Premise and Mission
It has long been argued, that knowledge about Africans and their continent is largely dominated by theories that are produced, endlessly, on the basis of European epistemological traditions. According to this story, anything that passes of as knowledge adopts a European epistemic canon as its main interpretive frame. This European canon, with its roots in the universalism of the European enlightenment, has presented itself as the only universal and objective epistemological tradition – its transportation across the four corners of the earth and its enduring hegemonic power are products of European imperialism and its aftermath.
The outcome of this hegemonic tradition is the idea that the truth can only be discovered by the Western way of knowledge production. It generates discursive norms, scientific practices and analytical frames that disregard, or repress anything that is thought and envisioned from outside of these epistemes. While the Western journalist has been criticised for de-historicizing, de-contextualizing, and essentialising African experiences, the African writer and academic has been expected to translate – or forget – the cultures, languages, experiences, and ways of knowing that have a longer history on the continent – and to only speak of Africans as objects, after which supposedly objective knowledge about those objects can happen.
The hegemony of the European epistemic tradition has not gone without challenge, of course. For instance, it has been the primary concern of the movement for the decolonisation of the philosophical, institutional, and cultural foundations of the university in Africa. It began by preoccupying the minds of African intellectuals, activists and politicians in the 1960s and 1970s, before it was disrupted by an authoritarian and neoliberal turn towards the 1980s. Much more recently, it informed the activities of the Fallist student movement in South Africa. On these African movements for the decolonisation of knowledge, much is known. What is less known, however, are Africa’s philosophical, epistemic, and intellectual traditions through which the majority of Africans continue to make sense of their place in the world.
Long before the movement for the decolonisation of knowledge found expression in Pan-Africanism, Black consciousness, Negritude, and the more recent reiterations of the quest for an African renaissance, Africans were producers of philosophical, intellectual, historical, mythical, fantastical and futuristic knowledge that reflected not only their lived experiences, but their cosmological and universalistic traditions. In the same vein, long before (mostly) Euro-American white males inspired by modernisation theory and other Western anthropological traditions ruminated over the nature of the African state, African notions of selfhood, gender, family and citizenship, Africans had debated these questions, in relation to themselves and to other selves with whom they shared the universe. In sum, and as has been eloquently articulated by Achille Mbembe “long before our encounter with the West in the 15th century, under the sign of capital, we were relational, worldly beings.”
In addition, our geographical imaginations, languages and cultural orientations extended far beyond the territorial limits of our modern-states and the continental confines of Africa – across the vast Trans-Sahara, the Great Lakes, the Swahili coast – and reaching the Persian Gulf, Arabian Peninsula and China seas. What is required, therefore, is a thorough understanding of our dynamic and evolving intellectual traditions, and their visions of society and the human, so as to provide for current and future generations alternative anchors for creative and intellectual pursuits, and for new collective imaginations.
Sahifa presents itself as a see-saw, a sharp tool that aims to see the present through eyes that saw the past. It goes back and forth in time, commenting on the zeitgeists of the now, but uniting them with the ideas and beliefs that defined specific periods of the past.
It is through such labouring that we hope to speculate on the future.
Sahifa mobilizes multiple genres of intellectual practice and storytelling – fiction, illustration, poetry, music, dialogue, essays, film – so as to capture the epistemic complexity and diversity of Africa’s lived experiences.
Our mission is Afro-centric and eclectic.
We are not rejecting the European canon, but we are decommissioning it as the dominant model for knowledge production and storytelling about Africa.
At Sahifa, Eurocentric epistemic traditions converse with African ones, but Africa is always at the centre of the conversation and of the imagination.
The original Sahifa did exactly this. Published between October 1930 and February 1931, the double-size sheets of paper covering a particular topic each Monday attempted to provide intellectual energy for the citizens of the East African city of Mombasa, under the context of British colonialism and the veritable advance of Western culture.
The journal’s editor and publisher, Al-Amin bin Ali Mazrui (1891-1947) is now renowned as one of East Africa’s most important champions for social reform in a large expanse along the Western Indian Ocean. In the original Sahifa pamphlets, Mazrui drew first from Kiswahili’s rich resource of discursive traditions, and then from Mombasa’s pre-colonial diasporic networks with the Indian Ocean World – so as to interpret the colonial experience and reimagine a distinctive African vision for the future.
Sahifa offered a new (modernist) medium to debate old and ongoing cultural questions, and advance Africa’s universal ideas. We are inspired by Mazrui’s attempt to imagine, think and write from a non-Western perspective.