Africa’s next decolonisation battle should be about knowledge

Local researchers whose voices are silenced in the black market of knowledge production need recognition and safety.

Rhodes must fall AP
Students surround the bronze statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, as it is removed from the campus of Cape Town University, South Africa on April 9, 2015 [AP]

The process of undoing the effects of colonialism has never been easy. However, at least, there has been some sort of progress thanks to the advent of social media platforms, which are enabling Africans to reframe the narratives about them. Yet, the journey towards total decolonisation remains long and treacherous. 

In the age of information and knowledge, control of the latter is another yardstick for measuring whether one is colonised or decolonised. Sadly, in this regard, the African continent remains colonised. The next battle for Africa‘s decolonisation should be about the promotion and protection of local knowledge.

To this end, we first need to understand how and why we are still colonised. The next steps should be about the process of dismantling these pernicious vestiges of the colonial era. Generally speaking, doing academic fieldwork in Africa, for example, still relies on colonial practices of a white man going to find information in remote African places, inhabited by “vulnerable” and underdeveloped communities. The end goal is to bring back “home” stories of the colonised. While demographics of researchers continue to change, new researchers mimic colonial practices in collecting data.

In his quest for information, the foreign researcher cannot do this alone. Enter the crucial role of a local knowledge broker who is paid to guide the researcher to study these contexts.

In most cases, the foreign researcher ends up being labelled as an “expert”, while the local assistant’s voice is either silent or silenced. In some cases, especially when the study touches on sensitive topics, the foreign researcher can travel back to their home country, but often leaving the assistant’s safety in their community compromised.

Two difficult questions then remain: How do we recognise these local associates’ agency in studies? How do we ensure their safety during and after data collection?

These are some of the questions explored in a study recently published in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods on the plight of the so-called “research assistants” and respondents in northern Uganda.

Jacob, one of the participants in the study, told us a couple of horrifying stories about his experiences working with western researchers in different districts of northern Uganda during and after conflict. He recounted one of these experiences: 

“We had finished doing a study on corruption in the police force. The policemen we had interviewed maybe reported us. It was bad … Then someone stole my computer, my flash disk from home. It got bad when I was harassed and accused of sending intelligence to outsiders. Then I was arrested for a few days,” said Jacob, not his real name, a research fixer in northern Uganda. 

After various post-independent wars in the Northern Region of Uganda, including the violence committed by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and other groups, stories of violence and displacement in districts in this part of Uganda received international attention. Many researchers – seasoned and inexperienced ones using the disaster to launch their careers – from different parts of the world were among those who joined the usual humanitarian workers, conflict entrepreneurs who flocked in Gulu and other surrounding areas. Jacob worked with many of them during and after the conflict.

His ordeal led me to investigate not only the safety issues that have been experienced in the region’s context but also research fatigue and power dynamics that exist between principal investigators and assistants. I was motivated to do this study not only because I too was a local research assistant once, but because when I read reflections of western researchers on their safety concerns and other dilemmas they face in these sensitive contexts, I found their earnest attempts at self-reflection have often transformed into navel-gazing. I hardly found, for example, any mention of stories or safety issues of the silent and silenced voices who accompany them. Their voices and stories have been silenced in what has been referred to as the black market of knowledge production

I agree with the Liberian academic and activist Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey whose recent article How to truly decolonise the study of Africa points out that the current wave of “scholarly decolonial turn” should not be detached from “day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places”. These people include local researchers like Jacob.

To decolonise fieldwork, we need to consider three things.

First, foreign researchers need to decentre power, decentre class, decentre gender and decolonise ethical and methodological training and practices before, during and after their fieldwork.

Second, research assistants and other local leaders or ethics committees need to establish guidelines for foreign researchers to follow when hiring a research assistant, and to enforce them. Where they do not exist or authorities are at the centre of the study like in Jacob’s situation, research assistants need to create associations to protect themselves as a collective.

Finally, as the Malawian American Historian Professor Paul Zeleza, points out, “Africans”, and in this case research associates, need “to develop the means to generate, value, and disseminate their own forms of knowledge.” And heed the Nigerian British academic, feminist and writer Professor Amina Mama’s advise: “…to better acknowledge African intellectual production, past and present, as we face the newer challenges posed by globalization and its attendant effects in the arena of knowledge production.” Intellectuals include these silent and silenced voices.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.