Universities and the legacy of colonial epistemicide

Professor Toyin Falola, Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, Rosalba Icaza Garza and Nombulelo Tholithemba Shange reflect on the silencing of indigenous knowledge as a form of epistemic violence — and how to mitigate it.


28 March 2022

Colonial knowledge systems have controlled the information we obtain and the way we process it. These systems decide which knowledge and methodologies are considered ‘modern’, and which are not worthy of the academy, and should thus be silenced. The invasive process of silencing expressions of indigenous knowledge can be described as a form of epistemic violence.

Universities have played and still play a key role in promoting European and New World knowledge and its production as modern, rigorous and, ultimately, superior.

But it is time scholars, faculties and practitioners across the globe recognised that no university curriculum can be decolonised without fundamentally reviewing the common standard of what academic knowledge and rigour consist of.

It’s time to include local systems of knowledge, and put them in conversation with mainstream methods and theories.

Colonial epistemicide

Growing up in rural Ethiopia, Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, now based at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, noticed a gaping hole between what he had been taught in the traditional education system, and the knowledge the English curriculum of his higher education endorsed.

Whereas he used to learn from scholars, priests and monks in his native language, in his higher education he was encouraged to abandon their ideas, mother tongue and generational lived experiences to study ideas exclusively rooted in European philosophies instead.

Woldeyes is speaking at an online panel discussion, hosted by the London School of Economics’ Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa. Fellow panellist, Dr Rosalba Icaza Garza, does not beat around the bush:

“Universities, and therefore curricula as we know them today, are a consequence of the expansion of the European modernising project, just like the nation state and the capitalist system.”

To find out which role universities play in propagating European modernity, I speak to the renowned Nigerian historian Professor Toyin Falola, who takes the time to talk to me from his study in Austin, Texas, in the United States.

According to Falola, the establishment of the academy and its consecutive global expansion has not completely displaced local systems of knowledge, nor does it exist separately from it.

“The global spread of knowledge has been with us for some time,” he says. No society or knowledge system has been left untouched by modernity, and communities across the globe have all been grappling with its consequences for several centuries.

“Yet, colonial conquest brings epistemicide. It’s the killing and erasure of knowledge. If you conquer people, you want to impose your own knowledge on them. You put your archives on their archives.”

Epistemic dependency and alienation

Higher education under colonial rule in Sub-Saharan Africa did not have the purpose of improving African societies.

Archival research teaches that, across the continent, colonial education either prepared citizens to serve European colonial interests or excluded them altogether.

For example, the few educational investments the British made in Sub-Saharan Africa were in vocational training to prepare citizens for subordinate roles in the colonial administration — as messengers, clerks, interpreters and housekeepers.

Education was performed by missionaries, familiarising colonial subjects with European culture and religion, alienating students from their own traditions in the process.

Once higher education was introduced in the British colonies in the second half of the 20th century, it prepared students to replace the retreating colonial officers from their administrative positions, substituting one elite with another.

(This is described by Clemente Abrokwaa in a chapter titled ‘Higher Education: Policy Impact on Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Universities’, in the 2017 book Re-thinking Postcolonial Education in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 21st Century: Post-Millennium Development Goals.)

As a result, many institutions of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa have remained dependent on European academic practices.

“Some European universities, including those in the UK, such as the University of London, continue to perceive the universities of their former colonies as second-class universities since the latter institutions were created by them,” writes Abrokwaa.

Woldeyes’ experience teaches that the intellectual harvesting of colonial fruits is a phenomenon that does not belong to history books (yet).

Ethiopia is “associated with poverty,” he tells the online attendants of the panel discussion, “but poverty as a concept is different from the lived experience I have, as a person living in Ethiopia, growing up close to nature.”

Progressing through different stages of education, he had abandoned his native language to follow education in English and found himself with an imposed identity of poverty. Education, for him, was a way of alienating students from their lived experiences. In Ethiopia, the medium of instruction for secondary and tertiary education is English following education reforms.

Icaza Garza, who teaches at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, recalls the thought of foreign academic ‘experts’ on her home country, Mexico, who “construct” her “as a non-knowledgeable subject” (make her feel stupid, in non-academic language).

It is in the formal system of education where her life experience seems not worthy of being understood, explored further, or shared with others. The dismissal of her lived experiences is violent, she says.

The colonial geopolitics of knowledge

The persistent legacy of colonialism in the global episteme has several other consequences. For example, it is common practice for academics to move to Europe or the New World to advance their careers.

“Individuals are aspirational by nature,” explains Falola. “They look out for opportunities for themselves and look for places where these opportunities can be maximised.”

More so, “power systems that do not govern well trigger migrations. When students collect their degrees, there are no jobs waiting for them. The economic power lies in the North, and as long as that will be the case, people from the South will keep migrating North.”

Icaza Garza takes it a step further than Falola. She points out that universities are “implicated in the epistemic violence present in the modern colonial geopolitics of knowledge”.

“The reproduction of the epistemic apparatus perpetuates the inequalities that made us desire to go to Europe and be educated at European institutions.”

“Universities are implicated in the epistemic violence present in the modern colonial geopolitics of knowledge.”

What can we make of that?

Euro-American education is an important agent of social change in former colonies, and that’s why ambitious students and academics seek to study and work at the most prestigious universities. It is no coincidence that, in doing so, they follow the age-old geographical pattern from former colony to metropole in Europe or the US.

Knowledge and the methods through which it is acquired in such institutions is generally heavily eurocentric and perpetually prepares students to see the world through such a lens.

This makes even the most highly educated scientists blind to the breadth of inequalities between Europe and the rest of the world, thus upholding the status quo.

On a personal level, Woldeyes and Icaza Garza shed a light on the cognitive dissonance and the feelings of unsafety this results in — when the world as you know it is reduced to an insignificant experience, because it does not fit the eurocentric frame. Woldeyes describes the process as “mental slavery”.

That is epistemic violence, covered up by normative claims portraying higher education as a positive common good. The decolonial perspective, though, Icaza Garza concludes, is that knowledge is situated in certain historical, temporal and even geopolitical contexts.

In a 2021 article, the South African Nombulelo Tholithemba Shange showed that formal education and knowledge production in South Africa has been used as a tool to repress black people, while discrediting their knowledge systems.

One of her suggestions is to prioritise African languages and cultural systems in mainstream education on the continent, so that students are more comfortable learning.

Falola agrees that this is a necessary step, and adds that this will develop indigenous languages by adding scientific terms where they may be lacking.

He further suggests Pan-African cooperation to enhance knowledge circulation within the continent. “What’s written in Nigeria should get to Kenya and what’s written in Kenya should be read in Zimbabwe.”

The task for universities across the globe lies not so much in recognising that black decolonial movements deserve a designated space within the academy, rather in radically redefining what is and what can be academic knowledge, culture and practice across all fields.

This article was first published in University World News