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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Reforming Makerere: Mamdani's Dream Deferred?

Reforming Makerere: Mamdani's Dream Deferred?

Chambi Chachage


This is one of those embarrassing moments when a writer ought to declare his 'conflict of interests' at the outset. My reading of Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire's Decolonising Makerere: On Mamdani’s Failed Experiment is colored by my personal and public interactions with the intellectual he is critiquing and his students at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR). Putting these camps into conversation would enable one to see why compelling as they are, most criticisms in the cited critique are confounding.

Our problem starts with Mwesigire's conflation of Mamdani's conceptions of colonialism and neoliberalism as well as treating the institute as if it is the embodiment of the university. Let us start with the latter. He writes: "Mamdani has said that the fate of Makerere affects him personally – commenting that “as a product of Makerere…I should also play my part in this reform process” – and in 2010, he got his opportunity to play this role when [he] was appointed director of....MISR." The verdict on the 'Nyanzi Affair' is then used as the basis of concluding that "Decolonizing Makerere" is "Mamdani's Failed Experiment." Hence we are told "Makerere’s march to become an inferior replica of an Anglo-American university in the name of “excellence” continues, led by Mamdani."

Now let us revisit the 'text of talk' that informed the piece Mwesigire cited and see if Mamdani had such a big dream and role. In a section entitled 'Decolonization', Mamdani aptly argues about the centrality of both research and producing researchers in making a university independent. The most important lesson they learned in the first six months, he pointed out, was the need to deepen their understanding of what it means to do so. "We could start a PhD program at MISR and borrow the curriculum from Columbia or Harvard", he further noted, but argued that they "would then be a satellite station of Columbia or Harvard...." This, he noted, left them with these questions: "What should we teach, at this time and in this place? What should be the content of our curriculum?"

Yet Mwesigire claims that Mamdani said "that a university becomes independent only if it is research-based, in combination with teaching."  If that were the case, so many a university in Africa would be decolonized! What Mamdani actually did was to revisit the "protracted" search for an answer on how to come up with a decolonized curriculum. This was hardly a case of a Savior of Makerere who knew exactly how to decolonize its teaching.

Here is snapshot of what they went through:"We began by holding a brainstorming session with colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Addis Ababa University and the University of Western Cape. In 2011, we held five workshops under an umbrella title: Contemporary Debates. The idea was to invite scholars from around the world; not just from the Western world, but from the entire scholarly world, including China, India, and Africa." 

In doing so, their dream was to get a new "curriculum global in content but crafted from a Ugandan, East African and African perspective." Thus, for Mamdani there is no way decolonizing the university could only be about doing research and producing researchers as those are neutral processes. In fact, he insists that the "question of perspective is important because research is not about finding answers to preset questions but about formulating new questions in response to both the evergreen flow of life and ongoing debates in and around the academy" as the "answer you get depends on the question you ask and the question you ask depends on who you are, where you are, and the dilemmas." How then can Mwesigire miss this apt point that implies that colonized questions tend to yield colonial answers in un-decolonized research settings?

Without presenting any analysis of the content of the curriculum that came out of that lengthy process or even the list of courses that is freely available on MISR's official website, Mwesigire jumps to this conclusion: "The PhD programme could also be critiqued from a decolonial perspective. Mamdani shied away from decolonising the structure and form of the university, and MISR’s PhD followed disciplinary modes developed in Western universities. Generally, Makerere remains a mimic of British and US universities aspiring towards their definition of excellence." There goes the conflation.

For sure - and to be fair to Mwesigire - the painful process of decolonization that Frantz Fanon eloquently unpacked on the eve of independence has not been fully achieved at Makerere in general and MISR in particular. However, intellectual honesty demands that we also deal fairly with Mamdani by providing evidence, if any, of his allegedly shying away from decolonizing MISR's PhD program.

Probably no one is a better candidate to 'vouch' for Mamdani than Sabatho Nyamsenda who is among those Mwesigire refers to as "dissenting Makerere students." In a debate we had on our network of 'Wanazuoni: Tanzania's Intellectuals', in 2015, I argued that, historically, the inspiration behind the new MISR was not 'purely' from African institutions. Nyamsenda's rebuttal was categorical if ironical: "MISR haifuati mfumo wa kimarekani. Nitajie inter-disciplinary PhD huko Marekani. Wamarekani wenyewe wanakuja kujifunza toka kwetu. Hiyo inter-disciplinarity inatokana na mapambano ya wanafunzi na UDSM miaka ya 1960. Iliundwa kamati maalum ya kufuta disciplines UDSM na kulikuwa na [midahalo] mikali juu ya hili. Fuatilia mijadala hiyo, nyaraka zipo; na wapambanaji wenyewe akina Hirji, Shivji, Visram, wapo. Inspiration imetoka UDSM sio Columbia." What he meant, if my truncated translation would do him justice, is that the inspiration came from the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) where Mamdani once taught rather than Columbia where he has been teaching and even Americans come to learn from them at MISR.

Elsewhere, Nyamsenda basked in the success of student struggles in shaping the curriculum when I cited this statement from Mamdani as a proof  that there are also influences other than African: "We agreed that nothing less than the development of a process of endogenous knowledge creation, including a full-time, coursework-based, inter-disciplinary PhD program, would do... Though we started with this ambition, the tendency was to borrow the curriculum from the Western academy – wherever each of us had just taught or graduated from – as a turnkey project. So students in the MISR doctoral program were supposed to take two courses in theory, Western Political Thought, Plato to Marx in their first year and another titled Contemporary Western Political Thought in their second year. At the same time, The Muqaddimah was to be read in a third course titled Major Debates in the Study of Africa. It is the students who began to ask whether we could redesign the theory courses so they are less West-centric and more a response to the needs of this time and this place. It is in this context that we began reading The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, first in a study group in 2011 and then in a PhD seminar in 2012."

So, what happened between 2015, when Nyamsenda affirmed the  ongoing decolonizing process, and 2016 when he asserts, just like Mwesigire, that MISR's PhD Program is highly Americanized? 

Could it be that the personalization of the decolonization struggles between strong (academic/activist) personalities - the Mamdanis, Nyanzis, Nyamsendas and Naimasiahs - at MISR has drawn the Mwesigire towards picking sides at the expense of capturing the nuances? As we pointed out in Misery at MISR: Looking Beyond Mamdani and Nyanzi, it is important to go to the crux of the matter.

By invoking phrases such as "the Mamdani experiment" and "the one-man vision at Makerere", Mwesigire is even closing the door that the revolutionary 'troika' of 'dissident' MISR students have been attempting to open for the sake of 'survivors justice' in this diagnosis: "Therefore, while the MISR project was established as anti-neoliberal, anti-colonial, enough thought and reflection did not seem to have gone into the institutional set-up to house this dream."

Don't you think deep down, in his intellectual core, Mamdani would not agree more with his students? After all, he is the one who argued that, institutionally, "the starting point of the critique of neoliberalism in higher education is to recognize that a university is not a business corporation but a place for scholarly pursuit. Its objective is to maximize scholarship, not profits. It is true that no one who lives in this world, even those with otherworldly pursuits like religious organizations, can afford to be blind to financial constraints and that a university is no exception to this rule. But if scholarship is indeed our core mission, then we must be prepared to subordinate all other considerations, including the financial, to the pursuit of scholarship. To forget this would be to lose our way."

Lest we forget, Langston Hughes thus remind us, rhetorically:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

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