What is knowledge production and what forms of knowledge are legitimised? Through Yoruba story-telling and research into Kenya’s flower industry, Nungari Mwangi looks at knowledge production as the formation of new narratives, exploring its decolonising potential and the ability to create more inclusive research communities.
This post is part of the blog and podcast series Citing Africa which explores the global construction and imbalances of knowledge production.
I have been reading Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952) as part of a venture into African literature in the genre of magical realism, a genre which I have always enjoyed. It’s a weird and wonderful tale of how an unnamed man, the Palm Wine Drinkard, goes in pursuit of his dead palm wine tapster in the underworld (‘Dead Town’), charting all the fantastical adventures he experiences on the journey.
I was struck by how boldly Tutuola manipulates the English language and foregrounds the Yoruba tradition of folklore and story-telling. His writing is steeped in home grown realities which balance and bridge the divide between the worldly and otherworldly. He narrates an alternative existence and shows us that we should be unafraid to bend ‘the rules’ so as to honestly communicate the complexity and totality of African realities.
With only a few years of formal education, Tutuola stood out from his literary peers and was dismissed by the academic elite. However, his work has stood the test of time and, as Francis Nyamnjoh aptly explains, it is testament to the resilience of ‘ways of life and worldviews that could easily have disappeared under the weight of extractive colonialism, globalisation and the market economy’. Tutuola’s writing has made me look at my own research experience and question what knowledge is deemed legitimate and how it is legitimised. How and to whom must we write to be taken seriously? What do we stand to lose in the confines of orthodoxy as we tell narratives from our research?
These are the questions we must ask to spur what Laura Mann called, in the opening Citing Africa series post, an academic ‘replication crisis’, enabling us to shake up the very systems that legitimise knowledge and reinforce poor scholarship.
Having recently completed my PhD in International Development in the UK, and coming back home to Kenya, I have been thinking about how my research, on the political economy of the Kenyan flower industry, contributes to this wider politics of how we produce, translate and narrate new knowledge. Tutuola’s bold and unapologetically folkloric story-telling shows one way of foregrounding the complexity of African realities on our own terms.
My research was on the strategies employed by small and mid-scale Kenyan flower farmers to access European export markets. The flower sector, which is Kenya’s highest earner of foreign exchange in horticulture, is dominated by giants of industry and yet smaller players not only survive but thrive amidst tough competition. The typical smallholder story is one of poverty, a lack of options and limited agency. Yet my research revealed a much more complex and heterogeneous picture which went beyond survivalist and subsistence food production. Yes, smallholders grow flowers – an elite and luxury product – for export, and they also exercise great agency, agility and creativity in operating in a very tightly governed, elite-dominated and complex sector.
Most of the systematic research and scholarship into the flower industry is done by European (typically Dutch and British) researchers. However, there are a few esteemed Kenyan scholars who have written critically on the complex realities of the sector, which include Professor Maggie Opondo, the late Professor Mary Omosa and Dr Maurice Bolo. Adding my research to theirs matters in that it adds to the collective voice that can help offset the North-South imbalance in knowledge production. That said, I acknowledge my role in bending the geography of knowledge production towards the ‘western academy’ as my own positionality was shaped by my status as a University of Cambridge PhD student.
My field work on Kenya’s flower farms led me to ask myself: what can we do to enable Kenyan smallholder farmers to benefit from the wealth of their own knowledge?
Let me tell you the story of a Kenyan flower known as Moby Dick, which is a variety of wild flower indigenous to Kenya. It was domesticated and commercialised for smallholder production under the initiative of Kenya’s Agriculture Research Institute (KARI), now known as KALRO (Kenya Agriculture Livestock Research Organisation). Based on my fieldwork, I learnt that Moby Dick loses its vigour after about seven years and therefore new and more robust varieties need to be continuously developed. However, after donor funding for the project ceased, KARI could no longer afford to continue with the work, and the ‘breeders’ rights’ were acquired by Dutch and Japanese firms. A reputable outgrower firm explained that to get robust plant material for cultivation by its smallholder outgrowers, they must now import new varieties of Moby Dick, a flower indigenous to Kenya, from Japan.
The absurdity of the situation was not lost and highlighted the dependency of our research systems on foreign capital and the expropriation, ownership and capitalisation of local knowledge by foreign companies. Further, farmers continuously innovate but their innovations occur outside the confines of how we ‘do science’ and the rules of global trade. As a result, their knowledge is not considered legitimate.
How can researchers therefore incorporate the ethics of reciprocity into their relationships with field work participants in order to ensure that the process of research is beneficial to their communities? For example, local research assistants (RAs) play a key role in decoding and translating local knowledge for foreign Principal Investigators, who then incorporate this knowledge into journals. This relationship brings local knowledge into western legitimising infrastructures which are bound by the orthodoxies of publishing. While the PI is able to advance their career, the benefits of this process to the local research assistant and the communities remain unclear.
Reconfiguring the architecture of field work from its ‘status quo’ extractive dynamics to a more relational, participatory form requires us to investigate the power dynamics between local and foreign researchers as well as those hybrid researchers ‘returning home’. We need to think about the importance of co-authorship, which is currency in academia, in revising these unequal power relations.
One way is to name research assistants as co-authors for their contributions, which is a norm taking hold particularly in the sciences. In figuring out the ‘who’ of authorship, Rose Martini explains, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors stipulates the terms under which research assistants can be named as co-authors. These include concrete intellectual and creative contributions over time and full accountability for all aspects of the work. Reciprocity in this relationship is often complicated by whether and how compensation is employed. This is premised on the simple yet controversial notion that the owner of the narrative should benefit from the telling of the narrative. Sometimes co-authorship may be offered when the work is unpaid and the RA has been engaged for the duration of the project. David Mwambari and Arthur Owuor discuss some of these complex dynamics of exchange in social science research as the ‘Black market of knowledge production’.
Understanding the positionality of the researcher and the ways in which knowledge exchange is negotiated in particular contexts is crucial to decolonising knowledge production. This task includes recognising the gendered nature of the research process and the phenomena under study. In a book chapter I wrote about my experiences as an African woman researcher returning home to conduct research in the flower industry, a sector known for its reticence. I discussed my various research identities, showing how they both opened and constricted access, and how I shifted between them.
The evolution of gender politics in publishing is also worthy of consideration. Tutuola struggled to get The Palm Wine Drinkard published because of its subversive use of English, and the elite ridiculed him for harking back to a mythologised version of Africa. I wonder whether Amos Tutuola’s unusual, irreverent and subversive story would have been published back in 1952 had it been written by a woman. Do women share the same liberties as men in challenging the story-telling rules? And do men and women have the same legitimising narrative power?
The patriarchal history of publishing perhaps means Tutuola, a man engaging in what was typically a woman’s domain (folklore and mid-wives’ tales), was able to legitimise Yoruba folklore through its publication, in such a way that a woman might have been unable to. Story-telling and folklore is restricted to the domain of women in many African cultures (with the exception of the respected West African griots) where being bound to domestic and informal spheres strips the narrative of its ‘seriousness’.
I have struggled with a form of self-censorship in the content and style of my writing that comes with wanting to be ‘taken seriously’. For example, I was hesitant to report some of my qualitative findings that highlighted beliefs that could be considered ‘backwards’ amongst rural flower growing communities, because I didn’t want to propagate an antiquated perception of Africa, as seen through a western lens.
Thinking of research as story-telling, with the boldness of Tutuola’s style, liberates us from the gendered, elitist and Eurocentric confines of orthodoxy. Instead it invites us to build truly authentic, inclusive research communities as a decolonising practice.
Photo: An agriculture worker in Kenya. Credit: CIAT, Neil Palmer.