A university in eastern Uganda, named in honour of the pan African giant, Marcus Garvey, seeks, through the philosophy of Afrikology, to reinstate and mainstream indigenous knowledge systems that were distorted by Greece and Rome. At MPAU, writes Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire, the common Eurocentric hierarchies that serve to divide, invalidate and marginalise clearly haven’t fallen, they actually never stood.
“No one remembers old Marcus Garvey…” laments Jamaican reggae musician Burning Spear. Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) over a century ago, championed the global grassroots-based unity of Africans. When Garvey declared himself President of Africa, W.E.B. du Bois, his nemesis in the pan African movement, declared with thinly disguised scepticism, “It may be that Garvey’s movement will succeed. I shan’t raise a hand to stop it.”
Seventy-five years after Garvey’s death, a university in eastern Uganda has set out to ensure that Garvey is not forgotten and that his movement succeeds. It bears his name: Marcus Garvey Pan Afrikan University (MPAU). Professor Babuuzibwa Mukasa Luutu, the university’s vice chancellor, cuts an unassuming figure and is keen to listen, always, to bring himself to the level of the individuals he engages, especially when there is an age or education level difference. He is a clan leader in Buganda, a professor, well read in philosophy, religion, education, law and other fields, but in person he looks very much down-to-earth in his favoured ashy brown bitenge shirts.
Garveyism is, however, not the overriding philosophy at MPAU. Afrikology, a philosophical term and practice coined by the late Dani Nabudere, the founding chancellor of the university, is at the core of MPAU. Nabudere’s legacy mirrors that of Garvey. He studied law at university, and taught the same alongside economics and international relations, mobilised against Idi Amin, and dedicated the last decades of his life to building MPAU. The monographs on Afrikology in use at the university and at the University of South Africa (Unisa) were authored by this intellectual. Afrikology is dedicated to forwarding indigenous knowledge systems and mainstreaming them, decolonising epistemology, reversing the marginalisation of African languages in the production of knowledge and returning the place of artistic expressions in knowledge spheres. Afrikology builds on important work by luminaries such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Martin Bernal, the author of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation, who argues that European writers revised the history of civilisation to sever ties between Greece and ancient Egypt. Afrikology is not a romanticisation of Africa’s past, Luutu argues. The ideas and knowledge that were created in ancient Egypt before corruption and distortions by Greece and Rome and others still work in present-day Africa. At MPAU Rhodes hasn’t fallen; he simply never stood.
In our conversation, Luutu uses the word “institute” to refer to MPAU because, technically, the Uganda National Council for Higher Education has yet to grant a university licence to the institution. For all intents and purposes this is a university, but it is not built on a Eurocentric understanding of higher education. Unlike Makerere, the University of Nairobi and countless other officially recognised tertiary education institutions across the region, MPAU does not mimic the European model. Luutu explains that the European university is fashioned as the cultural guardian of knowledge, and its role is to privilege some forms of knowledge and marginalise others, to determine what knowledge is valid and superior to other forms of knowledge. MPAU, on the other hand, contends that there are many sites of knowledge in addition to the traditional university. It seeks to strengthen these other sites of knowledge, work with and through them and claim Africa’s space in the world’s community of knowledges.
This is a giant task. Eurocentrism in universities in Africa is deeply entrenched, following decades of colonial and Christian missionary work on the continent. The colonialist and missionary systems limit knowledge production to the schoolroom. Knowledge is something conveyed through schools and parents educate their children by sending them to established places of learning. This privileges Eurocentric models of knowledge over the knowledge the child attains at home and in the community. It simultaneously de-legitimises this knowledge. Luutu borrows the Russian phrase “intellectual windbags” to describe the “educated fools” who are the products of colonial higher education. It’s his opinion that the higher one goes in Eurocentric education, the less one understands of the world itself.
At MPAU, community knowledge sites are at the centre of the curriculum. The focus is on the act of returning: to the knowledge systems that existed before colonialism, and to knowledge that exists before “going to school”. MPAU recognises that students come from organised communities, with existing traditions of governance and systems of knowledge production. Consequently, it enables them to base their studies directly in these realities. The best place to study contemporary life and produce knowledge is among the communities themselves, Luutu argues, so the communities are the real campuses of MPAU. The university exists among the people, instead of being an ivory tower that looms over them.
In keeping with this philosophy, MPAU’s learning areas are trans-disciplinary: Afrikology, Restorative Justice, Agrikology and Restorative Medicine are among the broad categories of learning, but they all exist in conversation with each other. Students begin their research journey with burning questions and issues they wish to investigate, rather than disciplines. Indeed, as Luutu explains, MPAU sets out to torch disciplinary boundaries, which have roots in the Enlightenment period in Europe, when knowledge was organised around labour. MPAU seeks to change this. Research is conducted in indigenous languages, is community-based, and is shared directly with these communities. Furthermore, it is evaluated on its usefulness to the community, rather than on any abstract criterion of excellence. There is no such thing as knowledge for knowledge’s sake. To illustrate the importance of a trans-disciplinary approach, he gives an example of how the HIV/Aids epidemic was dealt with originally in Africa, before European-style medicine had understood what it was.
“Europe-style trained doctors did not know how to deal with the problem. At first they did not know that there were non-medical solutions to the problem. They only adopted a multi-pronged approach much later. Africans already had understood the importance of psychology and other disciplines in dealing with the problem. In indigenous systems, one discipline is never enough; trans-disciplinarity is at the centre of indigenous world views.”
That the university is named after Marcus Garvey, and not W.E.B. du Bois or some other stalwart of the pan African movement, is not just a matter of a choice of name, says Luutu. Garvey understood the importance of grassroots movements and the purpose of returning to the roots. He understood the role of reclamation, hence the pan African motto of “Organise, Don’t Agonise”. Of what use is knowledge that does not inform change? Of what use is knowledge that is of no use to community?
In a Eurocentric university setting, the knowledge being produced at MPAU is often categorised as Area Studies or worse, Ethno-Studies – something that Luutu considers a way to marginalise indigenous knowledge. At MPAU, Afrikology traces the origin and progress of knowledge to the heart. Emotions are part of knowing. Logos, the word that has acquired importance in philosophy, actually means “word, reason or plan”, and is connected to the tongue and emotions, Luutu teaches. Human beings engaged the world using the heart and the senses. The Eurocentric focus on the mind and its invalidation of the role of the heart are problematic. They are aimed at creating hierarchies, validating some and marginalising others. Any community that speaks a language generates knowledge, Luutu says. Language is inherently a manifestation of knowledge. No single community or language can be a benchmark for knowledge. All communities, languages and knowledges are equal. Afrikology is thus about epistemic parity, he says.
Technology is an integral part of this. Going back to the Garveyan dream of the unity of Africans on a global scale, MPAU considers technology important. Luutu uses the portmanteau word “Glocalisation” to explain this. With technology, communities can communicate with one another on a global scale, he says. The purpose of this communication is not a search for power, one community seeking to control another, but rather the sharing of knowledge. It is not about resources being taken away as raw data to be processed into products and knowledge and returned for sale. Knowledge must be functional, useful, and beneficial to the people among whom it is created and used to restore dignity and develop economies. Luutu says that it is not by coincidence that Africa is the most diverse continent in the world. There is a method that makes this diversity possible. He explains that Afrikology is thus a restorative epistemology and an Afrikan university must reflect this plurality. Maybe we should call it a pluriversity.
MPAU embraces and endorses the globality of Africanness, and its history. The work of Marcus Garvey was global; he mobilised Africans on a global scale. But the global scale of Garvey’s philosophy is, according to Luutu, different from globalisation. The difference between globalisation (the neoliberal Eurocentric process) and glocalisation is that the former focuses on the extraction of raw materials and expansion of markets of products, while the latter focuses on exchange of knowledges and solidarity.
In the times of #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellies and #DecoloniseWits, institutions such as MPAU are important in not only theorising alternative forms and contents of higher education, but also actually building these alternatives into living institutions. Marcus Garvey and Dani Nabudere are dead, but their ideas.
This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.
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