Cameroonian Scholar Francis B. Nyamnjoh on Art, Academia, indebtedness, and Borders.
In December 2021, Francis B. Nyamnjoh, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, turned sixty. Nyamnjoh is not merely a brilliant teacher and researcher but he is also a novelist, playwright and publisher. His work has had a profound impact on contemporary intellectual life on the continent and beyond. In this interview with Sanya Osha, he shares his insights on the state of African knowledge systems, and the debts that scholars owe African artists.
Sanya Osha: I have a number of questions for you. The first is you were, or should I say you are a novelist. You write plays and a lot of that you did in the early part of your career. Would you say you’ve met most of your aspirations as a literary artist?
Francis B. Nyamnjoh: It depends. But what I will say is that my aspiration has been to, to share my thinking on issues, my sense of the world with a wider public, wider readership over and above academia. So, I have sought to be able to ventilate my research beyond the narrow confines of academic channels of dissemination. In that regard, I would say I have succeeded in having things out there in a language and style that can be accessible to people who may not necessarily share their academy with the rest of us.
S O: Now that leads to the next question. Would you say there is a conflict in the way you view the demands of creative writing versus academic writing? I ask because many academics and writers often encounter or say they have a conflict with the two forms of writing, the two forms of activity.
F. Nyamnjoh: I wouldn’t necessarily say that because even in my academic writing I try to disabuse myself of unnecessary sophistication by jargon-like style that might not even be accessible to my fellow academics. So even there I’m already purging my writings of unnecessary affectations. And I believe that the ultimate aim in any writing—whether one is writing for fellow academics or for people outside of the academy—is to have a clear sense of your message, in such a manner that you could even explain to a little child who is not fully initiated into the trappings of academic discourse. I seek the cultivation of the wider society. And I think that, that reaches out into both audiences, and I don’t see any tension. In fact, complementarity is my aim. And because as you know, I don’t believe, I am always very sceptical of zero-sum dichotomies. And my writings seek to bridge our unnecessary divide because I firmly believe in the idea of incompleteness as a universal
S O: Well, so from what I can gather from your response there is in fact reason to explore a convergence between the two forms of writing, and your kind of practice has been to negotiate this convergence. Would that be a clear description of your view?
F. Nyamnjoh: Absolutely, absolutely. Because there’s a certain epistemic assumption about scholarly writing as writing for fellow scholars or writing for fellow academics. And that epistemic assumption needs to be scrutinized in what it does to ontologies of inclusivity and interconnections that are shared by the wider society; and I believe that if we seek to bridge the gap, we will be taking this scholarship into the wider context, and drawing also from the popular into the academy. And by so doing we will be achieving a decolonial objective, the objective to decolonize both in terms of the episteme and in terms of practice. I believe that these worlds need to come together. And if you will look at creative artists (musicians, painters, sculptors, and so on), they are already far advanced than the academy in bridging worlds. So, the academy has a lot to learn even from writers out there. There’s always this collapsing boundary that the wider world is already living out, but we in academy insisted on these sterile dichotomies
SO: You have touched on this issue in your response, but I want you to elaborate on it some more. What do you view as the roles or role of the literary artist or the artists generally speaking, since you spoke about the worlds of musicians and poets and various kinds of writers? So, what would you say are the roles of artists in society?
F. Nyamnjoh: I see the artist as first and foremost a pace setter in frontiers of being. The artist is most likely to be the person you find at the crossroads, negotiating intelligibility, pushing out innovative and insightful ways of being (or alternative ways of being), and feeding back to the community for which they are artists, and translators and interpreters of innovations. And therefore, a good artist is not somebody who is hemmed in, so to speak, in the in the hinterlands of their cultural communities or communities of the target, but they’re most likely to be found at the margins of borders, or frontier zones, and listening in and listening out and negotiating and navigating different worlds, a translator and interpreter par excellence.
SO: I wanted to ask if you are aware of any powerful avenues in existence now, through which academics and artists reference one another independent of former global channels. Because if you say artists will get at the margins within margins, that speaks to the question of liminality. Let me provide a context to the question. I’m thinking about the politics of knowledge production, you know, especially in relation to the so-called global north. And we know that there’s been this issue that ‘marginal knowledge’ is even more marginalized, peripheral knowledge, which is an issue explored variously in your work now. So how do you view this politics or the dynamics between the two hemispheres in relation to what has been said about the north and the south in knowledge production and how we position ourselves?
F. Nyamnjoh: I will give you a very quick example. It’s an unfortunate dynamic—that is when knowledge production is approached in terms of echo chambers, or in terms of, of bubbles, if you want. Then it means that academics don’t fully acknowledge the debt they owe artists, musicians, and other sources (including the ordinary people they research on); because you might be doing research amongst artists, or on an idea that first appeared with Fela Kuti for example. And Fela Kuti had been very incisive, full of insights on the African condition, and academics do not valorize other sources like that, like musicians. Instead, an academic would take the idea from Fela Kuti and take it to the academy and present it as if it was an original idea. And by so doing, they do not pay enough tribute. And if we were to be more flexible in terms of these strictures, these standardized and routinized ideas of rules of scholarly production, we would expect more and task scholars more when they have come up with an idea by saying “Give us the source of this even if the source is not another written book, or another journal article.” So, we should have the freedom to draw on several different sources without calling it grey literature or our sources or whatever. But we don’t do that; we don’t acknowledge enough those from whom we draw.
SO: Okay next point. In fact, it also speaks to the question I was going to pose earlier: would you disagree that artists and academics do reference each other enough independent of former global channels, independent of the integral structures that we are all compelled to operate within?
F. Nyamnjoh: I don’t think we reference each other enough. We should do more
SO: Hmmm. We don’t cite or reference each other enough.
F. Nyamnjoh: We should. Because these are artificial boundaries that are created by these different forms of knowledge. So that like social media we tend to belong to our silos. Academics frequent one another, and are recognized and called legitimate, only to talk of written public sources, and are reduced to informants. And they need more than just token references, or translation in a form that gets invisible even as what they have contributed is visible to the scholar. I think we can do more. And we do more by encouraging more conversations across the board. For example, somebody like Chimamanda Adichie—because she’s invited every now and again to present at universities and the like—she begins to hear conversations by people who are literary scholars; and then she draws on their thoughts, and scholars as well draw on her work. So if we were able to break all these boundaries, or at least demonstrate enough interconnections and interdependencies across different divides, then we are more likely to see more and more of such initiatives in our in our scholarship and vice versa.
SO: Now I know you have been very, very involved in the Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group (RPCIG), which publishes all forms of literature and scholarship that are written in English and French. Can you talk about how this project ties in with your ideas about scholarship, literary production, subverting hegemonic structures of knowledge production? What are you trying to accomplish with the project with Langaa, and how does it fit in to your overall vision of the academic, the African intellectual and African literary artist?
F. Nyamnjoh: That’s a very good question. I will briefly describe to you how the idea of Langaa RPCIG came about in the first place. I was the Head of Publications at CODESRIA from 2003 to 2009. Langaa was set up in 2004. And I would add that I was one of those who set up Langaa. When I was in CODESRIA, I realized that CODESRIA is the main think tank in terms of African knowledge productions. At the time I was there, over 90% of its publications were the result of research and conversations and activities around CODESRIA’S core programs. So, it published its own material because CODESRIA brought lots of scholars from different universities together and it didn’t have room for much more. Less than 10% of its publications came from outside of its own initiatives. And at the time, those initiatives came from various scholars around who had heard of CODESRIA and may not have been a part of the CODESRIA network. One incident that made me realize we needed a complement (and not a substitute to CODESRIA) was when I met the late Chachage Chachage, who was also an academic and novelist (and most of his novels were published in Swahili). He approached CODESRIA with his novels for publication. And of course, there was no room for publishing literary works. There was no room even for publishing scholarship that was generated from outside CODESRIA network. So, we could see that there was a gap out there despite the magnificent work that CODESRIA was doing. There was a gap there, of conversations going undetected and not being brought to part of the fold of knowledge production on Africa. And that is why I thought that Langaa could attend to that. And I believe that it is doing that very well. It is able to provide updates on scholars on Africa and elsewhere in the world. There is a lot more room for multiple voices and multiple perspectives, and the publishing industry that impoverishes by silencing some of those voices does not do the world any good.
SO: Well, that is very interesting. Thank you so much. This is rather a personal question, my final question actually. You have just published a book on Donald Trump. Now, why Donald Trump? Why a book on Donald Trump? And what lessons can be gained from this sort of project as Africans?
F. Nyamnjoh: I’m very interested in controversial historical figures, for one thing. And I think that the first book that I did on somebody was a book inspired by the #RhodesMustFall movement here in South Africa, and that started from my own university, University of Cape Town. And as I delved into Rhodes—the character that was larger than life in many ways, a character of humble beginnings, larger than live ambitions, and who has continued to shape history not only in Southern Africa, but globally—I began to see similarities between Cecil Rhodes and Donald Trump. And of course, just as a lot has been written about Rhodes, a lot has also been written about Trump. But, I decided to focus on how one could understand Trump and his brand of populism from the vantage point of citizenship, and again, drawing on an idea that has characterized my scholarship and my thinking and my writing for a very long time. The idea of incompleteness and mobility as universals.