In my opinion, the Master of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam should be called the Master of European Philosophy. Although enjoying this degree, I am displeased by the fact that we only read the work by those thinkers that were white European men living in the 18th, 19th and 20th century. Specifically, it bothers me that in a large proportion of the classes, we act as if the sacred space of Euroversal reason is a neutral space. I believe that it is important to investigate how the connection between power and the production of knowledge influences the academic arena and in which ways we can possibly change this field’s tendency to be exclusive.
Last Tuesday, I discussed my thesis proposal with one of my peers. I explained to him that I aim to fight the presumption that epistemology is a neutral and universalist theory of cognitive standards and norms, to which he in turn expressed the desire to write on Thierry Baudet and Jordan Peterson – both conservative, right wing and liberal - and their beliefs about human nature. My topic explores the field of structuralism, while he adopts an essentialist perspective. Having completed his bachelor’s at the VU - where most professors are essentialists – he explained that this most likely has influenced his point of view. This made me realize that my tendency to consider human beings as defined by cultural structures rather than to possess an essence, can largely be attributed to the university I attend. It convinced me that seeking education in different places is important, as it enables one to acquire different views and to be truly critical of obtained knowledge.
Doing my bachelor’s and master’s at the same university and studying the same discipline within these degrees discomforted me. As a result, it led me to follow a course at the University of Leiden, to gain knowledge from a different perspective. In contrast to discussing the work of white academics, this course explores the history and the work of black academics and artists instead. By using art as a source of knowledge and history production, the course aims to go beyond the academic field as we know it present-day: one that is shaped by power structures and pre-existing narratives. To critically consider African historiography - often created within a web of difference and absolute otherness, or in line with a dictatorial government -, we analysed protest art by African artists. Having the assumption that art can speak outside of the existing discourse. To free ourselves from the chains of the current academic arena and to make the university a more inclusive space, we were asked to create an atypical paper.
Together with Jan Bart, another student from the course, I chose to analyse a poem about the Cameroon crisis. As the course was mostly about protest music and my interest skews towards music rather than poetry, this was not a very logic decision. However, I wrote my bachelor’s thesis about poetry, which inspired Jan to pick up a book with the poem inside. As a result, our project became an analysis of Peter Wuteh Vakunta’s poem “Gravitas: Poetic Consciencism for Cameroon,” published in 2016 when the tensions in the Cameroon crisis were reaching their peak. Although not about music, it turned out to be an interesting project.
The poem speaks about many different aspects of the crisis. To be able to analyse the poem correctly, we had to gain an understanding of the colonial history of the country, the current political situation, the linguistic divide and the government of Ahidjo and Biya. In addition, it was important to analyse the theory of Consciencism and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s concept of historical wounds. Hence, we turned to the literature to get a grasp of these topics. We primarily used the books The Leadership Challenge in Africa: Cameroon under Paul Biya (2004) edited by Mbaku and Tagougang and The Anglophone Problem in Cameroon (1997) by Piet Konings and Francis B. Nyamnjoh to gain insight in the history of Cameroon. Where the first seems to provide - to the extent that this is possible - a fairly objective view of the history of Cameroon, the latter seems to contain a rather preconceived idea of the crisis. It could be argued that the book answers to the hypothesis that the Anglophone Region is the victim of the crisis. When reading historic literature, one should keep in mind that history is never entirely objective and emphasises the existence of multiple truths and historical narratives. In our case, the fact that Vakunta himself is from the Anglophone region as well as the fact that we included mostly English literature, presents the potential pitfall that we consumed a one-sided view of the crisis. Sadly, however, understandable literature from the Francophone perspective was difficult to find.
When studying the history of an African country as a Western scholar I believe that it is necessary to understand how our view of the continent is shaped by a paradigm of orientalism. To gain a more critical understanding of Cameroon as a post-colonial country and its history, I studied a part of Achille Mbembe’s book On the Postcolony (2001). While it was a lengthy process and I struggled to fully understand the text, it gives an understanding of the way in which Africa as an object of academic and public discourse has been and remains fraught. Specifically, Mbembe states how Africa is perpetually caught and imagined within a web of difference and absolute otherness. Moreover, he explains that some forms of academic writing “endows Africa with an identity it never possessed in the first place while never being able to open up a space for the continent to manifest its selfpresence.” (Mbembe, 2006: 147).
As I focussed mainly on understanding the poem through the theoretical framework of consciencism, I read parts of Nkrumah’s book Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization (1970) and some secondary literature on the topic. My background in philosophy helped me to understand the concepts presented, as it is highly influenced by Marxist theories and other Western philosophies. Only after reading this text I found that I truly understood the project Vakunta had in mind while writing the poem. Although seeking to create an alternative understanding of the Anglophone crisis, he more importantly proposes a new Cameroonian conscience as a resolution for the crisis, hence the title. As inspiring as it all sounds, it has to be noted that Consciencism has been called a vague framework supporting the cult of personality and the centralized rule of Nkrumah (Bretton). Moreover, I must admit that some parts of his theory seem confusing and vague. For example, while he uses formulas to show how negative action exceeds positive action in post-colonial times, these formulas don’t seem to add anything to the theory. I find it hard to imagine how the theory can lead the way to freedom.
In the desire to create space for an alternative historiography as a means to understand what the crisis has meant for the people in Cameroon, Vakunta’s work as an alternative source of knowledge has facts speaking against as well as for him. Starting with the positive aspects, he comes from Cameroon and lived there until 2001, before immigrating to the United States. Having lived in Cameroon during the leadership of Ahmadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya he is able to reflect properly on the power politics of the past. Belonging to the diaspora, he is able to view his nation objectively and can critically scrutinize what he believes went wrong historically. On the negative side, however, he did not live in Cameroon since 2001, when the country was in the midst of the crisis. This poses the question: is he still able to articulate the voice of the people that live in the heat of it all? Concerning the poem’s audience, another question needs to be asked: for which audience did Vakunta write it? A poem of such length (1447 lines) will not receive a very wide audience and will thus not influence many people. Him being not only a poet but also an academic fits the tone of the poem as it contains many obscure words and references to abstract theories. How does this fit the image of the poet as “town crier”? Can Vakunta be seen as the “voice of the voiceless”?
These are all questions that we were planning to ask dr. Vakunta himself. Sadly, however, the communication with Dr. Vakunta did not go smoothly. I travelled from Amsterdam to Leiden two times for a skype meeting that was cancelled and waited in great anticipation of an email for many days. We planned to interview Vakunta and have him read lines of the poem, to include his voice in our project. After the many failures of trying to reach him, we asked if he wanted to email us the written answers to our questions. Unfortunately, although he replied willingly to this proposition, we have not received any message. It would have enabled us to provide an even better analysis of the poem, to be more critical and write a more authentic paper. (ed: after the project Dr Vakunta answered the questions we posed to him. His response can be found in the comment thread of the post: Questions to Dr Vakunta.)
Although being extremely critical on Vakunta’s work for the purpose of this essay, I believe that there are many good things to say about the poem. Adopting an extensive and polemic approach enabled us to elaborately write about many aspects of the crisis. I have done the research, analysed the poem and written the text with great pleasure. Working together with Jan was easy and insightful, as he works in a different way than I do. Being aware of the fact that taking notes is extremely useful, I often choose not to. I make this mistake convinced of the fact that it spoils the fun of ‘just reading a text’. Being inspired by Jan, I summarized everything I read this time and will definitely continue to do so when writing papers in the future. In the process, there were some discussions about what the main topics of the crisis and the poem were, but we found a compromise each time. Doing the project together thought me that it is useful to explain findings and ideas to each other, as it encourages you to discuss and question them.
In dividing the work, I mainly focussed on understanding the poem through the theoretical framework of consciencism and poetry as an art form, while Jan focussed on historical wounds and the elective representatives. In doing so, we both needed to acquire great understanding of the history and current political situation in Cameroon. This division of work developed by itself, rather than it being a conscious decision.
As the objective of the course was not to write a typical academic paper, we had to develop a case study in the form of a visual online publication. This was the biggest obstacle in my mind - and I think it is safe to say that Jan felt the same – as we are both unexperienced and do not enjoy working with computers. But the fact that it is not a mainstream academic paper speaks to me. And to add to what I have stated before, it is not only important to find different ways in which we can change the exclusive tendency of the academic arena, it is also crucial to contribute to these different forms of knowledge production. Serving this purpose, those couple of days spent on WordPress were worth the effort.
 See Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization: chapter 5.
Mbembe, Achille (2006) On the Postcolony: a brief response to critics, African Identities, 4:2, 143-178
Bretton, Henry L. (1964). The Rise and Fall of Kwame Nkrumah: A Study of Personal Rule in Africa. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.