Magazine article New African

Who Owns Knowledge?

Magazine article New African

Who Owns Knowledge?

Article excerpt

If knowledge is the accumulation of material from the universal commons, privatising it as invention--the cornerstone of capitalist wealth--is the starting point of any struggle to re-appropriate it.

More than one African nation tells the fable of a man (in some versions it is a tortoise) who decided to hoard all the world's knowledge. He travelled the length and breadth of the land, storing all items of knowledge he found in a calabash. When he was done, he climbed a big tree in search of a place to stash it. A passer-by noticed him struggling with the calabash among the branches and began offering advice on the best way to go about it. The hoarder realised that that was also knowledge, and in his haste to climb down from the tree in order to confiscate even that item, he knocked the calabash to the ground, where it shattered, and the contents were once again scattered all over the earth.

There are many African sayings to emphasise this lesson. "He who does not know one thing, knows another", the Luo have it. "Knowledge is not of one person", say the Baganda.

A legacy of the colonial project has been the cultural idea that knowledge comes from a certain part of the world, and the rest of the world must therefore cede on its validity and application. This is why we continue with the practice of the foreign "expert" who accompanies and lives off the foreign aid packages we receive. It may be true that a lot of human knowledge is now concentrated in the northern countries of the world, however, there are two problems with that.

The first is, how did all that knowledge end up in one part of the globe: was it all created there? Secondly, what happened to it after it got there?

"Invention" is a very dubious word, since most of what we humans know, or have known at any point in time, is really a result of cumulative observations, interactions and the lessons of those who went before. Perhaps "derivation", or even the "contriving" of something new from existing knowledge, would be a better way to put it.

Nevertheless, the great unfolding of the Industrial Revolution unleashed an intense demand for knowledge about all things: energy; human behaviour; material quality; biology and nature. The learning centres of the north went on a global process of appropriation, data rape and plunder. As David Livingstone, that quintessential "missionary" secretly explained in a letter to a Cambridge professor called Sedgwick in 1858: "That you may have a clear idea of my objects I may state that they have something more in them than meets the eye. They are not merely exploratory, for I go with [the] intention of benefitting both the African and my own countrymen. I take a practical mining geologist from the school of mines to tell us the mineral resources of the country. Then an economic botanist to give a full report of the vegetable productions, the fibrous, gummy and medicinal substances together with the dyestuffs--every thing which may be useful in commerce ... With this short statement you may perceive our ulterior objects. I want you to have an idea of them."

When it was all over, all "knowledge" had headed north and was then locked behind white assumptions, intellectual property laws and exorbitant university fees.

Most importantly, the knowledge was distorted and re-assigned to other sources, often from within Ancient Greece. …

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