African Study Classics – Walter Rodney

AiW Guest Amber Murrey 

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Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline station in central Cameroon.

An influential Pan-Africanist and historian, Walter Rodney’s work provides guidance, invigoration and sustenance to PanAfricanists, scholars of Africa and the African Diaspora, and those interested in the socio-historical roots of social inequality.

As a university professor in Tanzania and Jamaica, he taught a nuanced and complex historical understanding of the exploitative relationship between Europe and Africa. In his assessment of pre-colonial and colonial European systems of exploitation on the continent, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), he challenges us to rethink the historical roots of ‘underdevelopment’ and the politics of economic and cultural domination.  Rodney was highly critical of colonial-to-independency state power transitions, critiquing the opportunism of African upper classes, whom he believed to have facilitated the continuation of colonial business as usual.  His ideas were, and are still, radical and controversial.

Rodney’s historical materialist examination of poverty remains necessary in institutions of higher learning today, where the root causes of social inequality are often obscured or unaddressed; where there is a gap between an awareness of poverty and a comprehension of the longue durée of structural forces creating and sustaining violently unequal life chances. Watching the 2008 documentary, The End of Poverty, I was struck by the resonances between the film’s central arguments and those of Rodney, written by him more than thirty years before the release of the documentary: that impoverishment and underdevelopment are not incidentally inexplicable modern phenomena but are often inherent components of historical geopolitics (I examine his foundational text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, in much more detail here).

Rodney’s work and commitment to ‘bread and justice’ inspired some of my nascent examinations of the lived, material consequences of structural violence, or those seemingly permanent violences ‘built into’ the global capitalist system that remain largely unrecognised as violence (Johan Galtung 1969).  Drawing from Rodney’s work on the historical materialism of violence and development from a holistic standpoint, I use ‘structural violence’ as a conceptual tool to understand how the processes and effects of displacement, land and resource dispossession, resettlement, livelihood destruction and damage to the natural environment (including water pollution, oil spillage, destroyed land, deforestation) along the pipeline are experienced concurrently in people’s everyday lives. So that, I suggest, a holistic perspective allows insights on the complexity of life and resistance amidst structurally violent forces along the pipeline.

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Man stands above pipeline right-of-way near Kribi, Cameroon.

During storytelling sessions for my project, I draw from Rodney’s emphasis on the political relevance of everyday or nonacademic encounters, as evidenced through his praxis of grounding.  Rodney engaged in what he called groundings with his brothers as a way of destabilising the often compartmentalised fields of academic engagement: where ‘the field’, the classroom, theoretical abstraction, and everyday life are arbitrarily divided (by the languages that we speak but also by our actions within these spaces). Through the practice of grounding, the power distinctions between institutions of elite learning and open, participatory debate are blurred.

In Groundings with my Brothers (1969), Rodney explains,

‘I would go further down into West Kingston and I would speak wherever there was a possibility of our getting together.  It might be in a sports club, it might be in a schoolroom, it might be in a church, it might be in a gully’ (64).

Importantly,

‘[he] was prepared to go anywhere that any group of black people were prepared to sit down and talk and listen… a sitting down together to reason, to “ground” as the Brothers say.  We have to “ground together”’ (78).

Through groundings, Rodney connected with non-academics on subjects of socio-political and historical importance. He situated his view from the ground and had an abiding respect for moments of consciousness-raising and intellectual vibrancy with people outside of academia. In so doing, he firmly located the place of knowledge creation – particularly knowledge for social justice – with ordinary people. His ideas on breaking down the barriers that separate the academic elite and the people ‘outside’ or ‘ordinary people’ are incredibly important to the ongoing project of decolonising or democratising institutions of higher learning.

ImageAmber is a doctoral student in the School for Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.  In part compelled by Rodney’s groundings, she uses decolonial and indigenous methodologies to look at stories of struggle, structural violence and resistance in two communities along an oil pipeline in Cameroon.



Categories: Academic Research, African Studies Classics

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