What stands between Africa's current prostrate condition and a future of prosperity and abundance for its long-suffering populations? One word: knowledge. If Africa is to become a continent that offers the best life for humans, it must become a knowledge society immediately. This is what I have called "Africa's knowledge imperative."
Our universities must reduce emphasis on producing manpower for running our civil society, our economy and our political institutions. They should be dedicated mainly to knowledge production. What sense is there in producing civil engineers who are not supported by soil scientists and geologists, who make it their business to create knowledge about our soil and our rocks? What use is there in producing lawyers without juries who produce knowledge of the underlying philosophical foundations of the legal system? We must seek knowledge. We must approach the matter of knowledge with a maniacal commitment, without let or hindrance.
Though we must seek knowledge to solve problems we know of, we must also seek knowledge when there is no problem in view — especially when there is no problem in view. We must seek to know as much of what there is to know of all things, limited only by the insufficiency of our human nature, and not only when the need arises. Those who do not seek knowledge when it is not needed will not have it when they must have it.
The biggest crisis in Africa today is the crisis of knowledge: how to produce it, how to manage it, and how to deploy it effectively. For instance, Africa does not have a water crisis. It has a knowledge crisis regarding its water, where and what types it is, how it can be tapped and made available where and when needed to all and sundry. How does a continent that is home to some of the largest bodies of water in the world — the Nile, the Niger, the Congo, the Zambezi and the Orange Rivers — be said to have a water crisis, including in countries where those rivers are? And that is only surface water.
While we wrongly dissipate our energies fighting the wrong crises, all those who invest in knowledge about us are busy figuring out how to pipe water from Libya's aquifers to quench Europe's thirst. Such is our knowledge of our water resources that many of our countries have given up on making potable water a routine presence in the lives of Africans, rich or poor, high and low, rural and urban. We eagerly accept what the merchants of misery and the global African Studies safari professoriat and their aid-addled, autonomy-fearing African minions in government, universities and civil society tell us regarding how nature has been to stinting towards Africa when it comes to the distribution of water resources in the world. We are content to run our cities and rural dwellings alike on boreholes. How does one run metropolises on boreholes and wells?
Does Africa have a food crisis? Again, the answer is no. It is yet another knowledge crisis regarding Africa's agricultural resources, what and where they are, and how they can be best managed to make Africans live more lives that are worth living. Otherwise, how does one explain the fact that geography puts the source of the River Nile in Ethiopia, and its people cannot have water for their lives? And the same geography puts California in the desert, but it is a breadbasket.
The difference, obviously, is not geography. It is knowledge. Colorado's aquifers grow California's pistachios. Why can't Libya's aquifers grow sorghum in northern Nigeria? Why does Nigeria not aspire to feed the world, not just itself? If Africa's land is so poor, as we are often told, why are outsiders, from the United Arab Emirates all the way to South Korea, buying up vast acreages of our land, to grow food, no less, to feed their people in lands that are truly more geographically stinting? The new landowners are not planning to import new topsoil to make their African acquisitions more arable. Again, a singular instance of knowledge deficiency.
In the 19th century, our predecessors, just years removed from the ravages of slavery and the slave trade, were exploring the Niger and Congo Rivers with a view to turning Africa's resources to the advantage of its people and to the rest of humanity, and their 20th-century successors were dreaming of harnessing the powers of the River Congo to light up the whole continent. Now only buccaneer capitalists from Europe are scheming of doing the same, but for exports to Europe and South Africa. And they are even suggesting that Congolese may not benefit from this scheme, because, according to them, Congolese communities are too small to make providing them with electricity a viable concern.
The solution? Africa must become a knowledge society, a defining characteristic of the modern age. We neither are, nor are we on the path to becoming, a knowledge society.
Things have not always been this way when it comes to knowledge production and Africa. In antiquity, the world went to Africa for intellectual enrichment. There were celebrated centers of learning, attracting questers from all parts of the then-known world, seeking knowledge about that world. What happened then has implications for our present. For example, how Roman Africa managed the relationship between settlers and natives between the second and fourth centuries of our era might have something to teach us when it comes to confronting not-too-dissimilar problems at the present time. But how many classics departments do we have in our universities? Because we do not invest in knowledge, people come to Africa now not as a place of intellectual enrichment, but as a place where they sate their thirst for exotica.
Yet for the last half-millennium, Africa has been hemorrhaging and exporting knowledge to the rest of the world. Regardless of the popular description of it as a trade in bodies, the European trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery was one of the most radical and longest programs of African brains export in history. American slave owners may have pretended that Africans were mere brutes, beasts of burden, almost as inert and dumb as other farm implements they classified them with in their ledgers. And that's what they did.
The enslaved Africans, on the other hand, knew their were embodiments of knowledge. They were smiths, they were poets, they were political counselors, they were princes and princesses, they were mythologists, they were herbologists, they were chefs. The list is endless. They, to take a single example, brought the knowledge of rice cultivation to the American South. They created some of the most original civilizational elements for which the United States is now celebrated. They deployed their knowledge, for the most part, without compensation.
For the last half-millennium, beginning with the slave trade, Africa has been exporting brains while simultaneously breaking the chains of knowledge transmission on the continent itself, with dire consequences for the systems of knowledge production in Africa. Successive generations are cut off from the intellectual production of their predecessors. We keep producing for external markets while beggaring our own internal needs. At present, much of the best knowledge about Africa is neither produced nor housed there, even when it is produced by Africans. Because we are dominated by immediate needs and relevant solutions when it comes to what we should know, we are happy to hand over to others the responsibility to produce knowledge, including knowledge about, of and for us, and to do so far away from us. We are ever eager to consume knowledge and have but a mere portion of it without any anxiety about ownership and location. African universities are now all too content to have e-connections with libraries elsewhere, having given up ambitions on building libraries to which the world would come for intellectual edification. Control over who decides what should be stocked on our shelves and how access to collections should be determined are made to rest on our trust in our partners' good faith that they will not abandon us down the road.
This must change. Africa must become a place of knowledge again. Knowledge production actually expands the economy. Take archaeological digs, for instance, and their impact on tourism. Our desires to unearth our antiquity, especially those remote times of which we have no written records, requires investment in archaeology and related disciplines, e.g., paleoanthropology. Yet, although it is our past we seek to know, by sheer serendipity, archaeology may shed light on the global human experience and yield economic payoffs that were no part of the original reasons for digging.
We must find a way to make knowledge and its production sexy and rewarding; rewarding, not in the crass sense of moneymaking but in terms of making it worthwhile to indulge in the pursuit of knowledge, support the existence of knowledge-producing groups and intellectuals, ensuring that the continent becomes the immediate locus of knowledge production, distribution and consumption, and that instead of having its depositories beyond Africa's boundaries, people once more come from the rest of the world, even if in virtual space, to learn from us. All this we do as custodians on behalf of common humanity.
Creating a knowledge society in Africa, for me, would be one way to celebrate and simultaneously enhance diversity by infinitely enriching it with material and additional artifacts — artifacts that we furnish by our strivings in the knowledge field.
Thank you very much.