How knowledge makes a discourse true

Mainstream discourses about Aamajiranci, northern Nigeria’s Qur'anic schooling system, expose the power politics of knowledge in postcolonial societies.

Northern Nigerian villagers. Image via International Institute of Tropical Agriculture on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Education in postcolonial Nigeria is complex and set within a web of power dynamics that affects different knowledge systems differently. For instance, northern Nigeria’s classical Qur’anic schooling system, Almajiranci, is the subject of negative representational discourses, especially among “Western-educated” Nigerian elite.

These discourses blame Almajiranci for several things: from creating miscreants and thugs-for-hire, to producing members of the terrorist organization Boko-Haram, to being sites of child endangerment because of its key practice of sending young boys away from home. The underlying politics of knowledge means that the system’s ways and modes of knowing and knowledge transmission are neither seen as valid nor valuable for Nigerian society, with its practices regarded as retrograde and unfit for the creation of a modern Nigerian citizenry.

The classical Almajiranci system of Qur’anic education sees boys sent to study the Qur’an under the tutelage of a teacher or Malam. Within mainstream discourses the system and its students (almajirai) are the subjects of controversy, with its associated practices said to leave the boys exposed to danger. The education is considered inadequate because of what is seen as its narrow Qur’an-based curriculum and has been linked, with little, if any, evidential basis to religious uprisings, political unrest and non-state terrorist organizations, such as Boko Haram.

Over time, the language for talking about Almajiranci changed from “noble” to “the dregs of the society.” Once respected, the schools have evolved within the context of a complex postcolonial web of power relations and discursive practices about, inter alia, modernity, politics, regional tensions, development agendas, and new Muslim modalities, and as these emerged they took on forms that are products of power/knowledge dynamics in and about Nigeria.

Nigeria, a former British colony, encountered “Western education” in the 19th century, initially within the proselytizing mission schools. Western education refers to the education system inherited from the British that still exists in forms prioritizing Eurocentric notions of knowledge. The educational policy behind the British colonial system largely became the blueprint for the construction of Nigerian society. The legacy of colonialism in the form of Western education includes a deprivileging of other forms of knowledge and the creation of new forms of social difference, stratifications and subjugation. Western-educated Nigerians represent an elite class favoring this dominant way of knowing and using it to delegitimize other knowledge forms. It is used to maintain power structures and relations and functions as an exercise of power—with this power always being a function of this favored knowledge.

Western education also has a fundamental influence in shaping discourse; it is implicit and unites the discursive practices of an era, thus, not only bringing about changes in how and what we know, but becoming an indispensable and valuable cultural resource. It opens up arguments about how and what it means to know something and especially what is considered valid or valued knowledge.

These arguments foreground realities, especially in postcolonial societies and subjectivities. In much of Muslim West Africa, differences exist between the various ways of knowing and tend to frame Qur’anic schooling as the opposite of Western education. By extension in Nigeria, the men Qur’anic schools produce become what Western-educated Nigerians are not: Almajirai for instance become “others,” and thus they become “less-than” and get lost in myriad power dynamics that operate to keep the elite elevated.

The focus on Western education is because it is identified as a major site for knowledge transmission. It is also a locus of power relations in postcolonial Nigeria. It not only imposed new power structures, but also created new social classes and subjectivities and this then became integral to evolving forms of power relations. The elite, who write scholarly publications, influence mass media, and shape discourses and policies, belong to this class. They are the gatekeepers of knowledge, knowledge-practices, what is seen as valuable knowledge and the power this potentially wields.

In every society and time, people with more power get to define what knowledge is, and to fully establish a “knowledge as power” discourse. When examining the nature of the discourses used in (mis)representing Almajiranci, it is clear how powerful knowledge has the ability to make a discourse “true.” Almajirai exists in our imaginations as uneducated, beggars and miscreants. The Nigerian elite invisibilize the nuances of Almajiranci because of various postcolonial processes including arrogance, privilege, and contempt. In seeking an understanding of knowledge politics, these elites become integral to the analysis.

Ultimately the argument is for the importance of the connection between intricate societal processes and the particular ways, and how they relate with the meaning-making of alternative knowledge systems. Almajiranci exists in the state it does because of these relationships of and with power. The focus is on how the knowledge that a particular discourse produces connects with power, regulates conduct, constructs identities, and defines ways certain things are represented, thought about, and studied.

The discourses used for Almajiranci have become instruments of domination in the ways that they conceptualize the social, educational, and political landscape.

Further Reading