Over the past several months, there have been numerous conferences on the state of higher education in Africa and around the world, some of which I’ve participated in and even given keynote addresses. From these conferences, and the increasingly frantic higher education media, it is clear that the spectre of financial instability and unsustainability haunts many universities in the developed and developing countries alike, from the United States to Kenya. The challenges are, of course, mediated by local contexts embedded in levels of development and socio-economic inequalities, prevailing political cultures and ideologies, institutional histories and capacities, and a confluence of other forces.
In the United States, the outlook for universities has largely been negative over the last decade. According to Moody’s, in its 2019 higher education outlook, “Increasing expenses outpace constrained revenue for most universities and colleges…owing to constrained tuition revenue growth, the main revenue stream for most universities and colleges…Colleges and universities will look to further control costs, which will lead to longer-term challenges related to programmatic and capital investment. For most colleges, rising labor costs, which are roughly 65%-75% of expenses, will remain the largest hurdle.”
Moody’s forecast for 2020: “The outlook for the US higher education sector has been changed to stable from negative,” underpinned by “revenue growth in the 3%-4% range over the next year or so, driven mainly by larger, comprehensive universities.” It continues: “Over the longer term, social risks will continue to transform the US higher education sector, with demographic changes presenting both challenges and opportunities…Governance will remain a key differentiator among higher education institutions…Those that are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses and take appropriate action where necessary will fare better than those that remain reactive.”
In 2016, a report by Ernest & Young found that 800 institutions (largely concentrated among small universities and colleges excessively dependent on tuition) were facing the most serious risks. Some experts predict up to a quarter of American colleges will become extinct within a decade. Whether such predictions come to pass or not, the rate of closures has accelerated. Equally troubling is the staggering growth in student loan debt. In 2018, it reached $1.5 trillion, encompassing 44.2 million borrowers. This was higher than credit card debt. In fact, student debt is the second biggest source of household debt after mortgages in the United States.
The growth in student debt reflected changes in the financing model of American higher education, which is fueled by the neoliberal ideology unleashed by the Reagan administration and followed by successive administrations. Increasingly regarded as a private rather than public good, state funding for education declined, and student aid support shifted from grants to loans. Cash-strapped universities resorted to several strategies, including raising tuition and diversifying their revenue streams. On the expenditure side, they embraced cost-cutting, especially on tenure-stream (permanent) faculty employment, one of the largest expenses for universities.
Between 1980 and 2018 tuition grew by 213% at public institutions and 129% at private ones. This was higher than the growth in wages or the rate of inflation. Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018. More than a hundred people owed over $1 million compared to 14 people in 2013! And more than 3 million people aged 60 and above owed over $86 billion. The crippling burden of college tuition has risen to the top of the political agenda in the Democratic Party’s primaries for the 2020 US presidential election. As can be expected in such a racialised society, black graduates have more debt than their white counterparts.
As for faculty, the proportion of tenure-track faculty declined precipitously while that of contingent faculty rose, reaching 73% of all faculty in American colleges and universities in 2016, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. The remuneration and working conditions of contingent faculty are often abysmal; they typically don’t have benefits and some make less than the minimum wage. The academic media is full of heartbreaking stories about some contingent faculty subsisting on food stamps and making less than teenagers working in fast food joints.
Up to 70% of American students currently graduate with debt. According to Business Insider, the average student loan debt per graduating student who took out a loan reached $29,800 in 2018.
The expansion of the lumpen-professoriate of contingent faculty weakens the academy as a whole. It hurts students because these faculty are often hired by the hour, not given institutional support, and tend not to participate in departmental affairs, all of which deprives students of robust faculty engagement. It also undermines all faculty by threatening the integrity of faculty work, limiting the distribution of faculty service responsibilities, creating hierarchies among faculty, and eroding academic freedom, which vulnerable contingent faculty are hardly in a position to exercise.
The case of the US underscores the fact that financial challenges and their implications for students and faculty and the entire higher education enterprise are not confined to the Global South. This should be both a source of solace and sobriety for African universities. Solace because it shows that the challenges are not peculiar to African countries and higher education institutions. Sobriety because we cannot import turnkey solutions from elsewhere. Rather, we must think strategically, smartly, and systematically and devise solutions that will ensure financial stability and sustainability for our institutions.
Kenya’s bankrupt universities
In Kenya, it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of the country’s universities are virtually bankrupt. Many are unable to pay salaries on time, remit statutory obligations for health and pensions, or provide adequate faculty, teaching and learning facilities, as well as student accommodation and support services. The Kenyan media is replete with stories about the billions of shillings public universities, including some of the largest and oldest ones, owe in statutory obligations and to their service providers.
The financial challenges facing most African universities, including those in Kenya, arise from the fact that they are primarily dependent on tuition. There is a mismatch between the rising demand for education, which is escalating because of the continent’s youth bulge, and the ability of students to pay the full costs of a quality university education, as well as the absorptive capacity of institutions to provide student aid. As public funding per university student has generally declined, while instructional costs have increased, both the universities and students suffer, which is reflected in falling quality and standards.
It becomes a vicious cycle: poor quality education undermines graduate employability, which burdens families and undermines their capacities to recover investments already made in education and to cover any future costs. This serves to reinforce questions about the value proposition of higher education. It helps explain the extreme sensitivities about tuition increases among students and their parents or guardians.
The fact of the matter is that notwithstanding the hype about Rising Africa/Africa Rising, one of whose indicators is ostensibly the expansion of the middle classes, the majority of students in African universities are from lower middle income, working class and peasant backgrounds. Upper middle income and rich families tend to send their children abroad—to Europe, North America, and the emerging economies of Asia, such as India, Malaysia, and China—because they have little confidence in the quality of local universities. This is well articulated in a story in the Business Daily of May 6, 2019, entitled “Local universities are facing serious crisis of confidence.” Those who vote with their wallets for their children’s education abroad often includes parents who were educated at local universities, at least for their first degrees.
It becomes a double jeopardy for Kenyan universities: they are unable to attract students from their own countries and foreign students with the ability to pay for the full costs of high quality university education. African universities are not serious players in the lucrative international student market. Out of the 5.09 million internationally mobile students in 2018, Africa accounted for a mere 4.39% per cent of inbound students, but 10.26% of outbound students. The financial situation of universities in Kenya has been compounded by student demographics in terms of the number of students qualifying for university entry. For the past four years, the pool of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) students qualifying for university entrance has been historically low.
In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above. The available capacity in the country’s 74 universities in 2019 was 145,338, and in 2020 it is 193,878. Thus, the proportion of qualified students from the 2018 and 2019 KCSE results was 62.44% and 64.86%, respectively, of available capacity. As late as 2015, before the clampdown on cheating and other fraudulent behaviour in national exams, out of the 521,240 candidates who sat for the KCSE examinations, 32.52% or 169,492 got C+ and above. This has resulted in fierce competition among the country’s universities for the limited pool of qualified candidates, which affects their financial bottom line.
Financial constraints affect the ability of Kenyan universities to train, attract and retain qualified faculty. The core business of universities is teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and public engagement and service. Recruitment and retention of top-rate academics is, therefore, imperative. Kenya suffers from acute shortages of faculty and the graduate student pipeline is severely limited. The yearly production in Kenya of PhDs is about 700, below the government target of 1,000. Not surprisingly, only 34% of faculty in Kenyan universities have terminal degrees (my university, USIUAfrica, is an outlier with 73%). The Cabinet Secretary of Education was quoted in the Daily Nation on May 8, 2019 saying that “less than 10 per cent of PhD holders are qualified”. This was attributed to the prevalence of academic fraud, in which contract cheating is rampant. In fact, Kenya reportedly enjoys the dubious distinction of being a leading global centre of contract cheating.
In 2018, out of the 660,204 candidates who sat for KCSE examinations, only 90,755 (13.74%) scored C+ and above, the minimum grade for university entry. In 2019, out of the 697,222 candidates, 125,746 (18.05%) got C+ and above.
Even more critical is the growing discrepancy between the growth in student enrolments and faculty. Between 2011 and 2018, while student enrolments increased fivefold, the number of academics teaching in Kenyan public universities only grew by 13%. Consequently, faculty-student ratios have risen, which in some public universities are close to 1:70. This has severely affected the quality of education and research productivity. In most universities, many of the often overworked and poorly paid faculty are forced into adjuncting, and they rely on outmoded pedagogical practices and curricula. Moreover, student learning is frequently interrupted by employee strikes and student demonstrations.
Higher education is critical to the development of high-level human capital essential for economic growth and sustainable development. Two measures of the contribution of higher education are especially important. One is the employability of university graduates, and the other is research productivity and impact. In African Economic Outlook 2020, the African Development Bank provides a sobering reading on Africa’s unpreparedness for the jobs of the future because of the low quality of its educational systems. The problem cuts across the educational ladder. According to the report, “Many African countries have yet to catch up with the rest of the world in basic skills and education…African students have lower average test scores than students in other world regions. Against global harmonized test scores ranging from 300 to 625, the average African student scored only 374 in 2017.” It is universally acknowledged, that human capital is a key driver of economic growth, but “Human capital contributes less to labor productivity and economic growth in Africa than in other developing regions. This is due partly to the low quality of education, lack of complementary physical capital, and widespread skill and education mismatches.”
The report urges African governments (advice that applies to universities as well) to make strategic choices to build the workforce of the future. “African countries will need to anticipate and build a flexible and productive workforce to meet future challenges. To strengthen worker employability, firm productivity, and inclusive growth, African countries need a national strategy for education and skill development.” The report notes, “A poorly skilled and educated labor force is typically the top constraint mentioned by global executives when considering manufacturing investments in Africa.”
Furthermore, “Because ‘soft skills’ are likely to become increasingly important, education and training institutions should be encouraged to inculcate and reinforce positive values, starting with young children. These attributes include a strong work ethic, honesty, tolerance, respect for authority, punctuality, and pursuit of excellence. These are the intangible characteristics of a high-quality workforce.” Massive investments are required for building educational infrastructure, and in addition to soft skills, the development of critical future skills includes job-specific digital skills, job-neutral digital skills, and ancillary skills related to manufacturing.
Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking” ( a term used in Kenya to refer to the unemployed and underemployed). In fact, in much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment tends to be higher than for secondary school and vocational college graduates. According to one report, a survey by the Federation of Kenya Employers laments, “at least 70 per cent of entry-level recruits require a refresher course in order to start to deliver in their new jobs.” Further, it notes a study by the Inter-University Council for East Africa that “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63 per cent of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61 per cent of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55 per cent and 52 per cent of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51 per cent of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”
The conundrum African countries face is that they have low levels of tertiary enrollments, yet their graduates have limited employability opportunities. In 2017, the gross enrollment ratio of Kenya stood at 11.7%, which was below the African average of about 14%, but above the sub-Saharan average of 9%. North Africa accounted for 45% of all African students in tertiary institutions, giving the region an enrolment ratio of 34%, just below the world average ratio of 38%. The enrolment ratio of high income countries was 77%, for middle income countries 52%, and lower middle income countries 24.4%. The enrolment ratios for South Korea and Singapore were a staggering 93.8% and 83.9%, respectively. Kenya hopes to reach a gross enrolment ratio of 15% by 2030. Essential employability qualities (EEQ) go beyond subject knowledge and technical competence.
Reports on graduate employability in Kenya, as elsewhere across East Africa and the continent, show that there are glaring mismatches between what universities are producing and what the economies need, resulting in graduates spending years “tarmacking”…
Acquisition of soft skills is paramount. Graduates with EEQ are good communicators, critical thinkers and problem solvers, inquirers and researchers, collaborators, adaptable, principled and ethical, responsible and professional, and continuous learners. Cultivation of employability skills raises questions about curriculum design, assessment, and teaching methods. It entails the intersection of the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces for a holistic educational experience.
The classroom requires a transforming pedagogy, adequate learning resources, curricular relevance, balance between theory and practice, passionate and enthusiastic teachers with high expectations, and motivated students. The campus needs robust career services, extra-curricular activities, student engagement, employer involvement, and innovation incubators. And the community contributes through the provision of internships and service learning opportunities.
Low R&D levels
The second mission of universities, through which they make invaluable contributions to the economy and society, is knowledge production through research and scholarship. The low levels of research and development (R&D) among African countries are well known. On average African countries spend 0.5% of their GDP on R&D, compared to a world average of 1.7%, and account for less than 1.5% of global R&D expenditures. Unlike other world regions, much of the R&D in Africa comes from foreign agencies and foundations, not national governments and the local private sector.
Other research indicators are no less disconcerting. According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest). The other glaring challenge of research in African countries and universities is its external orientation in terms of focus and outlets. While the world average of publication with external authors was 24.9%, for Africa it was 64.6%
(compared to 26.1% for Asia). Thus, like our dependent economies, African scholarship suffers from what I call epistemic extraversion. No wonder the rankings of African universities are the lowest in the world.
Kenya spends about 0.8% of its GDP on R&D, which is among the highest on the continent. The country’s research output is also relatively high compared to other African countries. In 2018, citable documents per one million inhabitants was 565.1, higher than Ghana’s 565.1, and Nigeria’s 366.2, but far below South Africa’s 4,233.5. Much of this research comes from the numerous research agencies and networks located in Kenya and a few universities.
According to UNESCO’s Science Report: Towards 2030, in 2014 Africa accounted for 2.4% of the world’s researchers (compared to 42.8% for Asia, the world’s highest), and 2.6% of research publications (compared to 39.5% for Asia, also the world’s highest).
It is critical for African countries and universities to develop effective research policies, and support and reward systems. Also critical is promoting modalities of research collaboration that are transformative in terms of interdisciplinarity, interprofessionalism, and internationalization. No less important is ensuring a productive balance between pure and applied research, and addressing theoretical and analytical issues, as well as pressing challenges as identified in national, regional, and global agendas, such as Kenya’s Vision
2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
In many of the developed and leading emerging economies, research grants constitute an important source of revenue for universities. It is also quite common for such institutions to have endowed professorships held by some of their most distinguished research faculty, which further brings additional resources and relieves the operational budget of significant employee costs. As far as I’m aware, endowed professorships or chairs do not exist in most African universities. Also, research grants that not only bring administrative overheads, but also supplement faculty income, do not constitute a major source of institutional revenues.
Clearly, Kenyan and universities in other African countries need to develop more reliable and robust revenue streams.
In the second part of this article, I will discuss the various revenue-generating options that African universities are or should be adopting.
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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”
Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.
When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?
Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.
It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.
And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.
Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.
So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.
Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.
And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?
Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.
The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.
And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.
Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.
Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.
What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.
In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.
Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.
Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.
This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.
The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.
Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”
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