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Australasian Review of African Studies, 2022, 43(1)
ARAS, vol. 43, no. 1, June 2022
Toyin Falola. Decolonizing African Studies: Knowledge
Production, Agency, and Voice. Rochester, NY: University
of Rochester Press, 2022; xii + 678 pp. ISBN:
Prolific Nigerian-American historian, Toyin Falola, has produced a
freewheeling and polemical history and handbook to decades-long debates
over the decolonisation of African studies. The book is positioned in the
context of and in continuity with decolonialisation “from the start of political
decolonization (the 1950s) to the present time,” focusing on subsequent
waves of “emergent academic elite” (pp. 2-3). In the 21st century, Falola
argues the decolonial struggle “has moved almost entirely to academic
fieldswith an emphasis on the ever-growing importance of research in
developing ways to break free of the African socioeconomic squeeze fostered
by capitalist structures” (p. 10), so although direct European political
dominance over Africa has ended, Falola is wont to remind readers of
Africa’s continued marginalization within global capitalism, particularly the
global knowledge economy. Epistemological decolonisation is thus defined
as the end of “colonial-like relations in the knowledge production
processes of Africa” (p. 9), or the end of the “Eurocentric monopoly of
knowledge and the exclusion or marginalization of African epistemology or
perspectives in research methodologies” (p. 11), with later chapters in the
rather loosely edited book offering their own additional definitions.
Falola’s introduction promises both radicalism and reasonableness.
He seeks to present a “balanced overview of what a feasible decoloniality
should look like,” while simultaneously “identifying and critiquing the
limitations to decoloniality” (p. 11). At certain points his approach is in
keeping with the critical self-reflection ongoing globally in academia for
decades, with common professional concerns appearing, such as the
inaccessibility of academic jargon, and negotiating insider/outsider
dynamics. Falola also reflects on some basic problems in African universities
that will be familiar, albeit to lesser degrees, among academics in even
wealthy countries like Australia, including a lack of funds and time allocated
to research and the limited impact of research on policy. At other points in
the book, however, the author envisages a decoloniality far beyond what even
radical student activists have been demanding, such as South Africa’s Fallists
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ARAS, vol. 43, no. 1, June 2022
whose protests have inspired him. Decolonisation is intertwined with
desecularisation for Falola, who would reject the very notion of the secular
as un-African. In elevating indigenous subaltern epistemologies he seeks to
place traditional African religious practices at the core of public life.
Christianity and Islam are conversely presented as perpetually alien
intrusions upon the continent, except when required to make the case for
“precolonial universities in Africa” (pp. 352-3), also one of the few
references to North Africa in the book. Therefore, despite its radical tone
anti-racism protests and anti-capitalist politics are recurrent concernsthere
is an inescapable traditionalism to Falola’s argument; modernity is depicted
as a moral calamity.
The first section, “Knowledge Production,” offers a substantial and
critical overview of aspects of decolonial discourse, focusing on questions of
epistemology, and although the focus is very much sub-Saharan Africa,
Falola notes the importance of Latin American decolonial theory. The
approach in this section, indeed in much of the book, is often quite general
and polemical, however, with Falola’s representatively lumping together
“explorers and ethnographic researchers,” as if nothing had changed since
the times of Sir Richard Burton (p. 115). This depiction of an arrogantly
unreflexive Global North fails to acknowledge how central research ethics
and debates over representational practices have become in the (social)
sciences since the 1970s, nor how ubiquitous postcolonial considerations
have become in the humanities. However, precisely because of the ubiquity
of postcolonial humanities and reflexive research practices, Chapter 4, on
decolonising methodologies, is valuable in arguing for the necessity of
“generat[ing] indigenous models of knowledge production or research fueled
in proportionate levels by both indigenous and modern ways of knowing” (p.
135). Most scholars will dissent from some of the ways of knowing Falola
prescribesdivination, for examplebut the chapter demonstrates
decoloniality is not merely a matter of reforming dominant paradigms, no
matter how ethically aware we have become.
The second section, “Agencies and Voices,” begins with two long
chapters engaging with the work of key scholars of decolonisation and
decoloniality. Falola draws in Latin American theory, once again, but
overviews of key African scholars are painted with broad brushstrokes. The
influence of Marxism on decoloniality comes through strongly, albeit
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ARAS, vol. 43, no. 1, June 2022
depicted as little more than communitarian critiques of European capitalism,
in accord with African moral economies. The conflation is so complete that
Falola can claim, in a section on Walter Rodney’s economic history, that
“[b]efore European contact in the fifteenth century, it was common
knowledge in Africa that Marxism and communalism would be useful for
collective progress as a culture” (p. 201). Chapter 10 offers a wide-ranging
overview of feminist approaches to decolonisation, while Chapter 11,
addressing LGBTQ issues, analyses homophobia on the continent, with a few
passing references to (de)coloniality, such as criticising homophobic
nationalism. Falola assimilates western liberal categories and politics
surprisingly uncritically, unlike other scholars such as Joseph Massad who
query the adoption of contemporary western sexual categories in non-
western cultural contexts.
The third and final section, “The Disciplines,” focuses on
decolonisation in interrelated fields: education, language, religion and
literature. Chapter 15, on “Identity and the African Feminist Writer” is the
most tightly argued chapter in the book, along with Chapter 19 on
“Decolonizing African Philosophy.” Other chapters in this section present
many policy ideas, but none are explored in any detail. Taken together,
however, they point towards the “African Futurism” Falola outlines in the
final chapter, a decolonized Africa incorporating precolonial and
postcolonial technologies and epistemologies. Chapter 12, “Decolonizing the
African Academy,” thus encourages universities to explore nuclear
technology while teaching traditional canoe-making, and to Africanise
medical and mining research while working with local companies to take
pharmaceutical production out of the hands of foreign capitaliststhe only
thing less welcome than their exports seems to be their investments. In
Chapter 18, Falola calls for the establishment of African traditional religions
as state religions, granting traditional religious leaders corresponding
political powereven if he later rejects these traditional belief systems “as a
basis for an African identity and unity” (p. 609). He similarly argues for
incorporating traditional religious practices, such as divination, into school
curricula, and incorporating traditional religious beliefs, such as spirit
possession, ancestor veneration and astrology, into scientific research. It’s
difficult to reconcile these suggestions with the author’s praise of Marxist
scholarship and calls for developing national space programs elsewhere in
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ARAS, vol. 43, no. 1, June 2022
the book, but Falola envisages the universities of the future teaching both
astronomy and astrology. There is value in bringing attention to the
modalities and epistemologies that any deep decolonisation program must
reckon with, sooner or later, and in moving far beyond the scholarly self-
critique that constitutes much decolonial discourse, Falola’s book is an
engaging read.
Ibrahim Abraham
Australian National University
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