[IB Speech – TEXT] THE DECOLONIZATION OF OUR STORYTELLING

(Speech delivered at the International Baccalaureate (IB) Peterson Academic Symposium in The Hague, the Netherlands, July 5-6, 2012 for an international audience of educators and curriculum developers. www.ibo.org)

Good morning everyone.

It is a real pleasure to be here in this setting to reflect on what to teach young people and children, on what we transmit as knowledge, truths and critical thinking.

My name is Olivia Rutazibwa, I am a second generation Rwandese Belgian national from Antwerp, Belgium. Being a journalist , academic researcher and occasional lecturer, you could say that I am knee deep in the knowledge production business.

In what follows, I will share with you my thoughts, as a post colonial subject and scholar, on why and how I think we need to profoundly transform our knowledge production system.

My story specifically addresses the position of the west with regard to the rest of the world, but in essence it is a tale of power and knowledge, applicable to any give situation, by whomever is interested in or committed to transcending the myopia of one’s own power position, to give people tools to be more at ease, responsible and inclusive in their corner of a highly globalised, complex and rapidly changing world.

I could easily stuff this presentation with a myriad of postcolonial theoretical analyses, as a lot has been written about this already both inside and outside academia. It might not be the most entertaining approach though. Instead I will pitch you some stories from my personal and professional life to illustrate why and how I think we should decolonize our knowledge production system, our story telling.

A fairytale called Congo

Let me start by going way back in time, to the end of the eighties, beginning of the nineties when I was in primary and secondary school, and the stories we were taught about the Belgian colonial adventures.

The narrative went more or less like this: “There was this adventurer, Stanley, who at the end of the 19thcentury ‘discovered’ the Congo, a vast land that sparked the interest of King Leopold the 2nd of Belgium. The country became his personal estate and was baptized Congo Freestate.” Very little attention is paid to the irony or cynicism in this name. The tale goes on: “The Congo Freestate was a costly operation but brings the king a lot of status and wealth. Driven by jealousy from the other superpowers like the UK, some British and American journalist started spreading rumours about massive human rights abuses such as the chopping off of Congolese hands to increase the rubber production. To avoid further trouble with the other countries, in 1908, the Belgian parliament took over Congo from the King and after that things were much much better. The country was then baptized Belgian Congo, and considered to belong to the Belgian people.” We are encouraged to understand this period through the morals and mindset of that time, if we really want to grasp and understand what happened. Moreover, one cannot forget that at the same time a lot of civilization, missionary and infrastructure work had also been undertaken. Then we get a fast forward to the end of the fifties, where by lack of any information about the intermediate years, giving the impression that out of nowhere people all over the continent start demanding independence, which the Belgians decide to “grant” the Congolese in 1960. “That’s when we made a big mistake. We granted them this independence too quickly and left them to mend for themselves too abruptly.” The story ends by stating that this course of events explains a lot of the chaos in Congo today.

Granted, I went to a catholic school, and I am telling you a story as told to me two decades ago. But the similarities and the continuity of this particular brand of storytelling when it comes to Africa still speaks to us loud and clear in the development and humanitarian aid discourses. These places, the people and the events in their lives exist only from the moment that we discover them and by the grace of our gaze, everything outside that is invisible or irrelevant at best. In consequence, it is silently or vocally accepted that at the end of the day, they seemed better off when the Belgians were still there. They might have made many mistakes, but they meant well and brought the locals a lot of good modern things as well. I do not have to draw you a picture to link this line of thinking to mainstream ideas on development and humanitarian aid today.

In conversations with students at my university I witnessed how these mainstream ideas also linger in the corridors of our knowledge production systems. I am an occasional master class guest lecturer on EU development policies in Africa. The students are in their early twenties, at the end of their masters degree in political science in international relations or EU studies. Some years ago we organized a debate day with students from the Netherlands to discuss EU policies where a colleague and I lead the discussion group on EU development policies. It was a true eye opener. Whereas the Dutch students, – maybe coincidentally but nevertheless strikingly – , would often put forward critical arguments, questioning the usefulness and salience of development industry as we know it today, our students were more conservative in their approach. I remember someone literally tabling the question: “What happens if we don’t help the Africans, who will and what will they do?” This almost pavlovian reaction that surfaces when people have any random conversation about Africa, was intertwined all through the discussion with sweeping statements that would invariably start with a variation of “In Africa…things are like this. In Africa the leaders are like that. In Africa people this…” as if they had an intimate knowledge of this continent that they’d almost presented as a micro cosmos with the complexity of their own backyard. Or village.

All year through I never particularly felt very different from my students in spite of the fact that I might have been their only teacher of colour, possibly ever. I know that after a few classes, my strong Antwerp accent and my colour had become completely meaningless and invisible to them. Listening to them that day I felt acutely African somehow, and almost personally ignored by the way they were speaking about the continent and its people. I, not for the first time, drew their attention to the possible neo-colonial tendencies in their reasoning, and made my point more bluntly by asking them to imagine the room to be filled not with their colleagues from Belgium or the Netherlands, but with those from any given African country. If they would have raised the same questions? Would they have assumed their incapacity for agency or problem solving with the same swiftness they were not shy to do just minutes earlier? It was clear that very few had ever made the exercise before to think of Africans as fellow scientists or researchers. Yet, few weeks later they would be masters in international politics.

I tell you this story not to point fingers at my students. If anything, we, the teachers and professors are the first to blame. I want to use this story to impart some of the ideas it gave me on the need for and the ways to decolonize our knowledge systems.

A first positive element was the simple fact that something can be done. The difference between the Dutch and our Belgian students simply indicates that different teaching can generate different ways of thinking, that it can push reflexion further than what the students might hear on the radio or TV or read in their newspapers.

At the same time does access to critical theories, or other non mainstream theories on development not seem to be enough, as I know that also my students had been exposed to them to some degree. In every classic textbook on international relations today you will find them tucked away somewhere behind the tree other mainstream theories that dominate the field. Mostly as an acknowledgment of their existence somewhere out there though, and not so much as equally viable and valid yet different ways to look at society.

The same challenge goes for any group of people that is considered consciously or unconsciously as ‘the other’. At best, their being, their way of life, their way of seeing things (that are multiple and changing over time as goes for everyone) are an afterthought, but in essence, they are all together invisible.

I remember being about eleven years old, taking the tram with my sister, in our home town Merksem, a borough of Antwerp. At a certain moment, a couple gets on the tram and sits right in front of us. Literally in the two seats in front of us. Whomever has ever sat on a Belgian tram knows that I am speaking of a really limited space. The woman turns around, stares at us in a way that suggests that she might think that we were blind, turns back to her partner, and says out loud, without any effort to whisper, suggesting that she might have thought us deaf or incapable of understanding her as well, – in the strongest Antwerp accent ever: ‘Have you ever seen a black twin?’ After which she turns yet again to stare at us some more. Now, my sister and I do not look like each other and there is a difference of three years between the two of us, but that is besides the point. The point about invisibility or silencing that I want to make with this example is that we were obviously sitting there in flesh and blood and with a mind of our own – I actually took the liberty to tap her on the shoulder to inform her with the indignation of a scorned eleven year old, that we were most definitely not twins (at that age, being confused as a twin with your sister is far worse than being ignored or talked about as if you are deaf and blind) – but that the woman nevertheless could not see us even though she was staring at us and talking about us.

It is comparable to the ways in which we talk, teach about this mythical place called Africa or the aid business. But also the obsessive ways we literally constantly talk about Muslims in the west, without actually knowing anything meaningful or actually seeing the people or the religion in the all its complex, diverse and ever changing nature, as all things are.

Post-colonial theories talk about the need to decolonise. This can pertain countries, but also minds or ways of thinking that enable other kinds of colonising behaviour like racism, oppression, discrimination or exploitation. It is indeed peoples’ invisibility today that makes it feel natural to many of us in Western Europe, educated or not, to discriminate against people with a headscarf in the labour market, to naturally stop and search boys and men of Moroccan origin in the streets or to close our borders to people of colour. We silence them by reducing their being to one single trait of their complex and ever changing nature, usually the only trait we know, and judge them accordingly. It is important to see this mechanism as the excuse par excellence to maintain existing power relations.

If we want to break this cycle by decolonizing our minds, we need to desilence stories, peoples, situations, as well as our vision of ourselves. The list is endless.

Three P’s

How do we go about the decolonization of our knowledge production in practice? Let me pitch this to you in the popular corporate responsibility lingo of the three P’s. Instead of People, Profit and Product, I propose: People, Pluralism and Personnel.

People, because the stories we tell and the knowledge we impart, must be about or with living, breathing, thinking and acting human beings in mind, in all their complex and changing nature, in the same way we consider ourselves or the people we know instead of the static one-dimensional concepts of victim, perpetrator, poor, corrupt,… In most cases, people are all of this at the same time. We should be telling stories as if we were talking about our mother. There needs to be a kind of affection or respect for our subjects, which brings about a desire to make them understood.

Pluralism, because accepting to tell stories about people and not just concepts or phenomena means that there are at all times multiple sides to all stories and a myriad ways to tell them.

Personnel, because this transformation cannot be undertaken without the people concerned. It is striking how this is where I notice the most resistance in the decolonization story. Leading storytellers today tend to want to protect their turf, quickly stating that they do not believe that someone with a Moroccan background can bring better stories about racism or about the Maghreb, the Middle East or Islam, and that ideas like quota, or ‘positive discrimination’ are ludicrous as they would be a direct danger to quality and equality. This assumption has proven to be wrong on numerous occasions, not in the least because the individuals concerned are often pressed to perform a hundred times better than the others, as they are very conscious about the suspicion that surrounds their participation to a field that is rightfully theirs but maybe not perceived as such by so many. Often they even have to convince themselves. The only thing we can be sure of, though, like 100% sure, is that knowledge production, as practiced today by the tiny white middleclass minority of this world, is immediately identifiable as being very poor as soon as we step out of the western-centric world, a world that does not even exist, not even in the west and especially not today if we consider the west’s diverse population and the continuous migration flows.

In view of decolonization, it is a useful exercise to reflect on what the three P’s might mean in practice to your profession and in your region of the world. Go and look for the silenced groups and stories in your society, the silence that makes differential treatment normal and acceptable, that makes the status quo the only viable option, constituting the normality that we knowingly or unknowingly pass on to our children. With that in mind it is important to humanize and to pluralise both contents, subjects and colleagues.

I might not have enough senior teaching experience to stipulate in concrete terms how you should go about this in your curriculum or teaching profession, but allow me to share with you some concrete examples of my experience as a journalist, a profession that to a large extent faces the same responsibilities as our educational system. It feeds people info as the truth, and does so in a relatively accessibly and ‘en masse’.

With regard to silencing and invisibility, I remember the news coverage on the famine in Somalia at the beginning of the summer of 2011. Mainstream media were announcing the end of aid due to a ban by Al-Shabaab of all western aid agencies in the region under their control. In search of a angle to add to the existing coverage on the famine, I remembered that there are many non-western and Islamic agencies, local and international, that were operating in Somalia. As it turned out, most of their work continued, and western aid agencies even channelled their supplies through them to reach the people. Meanwhile the dominant storyline continued to be one of the end of reality, a black whole once the western actors seemed to have been taken out of the storyline.

With regard to People: last February I proposed to cover the elections in Senegal to the editorial board of our magazine. My idea met some resistance because the elections announced themselves as the nth rigged African elections where the president did not want to leave and attempted to change the constitution to make sure he could stay on. Through some Senegalese friends I soon got snapshots on how people, especially young people, were resisting this. So instead of bringing the usual binary story of faceless African citizens tricked by their corrupt leaders – not that was partially not the case – I decided to go there for two weeks, one week before the elections, one week after, and follow these young people that organized the resistance. Who were they, who inspired them, how did their actions look like a day to day basis? I also looked for the people that still supported this – usually portrayed as faceless and one-dimensional – corrupt leader and the reasons they did so, all the while also covering the factual outcome of the elections. The idea was to humanize a situation that was human to begin with. By walking around in Senegal, I could not not see the that there was a plurality of voices. Humanizing stories does not equal telling stories about people. It is rather a call to bring stories as boring as election with real people in mind.

One practical conclusion I take from the need for People stories and bringing multiple stories, i.e. Pluralism, is that, especially in the corrective phase, we need to be willing to structurally invest time in this. Colleagues from the Belgian TV got about five days to cover the same events, additionally they were constricted by the need for visually spectacular footage. Against that background they ended up being disappointed that the riots, in which people actually died, had dwindled down by the time they arrived. These observations are all the more shocking because one knows that that is not where their intentions lie, yet to do their job, it is important for reality to be in a certain way, usually, violent, tragic or at least spectacular. From where I stand, there is a need for collective reflection, on this fact that we might need more time or organise our time differently in the process of decolonization. I look forward to hear your thoughts on this.

Pluralism is not only about presenting different sides to a story in a way that we can respectfully consider all, without necessarily agree with them. It also pertains desilencing our imagined audience by pluralizing them. This goes both for your classroom audience as for the imagined group of people reading your newspaper or tuning into your news channel.

I remember having been sent to Burkina Faso in West-Africa to cover the bi-annual FESPACO film festival. I had to pitch a story for our magazine, apart from the festival as our print issue would appear almost two months after that event. To be honest I hardly knew anything about Burkina. My basic knowledge on the country was limited to it being a really really poor and a very very hot and dry country. The name of their former president, Thomas Sankara, rang a vague bell. I remembered my dad mentioning his name as one of Africa’s great men and I also had some Senegalese and Rwandese friends in Belgium that spoke of him as the forgotten and murdered Che Guevara of the continent. So when I told them that I was going to Burkina Faso, their immediate response was: “Nice, you’re going to the country of Sankara, the land of the upright men”, referring to the fact that it was this president that had renamed the country from the colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso – country of the Upright Men – when he took office in the early eighties.

I therefore pitched a story on this mythical iconic fallen figure through the eyes of young people in the capital Ouagadougou today. My editors first reaction was naturally: “What do people in Flanders care about a figure like Sankara? Only a handful have ever heard of him.” He obviously had a point. Not so long ago I myself hardly knew who he was. Then I remembered that a) the friends that had pitched me that story were also part of that same Flanders, but usually fell out of our consideration and b) that if we wanted to transform what we pass on as knowledge or stories about this world, we cannot limit ourselves to the current knowledge of the mainstream but reach beyond that and as c) that a story like that of Sankara, – a person who in four years managed to secure food for his people in this very poor dry country, who gave back dignity and a sense of purpose, discipline and community by stating that people should not consume what they do not produce if they want to be independent -, could be an interesting story to tell in a Europe that hardly never features stories about Africans coming up with their own solutions, but more importantly even, in a Europe that was facing its very own serious economic crisis. One would think that all new or old ideas are welcome in such a setting.

My editor in chief, bless him, considered my suggestions and so I went to Burkina Faso to make the Sankara story.

This brings me to the last P. Decolonizing our knowledge system through desilencing requires people in charge with vision and diversity in all the different levels of your personnel. There is no better way of desilencing each other than trough collaboration in trust, a day to day activity in which all are working towards the same goal, than when you are colleagues. At the magazine we happen to be a pretty diverse bunch in terms of age, gender and ethnic background. We take the time to have lengthy debates and even though we to a large extent share the vision of transforming our knowledge production, the challenge to stay on track in giving the proper space and voice to alternative stories or thinking, is constant. We seem to manage somehow because we do not work with one token-diversity person, as is often the case elsewhere when they put let’s say one person of Moroccan origin in a team of twenty and then expect him or her to stand for the diversity. People are then very surprised when this person leaves after six months, or conforms to the group to be as invisible as possible. Also when standing in front of a classroom, I think that the diversity in personnel is crucial, not only to alter the storytelling, but also for the students to be confronted to a diversity in power positions.

Let me conclude my stories here. I have tried to pitch you the idea of decolonizing our knowledge system by desilencing the many stories and people that are here among us, whether in our backyard or on the other side of the planet. The globalised world we live in today does not allow us to be as selective as we used to be. Morally we never were, because colonised knowledge is what makes oppression, discrimination, exploitation and racism possible and even acceptable. Today outside their free choice, people cannot avoid the complexity and diversity of reality. We therefore need to develop tools for understanding and embracing this state of affairs, because from the looks of it today, it mostly seems to inspire fear and resentment.

Desilencing is necessary to make people comfortable again with the world they live in. I see a lot of fear in Europe today, a fear that is taken out on the most vulnerable. We need to reconnect people with the complexities of their own societies. Mono-cultural Europe has never existed, it is important to make people understand that this diversity is a fundamental part of their own and shared identity as human beings, and not so much as something strange or foreign coming from the outside in.

Most importantly though, decolonizing our knowledge is first and for most a privilege. It’s like tapping into a source of endless creativity, a bottomless pond of stories as people, realities and histories are constantly plural and changing. For teachers, researchers and especially journalists that have to constantly come up with new stories to tell, this is a precious gift. I am looking forward to your views on how this is implementable in the classroom on a constant basis.

Lastly, decolonization requires vision and perseverance of all the people involved. Whereas it might well be driven by a moral compass or conviction to bring knowledge for change and not the status quo, we do not have to be hippies about this. Decolonization is about power, about shifting a concentration of power from on place to another, or about diffusing it to different other places. Well power, like freedom is never given up freely by those who have it, so decolonizing is first and foremost not thinking that things will change naturally if we give it time. It is instead a battle that will be met with resistance and resentment, but I am honestly convinced that it can be beneficial to all. Last month I interviewed the sociologist on multiculturalism Paul Gilroy in London and he reminded me of an insight that the greats of the civil rights movements used to say, namely that racism and discrimination does not only harm the victims or the minorities, but that it is an attack to the democracy and equality of all. Decolonizing our minds is an endeavour that we must do with society as a whole in mind, and mostly it is hard work, day in day out. But there are beautiful ways to bring this change about. Apart from the endless pond of creativity I spoke of just now, the most concrete example I have of this is actually an educational one. When I was 19 years old, I went on an Erasmus exchange programme in Italy for one year. I had never felt so helpless in my live before, and subject of the goodwill of the people surrounding me. It ended up, like for most people that go on Erasmus, to be a fantastic experience, that taught me a lot about myself and the world, but forever also made me open to change power relations, as I had had first hand experienced what it was to be an actual minority, subject to others goodwill and my limited capacity to express myself.

I think if we put our minds to it, that there are a million ways, creative, exhilarating and inspiring ones to go about decolonizing our knowledge system. Today I drew your attention to the need to desilence peoples and realities, and the three P’s through which we can do this: People, by humanizing our stories, Pluralism, by telling different stories to different audiences and Personnel, by pluralizing the story tellers.

I thank you for your attention and I am looking forward to your questions, comments and ideas. Thank you.

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