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date: 21 September 2023

Decolonizing the University in Africafree

Decolonizing the University in Africafree

  • Francis B. NyamnjohFrancis B. NyamnjohDepartment of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town


Since the euphoria of independence in the 1960s and subsequent attempts at decolonization of university education through promotion of perspectives grounded in African realities and experiences, African universities have almost without exception significantly Africanized their personnel but not their curricula, pedagogical structures, or epistemologies in a systematic and productive manner. Even a late arrival to political independence such as South Africa has, however reluctantly, embarked upon and covered some mileage toward Africanization of university personnel. Hardly addressed in any meaningful and transformative manner (even in countries that gained independence in the 1960s or shortly before), however, is the tradition of knowledge production and the epistemological order that informs it. This paper argues that any serious attempt at making African universities uncompromisingly inclusive institutions through embracing African traditions of knowing and knowledge production would require looking beyond the academy in its current configuration for inspiration. It uses the example of Amos Tutuola—a man of limited formal colonial education, and his writings depicting African universes as inspired by his Yoruba cosmology and ontology, to make the case on the reservoirs of insights and wisdom in the lived experiences of ordinary Africans, waiting to be tapped and channelled into the lecture halls of universities to refresh minds and reconfigure practice in the interest of a more relevant scholarship. The paper baptizes as convivial such a scholarship that dwells less on zero-sum games of absolute winners and losers, encourages a disposition of incompleteness and humility through the reality of the ubiquity of debt and indebtedness, and finds strength in themes of interconnections, interdependences, compositeness, and incompleteness of being that Tutuola’s writings exude.


  • History and Politics
  • World Politics


Most universities in postcolonial Africa have significantly Africanized their personnel. However, they have been less successful in Africanizing their curricula, pedagogical structures, and epistemologies, despite declarations of intent and attempts at decolonization of university education through promotion of perspectives grounded in African realities and experiences (Cross & Ndofirepi, 2017a, 2017b; Crossman & Devisch, 1999; Diouf & Mamdani, 1994; Ela, 1994; Fonlon, 1965, 2009; Hountondji, 1997; Ki-Zerbo, 1992, 2003; Mamdani, 2016, 2018; Mkandawire, 1997, 2005; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018; Sall & Oanda, 2014; Zeleza & Olukoshi, 2004a, 2004b). Even a late arrival to political independence such as South Africa has, however reluctantly, embarked upon and covered some mileage toward Africanization of university personnel. Hardly addressed in any meaningful and transformative manner (even in countries that gained independence in the 1960s or shortly before), however, is the tradition of knowledge production and the epistemological order that informs it. The reasons for underachievement in this regard are varied. They include underfunding and marketization of universities that places higher education at the mercy of market forces and pushes scholars to resort to consultancies and to seeking to make ends meet by moonlighting to the detriment of fundamental research and sustained scholarship, to rigid state control and the co-optation of universities and academics to the whims and caprices of the political establishment and the authoritarian propensities of African states and governments (Cross & Ndofirepi, 2017a, 2017b; Crossman & Devisch, 1999; Diouf & Mamdani, 1994; Ela, 1994; Fonlon, 1965, 2009; Higgins, 2013; Hountondji, 1997; Ki-Zerbo, 1992, 2003; Makosso et al., 2009; Mamdani, 2007, 2016, 2018; Mkandawire, 1997, 2005; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018; Sall & Oanda, 2014; Sifuna, 2014; Zeleza, 2003a, 2003b; Zeleza & Olukoshi, 2004a, 2004b). Other reasons include insufficient will and sustained commitment by African scholars beyond rhetoric, even as occasionally one encounters a scholar whose efforts at making a difference in terms of greater contextual relevance in epistemology and theorizing, often at great personal risk and sacrifice, are worthy of praise.

In the hope that the funds and will to change are there, and that scholars are determined to confront political and related distractions and raise the stakes for the inclusion of African epistemologies and theories in the academy, this article argues that any serious attempt at making African universities unequivocally inclusive institutions through embracing African traditions of knowing and knowledge production would require looking beyond the academy in its current configuration for inspiration. The article uses the example of Amos Tutuola—a man of limited formal Eurocentric education. His writings depicted popular African universes as inspired by his Yoruba cosmology and ontology. Tutuola is used to make the case for the reservoirs of insights and wisdom extant in the lived experiences of ordinary Africans, waiting to be tapped and channelled into the lecture halls of universities to refresh minds and reconfigure practice in the interest of a more contextually relevant scholarship. The article baptizes as convivial such a scholarship that dwells less on zero-sum games of absolute winners and losers, encourages a disposition of incompleteness and the humility of doubt, and finds strength in themes of interconnections, interdependences, compositeness, and incompleteness of being that Tutuola’s writings exude. The article is an invitation to envisage university-level knowledge production as a journey in collaboration and coproduction that schools in the importance of recognizing debt and indebted in how and the extent to which one claims agency and autonomy.

In the universes depicted in Tutuola’s writings, identities are complex and often composite, and there is a lot more and also a lot less to things than meets the eye. Drawing on such insights, the article argues that it is not merely because one is or appears African that one is necessarily going to be critical of colonial intellectual traditions, rituals, and habitus in one’s teaching and research, and offer a menu sensitive to local realities and “endogenous” epistemologies. Endogenous is used here in opposition to the rather limited and limiting notion of “indigenous,” to evoke the dynamism, negotiability, adaptability, and capacity for autonomy and interdependence, creativity, and innovation in African societies and beyond. It counters the widespread and stubborn misrepresentation of African cultures as static, bounded, and primitive, and of Africa as needing the benevolence and enlightenment of colonialism and Cartesian rationalism or their residues to come alive (Crossman, 2004; Crossman & Devisch, 1999, 2002; Devisch, 2007; Ela, 1994; Fonlon, 1965, 2009; Hountondji, 1997; Ki-Zerbo, 1992, 2003; Nabudare, 2006; p’Bitek, 1989). The use of endogeneity brings into conversation nature and culture, essence, and consciousness.

To a large extent, the hundreds of universities created after independence have stayed “triumphantly universalistic and uncompromisingly foreign” to local cultures, populations, and predicaments (Mamdani, 1993, pp. 11–15). For the most part, they have not been domesticated through epistemological renegotiation informed by local languages, cosmologies, and worldviews (Cross & Ndofirepi 2017a, 2017b; Devisch, 2002; Jansen, 2011, pp. 31–153; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013, 2018). This article argues for epistemological inclusivity at African universities by going outside the academy and drawing inspiration from the personal stories and creative imagination of popular Africa, ignored under colonialism for being too savage and primitive to share a table with European colonial enlightenment and often misrepresented in the postcolonial era by ill-adapted curricula, epistemologies, and theories, and by many an academic and scholar whose intellectual clocks are set to the rhythm of transatlantic scholarly cannons, practices, and standards of value in knowledge production and consumption (Zeleza, 1997, 2003a, 2003b, 2006; Mamdani, 2007, 2018).

Asking the Right Questions: A First Step in Decolonizing the University

“Silly questions beget silly answers, and bloody silly questions beget bloody silly answers,” Professor James Halloran of the Centre for Mass Communication Research at the University of Leicester in Great Britain used to tell his students repeatedly in the late 1980s. This was in an effort to sharpen his students’ critical mindset and alertness to inquiry well pursued. Indeed, central to research is the capacity to ask the right questions. This is ably demonstrated by Mamdani (1972), published a year before the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) was founded in 1973, with the aim of providing for and promoting African voices and African perspectives in knowledge production (Hoffmann, 2017; Zeleza 1997, 2003a, 2003b, 2006). Mamdani’s study was a critical review of a previously released survey of birth control practices in a region of India. The said study, which was American sponsored, had blamed individual poverty on the fact of the individuals having large families. Using a different set of questions grounded on the cultural context of India and the region of the study, Mamdani reached a different conclusion—that individuals resort to having large families because they are poor (Mamdani, 1972).

Asking the right questions calls for a careful and critical situation of the object of one’s study within existing knowledge and emphasizes the need to draw on and feed back into that knowledge in terms of theory, methodology, issues, and debates. It also entails understanding the local context from within and involving, as much as possible, local actors in the production of knowledge about their realities and predicaments. This is a mission understood even by theologians seeking greater cultural relevance beyond the sensitivities and sensibilities of the traditionally evangelizing West (Brooking, 2018; Reed, 2018). Researchers listen to, draw on, interact with, and inform the work of peers in ways that edify science, the scientific community, and community at large. All of this, however, is more easily stated than practiced because knowledge production, like all other spheres of life, is characterized by power dynamics that are often less horizontal and democratic than vertical and prescriptive (if not dogmatic).

Knowledge production takes place in a world of interconnecting global and local hierarchies informed, among other things, by race, place, culture, class, gender, and age. In the marketplaces of ideas and research findings, however compelling, intellectual visibility often boils down to the race, ethnicity, geography, culture, class, gender, sexuality, or age of the researchers involved. Such identity factors play into and shape participation and attitudes at scientific gatherings and other avenues of knowledge dissemination and consumption. Research narrowly focused on ever-diminishing circles of inclusivity, however sophisticated in design and implementation, can never account or substitute for the complexities and nuances of an epistemology informed by an understanding of reality as necessarily interconnected and subject to reconfiguration in its dynamism.

Common to all sciences as these challenges may be, they are even more glaring in the social sciences and humanities, where the very object of study—society (the human being as an often elusive creative entity)—makes certain methodologies impossible to use in isolation but also changes and redefines itself in ways that nature cannot quite match. Theory building in the social sciences and humanities is thus particularly challenging, necessitating mobility and exchange of ideas horizontally, across verticals, and through a myriad of intersections. In light of the hierarchies and unequal power relations that consciously or unconsciously shape how social research is conceptualized and implemented, there is a great risk of theoretical and methodological fallacies, as well as of such fallacies being imbibed, internalized, and reproduced by those on the lower rungs of the academy, as a result of rigid academic structures and practices that, paradoxically, tend to reward reproducing knowledge (rather than producing knowledge through creative and innovative thinking), even as critical mindedness is promulgated in scholarly rhetoric, organizational missions, and vision statements. In the academy, there is more emphasis on writing than on reading broadly and critically. This tendency is driven by a highly commercialized output-oriented publication industry, in which quantity is conflated with quality, and knowledge and knowledge production are highly commodified (Nyamnjoh, 2004).

In this context, and given the global tendency to place Africa on the lowest rungs of humanity, creativity, and respectability, African university institutions committed to the valorization of knowledge production and knowledge producers sensitive to the complexities and nuances of the African continent and African realities in context are particularly well placed to perceive the nakedness of global intellectual gurus. To excel in this role, African universities, in their intellectual agenda, must stay faithful to the paramount mission of promoting multi- and transdisciplinary social research that is informed by and relevant to the experience of Africans and the African continent. In a world of interconnecting and intersecting hierarchies at local and global levels, this mission necessitates policies and practices that promote social research on different aspects of society and on being human. This calls for intentionality in critically questioning (deconstructing) conventional theories, methodologies, and research, using the basic assumptions that characterize such theories and methodologies. If consistent and systematic, such deconstruction of existing concepts, rules of engagement, procedures, and processes of scholarship would promote among African universities and the research networks they fund and forge awareness of the risks of intellectual bandwagonism that result from Africans unquestioningly participating in research and debates on themes already determined and conceptualized by others outside of their contexts (social, cultural, political, historical, geographical, etc.) and experiences, often with little problematization of the frameworks of the theories and methodologies at play. Intellectual bandwagonism shaped by intellectual fashion designers, with little or no regard for the African contributor or consumer—with provision mainly for lecturers and students reduced to potted plants and clearing officers for cheap and untested and often ill-adapted intellectual and academic imports—is a persistent serious threat to Africa’s intellectual affirmation (Nyamnjoh, 2004, 2012a, 2012b, 2015a). This begs the question of how to move toward locally produced knowledge relevant to the predicaments of Africans. Relevance as understood in this article needs to be problematized and constantly reassessed in a dynamic, complex, and ever more nuanced African context. It would be counterproductive, in the intellectual decolonization envisaged here, to define relevance narrowly in terms of Africa’s developmental imperatives. A one-sided focus on relevance is riddled with instrumentalism, producing technocrats attuned to problem-solving, as opposed to an all-around critical approach in the pursuit of scholarship (Mamdani, 2016, 2018).

In this regard, it is important first to question certain assumptions in orthodox research traditions that do not sufficiently recognize the embeddedness of social research in cultural values (and the political and scientific histories that shape culture, and vice versa). The point here is not to minimize the importance of surveys as a method of data collection but rather to insist on the need to be conscious of fundamental differences (cultural, linguistic, demographic, experiential, socially shaped sensibilities and sensitivities, and expectations and aspirations, etc.) in different societies that make it difficult to rely exclusively, for instance, on carbon-copy survey or interview methods that assume that genuine comparability can be achieved only by administering the same questions in the same way in all participating countries or regions (Nyamnjoh, 2006). There is a need to explore ways of complementing methods that are steeped in preferences for and assumptions that economic and quantitative methods (and knowledge produced from them) are more “factual” or “comparatively objective.” This is particularly true when it comes to policy research and research “for development,” both of which are output and outcome oriented and often fail to critically examine historical and structural factors (the state, market economy, patriarchy, gendered relations, etc.), going so far as focus group discussions to capture human voices. An understanding of the relationship between language and culture is enough to realize that this semblance of a comparative approach is patently absurd in its untested assumptions. Methods of data collection, however appropriate and effective in one context, are not necessarily so in another: And these methods should thus never be taken for granted. Insisting deafly and blindly that they are is tantamount to asking bloody silly questions. Should scholars be surprised if all their questions can fetch—however technically sophisticated their research design and data collection tools—are bloody silly answers? (Nyamnjoh, 2017a).

Particularly appealing is James Halloran’s discomfort with research that prioritizes efficiency and practicality at the expense of theorization, conviviality, and participation, and the careful formulation and testing of hypotheses and basic assumptions. The functional nature of research via consultancy, often driven by the need to resolve a particular commercial problem or policy issue, compounds the problem. Little wonder that this dominant approach to research tends to downplay conceptualization and analysis and emphasize description. It tends to stress more and more data collection, and to conflate quantity with quality, almost as if to say that the data speaks for itself. It is more concerned with sampling (which assumes that people are homogenous within prescribed sampling variables, or that they belong to concentric cultural and social bubbles). As Halloran has argued, this type of research is rather piecemeal in nature, lacks integration into a bigger whole, and does not encourage or emphasize the foregrounding of interconnections, processes, and continuities. Regardless of the social phenomenon being studied, the final research report is usually confined to quantitative statements about amenable but relatively superficial aspects of a complex issue and fails to curiously interrogate outliers of the study, purportedly because of their statistical insignificance. Such a positivistic, psychologistic, or behavioristic approach has the effect of taking the attention of its practitioners away from the value assumptions implicit in every research question and affect the formulation of every research design. The researchers in this tradition work as uncritical consultants, hardly bothering to redefine the research problem brought to them by governments, industry, or other purported agents of development; their research tends to serve the interests of those who pay for it; contractors and consultants alike find the whole process useful in optimizing their security, influence, and profitability (Halloran, 1974; Nyamnjoh, 2006).

African social researchers may not be as visible in scholarly research outlets (journals, publishers, keynote, and plenary conference appearances) as peers in the Global North. They may not be in a position to write back on equal terms to non-Africans within the dominant colonial, postcolonial, and neoliberal political economy of knowledge production. Either they are not getting published (due to multiple intellectual and social burdens and to knowledge production hierarchies), or the professional risks to publishing alternative and especially dissenting views are high (Nyamnjoh, 2004, 2012a, 2012b, 2015a). The consultancy and structural-functionalist models of knowledge production may provide them with an alternative sense of relevance, but this is at the cost of their credentials as scholars and reputation as informed public intellectuals. Their relevance is synonymous with that of a hired hand who puts critical thinking and decolonial interrogations on pause. The necessary participation in consultancies most often takes place in relations of inequality, which state of relations impacts the quality and pertinence of the knowledge produced. This consultancy syndrome, widespread in many an African university, generates conventional, standardized, routinized, and predictable research that in no way threatens the status quo, be it economic, political, or cultural. This makes consultancy reports and kindred literature a rich source of information on how many African social scientists insert conventional social scientific insights into texts produced under conditions of intellectual contestation about the status and rationality of local knowledge and the right to resources of subaltern populations. Decolonization would entail drawing attention to the problematic aspects of such research, without seeking to make it completely anathema.

African universities seeking decolonization should reappraise and resocialize approaches to research and knowledge generation that have been supressed and ignored, and integrate new approaches that respond to contemporary challenges and aspirations (Cross & Ndofirepi, 2017a, 2017b; Devisch, 2002; Jansen, 2011, pp. 31–153; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018; Zeleza, 1997, 2003a 2003b, 2006). Otherwise, it could be argued that the basic assumptions, conventional wisdom, academic traditions, and research practices, which social researchers in Africa have uncritically and often unconsciously internalized, will remain largely ill-adapted to African contexts (Nyamnjoh, 2006, 2017a, 2017b). It is curious that focus group discussions are one of the main qualitative methods used in parachute-in-and-fly-out consultancy research. It makes for “feel good” fieldwork, with an allure of participation, which participation is merely performative. Some scholars have suggested a multi-methodological approach in African research. Some have questioned the tendency to make a priori distinctions between sociological and anthropological methods and to equate the latter with the study of “primitive,” “archaic,” “backward,” or “underdeveloped” societies, communities, regions, places, and spaces and have suggested that every research situation should determine its methods. Methodological buffets offer better prospects than the insensitive insistence that certain methods must go with certain disciplines or certain types of inquiry. As Cheikh Anta Diop argued perceptively in the early 1960s, nowhere else better than in the study of African societies can anthropological and sociological methods be effectively combined. Endogenous, Western, and Oriental elements coexist in Africa, and changes in process are yet to be adequately understood with research methods drawn from both disciplines (Diop, 1963; Nyamnjoh, 2006).

Success for African universities depends on the extent to which university management and academic staff institutionalize curricula and research that systematically and consistently relate to achieving their vision and mission, beyond merely stating these. Ongoing processes of deconstructing existing theories and practices must be embedded in the formulation of themes for research and other activities of university life in Africa. This would ensure that those who participate in university teaching are drawing on research findings indicative of the fact that African populations do not live in dichotomies. Meaningful deconstruction and reconstruction of theories, concepts, and methodologies does not happen in the abstract but rather in relation to actual social processes. Systematic deconstruction and reconstruction informed by the imperatives of contextual relevance would ensure good value for resources, because university management, faculties, schools, departments, and academics would build on past critical research results by the African social research community to identify knowledge gaps and issues for further research, thereby minimizing duplication that is wasteful of financial resources, researcher time, and efforts of scholarly and policy communities.

Funding networks rather than individuals is one way to emphasize the value of collaboration and humility in knowledge production. It also highlights the magnitude of the intellectual effort and research involved in systematic and meaningful deconstruction and reconstruction of theories and methodologies. The composition of all networks should reflect the aspiration of every university to promote cutting-edge, top-quality research and to mentor younger and budding scholars to develop a research culture and excel as scholars whose work is inspired by and firmly inserted in a truly inclusive epistemological order. Modalities should encourage senior and junior researchers to work together in a spirit of mutual learning and co-construction. Senior researchers are such not by age but by evidence of a good track record in empirical research. The modalities should encourage as well, open-ended permanent conversations on knowledge production and curriculum review with a broad spectrum of individuals and communities beyond the academy.

Struggles for Academic Freedom and the Relevance of Universities in Africa

The struggle for decolonization of universities in Africa has historically been articulated variously under labels such as Africanization, de-corporatization, and academic freedom.1 These challenge various models of universities in Africa. Africanization challenges the colonial university as an institutional form. De-corporatization challenges a corporate model, while at least historically many of the struggles for academic freedom were against the development university under the repressive grip of a centralized and often despotic state. In an article titled “The African University,” published in July 2018, Mahmood Mamdani observes how striking it is that the modern university in postcolonial Africa has little to do with African institutions, despite repeated attempts by African intellectuals and governments disabusing the African university of the one-size-fits-all character of its European colonial origins by making it more relevant to its African context. Such relevance, he argues, entails questioning taken-for-granted theories configured in the Western academy that have only tended to produce mimics and caricatures among African academics and students and coming up with alternative theories that “strike the right balance between the local and the global.” Mamdani discusses some of the robust debates in the 1970s, including between renowned scholars such as Ali Mazrui, who craved an African university as home for scholars fascinated by ideas, and Walter Rodney, for whom the university ought to serve as home for committed public intellectuals rooted in time and place and should be deeply engaged with the affairs of their societies. The tense debates were aimed at reconciling the quest for excellence with the need for relevance as public intellectuals in African universities (Mamdani, 2016, 2018).2 It is thus important to note that within the current dominant global framework of the university, serious efforts have been made by individual scholars and academic institutions, past and present, to turn African universities into more responsive places and spaces to the predicaments of Africans by offering greater representation to African scholarly voices and to voices of Africans from beyond the academy. CODESRIA was created in 1973 with this mission, and its activities since then have been underpinned by this commitment (Hoffmann, 2017). The CODESRIA books and journals publication program, for example, has achieved remarkable success in promoting greater visibility and accessibility of African scholarship in and outside Africa, using its partnership with African Books Collective to enhance dissemination. CODESRIA’s emphasis has been to encourage African scholarship not just for the sake of scholarship but rather scholarship in tune with African values, revelatory of social theory and practice in African contexts, and relevant to the developmental needs of the continent—such concerns as articulated in robust scholarly debates and academic freedom programs across campuses from Dakar to Dar er Salam, Ibadan and Kampala (Diouf & Mamdani, 1994; Hoffmann, 2017; Mkandawire, 1997, 2005; Sall & Oanda, 2014).

For CODESRIA, a relevant African university that champions African values and predicaments is one that enjoys academic freedom as articulated in its various declarations.3 By academic freedom, CODESRIA understands full autonomy of thought and practice at the service of knowledge production on the African condition and of relevance to African predicaments. It is also about facilitating unlimited access to the knowledge thus produced. CODESRIA thus relates to universities as autonomous institutions: Free from the logic and practice of those who expect to call the tune merely because they finance research, publication, and teaching. CODESRIA sources and makes available research funding to its members in universities across the continent with minimum strings attached, especially when this comes in the form of core funding that allows the autonomy to define and prioritize research questions and objectives in tune with CODESRIA’s Africa-centered vision and mission.

Scholars imbued with this CODESRIA tradition of academic freedom are quick to tell every donor or sponsor, regardless of political, economic, or cultural orientation: “Pay and support research and scholarship as much as you want, as long as you do not expect to influence my thoughts and research or my desire and freedom to teach, write and publish as I deem appropriate or necessary.” The research sponsorship and funding CODESRIA is least enthusiastic about is that tied to research agenda defined or determined by donors and funding bodies whose priorities are established with scant consultation or regard to CODESRIA’s own research agenda and strategic plan. In defense of its core values of academic freedom, CODESRIA publications such as Pax Academica and the Journal of Higher Education in Africa have promoted the production and consumption of knowledge informed by African perspectives and epistemologies. Both publications play a crucial role in reenlivening and revalorizing dismembered and disenchanted beliefs and systems of thought in Africa. Put differently, these journals are instrumental in reactivating traditions of knowledge production and of knowing shackled or deactivated by the violence of unequal colonial and neo-colonial encounters.

It is commonplace in university circles to talk, debate, and write on academic freedom in a manner suggestive of a shared understanding of the subject matter. Regardless of the ownership, age, size, and breadth of disciplines offered, universities are placed squarely in the domain of “civil society”: hence the emphasis on protection of academic freedom. What exactly is academic freedom? When is it freedom from, freedom for, freedom to, or freedom with? Is it achievable progressively by degree or possible only through dichotomous absolutes—something either fully present or totally absent but not admissible as a continual work in progress? Who qualifies to claim academic freedom? How? When? Why? Does context matter in the nature, form, shape, and voice of academic freedom? What are the empirical indicators of academic freedom irrespective of whether or not a country professes to be a democracy and a market economy? Put differently, to what extent is academic freedom possible or worth contemplating at all, in a context defined a priori as “not a democracy” and therefore as incapable of freedoms normally associated with “a democracy”? Still in other words, is there something to be gained by looking for academic freedom in unlikely places with which it is not normally associated? How similar or different from other freedoms is academic freedom? What is the likelihood, however remote, of academic freedom being mobilized to front for interests and privileges other than academic? Granted such a possibility, what alliances, strategic or not, are soldiers of academic freedom amenable to contemplate? And which are anathema? Some of the debates ignited by current attempts at curriculum reform at the University of Cape Town, following the 2015 and 2016 student fallist movements are tellingly instructive in this regard.4

To CODESRIA and its membership, freedom does not amount to much if it falls short of freedom from every foreseeable constraint to critical knowledge production relevant to Africa and the rights and dignity of Africans. The CODESRIA community is unequivocally committed to defending and valorizing the intellectual rights to creativity and innovation in thought and practice of African academics and students both from the corrupting influences of the market and big business as well as of states and governments. The mainstream tendency in CODESRIA circles is to frown on fellow scholars in Africa and beyond who seem to imply that the market is unquestionably and invariably the answer to those seeking academic freedom, simply because of the market’s liberal pretensions and abstract commitment to promoting autonomy and choice to consumers.

Since the political liberation struggles of the 1990s, CODESRIA scholars are equally critical of colleagues who readily give the benefit of the doubt to those who insist that social fulfillment through higher education is best guaranteed by public universities with a mission to cater for all and sundry in equal measure, even when such universities are clearly misappropriated by the political, economic, and cultural elite of the states that fund and control them. In place of a priori subscription or rejection of abstract options, CODESRIA and its community of scholars believe in paying ever closer attention to actual and ongoing practices, possibilities, and challenges of students and staff of universities on the continent, regardless of who owns and controls these universities in principle. Of interest are universities as democratic, accountable, and socially responsible crucibles of knowledge and ideas relevant to Africans and their aspirations. To CODESRIA, the test of the academic freedom pudding should be in the practical eating of it. The research it has funded and supported, and the books CODESRIA has published since the 1970s, attest to the fact that academic freedom can be jeopardized by political and commercial interests, pursued independently or in complicity and connivance. This calls for prudence, where beyond a strategic commitment to Africa and the challenges facing Africans taken collectively, seekers of academic freedom on the continent are safest without permanent friends or permanent enemies vis-à-vis the political, economic, and cultural forces that shape and are shaped by what they do.

Academic freedom is indeed jeopardized when its proponents prioritize profit over the dignity and autonomy of the very same students and academics they purport to cultivate and protect. When is consumer sovereignty and higher education as a commodity worth embracing as healthy for academic freedom? And when is it illusory to rigidly adhere to a model of universities as secular institutions, free of political interference and responsive solely to proponents of liberalism, market forces, and rational choice? The situation of African universities in the 21st century (Zeleza & Olukoshi, 2004a, 2004b) is testimony to the perils to academic freedom posed both by persistent neoliberal obligation to corporatize universities and have scholars in the marketplace (Higgins, 2013; Makosso et al., 2009; Mamdani, 2007; Sifuna, 2014; Zeleza, 2003a, 2003b) and unyielding political pressure by states and governments to turn critical-minded scholars into hapless pro-establishment noise machines and pseudo-public intellectuals (Diouf & Mamdani, 1994; Mkandawire, 1997, 2005; Nyamnjoh & Jua, 2002; Nyamnjoh et al., 2012; Sall & Oanda, 2014). There is need also to interrogate what exactly scholars do with their academic freedom as self-interested agents, and how relevant to intellectual decolonization African scholars are when they are able to access academic freedom (Diouf & Mamdani, 1994; Mamdani, 2016, 2018).

Much debate and activism for academic freedom in Africa has foregrounded this reality of African scholars caught betwixt and between the rhetoric of market forces and of nation-building (Mamdani, 2007, 2016, 2018; Zeleza, 2003a, 2003b). There are, however, many more challenges to academic freedom, shaped in part by identity politics and the hierarchies of humanity at play. Other factors that impinge upon academic freedom include the racial, ethnic, class, gender, generational, or religious backgrounds of those seeking, denying, or being ambivalent about academic freedom. In light of these factors, it is important to establish to what extent the privileges of a world configured in accordance with the diktats of ideologies of racial and/or ethnic superiority, or of patriarchy and gerontocracy, blunts the sensitivities and sensibilities of those claiming or denying academic freedom. In university campuses throughout the continent, one comes across academics and students who, individually or collectively, protest in one form or another: including but not limited to strikes, sit-ins, and violent and peaceful demonstrations against the effects of hierarchies and access to power and resources informed by the privileging or under-privileging of factors such as race, ethnicity, place, class, gender, sex, or age, among others. Other measures to draw attention to the fact of uneven university playing fields have included the organization of conferences, seminars, workshops, and curricula on the subject, as well as editing books and journals that call for radical and more incremental transformation of what they experience as a colonized academic system (Booysen, 2016; Jua & Nyamnjoh, 2002; Kamencu, 2013; Mama 1995, 2003; Ndlovu, 2017; Nyamnjoh et al., 2012; Zeilig & Ansell, 2008).

In South Africa and Zimbabwe—countries with complex histories of unequal racial and ethnic encounters—the upsurge in protests by university students and staff seeking institutional transformation and decolonization highlights the operations or workings of inherited racialized power and privilege. The protests call into question the narrow individual and collective interests embedded in educational systems and defended in the name of modernity and civilization. In both countries, the students’ protests reveal a fascinating diagnostic of continued overt and convert oppression and exploitation by a modernity narrowly configured around whiteness and whitening up—a modernity experienced as deeply frustrating by the so-called born-frees, who at face value should be an epitome of a deracialized and seamlessly inclusive postcolonial and post-apartheid dispensation (Booysen, 2016, Heffernan et al., 2016; Khunou et al., 2019; Ndlovu, 2017; Nyamnjoh, 2016; Swartz et al., 2018).

In parts of Africa where race is less a major consideration than ethnicity, academic freedom is challenged by a collusion of interconnecting factors such as an overbearing state captured by the corrupt and corrupting elite of a dominant ethno-regional governing party. A predicament common to universities across the continent is that of female students and female academics silenced by the patriarchal order of male-dominated universities and yearning for more gender sensitive institutional cultures and practices (Gquola, 2016; Imam, Mama, & Sow, 1997; Mama, 2003; Morrell, 2016; Nnaemeka, 2005; Sall, 2000; ). As evident from the landmark CODESRIA book, Imam, Mama, and Fatou (1997), CODESRIA’s mission and ambition to decolonize knowledge production in Africa did not immediately translate into a de-patriarchalization of institutional cultures, nor to the adoption of feminist theoretical, methodological, and epistemic sensitivities and sensibilities. As the debates in the pages of the journal, Feminist Africa, would attest, the struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom at university campuses across the continent is a work in progress but far less to show in achievements than was anticipated when the call for engendering African social sciences and knowledge production processes was first made in the 1990s (Mama 1995, 2003; Mama & Hamilton 2003).5

Be it on matters of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or other aspects of institutional transformation, the situation is compounded by the scant regard accorded student youth and their opinions, who are often under-recognized and under-represented in debates on curricula transformation and intellectual life in universities by the older generation of scholars who presume to know best by virtue of being older (Chimanikire, 2009). In this regard, we may well contemplate the following question. How ready are we, academics and students—elderly and youthful alike—to contemplate the classroom not in terms of a “safe space,” but rather, to quote Paul Gilroy, as a “dangerous space” that fits a “sense of the university as a unique environment where special rules apply with regard to disagreements and where we acquire a special kind of discipline with regard to the foolish or loathsome opinions of others”?6

Another key constraint to academic freedom is the generally poor salaries that tend to push academics to seek additional incomes through non-academic activities. A growing consultancy syndrome has tended to triumph over academic values such as excellence in teaching, research, and publication and to diminish the stature of the academics involved as informed public intellectuals. The temptation to relocate elsewhere (especially in the West) through greener-pasture-seeking migration remains great. Many a university professor on the continent is often derailed from the pursuit of academic excellence by myriad parallel non-academic calls on their time and effort usually in a bid to complement their salaries. Almost without exception, even the most inspiring of academics work under extremely difficult conditions for relevant creativity in teaching and research (Zeleza & Olukoshi, 2004a, 2004b).

In view of market-driven and market-sustained interconnecting global and local hierarchies inspired by and configured around race, ethnicity, place, gender, sexuality, and generation, among others, academics even with purportedly transformatory credentials and commitment to promoting African values and voices in knowledge production and consumption find themselves often forced to prioritize standardization, routinization, and predictability at the margins of global scholarship, and either completely ignore or reduce to lip service the need to struggle for critical revision and transformation and the necessary epistemological breaks envisioned in calls for decolonization of the mind and Africanization of curricula and the languages of instruction (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1986, 2005). This is the case even when such scholarship is about the lived experiences of Africa and Africans. The recurrent nature of transformation, decolonization, and financial difficulties as a theme in student movements and activism right into the 21st century, with the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing in South African universities in 2015 and 2016 being the latest examples (Booysen, 2016; Habib, 2019; Heffernan et al., 2016; Jansen, 2017; Ndlovu, 2017; Nyamnjoh, 2016), is ample demonstration of how little has changed for the better in Africa’s higher education institutions to make them truly accessible and relevant to Africa and its peoples.

On Epistemological Decolonization: Inspiration from Beyond the Academy

Within the academy, there indeed have been initiatives seeking to reconnect universities to lived life and embedding research in African communities that are worthy of encouragement. Such initiatives range from Afrocentric or Africa-centered social science (Asante, 2003; Ani, 1994; Cooper & Morrell, 2014; Nabudare 2006) to African philosophy and philosophy in Africa (Appiah, 1992; Eze, 1997; Hountondji, 2002), through popular culture (Barber, 1997, 2018; Edman, 2010), history, legal, and political processes (Ake, 1979, 2000; Amadiume, 1987, 1997; Comaroff & Comaroff, 2006, 2011; Ekeh, 1975; Falola & Jennings, 2002; Mamdani, 1996), and gender relations and identities (Amadiume, 1987, 1997; Imam et al., 1997; Mama, 2007; Morrell, 2016; Nnaemeka, 2005; Oyewumi, 1997, 2005). Without ignoring these efforts and their achievements in the pursuit of transformation, inclusivity, and decolonization of universities on the continent, it could be argued that persistent clamoring for change by students, academics, and university management alike would suggest that whatever creative imagination there is within African universities appears to be more rhetorical activity than results. If the decolonization process is generally slow, epistemological decolonization seems particularly so. This section of the article seeks to address the epistemological decolonization imperative by attempting to answer two important questions: How might African academics and universities be extricated from the web of Halloran’s “bloody silly questions” and “bloody silly answers” highlighted earlier? How do we reconcile the need for recognition of African scholars with the need for relevance to the communities whose sweat and toil fund them and their activities? In view of the fact that whatever attempts at tackling epistemological inclusivity in knowledge production (Collyer et al., 2019; Connell, 2007; Connell et al., 2016; Cooper & Morrell, 2014; Nyamnjoh, 2012a, 2012b) remains an emergent movement that is yet to result in a critical mass of alternative theories and practices in any systematic way (Morrell, 2016; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013, 2018; Rosa, 2014), the article makes a deliberate effort to venture outside the academy, while the jury of alternatives is still out, for inspiration on the need to bring these and related initiatives into an urgent conversation on “incompleteness” (Nyamnjoh, 2017b), in the interest of bringing the academy closer to the lived realities of Africans desperate to participate in foregrounding and seeking solutions to their predicaments. This is all the more urgent, if, as Jean and John Comaroff argue, Euro-America is evolving toward Africa (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2011). The article draws inspiration from an unlikely intellectual ancestor: Amos Tutuola.

Who Was Amos Tutuola?

Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1920.7 He benefited from only six years of frequently interrupted formal education and died on June 7, 1997. He desperately sought completeness in a world of binary oppositions and obsessions with winning. Within the framework of colonial education and its hierarchies of credibility, Tutuola was seen by some as an accidental writer or “the unlettered man of letters.” Never wholly endorsed at any given time, away or at home, Tutuola’s literary career went from, in the words of Bernth Lindfors, “foreign enchantment and local embarrassment” to “universal but qualified acceptance” to “foreign disenchantment and local reappraisal” between 1952 and 1975 (Lindfors, 1975).

Tutuola’s parents—Charles and Esther Aina Tutuola—were cocoa farmers. They were also Christian, and Christianity, its symbols, morality, and beliefs feature prominently in Tutuola’s books, where not even the bush of ghosts is able to escape its ubiquitous grip. This is a clear illustration that Tutuola is far from stuck in a frozen African past filled with fear and terror, as some of his critics have suggested.

In his works, Tutuola seeks to reassure his readers that it is possible to be “open and porous and vulnerable” to a world of spirits, powers, and cosmic forces and “disenchanted” enough to have the confidence of Taylor’s “buffered self,” exploring one’s own “powers of moral ordering” (Taylor, 2007).

Tutuola did not, however, allow his embrace of Christianity to serve as an ideological whip to flog him and his Yoruba cultural beliefs into compliance with the one-dimensionalism of colonial Christianity or the dualistic prescriptiveness of European missionaries. His Christianity simply afforded him an opportunity to add another layer of complexity to his identity (adopting the name “Amos” for example, without giving up “Tutuola”) and to his Yorubaness of being.

As a Christian named Amos, Tutuola was resolute in turning down invitations to break with his past and to disown the gods, beliefs, and traditions of his land, even as these were reduced to thunderous silence, often with the complicity of purportedly enlightened Africans. He was at odds with the hypocrisy of some Africans who harkened to Christianity by day and succumbed by night to endogenous African religions disparaged as superstition. Studies of African religions and religiosities indeed attest to the tensions and frustrations felt by many an African with a Christianity unyielding in its preference for conversion over conversation and determined asphyxiation of endogenous religions and belief systems in Africa.

Tutuola served as a servant for a certain Mr. F. O. Monu, an Igbo man, from the age of seven. Mr Monu sent him to the Salvation Army school of Abeokuta in 1934. He also attended the Anglican Central School in Abeokuta. Following the death of his father in 1939, Tutuola left school to train as a blacksmith, a trade he practiced from 1942 to 1945 for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria. The significance of Tutuola’s employment by the Royal Air Force is worth bearing in mind, as some critics express surprise at how Tutuola refers to airplanes, bombs, and other technological gadgets usually assumed European. How could Europeans fail to realize that in exporting themselves and their cultures and technologies of power that these would ignite the imagination and sense of appropriation of those they sought to conquer, humble—and à la Frederick Lugard, pacify—through the creation of native authorities and a system of indirect rule, or what Mahmood Mamdani has termed “decentralised despotism”? Given colonial origins and continuities, there can never be a “completely un-British Nigeria”; Tutuola’s work “reflects the coexistence of English and Yoruba influences in both his cultural past and present” (Tabron, 2003, p. 37). His work, in Yorubanized English, is a building block in the materialization of the imagined community known as “Nigeria.” As a lingua franca, English (domesticated and otherwise) provided Tutuola and continues to provide other “Nigerian” writers a chance to bridging ethnic divides communicatively, exploring possibilities, challenges, and limitations of nationhood, and seeking recognition and relevance in an interconnected and dynamic world.

Tutuola tried his hand at several other vocations, including bread seller, photographer, and messenger for the Nigerian Department of Labour, which he joined in 1948. From 1956 until retirement, he worked as a storekeeper for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Ibadan. He married Victoria Alake in 1947 and had eight children with her. He published his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, in 1952, followed by My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1954. In 1967 he published Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty, with a dedication that read: “In memory of my Mother Mrs. Esther Aina Tutuola who died on 25th November 1964.”

It could be argued that Tutuola is an embodiment of the incompleteness and compositeness of being and becoming through interconnections, interdependencies, flexibility in mobility and encounters, and conviviality that the universes of his stories depict—the epistemological importance of which is explored next.

Epistemological Insights from Tutuola’s Stories

In his stories Tutuola foregrounds interconnections, interdependencies, flexible mobility, encounters, and conviviality—among humans and across geographies and between humans and nature and super-nature. By so doing, he makes a compelling case for incompleteness of being and as an indispensable driver of becoming through crossroads conversations. The opening lines of The Palm-Wine Drinkard are tellingly poignant in this regard. Rich and powerful though the drinkard is, he can hardly claim independence extravagantly without being disingenuous about just how indebted he truly is to the palm-wine tapster whose life and labor were entirely consumed by the drinkard’s insatiable appetite for palm wine. Such claim of autonomy can only result in or come from social death. Tutuola seems keener on exploring the constructive tensions and challenges of the crossroads of palm-wine drinking and palm-wine tapstering, than focusing exclusively on either or on each at a time.

In terms of the current clamors for epistemological inclusivity in African universities, the provision in Tutuola’s stories for a disposition of incompleteness as a normal order of being and becoming is richly instructive. Just as the palm-wine drinkard and his palm-wine tapster are inextricably entangled and co-productive of each other, the academy and the contexts are also relevant to its existence and practice. The drinkard realizes just how dependent on his tapster he has grown to be since the age of 10, when, suddenly, the tapster falls from a tall palm tree and dies. The drinkard’s delusions of independence are shattered. Refusing to accept his fate or to allow death the last word, he sets out to find his dead tapster, even if this means undertaking a journey to Dead’s Town. This turns out to be a journey of activating or re-activating his sensitivities to interconnections and interdependencies long blunted by a life of power, privilege, and pleasure in superabundance. It is a journey that emphasizes the importance of recognizing debt and indebted (beyond purely economic terms) in how and the extent to which one claims agency and autonomy.

In the course of his quest, the drinkard comes to a town where a beautiful girl has been lured away by the “Complete Gentleman” into the distant bushes inhabited by curious creatures. It happens that the “Complete Gentleman,” like an African academic compelled to embrace knowledge production as a highly individualized zero-sum pursuit, is not that complete. There is a lot less to his glitter and dazzle than meets the eye. His charm and handsomeness are less than skin deep. Indeed, almost everything about him belongs to others. He is in every way a composite being—a sort of Ubuntu human. He belongs with a community of curious creatures deep in the bushes who are reduced to a bare-bones lifestyle—they live their lives as skulls. When the wind blows their way rumors of a young beautiful girl in a distant town who repeatedly turns down every suitor, this curious creature reasons that a girl who turns down every man’s hand in marriage must want as husband an otherworldly man. So, he decides to try his luck by embarking on a journey of self-enhancement through borrowing body parts from others along the way to the town of the girl with high standards. He borrows all the body parts he needs, as well as a lovely outfit and a horse. As a composite being, he felt truly handsome. In Tutuola’s words, the skull turned human thanks to his borrowing was the “Complete Gentleman.” As soon as the girl sets eyes on him, she abandons everything and everyone and decides to follow him. He was as gentlemanly as he appeared to be complete. He warned the girl repeatedly that there was a lot less to him than met the eye. But the girl insisted that she had found what she desired: a truly handsome gentleman—the realization of her fantasy. Her eyes knew what they had seen. At the crossroads, he warned her for the last time, but when she insisted, he branched off and took the path leading back to his community deep in the bushes. As junctions of myriad encounters, crossroads in Tutuola’s universe are significant in the manner in which they facilitate creative conversations and challenge regressive logics of exclusionary claims and articulation of identities and achievements. Being the gentleman that he truly was, and having acquired the wife he had set out to win, the man began the process of self-deactivation by returning all the things and body parts that he had borrowed for the occasion and paying the price he had agreed with the lender. The bride learned too late how deceptive appearances sometimes are. If only the “Complete Gentleman” was not so much of a gentleman as to insist on recognizing and paying back the debt of things and body parts he owed others, he just might have continued to live a lie. This is not dissimilar to the lie many an African academic co-opted into resilient colonial education with its Eurocentric index and epistemological order find themselves living, reduced to offer little more than lip service to decolonization of the African university.

Within the current dominant Eurocentric epistemological order of binary oppositions, confusing, conflating, and sweeping generalizations are the order of the day. Africans are invited to see themselves in the image of a purported “West”: And few among the ordinary citizens of the different countries that fall under this category of “the West” can identify with it. As Tutuola repeatedly demonstrates through his sweet-footed boundary-crossing quest-heroes, if a frozen or bounded Africa exists nowhere empirically, why should Africans uncritically subscribe to a mind-numbing abstract idea of the West that every purported Westerner is assumed to identify with? Why can Africans or Westerners, often presented as extreme binary opposites, not simply be like Tutuola’s quest-heroes, who do not have to belong to the worlds of their adventures from the beginning to claim and be claimed as part and parcel of these worlds? There is much to inspire scholarly imagination in creative and innovative ways by taking a closer look at the capacity of Tutuola’s quest-heroes to take the inside out and the outside in, and to acknowledge the value of debt and being indebted. Until the freedom to wander and be recognized becomes common currency for all and sundry without exception, African researchers, even in relation to endogenous knowledge systems in Africa, will continue to prioritize theories and theorists from elsewhere. This is because the empirical realities that shaped their theorizing were everything but African, but the relevance of those theories can at best be indirect. The suggestion to study and understand Africa first on its own terms will continue to be easily and uncritically dismissed as an invitation to celebrate African essentialism and exceptionalism, even as the imported colonizing theories and theorists are nothing but essentialist and bounded as “Western,” as are the assumptions they make of Africans, their communities, and their identities.

Without the humility to acknowledge debt and indebtedness on the part of the West and its African acolytes, it is hardly surprising that there is little patience with anything African, even by Africans, as the story of overwhelming rejection of Amos Tutuola from the 1950s till his death in 1997 tells us. There is little discourse on Africa for Africa’s sake, and the colonizing West has often used Africa as a pretext for its own subjectivities, fantasies, and perversions. And no amount of new knowledge or insistence on sidestepped old knowledges seems challenging enough to bury once and for all the ghost of simplistic assumptions about Africa. Even in the 21st century, representations of Africa as a necessarily negative trope in the language of Eurocentric modernity (perfected in the era of imperial imagination and conquest) continue to be re-actualized in a manner that defies the very logic and science they are purportedly inspired by.

Legitimately and meaningfully enlivening accounts of Africa entails paying more attention to the popular epistemologies from which ordinary people draw on a daily basis, and the ways they situate themselves in relationship to others within these epistemologies. Considering and treating the everyday life of social spaces as bona fide research sites entails, inter alia, taking the popular, the historical, and the ethnographic seriously, and emphasizing interdependence and conviviality within and between disciplines, and among disciplinary practitioners across geographies, gender, generational, class, and racial divisions. It means creating links of conversations, collaboration, and co-production with interlocutors outside of the academy and the professional circles of academics and scholars. It also means encouraging “a meaningful dialogue” between these epistemologies and “modern science,” both in their old and new forms. However, because the popular epistemologies in question have been actively discouraged and delegitimized since colonial encounters, not least by African intellectuals themselves, there is need to revalorize them and the multitudes shaping and sharing them. Systematic and critical non-prescriptive research into these silent epistemologies of unheard majorities will benefit significantly from Tutuola and his writings.

Epistemological recognition and conviviality entail moving from assumptions to empirical substantiation of claims about Africa. Hence the importance of questions such as: Who are these ordinary people? What do they do for their living? What is the nature of their epistemologies? Where do Africans, brought up under and practicing the colonial epistemology, position themselves? How ready are the elite to be led by unheard majorities subjected to elitist discourses? Until the elite know what these epistemologies actually are, they would not know where and how, or with whom, to dialogue. Like Tutuola’s narrators in The Palm-Wine Drinkard and The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts who both have to fight from the belly of a hungry ghost that swallows them, the angel of studying ordinary Africans in a relevant and meaningful way may well be in the belly of the beast, just as the beast may well be in the belly of the angel. On this as on many related issues, Tutuola’s creative imagination offers interesting insights (Nyamnjoh, 2017b).

How Can Tutuola Inspire the Re(situation) and Re(imagination) of the Social Sciences and the Humanities in Africa?

The 2015, 2016, and surging protests by university students across Africa make the turn to Amos Tutuola for inspiration more urgent (Nyamnjoh, 2015b). In South Africa, intensifying student protests for the decolonization and transformation of an alienating, often racialized, higher education system—symbolized by the “Rhodes Must Fall” and “Fees Must Fall” and related movements initiated by University of Cape Town students—are an indication that even so-called privileged African students in first-rate African universities feel unfulfilled by an overly Eurocentric index of knowledge and knowledge production (Booysen, 2016; Habib, 2019; Heffernan et al., 2016; Jansen, 2017; Khunou et al., 2019; Ndlovu, 2017; Nyamnjoh, 2016; Swartz et al., 2018). It must be added, however, that this model, especially in its export version, is essentially an extremely narrow form of Eurocentrism (or Euro-America-centrism), which excludes a lot of European and American traditional and popular forms of knowledge. That said, the global dominance of such narrow Euro-America-centrism means that there is almost total discontinuity between the idea of knowledge in African universities and what constitutes knowledge outside universities and in African art and literature.

The student-driven ferment seeks recognition and integration in teaching and research of popular and endogenous forms of knowledge and ways of knowing informed by African experiences and predicaments and especially by the continent’s frontier realities. These are realities that derive from Africa’s disposition as a zone of encounters, interconnections and circulation, and the continual ability of Africans to straddle myriad identity margins and bridge various divides. In such zones, crossroads are paramount, as people, ideas, things, and inspiration flow from all directions, enabling likely and unlikely conversations with difference, and forging cosmopolitan dispositions. As a frontier author of frontier stories with little interest in zero-sum games of dominance and conquest, Tutuola is well placed to point us in the direction of more truly inclusive, solidly open-ended Africanized systems of higher education on the continent.

Once despised, exoticized, primitivized, and ridiculed as a relic of a dying and forgotten past of a dark continent awakening and harkening to the call of the floodlights of a colonizing European civilization, Tutuola is increasingly influencing younger generations of storytellers and filmmakers, especially following his death in 1997. His brushstrokes are gaining in popularity. New editions of his works are surfacing, and scholars of different disciplinary backgrounds, students, and intellectuals of other walks of life who hear of him are keen to read his books. As Wole Soyinka suggested in an introduction to the 2014 edition of Tutuola’s first published novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola appears to be enjoying a “quiet but steady revival” both “within his immediate cultural environment, and across America and Europe.” What might account for such growing interest in someone who was for a long time summarily dismissed by elite African intellectuals as an embarrassment and an expensive distraction? This article finds Tutuola inspiring for the following reasons.

Tutuola’s novels are not just works of fiction. They are founded on the lived realities of Yoruba society—realities shared with many other communities across the continent—and depict endogenous epistemologies that are popular in Africa. The stories Tutuola recounts are commonplace across the continent. A close look at the universe he depicts suggests it has far more to offer Africa and the rest of the world than the one-dimensional logic of conquest and completeness championed by European imperialism and colonialism. Tutuola’s universe is one in which economies of intimacy go hand in hand with a market economy and where pleasure and work are expected to be carefully balanced, just as balance is expected between affluence and poverty, nature, culture, and super-nature.

Tutuola draws on popular philosophies of life, personhood, and agency in Africa, where the principle of inclusive humanity is celebrated and the supremacy of reason and logic questioned. Collective success is emphasized (and Black Tax is not a sin or a sign of primitive collectivism), and individuals may not begin to consider themselves to have succeeded unless they can demonstrate the extent to which they have actively included intimate and even distant others (family members and friends, fellow villagers, and even fellow nationals and perfect strangers, depending on one’s stature and networks) in the success in question.

Despite his English domesticated by his Yoruba syntax and his modest and less than intellectual education in elite African terms, Tutuola has contributed significantly to documenting and sharing ways of life and worldviews otherwise suffocated and suffering under the weight of extractive colonialism, globalization, and the market economy. His stories of accommodating resiliency contrast with metanarratives of superiority and conquest championed by aggressive and powerful persons and institutions. Tutuola’s stories emphasize conviviality and interdependence, including those between market and gift economies.

From Tutuola we can learn how to integrate and draw on popular and widely shared ontologies of incompleteness, which a theme he explores extensively in his writings. Through the capacity of his quest heroes to reach beyond the normalcy of their bounded geographies and existence for solutions to predicaments for which they have no readymade conventional answers, Tutuola exposes us to the fathomable and unfathomable richness and possibilities of crossroads and frontiers as zones of encounters and to likely and unlikely conversations with difference. Crossroads encounters and conversations have potential for conviviality as a currency in popular African ideas of reality and social action and in doing justice to the nuanced complexities of what it means to be African in a world of flexible mobilities of people, things, and ideas.

Tutuola is a fascinating precursor to ongoing debates on flexible and fluid categories, identities, and social and biological bodies. He demonstrates how to usefully bring essence and consciousness into fruitful and innovative conversations. Consciousness opens windows to tangible and intangible, visible and invisible forms of being, by means of which it constantly enriches itself. Tutuola introduces us to the complexity of consciousness not only through the transcendental capacity for presence in simultaneous multiplicities but also through the reality of intricate interconnections and interdependencies.

Tutuola’s ontologies of incompleteness are useful for (re)situating and (re)imagining social research in Africa. His conceptions of incompleteness could enrich the practice of social science and the humanities in Africa and globally. This article suggests that we consider incompleteness as a social reality and form of knowing generative of and dependent on interconnections, relatedness, open-endedness, and multiplicities.

Incompleteness harbors emancipatory potentials and inspires unbounded creativity and hopefully a reclamation of more inclusionary understandings of being human and being in general. Incompleteness is not a unidirectional concept. Every social organizational category is incomplete without the rest of what it takes to be human through relationships with other humans, as well as with non-humans or other beings—in the natural and supernatural worlds. Africa is incomplete without the rest of the world, and the world is incomplete without Africa. It is worth insisting that this articulation is within the context of incompleteness as a dominant model and disposition. The contrary is true if one contemplates Africa’s incompleteness within the current dominant zero-sum model where debt and indebtedness can be ignored with impunity and ambitions of dominance and superiority are made to count more than recognition and provision for a common humanity with equal rights and entitlements locally and globally. Within the latter framework, in which being incomplete is a negative, Africa’s incompleteness is historically produced through relations of unequal encounters with the rest of the world, or at least certain segments thereof. Historically, Africa was never just a skull needing to borrow body parts to activate agency. It was a full person, or at least had more body parts, and was through various historical processes systematically dismembered. Thus, the idea of incompleteness cannot be understood or accommodated within the framework of zero-sum games of superiority and ambitions of dominance. On the contrary, it presupposed rupture with that framework.

Social sciences and humanities steeped in the dualisms of colonial ways of knowing and producing knowledge in Africa are ill prepared to midwife the renaissance of African ways of knowing and knowledge production. To achieve such an epistemological turn, African scholars and academics would have to turn to and seek to be cultivated afresh by fellow Africans immersed in everyday life and popular traditions of meaning making, which involves not only the actualization and re-actualization of endogenous African systems of knowing and knowledge production but also the creative ways in which they are busy Africanizing their encounters with the West, the Orient, and beyond in the spirit of incompleteness. Tutuola’s experiences as a writer illustrate that these people in rural areas and urban villages are the very same Africans to whom the modern, ivory-towered intellectual elites try and deny the right to think and represent their realities in accordance with the civilizations and universes they know best. Many scholars schooled in Western modernity push away or even run from these worldviews and conceptions of reality. Instead of creating space for the fruit of “the African mind” as a tradition of knowledge, they are all too eager, under the gawking eyes of their Western counterparts—who are equally oblivious of or indifferent to their own incompleteness in disregard to their reality of debt and indebtedness—to label and dismiss (however hypocritically) as traditional or superstitious the creative imagination of their fellow Africans. Put differently, just as their colonizing Western counterparts who choose to ignore or be insensitive to their own incompleteness and indebtedness, many an African schooled in Western modernity are eager to pass for complete gentlemen and complete ladies in the eyes of the West, at the expense of the humility and inclusiveness that comes with recognition for their skully origins, and to the fact that there would be a lot less to them than meets the eye if only they were to factor in the reality of debt and indebtedness in the making of the West and its modernity.

The full valorization of African potentialities in future social scientific endeavors depends on the extent to which scholars in the social sciences and humanities are able to (re)familiarize themselves with and encourage these popular modes of knowing and knowledge making in the production of social knowledge. There is a clear need to de-center social sciences and the humanities from their preponderantly parochial or provincial (as well as patriarchal) Eurocentric origins and biases and from illusions of completeness, and for African researchers and scholars to (re)immerse themselves and be grounded in endogenous African universes and the interconnecting global and local hierarchies that shape and are shaped by them. How, exactly, one might ask, do we go about the business of reconciling this quest for the endogenous with the fact that many African universities, the workplaces of these researchers and scholars, are far from indigenous? How does one truly bring into conversation the apparent chasms between the indigenous and the colonially imposed and violently internalized? Zero-sum games aside, such conversations are only possible through an emphasis on endogeneity that constantly reconstitutes itself through mobility and ingestion of difference. Scholars must take themselves out into the wider world and in terms intelligible to those encountered in the process.

Appropriation and reappropriation are the norm in a universe of encounters not informed by ambitions of dominance but rather by a recognition and provision for incompleteness. In this light, endogeneity challenges the fixity or boundedness associated with indigeneity, in its capacity to evoke and provide for the dynamism, negotiability, adaptability, and capacity for autonomy and interdependence and for creativity and innovation in Africa and beyond. Endogeneity as indigeneity in motion counters the widespread and stubborn misrepresentation of African cultures as static, bounded, and primitive, and of Africa as needing the benevolence and enlightenment of colonialism and Cartesian rationalism or their residues to come alive (Crossman, 2004; Crossman & Devisch, 1999, 2002; Devisch, 2007; Ela, 1994; Fonlon, 1965; Hountondji, 1997; Ki-Zerbo, 1992, 2003; Nabudare, 2006; p’Bitek, 1989).

Tutuola’s presentation of crossroads and frontiers as zones of contact, possibility, and renewal in the stories he tells is fascinating and inspirational. Africans who are able to successfully negotiate change and continuity by reaching out and taking in what they encounter at the crossroads and bringing into conversation various dichotomies and binaries qualify as frontier Africans. Their frontier-ness comes from their continual straddling of myriad identity margins and bridging of various divides. These experiences of straddling and bridging train them to recognize and provide for the interconnections, nuances, and complexities in their lives.

Popular ideas of reality and the reality of frontier Africans suggest an approach to social action in which interconnections, interrelationships, interdependencies, collaboration, coproduction, and compassion are emphasized, celebrated, and rewarded. Within this convivial framework of intricate entanglements and manglements, if hierarchies of social actors and actions exist, it is reassuring to know that nothing is permanent or singular about the nature, order, and form of such hierarchies, and that no one or nothing has the monopoly of action.

Commitments to crossroads conversations across divides make frontier Africans express discomfort with suggestions or ambitions of absolute autonomy in action and reject ideas that humans are superior to any other beings and that a unified and singular self is the only unit of analysis for human action. In the absence of permanence, the freedom to pursue individual or group goals exists within a socially predetermined frame that emphasizes collective interests at the same time that it allows for individual creativity and self-activation.

Social visibility derives from (or is facilitated by) being interconnected with other humans and the wider world of nature, the supernatural, and the imaginary in an open-ended communion of interests. Being social is not limited to familiar circles or to fellow humans, because it is expected that even the passing stranger (human or otherwise, natural or supernatural) from the next neighborhood, a distant land, or out of this world should benefit from the sociality that one has cultivated on familiar shores, hills, plains, and/or grass fields.

The logic of collective action that underpins the privileging of interconnections and frontier-ness is instructive in a situation where nothing but change is permanent and where life is a currency in perpetual circulation. The tendency toward temporality, transience, or impermanence calls for social actors to de-emphasize or domesticate personal success and maximize collective endeavours. To cultivate this at the university level would mean transforming primary and secondary school curricula to emphasize greater cooperation and communication and incorporate incentive systems that are less hierarchical and competitive. It would also necessitate thinking about the role of the university in conversation with the economy. Humility must reign while mentalities and practices of absolutes and conquest are interred (Nyamnjoh, 2017b).

Conviviality of Popular African Ideas of Reality and Social Action

Scholars interested in rethinking African social sciences and humanities could maximize and capitalize upon the currency of conviviality in popular African ideas of reality and social action, as evident in Tutuola’s writings, the ethnographic richness of which makes them more than just works of fiction. Conviviality is recognition and provision for the fact or reality of being incomplete and a rejection of linear thinking toward completeness. If incompleteness is the normal order of things, conviviality invites scholars and indeed all and sundry to celebrate and preserve incompleteness and mitigate delusions of grandeur that come with ambitions and claims of perfection. Conviviality emphasizes repair rather than rejection of relationships with fellow humans as well as with the non-human world, in view of its recognition of debt and indebtedness as a permanent feature of being and becoming. Conviviality is more about cobbling and less about ruptures. Conviviality is fundamental to being human—biologically and socially—and necessary for processes of social renewal, reconstruction, and regeneration. Conviviality favors diversity, tolerance, trust, equality, inclusiveness, cohabitation, coexistence, mutual accommodation, interaction, interdependence, getting along, generosity, hospitality, congeniality, festivity, civility, and peace, among other forms of sociality, over ongoing conflicts within and between generations (Nyamnjoh, 2017a, 2017b).

Convivial Scholarship Rather Than Delusions of Completeness

Drawing inspiration from the story of the “Complete Gentleman,” and in view of the reality of bare life as the starting point of being and becoming, how do scholars frame and research places and spaces as realities that have activated themselves for particular ends at different points in history. And how are such processes shaped by (or shape) relationships within and beyond such places and spaces? As the meeting points and neutral grounds that universities are expected to be, they ought to serve the function of crossroads in Tutuola’s stories—that is, as places and spaces with the potential to welcome, accommodate, and enable activation for myriad forms of potency for the efficacy of those who inhabit them, however temporarily. Creative renewal in universities lies firmly with an approach to the university as a crossroads of multiple influences and possibilities, mixing and blending, in the manner of Tutuola and the universes he depicts, to forge a reality where certainties are never too rigid and the prospect of innovation a constant source of hope. Taking incompleteness seriously and providing for interconnections and interdependencies as well as crossroads conversations across myriads of creative imagination and material possibilities stands to serve as a rich reservoir for a scholarship of conviviality on the nimbleness of being and becoming.

Granted the intricacies of popular conceptions of reality and in view of the frontier reality of Africans caught betwixt and between exclusionary and prescriptive regimes of being and belonging, nothing short of convivial scholarship would do justice to the quest for an epistemological reconfiguration of African universities and the disciplines, a reconfiguration informed by the sort of popular agency and epistemologies championed by Tutuola.

In convivial scholarship, the logic of inclusion is prioritized over the logic of exclusion and the violence of conquest. Such scholarship is likely to provide for and take seriously comprehensive depictions of endogenous universes in Africa wherein reality is more than meets the eye and the world an experience of life beyond sensory perceptions and the logic of binary oppositions. Truly convivial scholarship does not seek a priori to define and confine Africans, anyone or anything, into particular territories or geographies, particular racial and ethnic or national categories, particular classes, genders, generations, or religions—or whatever other identity markers are ideologically in vogue. Convivial scholarship confronts and humbles the challenge of over-prescription, over-standardization, over-routinization, and over-prediction. It is critical and evidence based (though not in the limited sense of the observational sciences). It challenges problematic labels, especially those that seek to unduly oversimplify the social realities of the people, places, and spaces it seeks to understand and explain. In practice, this could imply providing for a buffet of teaching and learning models that includes bringing scholarship and learning outside the boundaries of the classroom and traditional institutional spaces.

Convivial scholarship recognizes the deep power of collective imagination and the importance of interconnections and nuanced complexities. It questions assumptions of a priori locations and bounded ideas of power and all other forms of relationships that shape and are shaped by the sociocultural, political, and economic circumstances of social actors. It is a scholarship that sees the local in the global and the global in the local by bringing them into informed conversations, conscious of the hierarchies and power relations at play at both the micro and macro levels of being and becoming. Convivial scholarship is scholarship that neither dismisses contested and contrary perspectives a priori nor throws the baby out with the bathwater. It is critical scholarship of recognition and reconciliation, scholarship that has no permanent friends, enemies, or alliances beyond the rigorous and committed quest for truth in its complexity and nuance, in communion with the natural and supernatural environments that make a balanced existence possible.

Convivial scholarship does not impose what it means to be human, just as it does not prescribe a single version of the good life in a world peopled by infinite possibilities, tastes, and value systems. Rather, it encourages localized conversations of a truly global nature on competing and complementary processes of social cultivation through practice, performance, and experience, without preempting or foreclosing particular units of analysis in a world in which the messiness of encounters and relationships frowns on binaries, dichotomies, and dualisms. Indeed, like Tutuola’s universe, convivial scholarship challenges scholars, however grounded they may be in their disciplines and their logics of practice, to cultivate the disposition to be present everywhere at the same time. It is a scholarship that cautions disciplines, their borders, and gatekeepers to open up and embrace the crossroads culture of presence in simultaneous multiplicity and concomitant epistemologies of interconnections. With convivial scholarship, there are no final answers, only permanent questions and ever exciting new angles of questioning (Nyamnjoh, 2017a, 2017b).


Tutuola suggests ways for Africans to challenge victimhood with their dynamism and compositeness informed by a recognition and provision for the humility of incompleteness of being and becoming as a permanent work in progress. In Tutuola’s stories, ordinary Africans are quite simply extraordinary in their capacity to challenge victimization and brutal and brutish zero-sum games of power and conquest. The stories challenge the illusion of the autonomous, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent individual by inviting the reader to embrace and celebrate incompleteness as the normal order of being and of things. They suggest an epistemology of conviviality in which interdependence is privileged and delusions of grandeur and completeness discouraged. Rich and poor are co-implicated and mutually entangled in Tutuola’s universe of the elusiveness of completeness and the impermanence of power.

Like most Africans outside of the ivory tower whose stories he shares, Tutuola himself epitomizes the universe he depicts, not only through his own cunning and trickery, prankishness, and elusive quest for completeness in a world of zero-sum games of civilizations founded on exclusionary violence but also by pointing a critical finger at the modern African intellectual elite who have unquestioningly yielded to a narrow Eurocentric index of completeness, civilization, and humanity. It is an index founded on borrowing without acknowledgment and on the fallacy of the permanently activated autonomous self-made complete gentleman or lady.

As interacting and interdependent beings à la Tutuola, humans (academics and intellectuals included) are not always in a position to determine their actions and their outcomes, even if they delude themselves every now and then that they can, and that they are free willed and endowed with a capacity to make rational choices in the interest of their autonomy as individuals (and as thought leaders). What humans may initiate with a particular intention or expectation in mind may not always—and indeed, often does not—deliver their intended or expected outcomes. The imponderables and the unexpected are part and parcel of the excitement and frustrations of being human, being social, and being a researcher in a non-prescriptive and non-linear fashion. This might make it extra difficult to be rigid about scholarly concepts and conceptualizations, but it calls for rigorous and systematic critical mindedness about the taken-for-granted within disciplinary and academic logics of practice, as well as in popularized pretensions that science and scientism are superior to all other forms of knowledge and knowing.

As one gathers from reading Tutuola, a form of knowledge common in Africa that is not immediately amenable to science and scientism narrowly construed is the belief in a hidden hand or the power of invisible forces. Within such an understanding of power, as constituting both a visible and invisible dimension, it makes sense to look beyond the obvious and the immediately apparent, for reasons why, for example, mass and occasionally violent protests and clamoring for decolonization (such as manifested by students of the 2015 and 2016 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements in South African universities) seldom result in what could remotely be termed rupture. At the heart of the failure of many an ambition for rupture or delinking—such as called for by Samir Amin, one of the founders of CODESRIA (Amin, 1985)—is the obvious or hidden reality of interconnections and interdependences that bind the oppressed and the oppressor.

Recognizing the importance of bringing concepts and lived experiences into regular conversation imposes the need to scrutinize frames and framing much more than scholars tend to do in their scholarship. Asking questions on how productively to frame, problematize, and research decolonization from a social scientific standpoint is a conversation worth having. How does one recognize and name decolonization? Is it as things unfold in the present, or as an invariably after-the-fact longue durée sort of approach? Is it usually with the passage of time that scholars assess and conclude that what may have started as a protest against oppression grew into something else, and in combination with other factors, resulted in what could be qualified (however mutedly) as decolonization? Are discourses of discontent and discontented discourses a necessary and sufficient indication that decolonization is definitely coming home for dinner? Should one take seriously discourses of decolonization even when the action unfolding falls short or apparently contradicts declared intentions? If one agrees that decolonization is a process and not an event, how does one factor in contributing events and decide on a threshold beyond which something qualifies as decolonization, or the baby steps thereof?

It is commonplace to assume—especially because as sympathetic commentators, intellectuals are eager to assist in the liberation from colonial mindsets and legacies—that every eruption into mass protests is necessarily a sign of an intention to break free of something. In a postcolonial context where there are far more continuities than discontinuities, mass protests by the oppressed may not necessarily be because of an intention to break away or to decolonize in a manner suggestive of rupture. Given the possibility of creative innovation through copying, imitation, mimesis, and mimicry, violent outbursts might sometimes signify a yearning to break into the ranks of the status quo and not necessarily to break away from business as usual to create something new or explore radical alternatives of a zero-sum nature. In such situations, it is the inequalities in the contents of the template, frame, or framework that are being questioned and not necessarily a severing of links with the dominant framework, of the sort called for by Samir Amin (Amin, 1985). Studies of invented or imagined traditions in postcolonial Africa speak more of blending (bricolage) of apparent change and real continuities than they do of rupture. The frame or template stays put, even in the heat of incendiary rhetoric and violent acts of discontent and disruption (Mamdani, 2016, 2018). Often the repressive forces, be these local, national, regional, or global, are able to contain any semblance of radical dissonance and to insinuate themselves back into the equation of unequal encounters, with a sense of business as usual. This explains the call for convivial scholarship informed by an understanding of decolonization as recognition and provision for incompleteness à la Tutuola, not as something negative or an admission of inadequacy, but as a disposition of humility in the face of the reality of interconnections and interdependencies and of debt and indebtedness as a permanent characteristic of being and becoming.


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