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Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge

Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge: Autoethnography and African Epistemologies: Announced Today as Joint Winner of the 2022 Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology


Not surprising.

 Decolonizing African Knowledge  is powerful in it’s  combination of disciplined passion and scholarly potency demonstrated by interreferential density and analytical force in prose at times reaching poetic  beauty within intellectual polish.

Falola opens this book with a rich scholarly mosaic, lucid even in it’s  interreferential ideational and textual wealth, in mapping the ideational contours of his efforts at exploring an African culture through the lens of his own intimate engagement with that culture, navigating it’s pivotal frames in ways that vivify them even for the totally uninformed reader, an initiative that reaches a crescendo of expository force in the chapter “Yoruba Hair Art and the Agency of Women”.

The book is part of the author’s ongoing efforts at reflexive engagement with the tensions and convergences between the Western academic tradition in which he is highly trained and in which he works, and classical African cognitive traditions to which he has been exposed through childhood and youth in Yorubaland and subsequent scholarly study, African systems often lacking the level of expressive coherence,  disciplinary structuring and institutional organization enjoyed by Western thought in it’s triumphant movement flowing from centuries of written textualization and institutional consolidation, a mismatch that fires Falola’s struggle to reshape this equation to better position classical African cognitions.

“Ritual Archives” and  “Pluriversalism” in The Toyin Falola Reader, his autobiographies A Mouth Sweeter than Salt and Counting the Tiger’s Teeth, conjoin with Decolonizing African Knowledge as among his richest engagements with African cognitive universes, highlights of a rich landscape constituted by his wrestlings with this subject, across every aspect of the humanities, in numerous publications, mapping the current  state of the disciplines engaged with, at times uniquely expanding known realities and at other times opening new frontiers, constructing an encyclopedic journey through  older and contemporary African worlds.

The book references Falola’s two autobiographies in ways that suggest these three books complement each other, the autobiographies presenting narratives of the lived experience of his Yoruba cultural universe and the scholarly book further reflecting on those experiences, abstracting them in universal terms and yet  contemplating them in the light of the broader compass of Yoruba culture as studied by the author and understood through a rich network of scholarship.

What next?

Falola introduces the concept of a ritual archive into his scholarly universe in the essay “Ritual Archives”, the ritual archive being a point of intersection of the sacred and the material in generating infinite possibilities of meaning.

In Decolonizing African Knowledge, he conceptualizes the individual, himself, as an archive, a prism through which African and more specifically Yoruba culture may be engaged with in it’s intersection with the Western cognitive matrix.

This self conceptualisation foregrounds the reality of all relationship with knowledge as mediated by human cognitive processes, the self mediating the cosmos, an emphasis on individuality of response even in trying to map a culture, an emphasis that is a more realistic description of such mapping than claiming direct reflection of one’s subject in one’s accounts of one’s explorations of that subject.

Kaidara is a Fulani figure representing the tension between reality and knowledge in human experience, dressed in rags, destitute, a decrepit old man, yet his name means “limit”, the unknown limit of human knowing as it constantly broadens the borders of the unknown, decrepit in suggesting the distance between what is and what is known, yet Kaidara embodies the flame constituting the awareness taking the universe beyond the unknown to the known, as Ahmadou Hampate Ba’s account of this figure in Kaidara: A Fulani Cosmological Epic from Mali and in his essays may be described and expanded.

The man from Ibadan, whose name resonates with Ifa, the Yoruba knowledge system, exemplifies this hunger to make meaning out of experience, to reflect creatively the realities that shape one, doing this through the magic of language in it’s various forms, through poetry and prose, narrative, exposition, analysis and interviews, this book being another node in this ever expanding net of diamonds constructed by the ceaselessly creative scholar.

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