By Denzel Nyathi
The Rhodes University Department of Anthropology recently hosted a talk with anthropology Senior Lecturer Dr Dominique Santos, Heritage Management Lecturer Dr Pascall Taruvinga, and seasoned Content Director and Producer, Ayanda Mncwabe-Mama.
The speakers began by sharing their perspectives on how we might pay respect to indigenous peoples and their forms of knowledge and archives. From Dr Santos’ perspective, indigenous knowledge goes so far back as to acknowledge that nature, arguably the most indigenous role player, has a story in itself to relay. She relayed this through her poetic talk, titled “The Sick Building and the Angry Water”, looking at how the rivers that flow under the grounds of Makhanda are in a long-term conflict with the buildings above ground.
Dr Taruvinga shared in the poetry by discussing the possibility of anthropology students aiding in heritage management through a shift in perspective. He did this by recognising the curatorial practices of his own mother's house in a village in Zimbabwe where he grew up. Her home and the organisational structures of decorative artefacts (including the crockery) were an act of preservation of culture. “Anthropological experiences in action”, Dr Taruvinga described it. Here an argument for a shift from a very Eurocentric understanding of “monuments” was made in favour of recognising how the everyday lives and practices of African communities are in themselves decolonised anthropology.
To round it off, Mncwabe-Mama, who has a passion for seeking out the creative talents unseen in villages and townships, dedicated her talk to thinking about the value African spirituality could have if incorporated into our “modern world”. Her passion for the topic challenged attendees to think about how children and the spiritual (which often overlap) might have knowledge which has an intangible value. She argued for the protection of such knowledge.
In these discussions, pathways of thought were opened, re-opened and reshaped. The room (both virtually and physically) came alive with impassioned comments, personal anecdotes and questions. Even fellow academics and senior anthropology students were left questioning how we all relate as people and as people within nature. The guest speakers didn’t offer rigid answers or claim to be the source of incontestable knowledge. Quite the opposite; they humbled themselves in answering that they might not know everything and urged the room to consider that answers might lie in historically unrecognised communities.
This acted as a beautiful breath of fresh air and showed that the Department of Anthropology recognises that they – as one small gear in the greater discipline – have much to do to separate the study from its colonial and damaging past. The discussion was a roundtable, after all, and not constructed around rigidity.