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Interview: Miguel Marrengula by Nkule Mabaso

Building a School of Thought, the Case for ISADEL Mozambique

Miguel L. Marrengula is a Professor of Sociocultural Animation and Development Studies at Faculty of Cultural Studies at the Higher Institute of Arts and Culture (ISArC) in Mozambique. He is the co-founder of the Higher Institute of Local Development Studies (ISEDEL) and has been acting as Deputy General Director since 2013. The Higher Institute of Local Development Studies (ISEDEL) in Mozambique offers courses in education, the environment, public administration and public health. He has also been the founder and Executive Director of Mozambican Agency of Applied Research (AMPAS) since 2012. Marrengula’s research interests are: Socio-cultural Animation (Art and culture for development), Cultural Heritage, Cultural Education and Art Didactics, Local Development and Social Work (art and culture in social work and child protection). He has published in socio-cultural animation and social work journals.

Nkule Mabaso: What inspired or lead to the founding the Higher Institute of Local Development Studies?

Miguel Marrengula: There have been many factors and inspirations leading to the founding of our University, but I will discuss two basic ones:

1. The first and most important push factor was the need to have our own academic space, where we could share, think and discuss our ideas and philosophies of science and This would be (i) an opportunity to have our own jobs and provide jobs to others (entrepreneurship); (ii) a place to exercise academic freedom and develop our own episteme (since Mozambique, from my point of view, has been one of the countries where positivism — as an academic view of the world — is dominant, and this perspective has ignored the role of local and endogenous knowledge for development and has also suppressed the possibilities of its development in academia); (iii) a place to promote academic changes towards the development of local and endogenous knowledge by Mozambicans and for Mozambicans.

2. In Mozambique, access to higher education has been one of the clearest indicators of social For me and my colleagues, access to higher education should be a right for all citizens. Based on this we wanted to contribute by providing more opportunities to the vast population of Mozambicans who have, for generations, been struggling to get access to higher education.

NM: In practical terms what does it mean to develop you own epistemes—what ontological assumptions, epistemological perspectives and methodological frameworks, philosophies and orientations frame the institution?

MM: In all our curricular approaches, we emphasize the promotion and valuing of local knowledge.

With the active participation of local communities, we practise participative development through researching local approaches, practices and perceptions of development. The philosophy and orientation of our institution is based on epistemological pluralism (there is no one way of understanding reality, there is a multiplicity of ways of understanding reality).

Our university aims to understand the diversity of the socio-cultural and unique characteristics of the Mozambican people, and their development prospects. We do this thorough in-depth research of local knowledge and practices vis-à-vis trends in global epistemological approaches. This perspective includes understanding local philosophies of life and socio-cultural practices (in their political, economic, social and cultural dimensions) in order to develop consciousness (awareness) about problems, priorities and social development situations. An understanding and acceptance of the multiculturalism and trans culturalism of Mozambican society and the philosophy of “endogenous” studies is reflected in the curriculum plans of all courses taught in our university. We focus on the need to share skills and sources of essential knowledge, and on impelling a critical analysis of development practices and the application of local knowledge in the transformation and social change of Mozambique.

NM: How have you gone about developing the curriculum and the orientation of your critical methodologies in relation to how colonialism has shaped schooling, education systems and research in Mozambique? In your response please relate the material consequences of colonialism, and the continued “neo-colonial economic relationships” to the eurocentrism of sociological studies and the contention that Africans are ever subjects of development and not its producers.

MM: The history of Mozambique has been shaped by diverse political and social dynamics. In terms of education, these dynamics have largely influenced the perspectives of what Mozambican education should be. For example, during colonial times, education policies emphasized the need to promote colonial culture and thus the whole curriculum development was based on that perspective. After the independence of Mozambique in 1975, national policies focused in the construction of the so called “new man” who would follow the philosophies of the Marxist Leninist ideals, which were based on the positivist idea of knowledge that would follow the scientific approach of knowledge production. However, this approach, instead of opening opportunities for local knowledge to develop, portrayed such knowledge as superstitious and fantastic, with local practices designated as witchcraft. This closed off possibilities for the development of local knowledge relegating it to the dark dimension of mythological understanding. In 1987, with the introduction of new liberal economic approaches, educational politics acquired a perspective that linked education to the idea of the capitalist knowledge.

This is still the reality and most of the practices related to traditional knowledge are still criticized and not understood as a source of valuable knowledge for local development. It on this ground that ISEDEL designed the orientation of its critical educational methodologies, where the focus is on valuing and promoting local knowledge as a valuable source of human development and social change. In this sense, ISEDEL’s curricular programmes emphasize the use of local languages and the need to address the critical dimension of what is locally valuable and understandable so as to build up a different perspective of local development. In this approach, locals are called upon to contribute what is important in their culture and local practices for the development of their realities.

NM: What approaches does the university employ that de-center dominant perspectives that relegate native knowledge to nativism and recast indigenous knowledge as not new knowledge but rather “natural resources”?

MM: This is the major challenge institutions like ours face. In this context, there is a need to transform the general understanding within our staff (administrative and academic) towards an understanding of epistemological pluralism as the institutional academic philosophy. This is because the training of the staff members in general has been framed within the dominant academic perspective, making it difficult to promote change.

However, at ISEDEL we have been promoting open discussion on epistemological pluralism and we involve all professionals in activities towards change. For example, we ran monthly meetings with community leaders (endogenous leaders) and local active individuals; in these meetings we have cultural performances and discuss social problems. In this platform, we have the possibility to demonstrate the role of endogenous knowledge in social development actions. The participation of students, course managers, teachers and researchers play a major role, since it becomes the main laboratory for social development and a place for validating local knowledge as a main source of understanding and finding solutions for development matters.   Associated with this approach, all our curriculum plans integrate a set of knowledge production activities that enforces the need to use local knowledge in educational process: in all courses there are subjects like (i) local language (Bantu language lessons), (ii) ideas and perspectives of development, (iii) community-based approaches in research methodologies and strong content attached to (iv) local sources of knowledge in the majority of academic disciplines.

Training our staff has been one of the most challenging tasks to achieve this main goal.

NM: What kind of research does the university undertake and what have been the social achievements and outcomes of these research activities? How do you measure these achievements in the face of theoretical abstractions that inadequately connect to the local conditions?

MM: ISEDEL is for local development studies. There are four main research perspectives taking place:

- Anthropological research — engaging mainly with medical anthropology and public health studies (focused on local endogenous medicines and the medical pluralism approaches). These research activities analyse the local native medical approaches and their role in the perceived wellbeing of the 70 per cent of the national population which does not have access to formal health care

- Social service and welfare — the actual and on-going research activities are related to the existing social welfare systems, which are not recognized as official welfare In this, ISEDEL focuses on understanding the diverse cultural and social setting of the caring and social-protection strategies that communities have developed over generations.

- Endogenous nutrition practices — at ISEDEL the Centre of Endogenous Nutrition and Food Sovereignty runs a set of research programmes that focus on traditional food and nutritional practices. This concerns biological agriculture and the need to preserve local knowledge about food production and nutrition. Here we also address issues related to food conservation and processing using endogenous knowledge and practices.

- Traditional medicine and healing practices — ISEDEL has a Centre for Research and Promotion of Traditional Medicine, which focuses on understanding the historical healing practices for the last 1.500 years and the phytochemical composition of traditional medicines used within Mozambique. The most difficult challenge in this is finding the right partners and financial support to carry out such research

NM: Self determination drives the need to develop alternative education and learning systems outside of existing institutions, but do you not feel that stepping out of the mainstream academe removes the responsibility, or the possibility of developing counter hegemonies, or a broadening of the intellectual domain within the mainstream academy in that you exist in parallel but do not really permeate the discipline or change its accepted paradigms? And in fact you might undermine broader attempts to dismantle structural issues within the education system?

MM: The reality is that we are not changing any disciplines, what we are doing is creating a space for our students to see the reality using multiple perspectives so that they can understand the dominant paradigms and have the chance to question these paradigms taking into consideration their socio-cultural setting. Our interest is to build a conceptual understanding of what knowledge is available, how it is constructed and what possibilities there are. Our students and lecturers need to construct and de-construct the academy; the way it has been designed and the way they see it. Actually we are not even interested in dismantling the structural issues within the education system, we are engaged in clarifying and opening the grounds of knowledge production in our society, which has lately been dominated by the following: faith violence (religions struggling to destroy social and cultural platforms using forced conversion), cultural violence (through marginalization of endogenous traditional practices including local languages, beliefs and practices), psychosocial, economic and political violence (the growing social inequalities, social problems and collective dementia).


Miguel Marrengula is a Professor of Sociocultural Animation and Development Studies in the Faculty of Cultural Studies at the Higher Institute of Arts and Culture (ISArC) in Mozambique where he also acts as the Pedagogic and Scientific Central Services Director. Marrengula is the co-founder of the Higher Institute of Local Development Studies (ISEDEL) and has been acting as Deputy General Director of ISEDEL since 2013. He is a visiting lecturer at Tampere University in Finland. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Mozambican Agency of Applied Research (AMPAS) since 2012. Marrengula’s research interests are: Socio-cultural Animation (Art and culture for development), Local Development Studies and Social Work (art and culture in social work and child protection). He has published in socio-cultural animation and social work journals and he is a registered member of the African Schools of Social Work Association (ASSWA).

Nkule Mabaso is contributing editor to the Oncurating Journal and is the director of Natal Collective an independent production company active internationally in the research and presentation of creative and cultural Africana contemporary art and politics. She graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the University of Cape Town in 2011 and received a Master’s in Curating from the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) in 2014. She headed the Michaelis Galleries at the University of Cape Town between January 2015 and June 2021. Mabaso’s practice is collaborative and research interests centre around theorizing and articulating nuanced aesthetic questions from the black female vantage point.

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Issue 49

Decolonial Propositions