The Illusion of Intellectual Freedom

I remember 6years ago, I decided to take a Master of Philosophy (Mphil) course in Development Studies with concentration on Rural Development at the then Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at the University of Cape Coast. The Centre is now called ‘Institute for Development Studies – IDS’.

As typical of me, I had ideas what my thesis was going to be about before I enrolled – at least you had to write a proposal as part of the admission process. I proposed to explore ‘youth participation in decision making at the Komenda-Edna-Eguaafo and Abrem (KEEA) District.

The Mphil was a two year programme – a year dedicated to course work – advanced statistics, theory, Development law, computing (yes, we were thought how to use computers at a Masters level and yes, many people did not have a clue how basic office works!). The second year was dedicated to proposal writing and the thesis work.

The first year was good. I enjoyed immensely – for the first time, I was able to link some of my past work to a school of thought or theory. Things I did randomly or thought were random had names! It was intriguing – I was having fun. I did not care so much about the grades because, I was learning something beyond grades! Suddenly, 6years work all made meaning! Every programme I had organised, got funded for, or sponsored made meaning and I could only go on!

By the end of the first year, my proposal was ready and then disaster stroke! The director of the Centre queried my proposal in a very confrontational manner. He said: “What has youth got to do with decision making?”. I spent an hour explaining my thoughts, ideas and reasoning for the topic. We both realised I was not going to change my topic and I knew then that, I had trouble coming…I never finished that thesis. I wrote 3 chapters…I never got feedback! My supervisor kept going back about whether I have had my proposal approved by the department or if what I had done was the beginning of my work. It was real frustrating! Indeed, the professor that questioned role of youth in decision making has more than 20years experience in water and sanitation programming in local communities and I wondered if in that 20years he did not have to work with young people in setting pumps, organising labour and leading in the construction of wells and boreholes. For me, that was said.

But while my direct supervisor and I were going back and forth about whether my three chapters was a proposal or thesis; a donor agency had offered to fund a proposal born out of my theoretical framework.  For 22,000$, they wanted to see how the theory works in real life.

For a year, I enjoyed the work of seeing my thoughts in action – it took me to Koforidua in the East, Sogakope in the Volta, Bolgatanga in the Upper East,Wa the capital of the Upper West region and Takoradi in the West and of course Cape Coast. My natural home in Ghana. The lessons of this project changed me…I hungered for more and was not in the mood to fight over whether my 3 chapters was a proposal or part of my main work. I got no further feedback and never chased for feedback (for those that do not know, in Ghana, a Masters thesis could take up to 4years to write – some have done it in 6months others 4years plus!). Short story; I left the programme with what the University calls Mphil Part 1. This decision was summer 2010.

Fast forward 2011: I applied and got admission into the University of Amsterdam (UvA). A presumably prestigious University…presumable because the drama for me was too much.It overshadowed the good things that UvA was praised for.

Life in Amsterdam itself was but interesting. I have spent time in Europe back and forth but never a long time like my time here. The first few weeks were terrible…I felt marked; people will not share my seat on the bus; on the train or  tram. But soon, I learned to accept that. Not even highly enlightened Amsterdam can make you feel less black.

Then the worse came…even in the classroom you felt something was not right. My Nigerian colleague and I took it all in our stride; indeed we were the oldest in the class. We kept each other company and shared our dreams and frustrations. His departure made life a little difficult outside my family.

My colleague and I joked that we will receive the lowest mark with our thesis unless we had external supervisors. That no matter how much work we did, the best would be a 6.5 so we could get out of the system (and yes, we managed not to get our choice of second readers due to “administrative” reasons and yes, I experienced this nightmare we joked about). We both had a writing style that seek to combine theory with social action aka we tried to spice our work with real everyday practical experience of the field. We felt conflict resolution in the context of Africa was beyond theory. If theory was what is needed, all of Africa’s conflict would be over. We realise there is a need to merge theory with practice; and if there was anyone to show that, then it was us.

During one group assignment, I struggled to show my colleagues that land and how it was viewed in Africa is VERY different from the European concept.

We were made to use some theories to interpret our findings and in the process of that interpretation, I insisted the theory in the context of South Sudan (as my group was looking at the specific case of the localised conflict between the Nuer and Dinka) was not possible and that you needed a complex permutation of the variables and then develop a multi-layer strategy such as RPP (Reflecting Peace Practice). The look on my professors face was confusion and then dis-interest. But that group had a good score of 8.3 or so! It was a risk but it paid out.

I took the same for my thesis; merging (for lack of a better description) an academic theory with a social-development fused concept; marrying the two to develop a frame work for the case I was exploring.

I felt dis-heartened; I thought and believed that in an European institution, people do not get punished for experimenting and pushing the boundaries of thinking. I am not implying I did something amazing! Lets face it, I was not interested in an Eurocentric thinking about conflict, especially in the context of Africa. Indeed, the course about conflict hardly discussed the most conflict prevalent continent expect to find bad examples. So yes, my writing was not the best but to say a concept is weak because it was more socially inclined and not scientific was the lowest I have heard.

Indeed the phenomena I explored was 100% socially organic; the concept to deal with it can only be organic and influenced by theory not the other way round.

So, I seat here and wonder what difference does it make when a Professor with 20years plus experience in development does not see youth a important in community decision making in a context where 35% of the population are youth and when another tells me I can not exercise academic independence based on my practical experience and the data I collected.

I am not writing to challenge that decision, I am only writing to say…Freedom – whether political, social or academic can be illusive. From Accra to Amsterdam, I have experienced it – my opinion is freedom is in your head. Live it!

To Tata Madiba (Nelson Mandela) – for showing the world and lowly (Humble?) people like me what freedom and independence mean.

Again, Its in you!

That being said, I have had a great experience and I hope to continue to live in the Netherlands knowing that, Freedom in its diverse meanings can not be offered by any person but myself.

PS: I will write about my year with the administration of  the University of Amsterdam

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