All the wisdom beyond books

How one Ghanaian scholar is challenging colonization by reimagining the idea of a library

By Sam Toman Manager, Executive Communications

Like so many great decisions in his life, it was the advice of his "Auntie Charity" that led scholar Victor Mawutor Agbo to choose the University of Waterloo as the next phase of his academic journey.

He had just wrapped up his undergraduate degree in Tourism Management in Ghana and was looking at schools in Europe to continue his studies. "That’s when my auntie who lives in Canada said, ’This university is right next to us, and it’s one of the best universities in Canada.’ So that’s how I heard about Waterloo," says Agbo.

He didn’t know it at the time, but in making that journey, from Ghana to Canada, from one context to another, had him questioning not only the meaning of decolonization, but the very nature of international academia itself.

Joining the Faculty of Environment as a master’s student exposed Agbo to fresh ideas, exciting opportunities to collaborate, and new people, remembers Agbo, who is now working on his PhD in the Faculty of Health.

He also noted some striking similarities.

"In our lab, we chose a paper to read together and discuss each month, often focusing on the concept of colonization and decolonization, which led me to reflect on its meaning for me, especially comparing my educational experiences in Ghana and Canada," he says.

For practical reasons in Ghana, most of his sustainable tourism sources were from Europe and North America. With limited resources, Ghanaian libraries often rely on book donations from abroad. Unsurprisingly those books mostly typically feature non-African authors.

Despite landing at a relatively resource-rich school like UWaterloo, he still was reading those same non-African authors. It sparked something in him.

"At Waterloo I really began questioning whether I was sufficiently decolonized," Agbo says, from a hotel room in the Netherlands where he is presenting his work. "I began to consider how tourism is taught; how colonial frameworks and certain types of knowledge might be influenced and reproduced by the information we consume."

Now, using sustainable tourism as a focus, his PhD research explores how non-traditional forms of teaching - such as oral histories, personal encounters and ceremonies - can advance Indigenous perspectives in academia.

Agbo imagines a future where this kind of non-traditional knowledge are a routine part of teaching materials, quizzes, and lab work. For instance, this means completely redefining the idea of a syllabus as, "only books, and only with well-known authors."

In many ways shifting away from the reinforced mindset that Western knowledge is superior in tourism studies, or any studies, is somewhat straightforward.

"If you have to write an assignment or a syllabus, instead of just going for what is readily accessible, like citing somebody in Canada who is doing work, you can dig deeper to cite somebody maybe who is in Ghana, or India, or Kenya," Agbo says.

Straightforward doesn’t necessarily mean easy. According to Agbo, academia must break out of the widely accepted Euro-centric mindset that knowledge comes only from text.

This begins with our libraries.

Agbo wants to challenge the conventional idea of libraries as merely physical spaces housing collections of books-a radically new idea.

Through encounters with Indigenous communities in Ghana and around the world, he has gained an understanding that there are ways we transmit knowledge and wisdom that cannot be contained in books or texts, such as the knowledge embodied in community elders.

"What about people’s bodies that are the living embodiment of knowledge," he says. "In a tourism context this could be everything from listening to the elder in the community sharing oral history, to particular scars on their body, neither of which are text, but both transmit important knowledge."

For Agbo, libraries are inherently a restricted space. Whether those restrictions are simply the physical dimensions (they can only hold a finite number of texts) or restricted by access through subscriptions, authorizations, and hours, they do not necessarily lend themselves to decolonization.

"Libraries can either be a place of academic colonial reinforcement or resistance," Agbo says.

Having just presented his work to a wide array of European scholars earlier that day, and with geopolitical events raising difficult questions about decolonization, Agbo thinks it’s possible that decolonization is approaching an inflection point in academia.

"There are some scholars beginning to critique the movement of decolonization. The argument is that a lot of scholars, me included, are only using decolonization as a metaphor," he says. "However, decolonization in its original sense should not be a metaphor. It’s actually, like land back, it’s radical action."

What that action looks like is largely context dependant.

Right now, Vivek Goel is visiting Africa for the first time as UWaterloo President. Traditionally, when the University’s President is abroad it’s to announce a funding partnership or attend a high-profile academic event. But not this time.

Much in the spirit of Agbo’s research, Goel is there to listen, to learn, and to experience places necessary to learn about Ghana’s history, people, and post-colonial journey in a way that cannot be fully achieved by reading books.

Along with Dr. Christopher Taylor, UWaterloo’s Associate Vice-President, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism, their itinerary includes trips to South Africa’s Robben Island - where Dr. Nelson Mandela served 18 years of his prison sentence for fighting Apartheid.

The pair are also visiting Agbo’s home country of Ghana. Where they’ll listen and engage with post-secondary institutions, students and governments to better understand how we can work together.

"That’s reciprocity," says Agbo of the President’s trip. "We both have something to give. And we both have something to learn from one another. I’m very happy and excited that University of Waterloo has taken this initiative to extend its collaborations and connections with my beloved country."

As a Ghanian studying in Canada, Agbo has many more ideas about what true decolonization in post-secondary education might look like in a context of African and Canadian exchange.

He explains that tourism education in Ghana is largely practical. As an important source of income for Ghanaians, central and local governments, professionals and students are often more interested in how tourism can help them survive and thrive.

This doesn’t leave much room for discussions about decolonization, conservation, de-growth and justice. "I am worried about this. Changing tourism education in Ghana might be hard. The government might not want to fund this," he says.

To bridge this gap and help decolonize both Canadian and Ghanian tourism studies he hopes he can connect his department at UWaterloo, with his department in Ghana’s University of Cape Coast.

"This connection does not start with a donation, to build a library for instance, which comes with those same traditional hierarchies," he says. "It’s about co-creation. Even having a dialogue is its own form of co-creation. We both have something to give. And we both have something to learn from one another. Basically, that’s what I would love. And I would say, I’m very happy and excited that the University of Waterloo has taken this initiative to extend its collaborations and connections with my beloved country, I am so grateful."