Are We Killing Knowledge Systems? Knowledge, Democracy and Transformation

Dr. Budd Hall and Dr. Rajesh Tandon

In the late 1990s, a Ugandan intellectual and civil society activist, Paulo Wangoola returned home to his Kingdom of Busoga on the Eastern shores of Lake Victoria centered at the source of the north-flowing Nile River. After 25 years of work in various parts of Africa and abroad to report on the state of the world as he had experienced it. His message to his Elders was this.

“You sent me out, one of the lesser young people of my generation, to gain Western knowledge and to work in the structures and organisations of the Western world, to learn what I could from these experiences. I have been to their universities, have worked with their governments, have created Western style organisations here in Africa and now I have come home to share what I have learned. I come to tell you that we, the children of Busoga Kingdom, the children of Afrika will never realize our full potential as people in our communities and as contributors to the global treasury of knowledge if we continue to depend wholly on the content and ways of knowledge of the European peoples. Our way forward must be linked to the recovery, replenishment and revitalization of our thousands of years old Indigenous knowledge.”

With those words came a decision by Wangoola to withdraw from the western world economic structures, to return to a subsistence life style and to dedicate himself to the creation of a village-based institution of higher education and research that is today known as the Mpambo, Afrikan Multiversity, a place for the support of mother-tongue scholars of Afrikan Indigenous knowledge

University of Abahlalhi baseMjondolo

In 2005 in Durban South Africa some of the inhabitants of the tin-roofed shacks of the city created a blockade on Kennedy Road to protest the sale of land originally promised to the poor for house building but subsequently offered to a land developer for commercial purposes. This movement of those living in these shacks has grown into, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shackdwellers movement. But what is unique to this social movement is that they have created their own University of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a space for the creation of knowledge about survival, hope and transformation where the shack dwellers themselves are the scholars, the Professors and the teachers. They create and share knowledge through song, ‘live action debates’ and discussions and document the knowledge in a web based archive.

Knowledge democracy

In each of the stories that I have just shared with you knowledge is central. Knowledge is the star of each drama. Knowledge is dynamic, active, engaged and linked to social, political, cultural or sustainable changes. Mpambo’s mother tongue scholars are stimulating an unprecedented reawakening of Afrikan spiritual knowledge and sharing in Uganda. The shackdwellers of Durban and beyond have boldly taken the word university as their own and turned the knowledge hierarchies upside down in the service of justice for the poor.

These knowledge innovators have all facilitated various means of creating, sharing and accessing knowledge that is not part of what is often called the western canon. For a variety of justice, cultural, spiritual, environmental, health reasons, the application of knowledge from the western canon in these two stories was seen as insufficient. The contexts, conditions, values, uses, politics of knowledge in each of these stories called for an opening outwards of our comfortable assumptions about whose knowledge counts and what the relationship between knowledge and life might be.

Knowledge democracy refers to an interrelationship of phenomena. First, it acknowledges the importance of the existence of multiple epistemologies or ways of knowing such as organic, spiritual and land-based systems, frameworks arising from our social movements, and the knowledge of the marginalized or excluded everywhere, or what is sometimes referred to as subaltern knowledge. Secondly it affirms that knowledge is both created and represented in multiple forms including text, image, numbers, story, music, drama, poetry, ceremony, meditation and more. Third, and fundamental to our thinking about knowledge democracy is understanding that knowledge is a powerful tool for taking action to deepen democracy and to struggle for a fairer and healthier world. Knowledge democracy is about intentionally linking values of democracy and action to the process of using knowledge.

Beyond the killing of knowledge systems

The geographer David Harvey has elaborated the concept accumulation through dispossession to explain how capital, the basis of our dominant economic system, began to be accumulated. He draws attention to the activities in 14th-17th Century England, whereby people were removed from land that they had been sharing in common from the land. He tells us of wealthy landowners who turned the traditional open fields and communal pastures into private property for their own use through the creation of what became known as enclosures. Income began to flow from the uses of the land to the new land ‘owners’ while those excluded were further impoverished because of lack of access to the land.

Both of us, Rajesh and Budd have had the opportunity of spending a few days in one of the Oxford Colleges, a college that was created at the same time as the enclosures. We entered the college through a low doorway only accessible to students and fellows and their guests. The college was walled in and only accessible through one or two guarded entryways. While staying in the college, the linkage between the enclosing of previously common land for private purposes and the creation of walled places for learning became disturbingly apparent. The act of creating Oxford and the other medieval universities was an act of enclosing knowledge, limiting access to knowledge, exerting a form of control over knowledge and providing a means for a small elite to acquire this knowledge for purposes of leadership of a spiritual nature, of a governance nature or a cultural nature. Those within the walls became knowers; those outside the wall became non- knowers. Knowledge was removed from the land and from the relationships of those sharing the land. The enclosing of the academy dispossessed the vast majority of knowledge keepers, forever relegating their knowledge to witchcraft, tradition, superstition, folkways, or at best some form of common sense.

These new academies came into being as well at the time of the rise of European science and through improvements in navigational aids and the wealth generated by the enclosures and the exploitation of silver and gold from Latin America, the hegemony of mostly white euro-centric knowledge spread around the world. Just as colonial political practices carved up the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, knowledge, the intellectual energy by which humans operate became colonized as well. The process of dispossession of other knowledge is a process that Boaventura de Sosa Santos, has called epistemicide, or the killing of knowledge systems.

The UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education

In 2012, we were invited by UNESCO to consider creating a UNESCO Chair that would focus on building research capacity in the global South on the themes of the social responsibility of universities and community based research. We are calling on institutions of higher education to do at least three things: re-examine and revigourate debates about what constitutes knowledge in the academy (whose knowledge counts), re-establish the centrality of attention to transformation in a world that everyday grows more unequal, more un-loving and less sustainable and create structures and processes for the co-creation of knowledge with social movements and civil society partners.

We welcome interest, collaboration and support of our work and invite readers to take a look at our web site and contact us. From the basis of our own experiences over the years we passionately believe that recognizing and including the knowledge systems, the epistemologies, of the global majority and the excluded North has much to contribute to our common search for a transformed world. It is personal. It is political. It is about the coming of a new dawn.