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  • Rereading the History and Historiography of Epistemic Domination and Resistance in Africa
  • Bethwell A. Ogot (bio)

The process of narrating and interpreting the African past has long been an intellectual struggle against European assumptions and prejudices about the nature of time and history in Africa. As the historian David William Cohen states, “The major issue in the reconstruction of the African past is the question of how far voices exterior to Africa shape the presentation of Africa’s past and present” (1985:198). Many historians, especially those without any background or training in African historiography, have assumed, incorrectly, that prior to European contact with Africa, indigenous “traditions” were ancient, permanent, and reproduced from generation to generation without change. This is the false image of cultural isolation and temporal stagnation that has been assiduously disseminated in many parts of the world.

Little or no attention was paid to indigenous African views of the past or to the role Africans played in the shaping of global developments, processes, [End Page 1] and structures. Explanation in this type of historiography—exogenous rather than endogenous—consisted of locating the external (rather than internal) causes for African events, and thus denied Africans their own historical agency. It is therefore imperative that those who teach and study Africa today learn to problematize the issue of representation in order to locate and unpack the economic, political, personal, or other motivations that might underlie any particular image of Africa. In other words, how have African history and culture been represented in writing? And on what authority do authors represent a whole continent and its identities?

In his seminal books The Invention of Africa (1988) and The Idea of Africa (1994), the eminent Congolese scholar and philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe argued that since Greek times Africa has “been represented in Western scholarships by ‘fantasies’ and ‘constructs’” (1994:xv). What Mudimbe is arguing here is not that the continent called “Africa” is somehow detached from the globe or that it is a “geographic fiction,” but rather that our knowledge of Africa has been constructed and disseminated through (mostly negative) images and theories by Europeans. This constitutes “epistemic domination.” For this reason, Mudimbe concludes, representations of Africa generally tell us far less about those who are being represented than they do about the preoccupations and prejudices of those engaged in the act of representing.

Representation is an issue that lies at the heart of a current debate in African studies regarding the cultural composition of Africa itself. On one side of the debate are those who argue that there is indeed such a thing as an “African” identity whose deep essence transcends the surface differences that distinguish one African culture from another. On the other side are those who argue that culturally the peoples of Africa have far less in common than is usually assumed. The Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is among those who have argued that there is no cultural unity in Africa, and that Africanist discourse has inaccurately grouped together vastly divergent cultures. “Whatever Africans share,” he writes, “we do not have a common traditional culture, common languages, a common religious or conceptual vocabulary. . . . We do not even belong to a common race” (1992:26). Strong words, to which we shall later return.

Images of Africa have often been used by Western writers to establish “opposites” and “others” whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from “us.” One of the debates over the differences and similarities between European and other modes of thought is the so-called rationality debate that began after the publication of E. E. Evans-Prichard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937). This work had a profound impact on both the cross-cultural study of modes of thought and the philosophy of science and rationality, and led many scholars to reflect critically upon some of the most important issues in the history of anthropology. [End Page 2]

The rationality debate raises two epistemological questions: (1) How do we understand and represent the modes of thought and action of societies and cultures other than our own? and (2) How can one understand other cultures in their...


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