Decolonising the African mind, one step at a time

Mahmood Mamdani describes the rationale behind his pioneering research institute in Uganda

April 8, 2017
African person with British flag on their head
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Although he is still a tenured member of the faculty at Columbia University, Mahmood Mamdani has taken what he describes as “10 years’ time off” to develop an institution devoted to “decolonising the mind”.

A leading authority on African history and politics, Professor Mamdani is Columbia’s Herbert Lehman professor of government, and came ninth in a 2008 poll conducted by Foreign Policy and Prospect Magazine to find the top 100 public intellectuals in the world.

Since 2010, however, he has opted to take leave of absence from January to August each year so he can serve as director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, part of Uganda’s flagship public Makerere University in his hometown of Kampala.

The aim, Professor Mamdani told Times Higher Education, is to challenge the model of the traditional colonial university, in which “knowledge comes in from outside”, leading to “a very neat division between theory and fact-gathering”.

“Theories are produced elsewhere, and then either validated or revised in places such as the African colonies,” Professor Mamdani said of the traditional model. “Africans do the data collection, so it’s a version of ‘native informant’.”

Things are different at the Makerere institute, which offers a five-year interdisciplinary PhD programme to 10 students a year (six from Uganda and the rest mainly from elsewhere in Africa). There are two initial years of seminar-based coursework; a year of intensive reading, preparing bibliographies and taking exams; a fourth year of research; and a fifth year of writing up – although many need an extra year to complete their projects.

The broad goal, as Professor Mamdani put it, is to “think the world from this location, as opposed to thinking it from another location”.

Students are required, for example, to “start historicising geography” and to ask themselves whether Africa existed as a meaningful unit prior to Western dominance or whether it makes more sense to “think of eastern Africa as part of a region defined by the Indian Ocean and western Africa as part of a region with North Africa and the Mediterranean”. They reflect on “one of the most controversial issues in the study of Africa today”, namely the powerful long-term presence of Arabs in Africa, and explore whether universities in Africa have “a very early history in the mosque university in Timbuktu”.

Yet along with “a stress on the broad sweeps of history”, Mamdani has made sure that the syllabus also involves “closely studying texts, for example different kinds of nationalist texts, with a view to understanding different versions of the anti-colonial imagination”. All this should provide valuable tools for “thinking the present in a different context”.


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Professor Mamdani, who recently delivered the 2017 Edward Said Lecture at the British Museum, exploring “what justice means in the aftermath of extreme violence” in places such as Rwanda, Darfur and South Sudan, has experience of African higher education beyond Uganda.

From 1996 to 1999, he served as the inaugural A. C. Jordan professor of African studies at the University of Cape Town, although he resigned after controversy about the contents of “a compulsory course on Africa for all incoming students”. He remains “dissatisfied with what decolonisation has meant in South Africa” so far, claiming that it has “just created a racially integrated upper class”. In universities, this has meant an emphasis on racial integration at the expense of “the content of the educational system. They have brought in a large number of black students, but many fail to graduate.”

More broadly, although “the university system is expanding very fast throughout Africa”, Professor Mamdani saw “a dearth of qualified, good staff. We hope our graduates will take leading positions in the expanding system and shape its content and direction.”

The Makerere Institute, as he freely admitted, represents only “a small space outside the mainstream of the university”. But that is precisely how he likes it.

It is not easy, explained Professor Mamdani, “because you are working against an institutional culture, a set of institutional practices, which are dead-set against innovation”.

“The entire set-up is against innovation and change – but the smaller the change, the greater the chances that you are going to succeed,” he said. It remains to be seen whether his model can be applied elsewhere in Africa.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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