich heritage produced in Arabic and Ajami scripts. Nevertheless, the debate on the African knowledge system has served as a useful entry point into various aspects of the African world and different elements of the African condition. It has emerged as a powerful framework for reflections on the issue of indigenous African knowledge systems and the extent to which they can be retrieved; the role and place of local languages in knowledge systems; the part played by religions and priesthoods in the making of the knowledge system; the adapatability of local languages to scientific discourse; “traditional” versus “modern” forms of knowledge generation and dissemination; different approaches to the codification, preservation and transfer of local knowledge; competing approaches to the generation and/or absorption of new knowledge, including knowledge from other societies; the growing international trade in indigenous herbal and medicinal knowledge; the theft and patenting of indigenous knowledge; the interplay of individual creativity and collective knowledge; the politics of the valorisation of indigenous knowledge within existing educational systems; the origins and role of the public/community scholar; the place of non-Europhone intellectualism in the making of an African knowledge system; and the asymmetries in the international knowledge system that work against the visibility/viability of the African knowledge system. The range of questions which are in contention is limitless and at a time when the quest for alternatives is once again on the intellectual and policy agenda, a concentrated reflection on the prospects and challenges of building/retrieving and projecting African knowledge is bound to be a useful investment.

December 28 2009