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The Postcolonial Turn: Re-Imagining Anthropology and Africa

Sunday 13 November 2011, author(s)-editor(s) Francis B. Nyamnjoh, René Devisch

This innovative book is a forward-looking reflection on mental decolonisation and the postcolonial turn in Africanist scholarship. As a whole, it provides five decennia-long lucid and empathetic research involvements by seasoned scholars who came to live, in local people’s own ways, significant daily events experienced by communities, professional networks and local experts in various African contexts.

The book covers materials drawn from Botswana, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania. Themes include the Whelan Research Academy, rap musicians, political leaders, wise men and women, healers, Sacred Spirit churches, diviners, bards and weavers who are deemed proficient in the classical African geometrical knowledge. As a tribute to late Archie Mafeje who showed real commitment to decolonise social sciences from western-centred modernist development theories, commentators of his work pinpoint how these theories sought to dismiss the active role played by African people in their quest for self-emancipation. One of the central questions addressed by the book concerns the role of an anthropologist and this issue is debated against the background of the academic lecture delivered by René Devisch when receiving an honorary doctoral degree at the University of Kinshasa. The lecture triggered critical but constructive comments from such seasoned experts as Valentin Mudimbe and Wim van Binsbergen. They excoriate anthropological knowledge on account that the anthropologist, notwithstanding her social and cognitive empathy and intense communication with the host community, too often fails to also question her own world and intellectual habitus from the standpoint of her hosts. Leading anthropologists carry further into great depth the bifocal anthropological endeavour focussing on local people’s re-imagining and re-connecting the local and global. The book is of interest to a wide readership in the humanities, social sciences, philosophy and the history of the African continent and its relation with the North.

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ISBN 9789956726653 | 466 pages | 216 x 140 mm | 2011 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

1 Review

  • The Postcolonial Turn: Re-Imagining Anthropology and Africa 16 January 2013 17:59, author(s)-editor(s) DAVID TURKON

    The Postcolonial Turn is insightful and valuable reading for scholars and advanced students of anthropological, and more generally social scientific, engagements with Africa. It admirably and constructively dissects colonial biases in anthropology without the bitterness that often overshadows such efforts. This is not to say that the authors aren’t critical of colonial and much post-colonial anthropology.

    They are. But they seek to find value that underlies anthropological methods, perspectives, and theoretical developments, salvaging positive trends from anthropology that empower practitioners to interrogate colonialism in ways that elucidate the post-colonial turn toward greater and more nuanced understandings.

    Their well-situated diachronic perspectives that come from long engagements with Africa add dimensions with a refreshing depth of insight seldom available from the sojourners who comment on African social realities from the perspective of one or two field seasons.

    The contributors seek to comprehend ‘the many forms and instances of endogenous knowledge production in Africa’ (p. 16) from within specific socio-cultural settings.

    These perspectives are refreshing as the contributions engage structural and material worlds as well as cultural ones in ways that situate indigenous actors as producers of endogenous knowledge and society, and emphasize the intellectual linking of field sites with ethnographic representations. In this regard the book brings to the fore critiques of Eurocentric and ethnocentric interpretations.

    The Postcolonial Turn brings readers into contact with indigenous scholars as well as those who have long engaged with and embraced African anthropologies in transformative ways. The ideas and arguments presented are not necessarily new, but represent a maturation of thinking about African systems of knowledge that both challenge and complement Western understandings. The ethnographically grounded insights are instructive and at times humbling. Indeed, I frequently found myself pondering my own field site, and reflecting on how I could be a more competent ethnographer and scholar. The chapters admirably and competently explore how modernization is absorbed and digested locally to produce culturally situated expressions of modernity and social critique, thus challenging notions of unidimensional expressions of progress or development in both secular and spiritual realms. To be sure, in these and other ways many of the chapters (overtly at times) are at odds with post-modern sensibilities, which are seen as all too often supporting neo-colonial notions of centre and periphery.

    The book mainly examines themes emergent in the studies of colonialism, postcolonialism, borders, and endogeneity. But the subjects are broad and varied, including issues relevant to the humanities, arts, aesthetics, religion and spirituality, crafts, politics, gender relations, transnational cosmopolitanism, and more. And while the contributors are mostly anthropologists, there are also sociologists, political scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and literary scholars.

    There is an introduction followed by four thematically structured parts. The introduction, by Adebayo Olukoshi and Francis Nyamnjoh, does an excellent job of fleshing out and tying together the relevant themes and issues raised in subsequent chapters. Part 1 critiques intellectual colonialism by focusing on the work of the late scholar and teacher Archibald ‘Archie’ Monwabi Mafeje who, despite exile from his native South Africa during apartheid, upheld a commitment to and appreciation of the potential of anthropology as a social science capable of speaking truth to power. His primary goal, eloquently espoused and brought to life here in essays by Mafeje himself, Jimi O. Adesina, and John Sharp, was to create spaces for indigenous voices – an appreciation for ‘endogenous’ over ‘racialized’ epistemological underpinnings of social science.

    The following parts build on this theme. In Part 2, Wim M. J. van Binsbergen and Valentin Y. Mudimbe dialogue with René Devisch to address ‘What is an anthropologist?’, the title of Devisch’s acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate from the University of Kinshasa in 2007. Part 3 seeks ways to transcend borders between scientific knowledge and local knowledge. The opening chapter by Theophilus Okere, Chukwudi Anthony Njoku and René Devisch, and the next by Theophilus Okere, argue for the creation of forums for integrating local knowledge into transnational, institutional spheres related to promoting education, state and economic development, arts, agriculture, and so on. The closing chapter of Part 3, by Paulus Gerdes, uses an ethnomathematics approach grounded in fieldwork carried out in Mozambique to suggest ways in which indigenous mathematical ideas and practices can inform school curriculums.

    Part 4 examines modes of expressive culture. An exploration of Tanzanian hip hop by Koen Stroeken shows how culturally specific appropriations of this style have served to confront the establishment in ways that speak across age, gender and class lines. René Devisch examines how Christian-based matricentric healing communes in Kinshasa strengthen the abilities of communities to cope with hardships and challenges through collective action that is rooted in a liturgy that lays bare the paradoxes and irreconcilables of Western modernity. Finally, Richard Werbner critiques Appiah’s construction of cosmopolitanism, through analysis of a funeral in Botswana, to show us how post-colonial moral passions and tensions become transparent in the rich biography presented through eulogies.

    This volume will provocatively engage the most seasoned Africanists. It will also be a valuable learning tool for advanced students of Africa who want to understand how African scholarship has significantly broadened the perspectives of anthropology.

    The Postcolonial Turn also compels us to be more reflexive, to account for both intercultural and intra-cultural variation and conflict, and for local systems of knowledge production in ways that complement and expand on understandings of the human condition and shape our models of both knowledge and consciousness.

    Ithaca College
    doi: 10.1093/afraf/ads050
    Advance Access Publication 7 June 2012