This post is a reflection on my ‘decolonial’ work in 2019. I think of myself and my work as always having been decolonial, though I was initially focused mainly on what decolonial theory meant for African law and politics. As decolonisation became more ‘trendy’, especially within UK Higher Education, me and my work have been increasingly drawn into the scope of conversations on ‘decolonising the curriculum/university’. I continue to be concerned about how superficial these conversations sometimes are in UK HE and how much they are being co-opted by managerial diversity and inclusion initiatives within the neoliberal university. In UK HE (and elsewhere), the uncritical ‘decolonising’ of everything that requires change has become rampant. e.g. ‘decolonising assessment’, ‘decolonisng teaching space’, or as I saw somewhere recently (I suppose a bit less seriously) ‘decolonising academic gowns.’ There seems to me a profound lack of understanding, firstly, of what decolonisation entails. This despite the challenges faced in other jurisdictions that have gone far ahead of UK HE in decolonisation e.g. Canada and South Africa. Secondly, and maybe more importantly for this context, there is such a deep-seated unwillingness within UK education sector to engage with what [de]colonisation means. This is important in the context of a country that was an empire and in many ways continues to be so. [Parts of this essay were included in a talk given at the SRHE annual conference in December 2019].
Truth and What the River Knows
I often start decolonial reflections with a picture of the River Niger (above). I once lived beside it and on a bright day with temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius, the humidity as close to 100% as humanly possible, I was often able to see the sun reflecting off the waters of the river from my balcony. The river is over 4000 km long. Her flow begins from the westernmost end of West Africa at the highlands of Futa Jalon in Guinea Conakry and she flows east till she exits the land from the Oil Rivers Delta – the eastern most part of the sub-region. She has had many names over the years. The people of Songhay called her Isa, the Hausa called her Kwara, and the Tuaregs called her Egerew n-Igerewen, meaning the ‘river of rivers.’ This river has for thousands of years served as a transport system in one of the most diverse regions of the world. She has provided sustenance for humans, animals, fish, birds and plant life. Her ebb and flow have marked time for generations. She has seen empires rise and fall around her. And still she flows. And a million bodies are hidden under her waters. But for those who now go to school around her, the only things they are taught about her are that her name was given to her by Leo Africanus, an Andalusian diplomat. No other names are taught. They are taught that she was discovered by Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer – though those who lived in her, bathed in her, communed with her never declared her missing.
This I believe illustrates how we have always lived in a post truth world. We have never had shared objective standards for truth. And those who live in what is designated the Global South have always tasted the waters of post-truth, we have bathed in it, been immersed in it. What is startling to us now is that the frontiers of post truth are moving north, and those frontiers are moving very, very rapidly and being dispersed widely by varying formats such as social media.
The epistemic world is predicated on two major lies. The first lie is that a majority of the people of the world and thus their knowledges and histories are inferior to the rest of the world. The second lie, allied to the first, is that humanity and specifically the supposedly superior portion of humanity is more important than everything else on this planet. The earth we walk on, the air we breathe, the seas, oceans, mountains, birds, animals, fishes, insects. And so I suggest again, maybe a little more strongly, that post-truth is not a recent arrival, but it is exceeding its original territory. Nevertheless, the disappearance of shared objective standards of truth, did not begin with the last shower of rain, but has always been washed away in bodies of water with forgotten names and forgotten histories and a million bodies hidden under them.
Decolonisation and Truth
Decolonisation is often perceived as a means to uncover these histories, but one of the pitfalls of its praxis in higher education is a fundamental misconception of what it requires, both in theory and in practice. It is often confused with any social justice endeavour, or as someone said to me recently, with ‘just being nice to people.’ The four main things decolonisation is confused with are, representation, inclusion, diversity and equality. If you have practiced and/or theorised in these areas, it quickly becomes clear that without critical thought, representation can become toxic and tokenistic, people could be included into spaces that are not safe for them, spaces historically and repeatedly designed to harm and exclude them. Diversity is a fact of life that cannot be promoted without explaining why it has been demoted. General statements of equality often ignore the process of othering and set an unequal normative standard of equality. In all of these schemes we focus on what we are fighting for, rather than what we are fighting against. All our lofty sounding words and good intentions pave the way to hell for groups who are almost routinely left out of our institutions. Notwithstanding that this hell we have paved the way for may be inside or outside of said institutions. The way is paved. The hell exists.
Decolonisation, I suggest, is something conceptually different. Tshepo Madlingozi, says decolonisation is always a disruptive phenomenon, Frantz Fanon calls it a violent process. Tuck and Yang describe decolonisation as nothing else but an undoing of colonisation. Joel Modiri in the video below defines it thus, ‘Decolonisation is an insatiable reparatory demand, an insurrectionary utterance, that always exceeds the temporality and scene of its enunciation. It entails nothing less than an endless fracturing of the world colonialism created.’
‘…an endless fracturing of the world colonialism created.’ What then is this world that colonialism created? And was this world not done away with at the end of empire? This is where people confuse the passing away of political colonial structures with the permanence of the colonial logics that drove the process and continue to drive and structure our institutions and our world. There are two overarching logics that I refer to here. One is the commodification of space and nature, the other is the commodification of humanity and variably valued labour. Built on these overarching logics is the mostly racial and gendered categorisation and hierarchization of peoples into those who labour and those who benefit from that labour. This system is given legitimisation by drafting people (the wretched/damned of the earth) into what Fanon calls the zone of non-being, according to Grosfoguel, this is below the line of the human. Hickel calls this zone the sacrifice zone. As Achille Mbembe’s work on the practice of necropolitics explains, political power is deployed globally to decide ‘who may live and who must die…’ in service of maintaining the world colonisation created.
Or as George Sefa Dei and Chizoba Imoka describe ‘To colonize … One has to equate the purpose of life to material acquisitions, affirm their personhood only through their ability to dominate/bully others, shrink their mental capacity so as not to respect/understand human diversity and rationalize a wide range of unfettered violence.’
Thus we must never forget that this categorisation of humanity always, always, always serves the purpose of marking for death and marking for life. Marking for visibility and marking for erasure and silence. Dispossession always serves the purpose of accumulation. ‘who may live and who must die…’
Therefore, and I reiterate very strongly, we cannot decolonise while relying on colonial logics of commodification of labour and space. This commodification is everywhere in UK HE. We have REF, TEF, KEF and the NSS. We have a varied assortment of university rankings… they all rely on logics of linking value to productivity, while also ignoring institutional racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc. These refusals to see, refusals to change, mean that we have strapped ourselves to a machine designed to destroy us. But we live in hope that before it does, at least it feeds us, sustains us for a while, unlike the poor benighted souls in the sacrifice zone, the wretched and damned of the earth, trampled under the wheels of the machine and then cast into the river with its forgotten names, its waters closing over their heads as they drift off into the silence. We do not remember their names. For most of them we never knew they names, never bothered to say those names. Too difficult to pronounce. Their bodies and their realities were too dissonant and distant, too foreign to fit into the normative frames of disciplines that did not consider the wretched and damned human at the dawn of the discipline’s inception. Now the discipline is complete, the canon closed and all it can do is fire out at a dying world.
As we live through and hope to survive the sixth mass extinction, we need to carefully consider why we are still operating on these same colonial logics and if we really expect different outcomes. Or are we just hoping to be fed and sustained for a while, unlike those living on the other side of the abyssal line? We bury the damned and wretched, for we expect the water to always hide them, but the stench of bloated bodies will rise from this wretched earth. We cannot decolonise the university using the same logics that made it a colonising force – the episteme that became a most effective and self-sustaining war machine. How illogical is it that the structure we are attempting to decolonise is the structure we are attempting to use to decolonise?
Therefore, until we in our disciplines, our institutions, and our world are able to create a space in which the voices of the women on the banks of the river can be properly heard by us, and what the water knows and remembers is understood by us… decolonisation will remain impossible and the waters will die away as the bodies that lie under it have done. And so will we. Decolonisation is impossible, but we must make her possible, if we wish to survive this wretched night that this wretched earth has been plunged into by humanity. We must make her possible.
Dei, George Sefa and Imoka, Chizoba, ‘Colonialism: Why Write Back?‘
Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007.
Grosfoguel, Ramon. “What is racism?.” Journal of World-Systems Research 22, no. 1 (2016): 9-15.
Hickel, Jason. The divide: a brief guide to global inequality and its solutions. Random House, 2017.
Madlingozi, Tshepo | Social movements and the ‘decolonial turn’ in constitutional theory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_2m1dyrKuE&t=9s
Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Duke University Press, 2019.
Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” In Foucault in an Age of Terror, pp. 152-182. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2008.
Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, no. 1 (2012).