Ubuntu for who? – Provocation for Wikimania Workshop 2018 by Taskeen Adam

A provocation for the workshop at Wikimania 2018 “Ubuntu for who? Equity by Free Knowledge?” by Taskeen Adam

Ubuntu for who?

Openness is often described as something that is inherently good and desirable. In the latest discussions on open education, discussions have focused on the need to include the marginalised into the open world. However, have we thought about whether they want to be included or whether it is congruent with their traditions and philosophies? Furthermore, who is the ‘we’ that is trying to include them, and is this not a sign of power imbalance in itself? Whilst exclusion is a result of power relations, so is adverse incorporation where marginalised groups are forced to join global trends.

The open content movement was started as a response to licensing. However, licensing in itself is a western concept and thus openness as a response is not always applicable. An example of this is the Dutch Company attempting to patent Ethiopia’s Teff grain, despite it being first domesticated by Ethiopia between 1000 BC and 4000 BC. Thus, we need to ask ourselves, are we being respectful of different ways of knowing and ways of sharing knowledge? In some cultures such as the First Nations or the Aboriginals, the indigenous elders are the keepers of sacred knowledge, and decide whether or how it is shared. Factors that play a role in deciding how knowledge is shared is gender, sensitivity of information, tribe, status and age (Baker, 2018). Similarly in some African traditions, accessing specialised knowledge required first proving that one was ethically and morally worthy of taking on the responsibility of engaging with such knowledge (Kamalu, 1990).

One way of attempting to include African populations into the the open space, has been to use an African equivalent: Ubuntu. One understanding of Ubuntu is “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (a person is a person through other people). But are we stripping Ubuntu of its true meaning when we reduce it to simply meaning the African version of openness? As we see the word being used more and more internationally, is Ubuntu becoming a brand, a commodification of culture, and virtue signaller bereft of its authenticity? If this is the case, neoliberalism and capitalism seem to be the biggest winners in such cases where ‘inclusion’ is a way to expand ones markets. Facebook Free Basics would be a great example of this as it offers Facebook with no data costs in countries such as India, with the goal of expanding their users. Whilst such glocalisation can seem beneficial in the short term, is this not reinforcing and cementing in power imbalances?

Once local and indigenous knowledges are shared, the question then arises, who benefits the most from it? When local knowledges such as unpatented traditional herbal remedies are shared, it is often those with wealth that are able to capitalise of it, often not with the consent of the communities these knowledges come from. This is not to say that the knowledge should never be shared, but rather a matter of how. A good example of this is the code of ethics drafted by the San people of Southern Africa, allowing for all cultural sensitivities to be accounted for. Such a code of ethics gives the power to the marginalised group, and works on their terms of how their knowledge should be used.

Baker, N. (2018) It’s Open to All, Right? Who is excluded from and by open educational resources(OERs)? Presentation at OER18: Open to All

Kamalu, C. (1990). Foundations of African Thought: A Worldview Grounded in the African Heritage of Religion, Philosophy, Science, and Art. Karnak House.

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