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CACE Book Talk Intellectuals

By Kathryn Kazibwe, Uganda:

Who are Africa's public intellectuals, and what is their role in our time and society? This was the topic of discussion at the inaugural CACE Book Talk session that took place on the 26th of January 2013.

While it was evident that a clear-cut definition of an intellectual was difficult to agree on, the discussants all agreed that intellectuals must be able to critique the status quo in their immediate society, using the large knowledge base that they possess, and have an impact on said society.

Basing on this, then, do we have any such people in Africa, in Uganda? And if we do, what is their impact on their people's social, political and other aspects of life?

There is the common misconception that intellectuals are an aloof class of people, who hold high academic qualifications and are experts in various fields, perhaps even members of university faculties. However, we would be foolish not to consider those without any formal education, but who are also experts in their own right, in sectors such as traditional farming and culture.

The communal setup of the African life, which many people in the countryside still live, meant that ideas, cultures and social norms were easily disseminated to the various members of the society, and the elders were highly respected and consulted on all kinds of matters. Their wisdom was legend, and their impact was often felt by entire communities. These were the intellectuals of their time and setting. Can we then find a parallel in today's fast-paced world?

According to renowned Ugandan journalist Timothy Kalyegira, what we call our intellectuals are merely people who seek to mimic developed societies, and therein lies the problem. A secondary school child in Uganda might be unable to tell you of what economic value their home district is to Uganda, but can write a thousand-word essay on British Columbia's economy. This is the kind of education that prompts us to think that the solution to our problems lies beyond this continent. We are expected to imitate well, rather than innovate. One cannot very well expect the results of such a system to produce open minded thinkers who put every situation into context before deigning to find and implement solutions and/or better ways of doing things. It instead produces young professionals who are eager to export their knowledge to the Diaspora. What is interesting, though, is that it is these same people who will write books about an Africa long left behind, one seen through a skewed lens. When such people offer their advice, it is bound to come from a flawed point of view, one that stresses Africa's inferiority and cites foreign success stories – perfecting the art of disguised imitation. The unfortunate thing is that those who can better put our reality into perspective are generally not appreciated for the intellectuals they are. They have little or no impact on the public.

The question of how much impact an intellectual should have is also worth asking. How much change must a person have effected to be considered an intellectual? Impact, of course, is relative, and to try and quantify it would lead to various difficulties. Must there be something tangible to show for one's intellectualism? A law, a building, a language? Going back to the elders in the traditional setting, is that the kind of intellectual that Africa needs? Would such people be well equipped to advise on issues like national economy and foreign policy?

I am driven to the conclusion that intellectuals are simply pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. One fits their knowledge where the other stops. At the end of the day, the bigger picture makes so much more sense than the single pieces viewed in isolation. This is the reason why it is important to combine formal and informal training to bring up a holistic person, with different experiences that enable them to put alien ideas into context.

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