Transforming higher education: first comes knowledge, then curriculum

Ancient fermentation techniques are an example of African chemistry in action. James Akena/Reuters

If you want to learn about Africa, there’s no need to go to Algeria, Mali, Zambia or anywhere else on the continent.

Instead, you’ll need to visit – at great cost – institutions in the global north like Johns Hopkins or the School of Oriental and African Studies. Places like these host a wealth of African knowledge databases. They’re also home to scores of useful archives, artefacts and records. This begs the question: what does Africa know about itself if most of its vital data sources are held away from its shores?

This and similar questions have been given fresh impetus by recent student movements like #RhodesMustFall. Students want the curriculum at universities in the global south to be decolonised. But such demands are not new. Some of Africa’s brightest minds – among them Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Ali Mazrui and Mahmood Mamdani – have fought hard down the decades for decolonisation: of knowledge, of the curriculum and of the mind.

With all this energy and focus, why hasn’t decolonisation happened? Why have various generations failed to decolonise or transform the curriculum? My own struggle and failure to transform a course about the archaeology of farming communities in southern Africa has been instructive.

It’s convinced me that no full and meaningful curriculum transformation is possible without first transforming the knowledge that is taught.

Knowledge is power

The old saying states that knowledge is power. If you own it, you can control those without it. Since so much knowledge about Africa doesn’t sit on the continent, it’s apparent that Africa lacks power in this regard.

Most of the best archives and research facilities are located in the global north. There, research budgets are more than generous. Comparatively, Africa’s research budgets are chronically low; research and development makes up a tiny portion of countries' GDPs.

It would be utopian, then, to think that African researchers are best placed to produce knowledge about the continent. They may have the will, but they lack the money and institutional support.

This paucity of knowledge production is also visible in academic journals. Many of the world’s most influential works on Africa are written by those from and or working in the global north with access to good databases and generous research funds. The editors of influential journals appear to be most influenced by and interested in topics that are of interest to a western audience with deep pockets.

So their journals become stronger and stronger. Africa’s become poorer and poorer. Many African academics actively frown on journals from the continent, focusing their efforts on publishing in international, supposedly “superior” titles that will earn them promotion.

This lack of control or power over knowledge production explains why even though Africa is very much affected by poverty, conflict and drought it relies on specialists from the global north to tackle these wicked problems. Such specialists ultimately set the agenda.

Sometimes, grant awarding bodies – mostly based in the north – only provide funding to address specific issues that they, and not us in Africa, deem important. This creates misaligned expectations. African organisations or institutions accept funds that don’t contribute much to changing local circumstances.

Making knowledge address Africa’s challenges

Much of this thinking, research and theory finds its way into African universities. These institutions favour material from international journals, mostly produced by international experts. The language is often very esoteric; it cannot be easily understood by common men and women who should be served by this knowledge.

My grandmother, a potter, was very excited to discover that I teach about pottery in a university’s archaeology department. But she was taken aback when I started talking about Giddens’ structuration theory and others drawn from the global North.

And this sort of disconnect doesn’t just happen in my discipline: economics professors often use Germany’s post-first-world-war economy to illustrate the concept of hyper inflation. Why not look to Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation crisis, which is closer to home and defied all imagination?

These external theories must be domesticated. This will make them meaningful to African situations and, more importantly, contribute towards solving local challenges.

Some of my colleagues have complained that chemistry and similar sciences can’t be decolonised. But there are numerous examples of African chemistry. Southern African communities produced beer by fermenting sorghum, millet and rapoko powder. They created distillation techniques.

In colonial Southern Africa a company that’s now owned by the global giant SAB-Miller started making a beer called chibuku – a Shona word for “small book”. Today chibuku is sold all over southern Africa.

The problem right now is that it’s difficult to transform knowledge produced using benchmarks developed for non-African needs. It is difficult to produce a curriculum that responds to local needs without local examples and experiences.

In my view, this explains why despite so much talk about the need to transform the curriculum, not much happens in practice. It is one thing to talk about decolonising the curriculum with the right content at hand. But how can decolonisation really occur without the right, relevant content?

Without transforming knowledge, African universities cannot transform – let alone decolonise – the curriculum.

Towards decolonised knowledge

How can knowledge be decolonised? First, it is a process that must happen while discussions continue about curriculum change. Debating the curriculum will feed into the desired knowledge which must be created to solve contemporary challenges.

African countries also need to start directing funding towards research that answers the continent’s needs and challenges. This is happening elsewhere in the world, such as in China, and is bearing tremendous fruit for those nations.

Finally, it’s crucial to understand that African knowledge systems can’t exist in isolation from others. This might sound contradictory but it is idealistic to ever think that we can return to an Africa that’s uninfluenced by the rest of the world. Rather, the knowledge revision project and its sibling curriculum reform must be anchored on the need to teach and produce knowledge that serves the continent.

If this work succeeds, Africa will be equipped to solve its own problems, intellectual and otherwise. The continent can start to produce homegrown development specialists, water experts, chemists and many others.

Now is the time to seriously consider knowledge production change as a catalytic factor in the much desired curriculum change. Africa urgently needs knowledge that addresses its challenges. This will then spill over into a transformed, decolonised curriculum.

The Conversation

Shadreck Chirikure receives funding from the University of Cape Town Research Office's Africa Knowledge Project and the National Research Foundation of South Africa.