Nigerian intellectual and historian Toyin Falola’s latest book is called Decolonizing African Studies: Knowledge Production, Agency, and Voice. It sets out to respond to the urgent need to eliminate the vestiges of colonialism (the domination of foreign powers) in the academy and in research methodologies where African perspectives continue to be marginalised or excluded, creating the problem of misrepresentation of the continent. The book also critiques the limitations to and failures of decoloniality so far. It closes with a discussion of African futurism. In this interview Falola talks about some key battlegrounds for the decolonisation of knowledge production.
Olayinka Oyegbile: How do you or other African intellectuals hope to replace the hegemony of Western knowledge systems imposed on Africa in a one-sided world?
Toyin Falola: I think we can both agree that the side of the narrative preferred by the western world is not that which entirely favours the best interest of Africa. Though the colonial masters have been gone for decades, they left behind intellectual legacies that are not so obvious to many of us in Africa. Such legacies include those that reflect in knowledge and how we acquire it, legacies that permeate the operations of our institutions and have an effect on the means of development of our continent. These are the legacies we are making positive efforts to remove through decolonisation.
My book is one of the materials that help set things straight about decolonisation. I know there are many materials out there, and there are many more that will come from scholars across Africa who understand the patriotic assignment of decolonising knowledge production. But this does not stop here. There is also sensitisation going on across Africa. Seminars and think tank assemblies are being held to develop strategies for fastening the grip on decolonisation in Africa.
An important mission is to integrate indigenous systems into the formal western-education style. What is ours? Our languages, ideas, crafts, stories, including festivals, ceremonies, useful knowledge from elders, and many more. And we must put what we have learned into practice as we play, interact with one another, and build purposeful communities.
Olayinka Oyegbile: How do you redress the problem of the misrepresentation of how the history of the continent has been told?
Toyin Falola: If you tell a story or the history of a people from a wrong perspective for too long, people will come to accept it, regardless of how untrue it is, while disregarding the other perspective or even believing that there cannot be any other perspective than the one they have been told.
For a long time, there has been a lot of westernisation of African history, and in return, African perspectives have been neglected or deemed nonexistent. It was not until after the second world war that African writers began to decolonise African history. So, yes, if you say there has been a misrepresentation of the continent, I wouldn’t deny it, but at the same time, we are already creating new narratives. We now have people strongly and tirelessly correcting this misinformation and replacing them with our truth.
Olayinka Oyegbile: What do you mean by “African futurism”? (Afrofuturism is a movement in art, literature, etcetera featuring futuristic or science fiction themes that incorporate elements of black history and culture.)
Toyin Falola: African futurism is the latest stage of decolonisation. It is a movement of the creative world that emphasises the relevance of Blackness, one that displays the energies of our youth to merge technology with performance, to re-imagine Pan Africanism in their own way. It borrows and integrates ideas and practices from various parts of the world and is receptive and adaptive to changes, innovations, enlightenment, reasoning, and many other legacies and concepts in Africa’s best interest.
Olayinka Oyegbile: In the book you have a chapter on empowering marginal voices, this includes LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) Africans, who many believe are ‘unAfrican’ in nature?
Toyin Falola: We must accept the reality of change, respect boundaries, embrace other identities, and accept that a new generation will replace the old. LGBTQ people should be considered a sexual orientation and human rights issue, and we need to acknowledge that they are Africans like you and me. We must treat all Africans with respect.
I believe that the obstacle is that the tool needed to advance Africa into a pro-LGBTQ continent is still within the control of the older generation. But I believe that change is constant and that when this change happens, and a new generation of Africans emerges to take positions of power, the animosity towards LGBTQ will be reduced, and there will be tolerance and the political will to implement a pro-LGBTQ agenda in Africa.
Olayinka Oyegbile: You write about using language as a form of decolonisation as well as decolonising African literature?
Toyin Falola: I have always believed that beyond being an art, language is also a science. It is a tool of transformation, and as far as decolonisation is concerned, language is a necessary tool. I do not think literature is worth anything without language, and the language in which it is told goes a long way to convey different things that can alter the perspective of a people or transform it. Of course, African literature needs to be decolonised.
Many aspects of African literature cannot be adequately conveyed if you take it away from the African context. Meanwhile, leaving it in the African context means using the African language to properly communicate it. So, yes, language has a huge place in African literature, and we need to do a better job of harnessing it. Language is more than literature; it is an entry to socialisation and education, to people’s well-being, and to the advancement of cultures and civilisations. African languages are an integral part of our march of progress.
Olayinka Oyegbile: What is the relevance of African history to the world or vice versa?
Toyin Falola: We need to understand that the history of any people, no matter how small a group, is relevant to them and the world, even at a time of globalisation. Every one of us must be able to distinctly identify ourselves and our histories while being active partakers of the global village. African history is highly important to the world, and not just the history as told from outsiders’ perspective, but as told by Africans. Africans have made significant contributions to the growth of civilisation, from the very early humans to the advancement in technologies and the development of capitalism.
Olayinka Oyegbile: Although it has been reintroduced, history was phased out of Nigeria’s school curriculum or relegated at some point, what does this portend?
Toyin Falola: It is a bad idea to ignore the teaching of history because a river that forgets its source will surely dry up. History is crucial for the growth of any nation, and any nation that decides to forget it or undervalues its relevance in the educational system will suffer the consequences. There are no two ways to it. If you desire a better future for yourself or your country, you must consider where you are today, as well as where you have been coming from. The interrelation of these things will birth an encompassing understanding of what to do to reach where you need to be.