Debating academic activism
DWAIPAYAN BHATTACHARYYA attends a cultural studies workshop held at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and finds out that sincere attempts are being made to connect political theory to popular mobilisation.
Uganda: debating a choice between democracy and development.
IS it not sad that our knowledge of social sciences from other countries in the South are invariably routed through the north, and many of us keep rehearsing whatever is talked about in the universities of Europe or North America? Social theory for many of us means looking through such derived lenses without properly marking our differences with clarity. When we actually mark these differences, however, we end up either placing excessive weight on some easily visible signs peculiar to our society, such as caste hierarchy, or take an arcane pride in some sort of obscure cultural and of late civilisational superiority. These tendencies are not innocuous; we have seen them offering intellectual fodder to dangerous political liaisons. And this is true for a wide range of societies in the south, which had long been victims of colonial domination. It is time that we try to develop better and more durable contacts with the universities and research institutes from this part of the world so that we get to understand our varied social dynamics with more independence and ingenuity. The point is not to scuttle the major insights produced in the northern academia, rather, not to get bogged down in them.
It, therefore, was a pleasure to be exposed to the ways social sciences are produced in another third world country that grapples, like us, with poverty, inequality, politicised brutalities and, above all, with the new imperial order peddled as globalisation. I recently had this opportunity in Kampala's Makerere University, where the occasion was a cultural studies workshop and the theme was "the State in Africa". While it is not difficult to find a host of similarities between our academic milieu and theirs, what surprised me were some crucial variations between the two.
We met at the university's Senior Common Room, a British piece of architectural splendour complete with wooden floor and large glass windows. Arguably the best university in the region, Makerere can indeed boast of illustrious professors, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Students continue to pour in from neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania. Education is virtually free, unlike in the growing number of private universities in the region, and the infrastructure buildings, libraries and laboratories appear to be better kept and equipped than our coveted universities, thanks to the foreign funding through the last decade.
English is the language of the public domain in Uganda. Colonialism has erased most tribal languages, their scripts, and confined them mainly to family and community spheres. With increased mobility of the population and the swelling cities, English has become the bridging language between different tribes. Most African students use English with felicity and with a great sense of the occasion. So English has ceased to be a "foreign" language: it covers the entire urban population, from the elite academics to the urban workers. Informal discussion between Ugandans takes place in Lugandan, the language of those belonging to the region of Kampala.
In the academic discussions two important aspects were noteworthy. First, theoretical issues were usually debated with a lot of passion. The aim here was not just producing knowledge, but weighing the effects of various concepts in the real-life situations. Second, social theories were cited not only for strengthening or stimulating arguments, but more for demanding a solution to some vexed issues. In this sense, social science in Africa seemingly has a programmatic side to it, a sense of urgency where "what is to be done" features prominently, and more sophisticated practitioners of the discipline prefer not to treat such tendencies with disdain. At one level this links social research with policy sciences. At another level, theoretical arguments tend to be guided unabashedly by political positioning of the researcher.
Research activism of this kind was found most visibly in the attacks on diasporic Africanist scholars. They were unacceptable because "they do not love Africa or assume responsibility for Africa". A touchiness borne out by some kind of pan-Africanism prevailed. This, however, was not nationalism, nor dependency solidarity. It displayed two kinds of anxieties. First, how to situate the tribal identities upfront in the heart of social enquiry. Second, how to transform the undemocratic character of this identity into a larger sociability. The agenda, therefore, was to democratise society by tracing the history of local traditions so that political institutions suitable for Africa could be properly conceived. Pre-colonial social resources were freely drawn upon religion included and treated as part of a lost tradition. African renewal, so ran an argument, could only be achieved in a spirit of revival.
Democracy was discussed with an invitation to recognise Africa's specificities around two key issues: gender and community. On gender the central argument was: in the long past, due to specific nature of the productive labour, the private and the public spheres were not divided on gender lines and a larger equality prevailed; it was colonialism, and Christianity, that corrupted African societies and left the imprint of inequality between sexes. Community was often contrasted with the civic community of the western tradition. In Africa, community allegedly involved a different idea of property, legality, obligations and rights, and so was likely to propel a different path to democratisation. The West, in short, is not worth copying. Curiously, a good number of men were involved in gender studies, a refreshing change for someone tuned to India's academic scenario.
The current phase of globalisation has produced a paradigm shift in contemporary African studies, even more than elsewhere in the Third World. African scholars are acutely worried about the possible impact of the region's growing dependence on metropolitan capital. Up to 51 per cent of Uganda's annual outlay is financed from abroad. Beyond the debate on whether such aid should come as budgetary attachments, or as specific projects (so that donors get the pleasure of seeing what their money is spent on), was the overriding concern about its impact on national sovereignty. Dependence on foreign aid is matched here by a popular perception of the west as a bully, working out its own advantages through the weak regimes virtually without any resistance in the post- Soviet world. This has further complicated the autocratic and arbitrary impulses of the eastern Africa nation-states.
Finally, Afro-pessimism seemed widespread. Researchers displayed a sort of helplessness in the face of acute poverty, widening social cleavages, tribal war, and privatisation of state violence. There was an unmistakable sense of crisis in whatever being said. Some scholars desperately sought an exit in ongoing social movements rooted mainly in ethnic solidarities. These were expected to redefine African politics, give new meaning to democracy and alter the relationship between the citizen and the state. Between democracy and development, which drew several heated exchanges, the entire range of educated opinion tended to prefer the former, unlike in India. In this highly literate and mobile society, sincere attempts are being made to connect political theory to popular mobilisation, hence the activist orientation of the intellectual pointed out earlier.
At Entebbe airport, on the eve of flying out, we got the news of Idi Amin's death in exile. African attendants in the cafeteria laughed out loudly as CNN carried pictures of Amin swimming bizarrely in his military attire. "He was scared of parting even with his clothes", someone jeered. Ugandans seemingly hate Amin, they do not particularly love Indians either who, a Makerere student explained, "make us work like beasts and treat our family as a bunch of thieves". Cruising through the streets of Jinjah, where the Indians first set up business in the 1910s, flourished and subsequently forced out, one wonders if the time has come to look inside Africa once again for profit, albeit of an entirely different kind.
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