What We Know: The Role of Knowledge Production in Owning our Narratives as African Feminists

By: Rita Nketiah, Knowledge Management Specialist, AWDF

“We claim the right to theorise for ourselves, write for ourselves, strategise for ourselves and speak for ourselves as African feminists.” –The African Feminist Charter

Each morning, as I sit down at my desk at the AWDF House, this quote from the African Feminist Charter greets me. It is a constant reminder of the power of feminist knowledge work, as a transformative tool for justice, expansion and the wellbeing of African women. At AWDF, we believe that women’s capacity to tell our own narratives is how movements are built and sustained. Indeed, while knowledge production has historically been viewed as the domain of white Western men in academic institutions, part of our work as an organization is to create the conditions that may garner African feminists to engage in the deep, rigorous and political work of intellectualism as a way to own our narratives, and forge our own liberatory futures. Knowledge production is the practice of creating, researching, analyzing and documenting critical ideas, which can provide some observation about worldly phenomenon. And yet, the work of knowledge production, much like most other areas of human life, is laden with power relations. Historically, the university space has been heralded as the bastion of knowledge production, often dominated by white men. Intellectual work was understood as the work of those in positions of power. While there is an old adage that “knowledge is power”, insofar as knowledge arms you with the capacity to make better, more informed choices in the world, power also determines who and what can be known and who is allowed to be a “knower”; in this way, power is knowledge. Much of the work of feminist intellectuals, then, has been to disrupt all the ways in which institutionalized patriarchy has denied, invisibilized and exploited the very necessary and longstanding intellectual work of women and minoritized communities.

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Why African Feminist Knowledge Production Matters

Ever since I can remember, I have loved reading and learning. I can remember being 16 years old, and discovering some of my favourite poets, including Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. I was struck by the simplicity with which they seemed to express deep and complex truths about being Black women. Around the same time, I was fortunate enough to discover African feminist poet and former AWDF USA Board Chair Abena P. Busia’s collection of poems, Testimonies of Exile, and it fundamentally shifted how I understood my experience as the child of Ghanaian immigrants, living in Toronto. In Busia’s work, I found a longing for a home she had left, a desire to tell a story that had yet been told and a freedom to imagine life after the trauma of migration. And it meant something to me as a young African child to read the work of someone from my ancestral homeland, articulating the experience of being Black, African and female in the murky waters of North American life.

Later, when I began undergraduate studies, I searched desperately for all the African feminist writers I could find. Alas, I developed a deep friendship with the theoretical work of a cadre of African feminists including, Ama Ata Aidoo, Amina Mama, Yaba Blay, Njoki Wane, Notisha Massaquoi, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Obioma Nnaemeka, to name a few. The literature ranged from fierce radical poetry to deep political/activist theory. And I was thankful for all of it. I understood all of these writers as storytellers and knowledge workers, who excavated their life experiences to teach us something about the human condition, about African women’s human condition(s). Their narratives became a mirror, a blueprint and a guide for what was possible both in my writing and activist world. Their words transformed me.

But as I entered graduate school, and began to pursue my feminist academic career, I realized that very few of my colleagues (and professors) had heard of these remarkable writers. I understood that if I were to produce “rigorous” knowledge in the academy, I would be forced to cite (mostly) white feminists who were more well-known and lauded by the academy. And I understood this as part of the deep and longstanding tradition of epistemic violence that is hurled at Black African women who dared to produce knowledge in the university system. While Black feminism has historically been preoccupied with the ways in which white supremacist constructions of gender, race and class come to structure Black female life in the Americas, African feminists have been instrumental in shaping nationalist independence movements across the continent, the struggle against patriarchal violence and global economic imperialism that threatens the lives of women and girls in their communities. And yet, despite these long intellectual traditions across Africa and its diasporas, there is still a perception that African women do not have the time or are disinterested/disengaged from intellectual labour. African feminists who have historically engaged in intellectual labour have been accused of being Westernized elitists. Certainly, this accusation sits as a betrayal for any well-intentioned African female intellectual engaged in this labour in pursuit of social justice for her people.

The history of African feminist organizing was understandably assumed to be anti-intellectual. That is to say, our feminist foremothers did not have the luxury or access to pursuing seemingly bourgeois endeavours like “research” or “theory”. African women were said to be more concerned with “pressing issues” such as poverty, disease and nation-building and development. And the indigenous knowledge we may have accessed on a daily basis was not considered “intellectual work” –it was simply the way we did things based on our spiritual inner life. Beyond this, the identity of the intellectual was often masculinized, creating a perception that African women did not have the mental acumen to be engaged in the male-dominated world of knowledge production. In a panel discussion a few years ago, BYP National Coordinator Charlene Carruthers observed that “Black people are deep thinkers, even if we don’t always have the time to do it”. Thinking about Black African women, I would extend this to say that we are also deep thinkers, but that patriarchal structures often demand that we mute this intelligence in the face of our men; that we do not (selfishly) pursue the intellect, because this takes us away from caring for communities and families. Gendered expectations of Black African women have meant that the work of “thinking” has historically been the domain of men. The access to education has historically privileged boy-children and missionaries were complicit in this patriarchal education structure. In Ghana, young people who ask critical questions are often charged with and chastised for being “too-known”, which means to go beyond the expectations of adults. One who seeks to question or explore critical thought and analysis is often accused of thinking too highly of themselves, of wanting to know (or actually knowing) too much. This colonial residue is a reminder of how European masters did not want us to access the knowledge that could precipitate our freedom. But what if intellectual work could actually save our lives as African women? What if intellectual work is the very stuff that our liberation is made out of?

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Building an African Feminist Knowledge Hub

At AWDF, we currently organize a Feminist Knowledge Hub, which consists of managing, disseminating and co-creating feminist knowledge, as well as strengthening feminist knowledge production institutions. More tangibly, this Knowledge Hub consists of a physical Resource Centre, which houses hundreds of books, DvDs and archives of African feminist knowledge production. The Centre is open to the public three times a week, free of charge. We also manage a complimentary Resource Centre Catalogue, which allows the general public to virtually access a database of our materials. The African Women’s Development Fund Repository (AfriREP) is host to hundreds of articles, reports and research papers on feminist and gender issues in an African context. The materials are sourced through searching through various open access academic journals, and functions as a clearinghouse for innovative African feminist content. We also engage in strengthening the feminist knowledge production movement, through collaborations with research collectives such as Feminist Africa and our Know Your African Feminist series. We recognize all of this work as deep political work that helps to sharpen our analysis as African feminists.

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Conclusion:

Feminist intellectual Patricia McFadden once wrote that “intellectual engagement is the most sensual and most satisfying experience of living. It is akin to nurturing the very essence of [her] being”. As we forge ahead as feminist knowledge producers, I feel strongly that the work of the intellectual is to observe, analyze and document our life narratives, and that this work can be deeply rewarding. I encourage us all to support the work of African feminist knowledge producers, through an engagement with our work. In fact, this was the impetus for the twitter hashtag #citeAfricanfeminists, which culminated in the publication of an African Feminist reading list by feminist scholar Awino Okech late last year. At AWDF, we will continue to support and amplify African women’s knowledge production, as we understand that a movement that consistently reflects, analyzes and observes is one that thrives.

 

Bio:

Rita Nketiah is currently the Knowledge Management Specialist at the African Women’s Development Fund. She is also completing her PhD at York University in Human Geography. In her spare time, she enjoys an active Netflix life and playing with her cats ☺

 

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