Mamdani on the African University

Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani has an excellent piece in the LRB on the African University. Here are excerpts:

On the state of affairs:

The African university today is still very much what it was from the start: a colonial project with a monolingual medium of instruction, framed in terms of a European ‘universalism’ from which a large majority of the colonised were excluded.

On language (channeling Ngugi wa Thiong’o — an idea that keeps growing on me with age…):

Makerere

Makerere University

Is there an intellectual mode of reasoning we can describe as African, in the way Mazrui spoke of a ‘French’ or a ‘Western’ mode of reasoning? Not an ancestral or genetic mode, obviously, but one which weaves together a set of discourses communicated in a common language that presupposes – or suggests – an intellectual community with a long historical formation. Language is our first obstacle here. Most of those of us who have come out of colonialism speak more than one. The languages of colonialism are inevitably languages of science, scholarship and global affairs. Then there are the languages of colonised peoples – languages whose growth was truncated by colonialism. Our home languages remain folkloric, shut out of the world of science and learning, high culture, law and government. There are exceptions. In East Africa, Kiswahili is the language of popular interaction, culture, and official discourse, also the medium of primary and secondary schooling, but not of university education. At East African universities, it has the status of a foreign language, with departments of Kiswahili studies. It is not the bearer of a scientific or a universal philological tradition.

Finally, on decolonizing the university:

What would it mean to decolonise a university in Africa? The East African experience suggests that one answer would be the opposite of what is happening in American and British universities: reducing the cost of a university education, by state grants and subsidies, to make it more inclusive. In the first place, therefore, fees would have to fall. I was at the University of Cape Town from 1996 to 1999; in the years that followed – the heyday of South Africa’s independence – fees began rising. In the second place, there would have to be multilingual projects designed to provide Westernised education in several languages and to nurture non-Western intellectual traditions as living vehicles of public and scholarly discourse in those languages. This is not a demand for a revivalist project, but a call to include the languages of popular discourse, which in South Africa would mean centres for the study of the Nguni and Sotho languages and traditions (the opposite of area studies), and translation units, carrying the best academic literature – global, regional and South African – back and forth between the new linguistic centres and the older faculties. Broadening the referential world of African universities means competence in the languages which embody non-Western traditions.

Read the whole thing here. Mamdani serves a great narrative on the intellectual history of East Africa.

In reaction to Mamdani Chris Blattman makes important points in this thread.

Also, let’s bring Transition back to life.

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