Research and Knowledge Theft in Uganda

Katrina Bland

There was a professor from Canada, who every year would take me for coffee, and at the end of every coffee, she would have a chapter written based on my conversation. So, I have decided that I no longer share vital knowledge on the issues we have been working around. As an issue of intellectual property rights, this is my request, don’t let western scholars steal your knowledge. Let us write.”

Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt all eyes in the room turn to me. As the only Canadian present and the intern charged with taking verbatim notes, it appeared that I could be preparing to do the very thing he was warning against. Words that the speaker intended as a call to arms for the native Ugandans in the room would recur to me again and again as they echoed some questions I have been asking myself about my time in Uganda. 

This is the view from my office at RLP. Across the street is Old Kampala Primary School and in the distance the National Mosque is visible. From my office I can hear the sound of children playing, practicing the drums as well as the call to prayer everyday. Old Kampala is no longer the downtown centre of Kampala, but was the centre of the colonial administration before independence.

On my first day at Refugee Law Project (RLP), I sat in my office and read the Compendium of Conflicts put together after years of research by RLP’s Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance department. I am embarrassed to admit that I was surprised by how complicated Uganda’s history of internal conflict is and how little I knew about the country that would be my home for the next three months. While I was familiar with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, I knew nothing about the funding of various rebel groups by foreign African governments, the diversity of Uganda’s ethnic make up and the inter-tribal tensions further exacerbated by religious adherence, or the efforts made to have customary, religious and English common law co-exist as parallel and at times equal legal systems. My surprise, however, transitioned into something that resembled exasperation and recognition of my own incompetence. Who am I to be here? What could I possibly offer?

Set up of a psychosocial, medical and legal aid camp hosted by RLP for World Refugee Day. Almost 300 people attended seeking access to one or all of the services at the event. Although the event was meant to end by 5PM, it stretched on due to the overwhelming demand. During the event I tried to help as much as I could, but my ability was limited. While I gained a great deal from witnessing the event, I feel that I was able to offer little in return.

I think internships are often more work for the host organizations than for the interns themselves, no matter where you are in the world. Here, so far away from home and where the perspective on history I had absorbed over my life is out of place, this is exacerbated. I imagine I would need at least a couple years of education in Uganda, on the culture, history, socioeconomic structure and so on, before I could offer anything at all. I am lucky that my colleagues at RLP have been nothing but patient and welcoming with me as I try to catch up.

One of the tasks I have felt I could be useful doing has been editing working papers and other documents written by RLP staff from across Uganda. I am extremely self-conscious while doing it, however. English was forced upon colonized societies and there is still a tendency for people from the Global North to assume that English being different in post-colonial societies is the same as English in those societies being bad. Instead, however, I think that English in Uganda simply evolved differently the same way English in Canada evolved differently from English in the United Kingdom or the way French in Montreal is recognizably different from French spoken in Paris. They are in a way, all different dialects with the same roots. As such, I struggle to understand at times, as the primary connotations of words here are different from those at home. More than this, I think story telling is a deeply personal and cultural practice. The expressions that resonate with individuals vary from place to place, from culture to culture. Is there any objective value to the Global North’s conception of academic English? Or should we all be moving towards accepting more diverse versions of story telling and argument writing?

Inner courtyard of the Parliament of Uganda in Kampala
Kampala was chosen as the capital of the British protectorate of Uganda as it was the centre of the Buganda Kingdom, the Kingdom the British favoured to rule over the conglomeration of other Kingdoms that became Uganda. The same speaker as in the quote above said in another instance, “What is Uganda? There is no such thing. You know, the thief is always in a hurry, so the British forgot the B. On the copy of the agreement signed between the British and Buganda Kingdom in Luganda, the B is still there.”

In my experience, this recognition of lived experiences as a form of truth telling worthy of legitimacy in academic and professional spheres is only emerging in legal scholarship in Canada. In comparison, it seems that Uganda is years ahead. RLP, for example, specializes in organizing events they call memory dialogues, which serve as an opportunity for individuals to describe events as they remember them and contribute to the creation of a collective history. I have edited many documents that draw on these memories, describing surviving mass killings in village squares or witnessing individual murders where the bodies were later skinned or boiled in the street. Who am I to change the words and phrases someone has chosen to relate their experience working with war torn communities in northern Uganda? Still, as the documents are intended for a global audience, particularly future donors and other NGOs looking for best practices to follow, there is some practical need for them to meet the expectations of those readers. As such, I try to find an appropriate balance between what my instincts tell me about academic English and the author’s original voice.

I am reminded of the words of the speaker above during this process. Although I am only editing, it is not hard to imagine the sense of ownership the speaker’s Canadian friend would feel over a chapter resulting from their conversation. Does translating stories into the Global North’s conception of an academic thesis give us the right to call the ideas our own? Or does it simply allow us to remain willfully blind to what the speaker resents? If I consider research and writing about Africa as, at least in part, a self-interested practice, often allowing individuals who participate in it to garner some kind of elite status, it seems that extracting knowledge and experiences as fuel for this process is akin to colonial resource extraction. Unlike physical resource extraction, however, the market in which scholars from the Global North sell their ideas does not buy raw materials. There are so many good reasons and intentions behind this kind of research and writing, but at the same time, I feel it may be complicit in the perpetuation of the Global North/South dichotomy. Have I trapped myself? I am not prepared to celebrate such scholarship wholeheartedly, but I am not prepared to denounce it and walk away either.

The question, then becomes, what can I possibly offer in the future? Will I ever come back to Uganda? Will I work for an international human rights organization somewhere else? Will I ever be able to give anything back to the people who have shaped my experience here by walking me through some of the most complicated and painful issues RLP is trying to tackle through transitional justice?

Petit, a fellow intern at RLP and law student and me at the Wildlife Conservation Centre in Entebbe, known to locals simply as the zoo

Solomy, a transitional justice lawyer with RLP, and me at an event on property rights in post-conflict communities hosted at the Parliament of Uganda

I thought at first that even if I took what I learned here and applied it in Canada or elsewhere, that would be enough. In fact, there is so much that Canada could learn from the transitional justice movement in Uganda. But, then I learned that the resentment against knowledge theft, as articulated by the speaker, is not an isolated opinion. Communities all over Uganda—whether rural or urban, refugee or host—describe people, like myself, coming in, conducting interviews, doing research, and leaving. It feels, understandably I think, exploitative to be asked to share painful experiences and hopes for the future with a stranger who will take your words, translate them into a paper written in academic English and return to their comfortable life somewhere where their families will be happy they survived Ebola. No tangible difference in your life as an individual, often no thank yous and no goodbyes.

My focus on this seems to reinforce that I am from the Global North, a fact that I often instinctively wish I could hide. In contrast, my colleagues seem less concerned. As educated professionals from the capital, they are in some ways removed from the people they are trying to help like me. More than anything, they want me to worry about gaining as much as I can from my internship experience. Just yesterday, one of my coworkers said he was going to talk my supervisor into taking me to the field to see some of what I have been reading about first hand. In response to my discomfort and concerns, he simply said ‘What you learn here could influence what you do for the rest of your life.’ I have no doubt that my time at Refugee Law Project already will, and even though I don’t think I have any answers to the questions I have been asking in this blog, maybe that is enough for now.

Lake Victoria as seen from Ssese Islands where the main economic activities are fishing, logging, and palm oil production for exportation. Prior to colonization, the islands were the spiritual centre of the region.

Leave a Reply

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.