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Let’s Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees

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If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society.

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After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of Kenyan universities, Kenya’s president has now gone for universities’ jugular. He has cut off the university as as a route for social advancement among the non-elite class. The slicing of the jugular came with the recent university admissions when the government announced that more than a half of them would be turned into technical programmes and institutions. At first, the government announced this move as a choice of the students themselves, but later on, it became evident that many students were caught by surprise.

Kenyan universities have maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage by Kenya’s aristocracy. As long as universities have existed in Kenya, and especially after the expansion of university education by Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, a child from a village had a shot in the Kenyan imagination of becoming next in line to the presidency. (For the moment, the integrity of the process is not considered here.) Now that President Uhuru Kenyatta has ditched his deputy, he has got his bureaucratic robots to slice the jugular of Kenya’s schooling system and let it bleed to death.

As is to be expected, the Kenyan media has celebrated the event, thus becoming the conduit for fairly unbelievable stories that clothed Kenya’s feudal politics in the parlance of employment and The Market (as opposed to the regular markets that we all love). Like clockwork, the media published headlines such as “Are degrees no longer hot?”, wrote op-eds justifying technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as a better alternative to a regular university degree, or held town hall meetings that gave a semblance of public participation by fielding questions from youth who had clearly not understood that they are pawns in a system that just does not care about them. This move will not surprise anyone with knowledge of the aristocratic class system in Kenya and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. It has been a long time coming.

Missionaries, colonial settlers and the colonial state

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil, dubbing, for example, herbal medicine as “witchcraft,” and all the while shipping indigenous knowledge and crafts to London.

When formal British education was introduced to Kenya, there was tension between the competing interests of the missionaries, the colonial settlers and the colonial state. The missionaries were primarily interested in converts, and so reading was essential to their education. The settlers, however, were interested only in manual labour, and were frustrated that the colonial government was not forcing Africans to work on the huge tracts of land that had been dispossessed from Africans. They were therefore hostile to schooling beyond trade schools, and accepted formal education for Africans only on the promise that the inclusion of Christian religious education would ensure that Africans remained compliant with the colonial interests.

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil…

It is from the colonial settlers that Kenya inherited the narrative that education would make Africans unable to do manual work (or what today is called “useful” or “relevant to the market”), because all the African would acquire from education is big ideas and a desire for the status of the Europeans. And, from a certain perspective, the settlers were not wrong. In a stratified system such as colonial society, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as Africans were, meant a cruel life of dispossession, forced labour and taxes. Africans could not be enticed to go to school if there was no carrot in the form of exemption from this oppressive life. And once that door was opened, it would only be a matter of time before Africans demanded, as Frantz Fanon famously said in The Wretched of the Earth, “to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.”

There was a second element of truth to the settlers’ fears. The settlers were familiar with the fact that even in the belly of the empire, aristocratic education had the effect of paralysing one’s thoughts and sense of reality. In Victorian England, the industrialists complained that aristocratic education from prestigious public schools and Oxbridge had rendered their children incapable of running the companies their parents expected the children to inherit.

The settlers did not need to point to London to see the truth of this: the bulk of the colonial administration was made up of graduates of elite British schools, and even the settlers called their own colonial administration stifling and suffocating. The list of complaints by the British settlers are depressingly similar to the complaints that a Kenyan today would make: the government borrowing loans at high interest rates, failing to address the economic depression, moribund, “dependent on an uninstructed electorate situated 6000 miles away, and characterised by a continuous epidemic of public meetings, which produce much eloquence, heady talk and little practical benefit to the [white settler] community as a whole”.

The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst.

The aristocratic values which the settlers were wary of would return to Kenya in the 1980s when the World Bank proposed to African Vice-Chancellors to eliminate universities, since African countries needed basic education, not higher education. The audacity of the proposal notwithstanding, it is hardly surprising that the university administrators would not comply and phase themselves out of a job. But later, as Ayesha Imam and Amina Mama report in their book chapter, “The role of intellectuals in limiting and expanding academic freedom”, the World Bank got their wish by starving African universities of money and going to the extreme of demanding that purchases of books and journals be first approved by the Bank.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To see that the complaint of “useless” and elitist graduates has not changed a century later gives us food for thought. But it is not as disturbing as the fact that Kenyan citizens today are strange bedfellows with colonial settlers and British industrialists, sharing the same complaints about the Kenyan ex-colonial state and its aristocratic schooling system. When communities of different geographies, cultures and political inclinations have the same complaint about university graduates, it is time for academics to abandon the old strategy of accusing society of not understanding what university education is for. We need to either concede that society is right, or we explain the truth.

I choose the latter.

Justifying why Kenyans don’t need university education

To explain the mess of the system that is now receiving its last kick from the president, I will address three justifications for the bizarre turn of events in university education:

  1. People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
  2. Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
  3. Degrees do not give Kenyans skills which are “useful” or “relevant” to The Market, such as entrepreneurial skills for business or technical skills for building infrastructure.

The lack of employment justification

This justification should be fairly easy to explain by pointing out that the availability of employment is an economic, rather than an educational, function. In Kenya, however, this argument routinely falls on deaf ears for psychological and ideological reasons.

Psychologically, tackling the economy is too daunting for simple minds fed on the Anglo-American logic of easy and instant solutions to complex and long-term problems. It would require addressing the political economy, being an active citizen and making certain demands politically.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In contrast, blaming schools for unemployment is comforting. The majority of the school population is made up of minors who cannot speak back, and of teachers who are fairly powerless in terms of employment conditions and even the syllabus, especially in these neoliberal times when teaching has been transformed into slavery by managerial and regulatory regimes of accountability.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market. Unfortunately, the trade union movement has been too paralysed to come up with an effective counter-argument, and those who are still in permanent employment have failed to establish worker solidarity with their colleagues suffering on gig terms.

In any case, there is an argument to be made against using educational accomplishment for employment. The reliance of employers on academic certificates is a form of discrimination, since those who are employed will always be those with the resources to get an education. Reliance on academic achievement also makes the school system subsidise employers by sparing them the cost of equipping their employees with the requisite skills.

Any country that has a backbone should tell businesses to shut up and train their own employees at their own cost. But in this era of state capture, that is unlikely to happen.

The education for employment justification

It is important to clarify that employment was never the immediate goal of the British-oriented university education system that Kenya inherited. In Victorian England, university education and admission through the examination system were primarily a tool of assimilation for the rising middle classes into the aristocracy. It was through the university system that members of the middle class gained access to the social and symbolic power of European aristocracy, which remains the source of cultural legitimation in today’s world. In turn, the middle classes were offered an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning British Empire. As a consequence, most of the colonial administrators were graduates of public schools and Oxbridge, and even now, the rising inequality in Britain has been attributed to the fact that this same cohort still dominates British politics and institutions.

Similarly, university education in Kenya was an opportunity to be assimilated into the colonial state. The first university graduates were the children of Chief Koinange, a colonial collaborator. One of his children, Mbiyu, received education from elite schools in three continents: Alliance High School in Kenya, London School of Economics in the UK and Columbia University in the US. He was also a Rhodes scholar at the University of Cambridge. He later became the brother-in-law of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and was in the president’s core cabinet for most of his life in independent Kenya.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market.

With the outbreak of the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, and with the rise of the United States as a global power, the British government jacked up the availability of university education to raise a Kikuyu middle class that would provide the civil servants for the colonial state. After independence, the first president saw the university as fulfilling precisely the same role, and as Mwenda Kithinji argues in his brilliant book, The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya, the first president had no intention to expand university education since he had the Kikuyu elites that he needed. The second president, a member of a minority ethnic group, then expanded university education in order to widen the Kenyan middle class to include people from other ethnic groups. It is therefore wishful thinking, if not delusion, for Kenyans to believe that the government schooling system was ever about employment. The schools have always been about class status and power.

However, the popular belief in education for employment is understandable, because the expansion of the control of the (ex)colonial state and global capital by the British and Kenyan elite was experienced by ordinary Kenyans as employment.

But almost 60 years after independence, there is no longer a need for the Kenyan elite to provide Kenyans with university education. In the 1960s, when there were not enough British-educated Kenyans to run the civil service, the Kenyan elites were the first generation in their families to go to British schools. . Today, however, there are enough British-educated Kenyans to run the ex-colonial state. The children of the elite are in power, and they also have children and grandchildren whom they want to ascend to power. Moreover, the inequality in Kenya’s education system necessarily means that those who perform well are children of middle-class parents who can afford private school education and can take over the bureaucracy and civil service through patronage, rather than through academic achievement.

The elites of Kenya, whom the current education system serves, have enough of their children and relatives to work in government, and enough of second-generation middle-class children to do their work. With families of a minimum of four wives and dozens of children, the elites have enough personnel.

Moreover, the elites cannot afford an educated Kenyan population outside of government. The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst. The goal of the government education system in Kenya has never been employment. Employment was simply a side effect. And employment seekers were not supposed to be ordinary Kenyans; they were supposed to be the elites entering top government posts through family ties and club networks.

The “useful” and “relevant” skills justification

Given this history of the imperial education system, it is almost laughable that university scholars have sought to justify themselves as providing skills that are useful for graduates in The Market. That said, it is a lie to which I dedicated a significant part of my career, until I realised that studying the arts can never be “marketable” in an anti-human economic and political system.

That aside, the fantasy of making university education appear “relevant” has been a public relations exercise in which even the British academy was engaged in the 19th century after industrialists complained that universities were not training their sons to take over the family industries from their fathers. In fact, John Brown argued in 1970 that the British elite university could not find a strong enough argument to defend the imperial education based on the Roman and Greek classics. However, it won over the industrialists by what he calls “the parlance of advertising” and an “imaginative sales effort”. Rather than argue for university education on its own merit, the universities assimilated the critique about their lack of “practical skills”, and claimed that elite class manners were a skill in and of themselves.

To put it simply, the universities told the business elite that they needed knowledge and habits of aristocrats for them to be “successful”. It was not enough to make money; one had to be sophisticated and convincing, able to talk across cultures and social class.

Before my road to Damascus conversion, I made this same laughable argument myself. Now when I think of it, this defence of university education belongs to the same whatsapp group as the products of business coaches and motivational speakers who promise “soft skills”, like how to speak convincingly, how to make an elevator pitch, how to dress to look presentable, and all other forms of self-improvement for The Market. We academics making those arguments are no different from those who give tutorials on how to have English “afternoon tea the correct way”.

We should do away with universities – as they are now

If universities, as they currently stand, are useful only to the elites, it should come as no surprise that the elites are now destroying them. After all, the universities are theirs.

But rather than fight for universities to remain public institutions in their current form, we the people need to fight for them to become truly public by removing degree programmes and turning them into a space for knowledge and culture. We should break down the walls of admissions and examinations. We should diversify and increase opportunities for people to learn through cultural centres, festivals and public libraries. We should make public engagement, like dialogues under a tree, and visits to what Odero Oruka called “sage philosophers” a part of formal education. For skills training, we could resort to apprenticeships as a way to enter a profession and facilitate peer review as a way to improve services.

Two things must definitely be removed from the university as an institution: 1) certification; and 2) the interference and regulation in university education by the state. Both have reduced university education to a cynical process of gaining papers to access elite status and titles, and of measuring outcomes and indicators like a balance sheet.

Most of all, we must remove the institution of the imperial elite, which is made up of people who gain wealth and power through their manipulation and control of the commons – land, natural resources, labour and knowledge.

​Africa may not always have offered degrees, but it has had universities for millennia. We can do away with degrees and retain universities. If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society. Right now, universities are hardly different from members-only clubs for those who survive the hazing ritual of examinations and gain the right to become snobs who undermine democracy and social justice for the rest of their lives.

​But to scuttle such fundamental and dynamic reforms to education, the economy and politics, the president has now sacrificed the dreams of an entire generation of Kenyan youth – however contradictory those dreams may be – in order to sustain the exploitative social status of his family and the ruling elite. This situation is not only unjust; it is also untenable.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Ideas

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.

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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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Ideas

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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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