Open access

Anthropology does not need to decolonise to make sense of conflicts in today’s polarised world
For the motion

pp 159162
10 August 2022
I want to thank the conference organizers for inviting me to debate the claim that anthropology does not need to decolonise to make sense of conflicts in today’s polarised world. To argue for this motion is somewhat awkward as I come from a colonised country, and yet I am supposed to argue for the motion. When looking keenly, this motion has three constituents. The first is the premise that anthropology either needs or does not need to decolonise. The second is the presence of conflict in today’s world. Lastly is the context of contemporary polarisation.
So, I ask, can colonialism decolonise itself? Most current conflicts can be well associated with imperialist praxis in which colonialism is the bricklayer and anthropology is the handmaiden. Is there a need for anthropology to decolonise to make sense of conflicts in today’s polarised world? Polarisation is the very product of imperialism and colonialism in which anthropology is a co-conspirator. Then, for what and whom should anthropology decolonise? I think these are the main questions that we should ask ourselves to illuminate whether there is a need for anthropology to decolonise to make sense of the problematic long-term effects of imperialism.
My grandfather and namesake Samwel Ntapanta, after whom I was named, was born in 1922 in the Tabora region of Tanzania. As a young kid, he wanted to go to school. However, in those days, not every child had a chance to attend school, as the schools were run by missionaries. For children to be admitted to a school, they had to be converted to Christianity, leaving their traditional practices behind. In so doing, my grandfather abandoned most of the African traditions that were considered heretic by the Christians, got baptised, and then got the opportunity to join school. After completing middle school, he joined the prison service in the 1950s, at the end of the colonial period. He then worked in the prison service for more than 30 years until his retirement in 1983. While working at the prison services during colonialism, he had to restrain the freedom of his fellow Africans who could not pay their taxes or refused to grow cash crops needed for the colonial economy. In such cases, this old man became a co-conspirator of colonialism, just like anthropology.
Fast forward several years later, after his retirement, he became the oldest member and the head of the Ntapanta clan. Given this responsibility, he had duties to safeguard and clan affairs to oversee. His duties as the head were to resolve conflicts, perform rituals and maintain norms and traditions. A good example is when a person dies. Forty days after the burial, the clan meets for a ceremony to celebrate the deceased’s life. Usually, the clan slaughters an animal such as a goat or a cow. Food is prepared and drinks are shared. Afterwards, the deceased’s clothes are distributed to clan members. All these activities are led by the head of the clan. At the end of the ceremony, after consultation with other clan members, the clan head decides who should become heir to or succeed the deceased. This person should oversee the deceased family and property – that is, his wife or wives, kids, farms and animals. Because the other clan members disperse after the ceremony, the chosen inheritor or successor will then be the contact and spokesperson of the deceased family and oversee its day-to-day activities. How to deal with this responsibility after converting to Christianity was a source of total confusion for my grandfather. After all, most of the traditional rituals were not accepted in Christianity. How could he perform these duties as the head of the clan?
Knowing his position and clan duties while subscribing to conflicting beliefs, he performed his traditional duties without discarding his Christian belief. It never crossed his mind to change anything in his life to make sense of the traditions. Even when most of his clan members stopped using his Christian name Samwel and instead addressed him as Mwana Ntapanta, the traditional name they preferred, he neither stopped going to church nor performing his traditional duties.
In their recent publication, Tuck and Young argue that decolonisation has become a metaphor: “When metaphor invades decolonisation, it kills the very possibility of decolonisation; it recentres whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler’s future” (Tuck & Yang, 2012:03). What does this mean? If we look at today’s polarised world – particularly if we focus on conflicts and civil wars in the global south such as in the Congo, or in Ethiopia with its ongoing civil war, but even if we look at other polarised events like climate change and the Anthropocene – most of the events we see are products of colonialism and imperialism. One cannot disentangle these conflicts from colonialism and imperialism. The world has always been polarised, but what we observe now is an “overheating”, to borrow a concept from Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Eriksen, 2016). The ambition to decolonise anthropology has taken a frivolous path, especially after being abducted by western scholars. If I apply these points to the logic behind today’s motion, that anthropology is still colonial, western scholars would be settlers in the field. The decolonisation debate has predominantly focused on decolonising fieldwork, decolonising our relationship with our interlocutors and increasing meaningful collaborations with “informants” and scholars in the global south. Sadly, the current approach to decolonisation does not address coloniality at all.
What does decolonisation mean? I think this is where we must start. In his book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1992), Ngugi wa Thiongò argues that,
unfortunately, some African intellectuals have fallen victims – a few incurably so – to that scheme, and they are unable to see the divide-and-rule colonial origins of explaining any difference of intellectual outlook or any political clashes (…) The conflicts between peoples cannot be explained in terms of that which is fixed (the invariables). Otherwise the problems between any two peoples would always be the same at all times and places; and further, there would never be any solution to social conflicts except through a change in that which is permanently fixed, for example through genetic or biological transformation of the actors (wa Thiong’o, 1992: 1–2).
The argument here is that colonialism is not a behaviour that we can just change nor an event we can recorrect. It was a system built with solid foundations and infrastructures. These systems have outlived the colonial regimes. Until they are dismantled, and its infrastructure ripped down, it is absurd to talk about decolonising anthropology, decolonising fieldwork, decolonising methodologies or any other anthropological practices, because such modalities of decolonisation are just cosmetic rehabilitations of the settler mind. Until we address the foundation of colonialism in academia, let alone anthropology, decolonisation is reduced to a metaphor and western academic debates about decolonisation are but a parody.
Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth (1968) that “Decolonisation which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding” (Fanon, 1968: 36).
Decolonisation is quite simple: the substitution of one species of mankind by another. Fanon gives us the framework for real decolonisation. Decolonisation should be a total dismantling of the system. However, the contemporary debate about decolonisation in anthropology is just addressing superficial changes, as if changing the bottle while the wine stays the same. If we want to address decolonialism in a serious manner, we have to change the wine along with the bottle (Fanon, 1968).
Let us go back to Ngugi wa Thiongò for a moment, who also argued that “[i]mperialism is the rule of consolidated financial capital and since 1884 this monopolistic parasitic capital has affected and continue to affect the lives even of the peasants of the remotest corners of our countries (wa Thiong’o, 1992:2)”. He refers to Africa. He continues to argue that imperialism has “economic, political, military, cultural and psychological consequences for the people of the world today”. He even went to the extreme to argue that “it could even lead to holocaust” (wa Thiong’o, 1992:2).
Anthropology was the handmaiden of colonialism, and colonialism helped build imperialism. Therefore, all three phenomena are deeply entangled in our polarised world. This being the case, what does it entail to decolonise academia or, in this case, anthropology? To answer this question, it is helpful to look across to South America. In his book The Politics of Decolonial Investigations (2021), Walter Mignolo reasons that colonialism results in a hegemonic language that is
stored and canonised, in this storage and its all-too-often later canonisation is grounded on the myth of the archive – the notion that our knowledge simply grows, creating a body of truth, rather than a dynamic reality that knowledge changes with knowing over time, much of it being discarded as false in the sphere of science, or modified in the knowing of everyday living in communities for whom academic, scholarly and scientific knowledge is perfectly irrelevant (Mignolo 2021: 11).
Mignolo further argues that the knowledge produced in academia, including anthropology, relies on the idea that Western knowledge holds hegemony over all other knowledges (Mignolo, 2021: 11).
Though we often claim to represent local or indigenous knowledge, we collect, analyse, and communicate our studies from a deeply Western perspective. Along the same lines, Mignolo adds that
the constitution of Western knowledge (“the European paradigm of modernity/rationality”) and its politics of Eurocentric knowing since the European Renaissance (…) were effective hegemonic weapons of Westernisation, the five-hundred-years-long foundation of what is today re-Westernisation: the neoliberal designs (and desires) to homogenize the planet without sacrificing any of the modernity/rationality (rhetoric of modernity) paradigm. This paradigm was consolidated in and by disciplinary formations regulating and regulated by universities, museums, schools, convents, and monasteries. In the centuries since then it has been exported/imported to Asia and Africa. (…) Changing the content won’t do. (Mignolo, 2021:12).
This point is the basis of my argument. The uncomfortable truth is that, when anthropologists talk about decolonisation, the focus is merely on cosmetic changes. The decolonisation debate does not address the formulation and foundations of systematic Western knowledge paradigms. My grandfather did not change his name or abandon Christianity because he knew that to do so would merely be cosmetic. He knew that if he wanted to become a pure traditionalist, he must be born again, undergo a total transformation as proposed by Wa Thiongò. However, he did not need to change to make sense of the rituals or traditions, nor to gain his clan members’ acceptance as their head. Like my grandfather, anthropology does not need any ornamental changes to make sense of today’s conflicts. Unless the colonial foundations of the Western knowledge hegemony are uprooted, anthropology will continue to work “perfectly” to understand conflicts in today’s polarised world. If we need to talk about decolonisation, Ngugi and Fanon had a roadmap already: the whole system must be totally dismantled. And then we need to decentre knowledge production in such a way that the Western hegemony gives way to multiple ways of knowledge, as proposed by Mignolo. This implies that we need to decentralise research funding and accept other ways of gathering, producing, and disseminating knowledge. Many of you will probably agree that finding, collecting, analysing, writing, and publishing is constructed around Western topologies. Consequently, to colonise only a part of our field will accomplish nothing.
To round up, there are possibilities to decolonise anthropology. Anthropology still has the potential to transform itself, decolonise itself. Such a transformation could significantly help in making sense of conflicts in today’s polarised world. However, with or without decolonisation, anthropology is rich in itself, and it can still aid us and remain relevant in understanding past, ongoing, and future conflicts in the world.


Eriksen, T. H. (2016). Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. Durham and London: Pluto Press.
Fanon, F. (1968). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.
Mignolo, W. D. (2021). The Politics of Decolonial Investigations. Durham: Duke University Press.
wa Thiong’o, N. (1992). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. Nairobi: East African Publishers.
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1).

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Published In

Go to Norsk antropologisk tidsskrift
Volume 33Number 210 August 2022
Pages: 159162


Published online: 10 August 2022
Issue date: 10 August 2022



Samwel Moses Ntapanta [email protected]
PhD Candidate, Sosialantropologisk institutt, University of Oslo

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