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T-learning with change drivers in South Africa

Mitigating climate change and transforming to more sustainable pathways will require learning about new activities and new, more sustainable and more just social systems. The T-Learning network is working with different groups across nine countries to understand how transgressive learning (t-learning) processes emerge, what they look like, and how they can contribute to transformations to sustainability.

We caught up with Injairu Kulundu, an early-career researcher who’s part of the T-Learning network, to find out more about her research with young people in South Africa.

Injairu Kulundu, T-Learning

Could you tell me more about what you’ve been working on with T-Learning?

I’ve been trying to understand what transgressive decolonial pedagogical practice looks like across the African continent, by looking at liberation movements, and fictional texts and poetry coming from the continent which speak about transgression, and ultimately trying to put this into conversation with the contemporary thinking and practice of change drivers in South Africa. I’ve been trying to understand how they choose to transgress so as to ask questions about the pedagogical practices that we should be championing as educators.

By change drivers, I mean young people who are doing work for the common good that transgresses in one way or the other. The group includes people from all walks of life: those who’ve had formal education and those who haven’t, people from urban and rural areas. It tries to incorporate as many people and as many diverse identities as possible, including the LGBTI community.

I worked with change drivers in contemporary South Africa particularly, but the research as a whole is looking at the African continent and the diaspora. There’s also a connection to movements in the Global South elsewhere because of similar histories of colonialism.

What’s arising from the work the change drivers are doing?

What’s been very interesting is looking at how change drivers are choosing to transgress thinking about the state as the primary emancipatory conduit, and how they subvert the work of the state in interesting ways. In many cases this can work with some of the resources that are only available through that conduit, but they’re asking how we channel them for young people across their communities in ways that matter.

There’s also been really critical conversations about growing nationalism in South Africa, and a lot of hard-hitting contemporary questions around identity, from trying to understand the black class perspective and how mobilizations fragment around class, even among black people, and black radical feminists speaking about the patriarchal assertions of some of the decolonial movements. Then it goes deeper into looking into some of the mixed-race communities and how religion has been really soporific in those contexts, or overcoming white fragility in the space. What does it mean to mobilize responsibly and what does one’s own community mean in the context? What does it mean in white suburbia, where the sense of community can be so diminished. Where does one’s work then belong?

Other really critical work looks at mobilizing in ways that do not replicate hierarchy and what it means to live into pluriversal ways of being, as part of a decolonial ethic, without that becoming another dogma. There’s a lot of thinking about the ethics of the leadership that one is promoting through these kinds of ways of working.

How have the change drivers been involved? What have their reactions been like?

A really big part of the work has been thinking about how to do this research in a way that does not alienate the people involved, and trying to honour them and ensure their views are reflected.

Early on in the doctorate, I wrote a paper that tried really hard to be inclusive, but I didn’t feel as though it was able to generate an ongoing conversation with the change drivers I was working with and that really disappointed me. A big learning was that I could do this research in a way that would signal being rigorous enough in academia, but would ultimately only be read by those audiences. Or I could do this work in a way that first and foremost chooses ethically to be in integrity with the change drivers that I’m accompanying on this journey. So a big part of the work has been looking at methodology.

As an artist and a musician, I turned to looking at art-based forms to speak in emotive, charged ways about what is real for the people involved. So the way that I communicated back what I was hearing is that I wrote songs. For example, a young person would tell me about their particular struggle or what was happening in their community and I listened as carefully as I could so that I could almost slip into the narrative and the context and the question that they were holding. I felt like the most powerful way to reflect this back to them was to write a song – in song you can capture the frustration, strength and emotion at the same time.

I wrote 21 songs back to the change drivers, after they had offered what was important for them. I wrote songs back to them to say: ‘this is what I heard: can you reflect on this further?’ The feedback was quite emotional and positive – I’m proud that they felt really seen. Even if the song needed to change or something wasn’t quite right, at least it gave us a platform to engage further.

Are the songs available anywhere or they will they stay between you and the participants?

For the doctorate I had to create an online platform that showed all of the videos of each person making their offering. I didn’t want to translate everything and flatten it. Often when you do that and you give a pseudonym of some sort, it just becomes some anonymous person in Africa. That irritates me so much because these are real people with real issues. I used film so that they could speak for themselves, and then I also attached the song. I’m submitting it all as part of the doctorate but if I want to share the songs further I will need to ask for permission. Ultimately I would love to be able to share the music and the site because I think it’s a very rich resource.

Has the research changed or transformed you personally?

That’s a massive question. I started off this project as a facilitator/educator/practitioner trying to understand what is relevant to young people on the continent. This is coming out of a lot of NGO work, which with the best intentions can end up being a bit of a civilizing project for young people, especially in the Global South where they’re often being taught or inculcated to be ‘good citizens’, often ignoring the contradictions they see and the critical questions they have. Doing that kind of work meant sometimes even doing the thinking for young people.

I’ve had to build completely new muscle memory, and do a lot of learning to try to understand how to create radically open spaces that aren’t about training, and that are really creative and interesting enough for people to articulate what’s most important to them. That’s been a massive shift for me in terms of my praxis and how I previously saw myself as an academic.

I’ve tried to problematize the idea of only using some particular academic texts as knowledge when it comes to looking at knowledge on the African continent. Most of what is shared or discussed is often about what the continent is not, and how we don’t live up to the summit of development in this, that, and the other. The sources of this information are always iterating a very state-based perspective of emancipation. That’s difficult because often you can see very different things that don’t follow that pattern, and so the whole thesis has also been about looking at other texts and other places where action is happening besides the state. A lot of creative practitioners and writers on the continent have shared transgressive ideas in fiction rather than in academic texts, so I’ve sought to see that as a legitimate text. When it comes to looking at the traditions of womanists, of feminists and transgressive praxis on the continent, I’ve had to go into poetry because that’s where women speak intimately about what they’re seeing and feeling in a way that doesn’t posture.

I’ve had to dismantle a lot in my head. It can feel a little strange when I go into a traditional academic context and I want to talk about poetry or about how creating song is an important part of decolonial research. This is the first time I’ve done work that has integrated all aspects of myself – normally I have to keep the artist and the musician very far away. Seeing that resonate strongly with those who I am accompanying has been very powerful, and I hope it can help build a trajectory of doing work a bit differently.

Can you recommend any of the authors or poets that particularly inspired you?

There’s a massive anthology of poetry on the African continent and the diaspora called Daughters of Africa. There’s also a contemporary South African poet called Koleka Putuma who has written a book called Collective Amnesia, which is one of the most searing looks into the politics of contemporary South Africa, and so beautifully written.

You were involved in the preparations for the Transformations 2019 conference, which was framed around the idea of reciprocal learning between north and south. Some of the people we’ve spoken to have been critical of that idea, saying that we need to move past such labels. Should we still be talking about North and South?

I’m often talking about sustainability or transformations in the Global North and I am so aware that when I walk into that space there’s a huge translation that has to happen in my mind.

When I compare how young people in the North talk about sustainability with what’s coming out from change drivers in South Africa – and what I know young people from across the continent hold dear – there’s a massive difference. It’s just the way it is. People are wrapped up in survival in a different kind of way and often that doesn’t articulate itself in a strictly environmental sense. Only a couple of the change drivers that I journeyed with mentioned the environment during our engagement. What they were talking about as a priority was firstly the hold that the state has on the progression of young people’s futures, and then urbanization, big man politics and the stifling of national conversation and other related conversations.

The priorities in the Global South context can express themselves differently even though the fundamental roots of the issues are the same, so I do think that we need to keep talking about North and South and even North of the North and South of the North and South of the South. The dynamics can be quite different. In academia we’re in an elitist space that can often forgo what’s happening at a grassroots level. I think that the work of translating between North and South and also the power that comes into play when we gather as scientists, academics or practitioners needs to be at the forefront of our minds. It feels like it takes a lot of ovaries to consistently to show up in the space unequivocally: to show up and sing!

If you think about music or other art-based forms that are grassroots-based, they are very different forms of knowledge production. Some of these conferences can be very rote. It’s about diversifying that and living into a pluriversal future. One theoretician[1] that I really love talks about ecologies of knowledge. There are many different ecologies and it’s about radically democratizing the ways of knowledge production and making sure that you have a massive ecology of knowledge represented that can show up unequivocally.

[1] De Sousa Santos, D.S.B. (2016). Epistemologies of the south. Justice against epistemicide. London and New York: Routledge.


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