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Archive for April, 2017

Thomas Echlin – Harradine is a MSc student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.  He also holds a MSc from the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh.  Here he reflects on a student organised event that he conceived, ‘Decolonising Africa in History and History in Africa.’

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Professor Paul Nugent, the final speaker 

Over the previous months, I have come across a growing body of literature that challenges current methodological frameworks which have gained common currency.  These works critique approaches that are overwhelmingly grounded on western intellectual traditions.  One way to break free of these constraints and arrive at more nuanced and comprehensive conclusions is through a “decolonisation of the academy.”  I have long had a keen interest in studying contemporary and historical issues and debates from the African continent.  It was at this point I first had the idea about putting together a panel discussion exploring ‘decolonising Africa in history and history in Africa.’

I was also inspired by a recent student workshop on pan-Africanism to organise something similar with a more explicit historical focus. A committee was formed and we set about putting all the pieces in place for this panel discussion to take place.  Dr Hazel Gray, Brooks Marmon, Albert Mkony and Professor Paul Nugent were confirmed as panellists.  We wanted this to be a collaborative effort, and one that would go some way, even if only a little, to sow the seeds for more collaboration between the School of History and the Centre of African Studies.

Through a concerted team effort, we booked a venue, distributed flyers, and organised light refreshments.  The process itself was a good learning experience for all of us involved, and on the day of the panel, each panellist was assigned a committee member as a discussion chair.  The turn-out was very good for this student-initiative and the discussions were quite informative.

The aim of the event was simple, to present an interdisciplinary approach that engaged with history as a way to “decolonise the academy,” and overcome frameworks dominated by a Western/Eurocentric outlook.

Hazel Gray brought an economic perspective and discussed her own work on political economy.  Dr. Gray illuminated how colonial history has been misused in the New Institutional Economics.  She pointed out how one of the key figures in the field of new institutional economics, Douglass North, scarcely mentioned colonial violence in his treatment of transaction costs.  This was said to be a serious weakness, considering the extensive treatment North gave to discussing violence.  Dr. Gray’s overall conclusion was that current literature selectively used colonial history to conclude that free market economies and western style governance are the ideals to aspire to, and largely discount other possible economic models.

Albert Mkony spoke next and gave important insights and reflections on being Tanzanian in Edinburgh.  He said that for him and many Tanzanians, he had multiple identities depending on where he was and whom he was engaging with.  Albert related his experiences going through the Tanzanian education system and how a real strength of the system was the cultural exposure and awareness of how diverse, but equal all Tanzanians were in the eyes of the state.

Brooks Marmon offered some interesting insights on his own experiences during his Masters dissertation research and his time working in Liberia and Niger.  Brooks focused on showing how he went through his own “decolonisation of the mind.” He covered how he first became engaged in researching Liberia, and the impressions of Liberia that he formed based on his readings.  When he had the opportunity to travel to Liberia, his experience was far from the what he had expected through his reading.  Brooks’ time made him question who was writing these accounts, and the problem that so much literature is written from the outside looking in by western academics, and that often their accounts stray from reality and fail to take into account local complexities.  Brook’s message was simple: go beyond the texts, and beyond the mainstream historical literature.

Paul Nugent concluded the discussion by turning the topic on its head and suggesting that what was needed was not so much a decolonisation of the academy, but a question of saving history.  He noted that the African continent barely received mention in British secondary education, an omission with significant consequences.  Dr. Nugent argued that the focus on issues like World War II at secondary level often prompt students to elect for “safe” options at university level, rather than deviate into ‘unknown’ intellectual territory.  This in turn contributes to a lack of demand for courses dealing in not just African history, but histories from other non-Western regions of the globe.

The lack of this demand means that universities hire lecturers who specialise in European history, bringing with them the conventional frameworks that cause problems when applied to non-western contexts, contributing to a lack of exposure to alternate perspectives and methodological frameworks.  This was a compelling way to end the panel discussion, and certainly provoked deep reflections amongst the audience.

The event ended with a brief closing statement in which I observed that a common theme of each speaker was to emphasise the dangers of becoming attached to specific methodological approaches, and that the panel had highlighted how important it was for academics and researchers to engage and collaborate with scholars and perspectives from other disciplines.  In doing so, more comprehensive and nuanced understandings of contemporary issues, debates, and topics on the Africa continent can be reached.

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