“Africa will inevitably rise like those many heads of the hydra, but first it needs a decolonial break from the tether that ties its economies to the global capitalist market”—An interview with Sylvia Tamale


African feminists have offered a sustained critique of colonialism, coloniality, and retrogressive thought for many years. Yet, in certain parts of the globe, African feminist thinkers are oftentimes forgotten in feminist curricula and reference lists that focus on decolonial and socially just futures. Prof. Sylvia Tamale’s recent book, Decolonization and Afro-Feminism (Daraja Press, 2020), is a sharp reminder of the importance of centering African feminist thinkers in scholarly conversations about decolonization.

Sylvia Bawa and Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin had a refreshing interview with Prof. Tamale about various themes in her book that revolve around an audacious decolonization agenda that not only unshackles Africa from its Euro-colonial tethers, but also showcases the continent’s hopeful futures. In short, the book strongly opposes the pessimism surrounding decolonization in Africa; in particular, she rejects the narrative that the decolonization project is an exercise in science fiction. Accordingly, Prof. Tamale calls for African liberation, a prerequisite for decolonial African futures. She emphasizes that liberation is only possible if it is informed by a Pan-African feminist and Ubuntu philosophy/ethic because they effectively challenge modern liberalism—the life-giving spirit of capitalism—and dehumanization. Our discussions on decolonization focus on re-storying Africa, African spirituality, Afro-ecofeminism, restorative justice, legal pluralism, and Wakanda.

Sylvia Bawa is an Associate Professor of Sociology at York University in Toronto, and currently the Director of the Resource Centre for Public Sociology. She is a global sociologist with expertise in human rights, development, and postcolonial feminisms. Her research examines discourses of empowerment, decolonization, human rights, culture, and critical development. Her work on human rights explores structural inequalities embedded in orthodox conceptions of empowerment, rights, and development. She currently leads and co-leads various international collaborative research projects with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), among others. Prof. Bawa is also an elected board member of the Congress of the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences in Canada.

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin is the Canada Research Chair in Youth and African Urban Futures and an Associate Professor in both the Department of Gender Studies and the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her current research examines the impact of contemporary urban transformations on youth identity, labour practices, psychosocial well-being, and future orientation in Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria. She also has a research focus on popular culture that explores the issues of subjectivity and belonging and the use of Afrofuturism and Afropolitan Imagineering in geographic projects that address the politics of difference.

Professor Sylvia Tamale is a leading African feminist and multidisciplinary scholar. She recently retired from teaching at and coordinating the Law, Gender and Sexuality Research Centre based at the School of Law at Makerere University in Uganda. Prof. Tamale was the first female Dean of Law in Uganda and has been a visiting professor at several universities including Oxford, Pretoria, and Zimbabwe. Prof. Tamale combines her academic scholarship with activism and adopts a critical approach to the law that aims at enhancing students’ transformative personal growth and agency. She has served on several national and international boards, including the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. She is the author of numerous publications. Her recent book Decolonization and Afro-Feminism is a ground-breaking contribution to debates on decolonization from an African, ecofeminist perspective. Published with Daraja Press in 2020, it won the 2022 FTGS Book Prize of the International Studies Association.

The Interview

Sylvia Bawa: Prof. Tamale, it is good to meet your heroes! In this case, it’s particularly fantastic for us, Grace and I, that we get to talk to you about your work; because it has been really inspirational for us. It’s made things a lot easier for us in Canada, in the diaspora, and just as African feminists in general, in terms of talking about some very difficult things. Our people say that the palm wine tapper has a view that those who are on the ground are not privy to. Therefore, we are grateful that we get to tap into your wisdom today in terms of discussing these important questions of the future with you. Both Grace and I read this—your book—mostly as something that gives us a roadmap for the future. Therefore, I think the conversations that we’ve been having and those that we are going to be having today with you are primarily about the future. Indeed, you say that in the book; that you are writing this with the future in mind.

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: Thank you for the kind words. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Sylvia Bawa: Thank you so much for making the time. We are going to start with the brief anecdote you gave about the American academic who jokingly called this book project about decolonization, “African science fiction”. We both had a good chuckle when we read that. You clearly do not believe this and boldly declared in the book that African decolonization is not science fiction, but that it is indeed realisable. Could you tell us how you came to this conclusion, especially given the circumstances we find ourselves in today, with multiple crises? As you even said, it looks like we always take one step forward and sometimes multiple steps back on the continent. Could you tell us where your hope comes from and how you came to this conclusion?

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: Well, that American academic was speaking from a place of ignorance and prejudice, in my view. Like most people around the world, including Africans, by the way, as Africans we should know better that we are included in this ignorance and prejudice about who we are and what our continent is. Like most people around the world, the construction and ideas that this academic has about Africa are probably informed by the consistent diet of primitivist myths that are fed to the world by their very efficient propagandist machinery. That is, the imperialists’ propagandist machinery.

Coloniality uses broad brush strokes to freely paint Africa as an impoverished backwater, this hot land of disease, war, corruption, and poverty. Very few people have the capacity to identify all the mechanisms in domination, production, knowledge acquisition, and knowledge dissemination. The firm grip that the “new empire”—the G7 countries, the big multinational corporations, China, multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF—have on the management of information systems and knowledge is unprecedented and almost uncheckable.

Despite the debilitating legacies of slavery and colonialism that continue to hold our continent and perpetuate global geopolitical and economic imbalances, I think Africa will inevitably rise like those many heads of the hydra whereby you strike one and another one that is twice as strong emerges. The anticolonial movement is catching more in the Global South, including in Africa, particularly among the youth. This is where I find hope. The colonial blinders are beginning to slip off our eyes, and we are waking up to reclaim our dignity and our position in the world.

I find that these ripples are being felt around the continent. You can see it in small pockets such as the Fallist Movements, the emergence of Pan-Africanist institutes around the continent, decolonial research networks, and popular street and civic resistance in countries like Sudan and Burkina Faso. The world is definitely changing, and Africa is no exception. Young people are now including decolonial and anti-oppression literature on their book club reading lists, bell hooks, Fanon, Freire, Rodney, and so on. Things are changing. You asked, how did I come to this conclusion? It’s because of these things that I can witness. I know it won’t happen in my lifetime, but things are beginning to change. People are beginning to understand what decolonizing the mind is about and what it means for our decolonization project.

Sylvia Bawa: I think decolonizing the mind is probably the last hurdle we have. You have outlined that well in your book. I’ll pass it over to Grace now.

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin: Thank you, Professor. In listening to you, and obviously from reading your book, we can definitely tell that you do have this sense of hope. I like what you pointed out about how people are waking up to reclaim our dignity and our position in the world. In relation to that, I would say in terms of a segue, you write this book with the objective of reaching and opening up dialogue and spaces of possibilities with young Africans, grappling with Afro-feminism and decolonization. You called for us to “re-story” ourselves. Recent Afro-futuristic projects, such as art, literature, and cinema, project a viable, decolonial and futuristic Africa. We think these projects are, like your book, about power and resistance and similar to your previous response. So, power to reclaim and proclaim, and resistance to the coloniality of being in various ways. Do you think these kinds of projects open up spaces for hope and dreams about the future we deserve?

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: Definitely. I think African futurism and the interdisciplinary genre and movement hold a lot of promise for the imaginaries of our people. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt that said that the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Last year, I was lucky enough to be part of the editorial team that published an issue of Feminist Africa on “Gender and Sexuality in African Futurism”. That’s when I really got to understand the power of imagination. Imagination grounded in African indigeneity, histories, cultures, technologies, and experiences.

Nelson Mandela also told us that dreams are the roads that lead to our goals. Actually, many Africans believe that dreams are voices of our ancestors. There’s an African proverb, I think, that says something like dreams are related to the past, but connected to the future. African futurism can help us reimagine gender roles and relations. Reimagine and map out the possibilities of a continent that utilizes the abundance of its resources, and by resources, I think about human, physical, technological, and so forth. So, building an awesome continent from which its people don’t flee, but return to in droves, including you two [laughs]. Now, never underestimate the power of the mind. What African futurism does is harness that power into action. It empowers us to craft the future that we want.

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin: Thank you, Professor. I love that. Never underestimate the power of the mind. I like what you said about dreams as well. Yes, we will return to the continent, Sylvia, right?

Sylvia Bawa: Definitely. We return in various ways. Sometimes, I like to believe that although we are physically living in in the West, we are present in Africa through various ways. When you talk about return … and I’m not going to go on this tangent, but I always talk about time travel that I think Africans have been doing, if we think about it, in the kinds of spiritual journeys that our people undertake. But like I said, I will not go off on that tangent, not today.

Prof. Tamale, as African women who did grad school in North America, we often did not see ourselves reflected in our readings, especially concerning feminist projects. It’s always exciting for us when we read scholarship that centres on African feminisms, Afrofeminism. In particular, you make a very compelling argument that African liberation is only possible through a decolonial Pan-African feminist lens with Ubuntu at its core. Could you please elaborate more on the important relationship between Ubuntu and Afrofeminism and the ways it offers a roadmap toward decolonization?

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: Sadly, even here on the continent, the education system promotes Eurocentric orthodoxies and hierarchies. It’s not just there. This is how our minds and imaginations are captured by coloniality. Of course, there are other institutions that complement education like religion, the media, the law, and so on. But for me, it is simple logic that whatever it is that we are doing now is not working. I’ve been part of the African feminist movement for over three decades, and I just feel like a hamster on a wheel. All the work and sacrifices that we poured into this movement have very little to show for it. The situation for the ordinary people on the ground, particularly women, has not shifted much. This should signal to all of us that there is something fundamentally wrong with the frameworks and paradigms that we are using.

Being under the grip of coloniality, we keep returning to its logic, we keep returning to its processes to solve our problems. We are fooled into thinking that it’s where it will lead us to modernity and development. So, our ways of thinking, our ways of being and doing, have been captured by Eurocentric worldviews, which actually denigrate African traditional worldviews. The Ubuntu worldview reflects Africans’ understanding of the essence of humanity. It understands very well that you cannot live well if others do not.

Solidarity and interconnectedness are key to the health of the community. It’s about belonging to a community and being protected by it, as well as being one with nature. Most non-Western countries share this worldview. Ubuntu values unity in diversity and it holds a lot of promise for human dignity and compassion. I am because we are. How would such a philosophy lead us to decolonization? When you look at its core values—solidarity, interconnectedness, humaneness, respect, dignity, egalitarianism—and then you juxtapose them with the neoliberal philosophy that valorizes individualism, competition, the market, privatization, commodifying humans and social relations, this alone tells you that it can act as our moral compass towards decolonization.

There’s a lot of promise in Ubuntu as a source of inspiration for our future in Africa. In whatever we plan, we should aim at inclusivity, not exclusivity. We must promote sharing and the interest of the collective, as well as individuals within the collective. In addition to all that, the fact that Ubuntu views humanity as part and parcel of physical nature means that it celebrates the values that connect us to nature. This is very different from the neo-colonial capitalist view of nature, which is very exploitative and extractivist. In my view, Ubuntu practices can stem the destructive processes of global warming and decolonize the climate crisis and all its vulnerabilities.

Sylvia Bawa: You have rehashed the importance of Ubuntu in centering liberatory projects and practices. I’m really glad you touched on the fact that, because the situation on the ground hasn’t shifted much for the ordinary African woman, actually Black women in the world, that we do need to shift our focus and our framework. I think when you talk about Ubuntu in this way, you also point to a way in which we can actually do more ethical interplanetary politics.

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin: How can we overcome the reality on the ground that doesn’t always point us towards Afro-communitarianism, particularly given the assault of Ubuntu by capitalism?

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: It is indeed a monumental challenge that we face as Africans to reorient and to reconfigure our ways of thinking and being. After over a century of imbibing coloniality, it’s extremely difficult for us to adopt alternative ways of perceiving, of understanding, and of interpreting the world. We have to be very proactive and very intentional in adopting processes and policies that will reorient our thinking and reconnect us to our indigenous values of Ubuntu. I’m talking about a complete overhaul of all colonial structures, institutions, and policies that will transform our continent for the better.

Take the education system, where students continue to uncritically consume Eurocentric material that only helps to infringe the continent deeper into global capitalist hierarchical structures, capitalist spaces and even ideologies. I’ve always wondered why, when we are learning, the alphabet tells us A is for apple when we don’t have apples in the tropics. They don’t grow here. It becomes very difficult for a child to visualize and understand something that they do not know. I think the first time I saw an apple was in the 1980s. Africa and its people can’t create the futures that we seek if we continue with business as usual. And it has to be a continental, Pan-African effort.

Sylvia Bawa: I got excited about the example of the apple. Because I still remember so many things that I read about and only seeing here for the first time, and realizing that, if only somebody could have made that local connection for me when I was still growing up to understand what was happening. One of the things that we like about the book is that the decolonial project is not just about deconstruction, but also about reconstruction. In other words, you just don’t provide a critique, as it were, but you provide a roadmap for achieving decolonization. Two of the things you highlight as being critical to reconstruction are the restoration of our spirituality and Afro-ecofeminism. Could you please elaborate a bit more on these two pillars and tell us why they are integral to reconstructing Africa?

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: I think Africa needs a decolonial break from the tether that ties its economies to the global capitalist market. Now, reconstructing Africa would entail excavating the values that were buried by the empire. It requires radical structural changes such as adopting an alternative economic system and making a series of transformational processes to replace global development, discourses of development and modernization. Some centre socialism, where it is not the market that drives it, but the optimum utilisation and distribution of resources. This can only be done after we restore our indigenous spirituality or cosmological interconnectedness between humans, animals, and nature. Details of how such an economy would operate would have to be worked out, but it’s inevitable.

Sylvia Bawa: That connection with nature is really crucial in thinking about the future.

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin: Part of what you also emphasized in your book is community justice. Particularly in Chapter Five, you mentioned that community justice challenges the colonially imposed systems of justice of policing. While reading this, it reminded us a little of the prison abolition movement, particularly Mariame Kaba’s book We Do This ’Til We Free Us where she emphasizes “Building community-based interventions that address harms without relying on police” and “Thinking through the end of the police and imagining alternatives”. Would you say that abolition is a possible decolonial project in the African context?

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: Of course, it is. The prison system as we know it today reflects the Eurocentric liberal moral system and not the values and moral system of, say, Ubuntu. The former glorifies individual moralism and autonomy, while the latter, that is Ubuntu, emphasizes collective moral responsibility of individuals. Can we honestly say that the current prison system in our countries is working? It is designed to control and regulate and does not solve the problem of reoffending and rehabilitation or reintegrating the offending people in society. Statistics clearly show that the prison system is a disaster. You must know, Sylvia, the Sankofa symbol from West Africa.

Sylvia Bawa: Yes, I do.

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: I love it. I have adopted it as my logo now that I’ve retired and it’s on my personal letterhead. It depicts a bird moving forward with its head turned backwards. It’s associated with the Ashanti proverb that says, it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten. The Sankofa theory reminds us that we have so many gems in our indigenous traditions that we have lost and need to retrieve. Most African traditional ecosystems aimed at restorative justice and based themselves on participatory communal reconciliation. To provide examples of such community-based conflict resolution mechanisms, the Gacaca courts in Rwanda, for example, the Mato Oput among the Acholi in East Africa, both these models are based on the philosophy of reconciliation and reparation, not the incarceration and retribution prison regimes. I think it is possible to return to these processes that, instead of dehumanizing and breaking offenders, work to make them accountable while preserving their integrity and dignity.

Sylvia Bawa: Thank you for talking about restorative justice. I’m grateful that you are very hopeful about things. But then there are all these other entanglements that we have to deal with before then. Sometimes I think about them, in the meantime, before we arrive. As Grace asks in her work, have we arrived or what’s the process of arrival at that place? The question that we have next relates to the last one that you just answered about abolition. Because one of the contributions that we found useful that has also heavily influenced our work and feminisms is the argument that culture and rights are not antagonistic to each other as we’ve been made to believe for a very long time. And in fact, as you’ve said, using Sankofa, to go back to look at the nuggets in our histories that we could reclaim and use very critically towards our liberation.

You argue in Chapter Five that “Our decolonial efforts must therefore shift the focus to the practice of living customary law and its amenability to change”. How do you imagine this project of restoring the dignity of our people will unfold in this time of multiple crises? How do we, as you ask in the book, “navigate Eurocentric ‘modernity’ without losing our ‘Africanness’”, especially with regards to the rights discourse and the ways in which they’re pitched against each other? Do you think third-generation human rights, that is, the right to development and the right to solidarity, which is still in drafting state, provide some hope? Can you elaborate, especially, on this legal pluralism that you talk about in the book.

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: Well, I think in the previous responses, I’ve touched on the issue of how I imagine the project of restoring the dignity of Africans will unfold. But on the issue of this so-called third-generation human rights development and solidarity, as you must have read in Chapter Six of the book, I don’t have much faith in the human rights system, mainly because of its discourses and practices that are informed by the ideology of liberalism. Liberalism—that life-giving spirit of capitalism. There are too many complexities and contradictions between the current system of human rights and decolonization. I don’t think that adjusting and tinkering with the current human rights framework will work. I think for me, it’s a clear case of using a master’s tools to dismantle a master’s house.

On the face of it, these beautifully crafted rights to development and international solidarity, seem to rhyme with decolonization under Ubuntu philosophy. But on closer scrutiny, you will find that the development model that the international human rights framework has in mind is the neoliberal universalistic essentialist one, steeped in modernity and conceptualized in the capitalist global political economy. The right to solidarity, as you know, already exists in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It was Africa’s attempt to incorporate the Ubuntu philosophy of interconnectedness, reciprocity, and compassion into the human rights framework at the regional level. However, it’s always faced steep resistance from the West, mainly because its spirit does not sit comfortably with neoliberal capitalist values of individualism, competition, and sovereignty.

The other problem is that, as legal constructs, these two rights are incapable of protecting vulnerable people. Why do I say this? Because the neoliberal Western paradigm that informs the treaty-based human rights framework simply cannot stand up to the abuses of neoliberal economic policies and practices. For example, neoliberal states that privatized basic services such as water, healthcare, transport, education, electricity, sanitation, and so on, result in serious tensions with human rights. I think Africa needs to be wary of international human rights law.

In the book, I talk about the contextual cultural approach to rights, espoused by some African feminists, as one that offers a more nuanced approach and depth of understanding to people’s lived reality. One that is rooted in communitarianism and the ethos of Ubuntu. In short, I think we are talking here about an Africanized notion of human rights. But I really don’t think that this so-called third-generation … even just prioritizing rights in that way, first-generation, second-generation, and third-generation, is very problematic.

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin: Thank you, Professor, for that insight. It seems like all your responses so far keep pushing us back to the bird that you like—to fly forward, but with our heads looking back. We need to, without romanticizing, go back to how things used to be, be more nuanced about things, be rooted in communitarianism. The one thing that I find challenging is the overhauling of the system because, where do we start? But let’s say that we do successfully follow all the blueprints, that you highlighted in the book, and that you’ve also discussed today, for liberation and decolonization, what do you think Africa will be like, say, 100 years from now?

Prof. Sylvia Tamale: It will be like Wakanda. No, but seriously, I think futuristic cinema, such as Wakanda and The Woman King, more recently, they may have their flaws, but they offer a glimpse of the futuristic African space. I particularly like them for their decolonial frame, their critical agendas, and their feminist representations of women as people of power, people of wisdom, strength. I like that glimpse into the future of Africa. So, yeah, Wakanda.

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin: Wakanda Forever! I really like what you mentioned in terms of the feminist representations of women as people of power, wisdom, and strength. You’re right. Both of those films have their own flaws. But I do remember when I was watching The Woman King … I don’t always get emotional when I watch movies, but there was just this little bit of emotion that came out, even though I think it was a really difficult subject and topic. But these women, it was just so nice to see them; especially when you’re here in the West, for us, there are all these problematic representations of African women, but it was just so wonderful to see that power, wisdom, and strength.

And like you argue in your book, we need to have an Afrofeminist approach to decolonization and to thinking through the future of Africa. If we can do that with this wisdom and strength that comes along with feminism, maybe we definitely might achieve that future that you just mentioned, that you’ve imagined and that we’ve seen others imagine in various forms of work, whether it’s literature, art, et cetera, et cetera. Sylvia, do you have something to add?

Sylvia Bawa: One of the things that excites us is this idea of intrusion; this taking over of space, as it were, by artists on the continent and in the diaspora. All these Afro-futuristic works that we see in art, in design, in film. Particularly in film; I remember going to watch Black Panther. It was a whole project, especially in the diaspora, perhaps not as much on the continent. Because again, on the continent, I don’t think that we necessarily see the assault on our humanity in the same way. People in the diaspora really responded well to this very positive and futuristic depiction of Africa in Black Panther.

We’re talking about all these things that are coming out, Afro-futuristic work, novels that we’ve started to read in our graduate courses. We tend to assign these things to our students so that people can make certain other connections about Africa. You discuss the challenges of shaking off this coloniality of being and trying to do decolonial work. In trying to reclaim our humanity, we spend way too much time fighting and fighting these things. Subsequently, we sometimes actually forget to dream about the future. To think about what it would look like in another 100 years if we weren’t so focused on the master’s house. But we should focus on dreaming and looking ahead, something you do exceptionally well in your book. Thank you!

Many thanks from everyone at Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography and the Antipode Foundation to Professor Sylvia Tamale, Sylvia Bawa and Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin for such an engaging contribution. Thanks also to Antipode Editor Stefan Ouma for all his work conceiving and planning the conversation, which constitutes the fourth installment in an ongoing series: see also Yousuf Al-Bulushi’s two-part interview with Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni (co-editor of Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century) and Sybille Bauriedl and Inken Carstensen-Egwuom’s interview with Ghanaian political economist Franklin Obeng-Odoom.