How to be an ally? An ongoing (un-)learning journey

This text is an adapted excerpt of my unpublished doctoral disseration and was first published on

“Indigenous and non-indigenous alliances cut across localities, nations, and continents” and the struggle for decolonisation and “recovering indigenous peoples’ identities … knows no borders”, writes Norwegian professor Anders Breidlid in his (2013) book Education, Indigenous Knowledges, and Development in in the global South.

What binds together the steps of my professional life is a quest for (learning how to) being the best possible ally in the struggles for what I a decade ago understood as sustainable development and during the course of my ongoing (un)learning journey have come to understand as decolonisation and planetary survival. As a German, Norway-based academic, I carry with me “the skin colour, geographical origin and cultural heritage of the former colonisers”. Therefore, on a personal level, the quest for becoming an ally involves very centrally the reflection on, and unravelling of, the layers of my positionality. As mentioned, I see this quest as an ongoing journey of unlearning my (colonial) assumptions. It led me from volunteering in a South African orphanage, to building up a student NGO together with a group of friends, obtaining a degree in development studies and making acquaintance with bi- and multilateral development agencies in my twenties, to serving as an NGO education advisor and pursuing doctoral studies in my thirties, to working towards decolonising my teaching and the courses I am responsible for as a lecturer on the verge of turning 40.

The transformational moment that eventually led me to pursue a PhD happened about twelve years ago. One of the teachers in my master’s programme, a medical anthropologist, made a point that health and wellbeing are not universal concepts, but are understood differently by different peoples in different parts of the world. It struck me that this must be the case for education as well. How could Westerners such as myself assume to have a universal answer to what constitutes (good) education and export and implement this understanding in the so-called developing world? After the lecture, I sought out the library, dived into the shelves, started reading about African indigenous ways of knowing – and could not stop. Sitting in my institute’s small basement library, I understood that our planet is home to more than one knowledge system; that indigenous epistemologies had been subjugated as part of the colonial endeavour and that the educational systems established upon independence – usually with a major impact from the former colonial powers, now called developed countries – continued to marginalise or ignore people’s own ways of knowing. Having run the abovementioned student NGO that financed small-scale initiatives in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Argentina and Brazil for many years before starting my master’s, I had always thought of my approach to ‘development’ as critical, bottom-up and on people’s own terms. Yet I had been completely ignorant about indigenous ways of knowing and the epistemological aspects of colonisation. I had never questioned the understanding of education as a universal concept, as a kind of medicine that can be ‘administered’ to people as a cure from poverty. I never questioned it because I hadn’t known that there was anything to question. Sadly, this is not surprising. To date, the implications of epistemic diversity are hardly ever reflected in Western development organisations or mainstream development discourses – and this was even less so when I took my master’s more than a decade ago. Therefore, one personal motivation for re-entering academia to pursue doctoral studies was irritation with the arrogance of my own kind. That is, Western (educated) folks who – with best, albeit ignorant, intentions – engage in ‘development’, without taking a step back from our own epistemological and ontological assumptions before (possibly) doing so.

The first months as a PhD student were spent reading on the colonial impact of conventional, ‘Western’ research and on decolonial, indigenous methodologies. I pondered whether and on what premise I could engage in research involving indigenous ways of knowing and whether and on what premise I could conduct research in the global South at all. By that time, I was already well aware of my Western positionality, but I did not realise how profoundly this positionality shaped my assumptions about education, knowledge production and  so-called development. I critiqued the internalised colonial notion of education equalling European education. However, I did not realise that the same internalised notion prevented me from questioning certain ‘universal’ educational practices such as (formal) education being facilitated by teachers in schools through compartmentalised subjects.

Until now, my efforts to be part of the above quoted indigenous and non-indigenous alliances involved physical travel to the global South as an assumed location of that struggle. Considering the tremendous damage done through colonisation, twenty years ago I had reasoned that the colonisers’ descendants should return to the same places to help repair this damage. Realising the epistemological and ideological dimensions of colonisation, the idea of Westerners traveling South in the pursuit of both decolonisation and development had already become problematic to me when planning my doctoral research. Yet I held on to it, hoping the right way of researching might justify such travel. In my doctoral research, I argue for cross-epistemic (research) collaborations for the common goal of planetary survival. In a 2019 lecture titled A World Without Borders? Cameroonian thinker Achille Mbembe speaks about a planetary consciousness and the need to focus on what we as human beings have in common rather than what separates us. Following his thought, in my understanding of a decolonised academic world, scholars from all epistemic backgrounds would collaborate to generate meaning on mutually agreed terms, pursuing mutually agreed goals. Thus, my conclusion here is not against any travel from North to South and vice versa (though taking seriously the environmental damage caused by flying may suggest at least a radical reduction of physical travel). Much rather, as I become aware of the deeper layers of positionality, I realise that a central part of being a ‘Western’ ally in indigenous struggles means addressing the coloniality of ‘development’ and knowledge production at home, that is, in the Global North.

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