Feminist political economy, land, and decolonisation: Rama Salla Dieng in conversation with Lyn Ossome

By Lyn Ossome and Rama Salla Dieng

In this interview, Rama Salla Dieng shares her thoughts on methods, feminist political economy, land questions in the Global South, radically reclaiming parenting as a political terrain of subversion and resistance, commitments to decolonisation while located in the western academy, radical acts of self-care, and African feminism.

Lyn: Can you briefly introduce yourself, Rama?

Rama: I am an African feminist academic, and writer interested in contributing to thinking and being part of positive social transformation within and most importantly beyond the academy.

Lyn: Your work in feminist agrarian studies (with a focus on Senegal) emphasises a methodological imperative. Why feminist political economy, especially in thinking through land questions in the global south?

Rama: (this is a very long response) As a feminist academic, I believe it is important to pay a special attention to what is important to our research participants, from the choice of our research topic and questions to the methodology and the findings. Regarding methodology, heterodox political economists and critical development and agrarian studies scholars have been attentive to local and global processes of social, political and economic transformation (Bernstein and Byres 2001, Wanyeki (2003)Razavi (2003), Tsikata and Amanor-Wilks (2009) Edelman and Wolford 2017Sam Moyo & Archie Mafeje (2018)  Akram-Lodhi 2018Shijvi (2019), Akram-Lodhi, Dietz, Engels and McKay 2021). Focusing on the study of Africa, the late Vishnu Padayashe and Kevin Hart (2010) have pointed out three problems replete in the theorisation of African political economies and socialities: generalistic and oversimplified (re)presentations of the continent’s multiple ensembles; shift from unidirectionality and linearity of African trajectories to the realisation that the reality is always a more gradual shift; and the admission of the centrality of political agency. Methodologically, these scholars have used comparative work and mixed research tools to disrupt mainstream approaches to analysing economic change. The works of heterodox political economists Samir Amin and Thandika Mkandawire come to mind. On comparative inquiry, I think of Carlos Oya’s analysis of large and middle-class farmers in the Senegalese Groundnut Basin or Hazel Gray’s comparative political economy analysis of Vietnam and Tanzania.

Critical race, postcolonial, post-modernist and decolonial scholars have enriched feminist and critical scholarship by convincingly arguing that race, class and gender are not given: they are social relations. Critical feminist, postcolonial and decolonial scholars have contributed to acknowledging the limited analyses of mainstream economic models whose narrow understanding of ‘the economic’ fail to capture their embeddedness in gendered, classed and racialised values and norms. The recognition of this has been late and partial (Pollard et al 2011, Zein-Elabdin 2016). Not only did critical feminist and critical agrarian scholars contribute theoretically and empirically to the recognition of the gendered, classed and racialised dynamics of economic transformation, they did so while acutely pointing to the entanglements of local and global dynamics of change.  Critical feminist and critical agrarian scholars have often used this theoretical approach to examine development processes with the view to assess its gaps and key steps to make it more inclusive for the most vulnerable in society. These scholars and Collectives working on Africa and the Global South such as yourself, Dzodzi Tsikata, Bina Agarwal, Rosimina Ali, Awino Okech, Marjorie Mbilinyi, Mary Kinyanjui, Srila Roy, Alessandra Mezzadri, Maria Mies, Nancy Folbre, Sara Salem, Naila Kabeer, Jayati Ghosh, Chandra Mohanty, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, Amina Mama, Andrea Cornwall, Nancy Kachingwe, Yolande Bouka, Maureen Mackintosh, Hibist Kassa, Ruth Nyambura, Elena Baglioni, Lourdes Benaria, Genevieve Le Baron, Wendy Harcourt, Elisabeth Prügl, Odile Mackett, Busi Sibeko, Susan Newman, the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), the Nawi Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, or the SOAS Feminist Economist Network (to name a few) have critiqued mainstream discourses on African and Global South political economies. 

They critique mainstream analyses of the political economy of development which have often proposed blanket policy solutions that mostly failed to centre and address the specific needs of women at the margins whose labour has been made cheap. Alongside this is the recognition that heterodox approaches that centre intersectionality in analysing the intersecting dynamics of gender, class, nationality, ability and race (among other social determinants) can together provide a more accurate picture of uneven development processes and outcomes in postcolonial economies. Critical in this exercise is acknowledging ‘situatedness’ and the differences that time and space make in analysing capitalism in diverse geographies of economic transformations. Recently, I have enjoyed reading  youDzifa Torvikey , Ambreena Manji , and Sara Stevano for instance as I believe you centre this in your analyses.

I have tried to centre this methodological imperative in my chapter in a 2018 collective book on Women Researching in Africa: The Impact of Gender. I hope our forthcoming bilingual special issue on Agrarian Change, Food Security, Migration and Sustainable Development in Senegal and Zimbabwe contributes to furthering this methodological imperative with relevant empirical illustrations. In this special issue for instance, my article argues that invisibilised ‘care chains’ that overly burden women, and communities of solidarities, play a crucial role in the social reproduction of horticultural workers, most specifically migrant workers, and provide a subsidy to agrarian capital. Therefore, care chains enable capital to exploit labour and accumulate profits. Yet, capitalist development does not always translate to better wages and more inclusive laws and policies for horticultural wage workers and providers of caring labour who are adversely incorporated in these political economies. I hope to contribute to furthering these questions emerging from my PhD research and subsequent GCRF-funded project  in my monograph.

Lyn: In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, you curated an important interview series called Talking back: African feminisms in dialogue – conversations with African feminists that covered a broad range of topics. What was your central concern in initiating these dialogues, and what insights most surprised you about them?

I think an alternative title for this travelling interviews series published in English and French on ROAPE.net, Africa Is A country, Progressive International, Seneplus (a Senegalese online journal), and the blog of the Centre of African Series (Edinburgh), could have been: African Feminist Politics and Poetics of Knowing, Loving and Organising.  This title pays tribute to the work of feminists such as Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, Obioma Nnaemeka, Awino OkechMaria Lugones (among others). The main objective was to be in dialogue with other African feminists from the continent and the diaspora and to honour and document together our dreams, struggles and transformation projects. The goal was also to celebrate African feminists’ ways of knowing, loving and being while mapping current registers of feminist activism online and offline, on the continent and in the diaspora. We did that while also centring African feminists’ aspirations, joy and self-care. It mattered that these conversations were made accessible to all online, and not published behind a paywall. I believe this is political. I learned so much!

Lyn: You recently co-edited the volume, Feminist Parenting: Perspective Beyond Africa, whose multiple themes include radically reclaiming parenting as a political terrain of subversion and resistance. Could you reflect on these two ideas?

Rama: First, it is important to highlight that most of the authors in the volume share their feminist parenting praxis, philosophy and trajectory, which is influenced by their own rich, multicultural, and diverse histories and current location and politics. Thus, producing theories that contest and resist heteropatriarchal constructions of ‘being a family’, and aiming to decolonise and queer such construct by bringing back in collective and non-conformist ways of doing parenting is in itself subversive. The authors of the book do this by paying close attention to cross-cultural differences, similarities, and possibilities of other-parenting beyond the hegemony of patriarchal models. These parents offer an intersectional analysis of their parenting and analyse the impact of class, race, sexuality, gender, culture, nationality, migrant status, and location on their feminist parenting practice. The parents in this book believe that societal change starts at home but extends far beyond it: parenting is an eminently political act, as is social reproduction. And the pandemic has further ascertained this by bringing to the fore what was hidden in plain sight: with the current crises of social reproduction and the regeneration of life as you and some current feminist political economists have shown.

The process leading to the publication of this book has been a formidable learning experience and has offered critical insights on politics and power in knowledge production in the context of an international feminist collaboration.

Lyn: The idea of decolonisation is central in contemporary debates on liberation. Two questions i) How does your location in the western academy and intellectual vantage point of the global south shape this question for you? ii) Your work and numerous contributions both on/offline reflect a deep commitment to Pan-African feminist organising and feminist solidarity. Could you speak about the nature of this necessity for you?

As a Lecturer of African Studies and International Development at the University of Edinburgh, UK whose parents and most of siblings live in Senegal, keeping links with my intellectual networks in Africa is very important to me.  That is why I am very pleased to be affiliated with the Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

When it comes to decolonisation, this location offers many possibilities but also comes with self-awareness about my privileges, and questions about how to produce knowledge and who this knowledge serves and is accessible to. The idea of decolonisation is complex and is certainly more than a buzzword as Kathryn Toure recently reminded us in her summary of the last African Studies of Africa Conference (held in Cape Town in April 2022). My all-time favourite quote on Decolonisation is by Nigerian feminist Obioma Nnaemeka for whom producing theory in cross or multi-cultural context poses several questions: these are  ‘the question of provenance (where is the theory coming from?); the question of subjectivity (who authorises it?); the question of positionality (which specific locations and standing [social, political, and intellectual] does it legitimise?’. These are apt questions that feminist scholars such as Sylvia Tamale, Chisomo Kalinga , Wunpini Mohammed and journals/initiatives such as CODESRIA , Feminist Africa , TheElephant, or Africaisacountry,  share constant reflections on , and warn us against extractive and racist dynamics in scholarship on Africa.

Therefore, it is very crucial for me in teaching and researching social and economic transformations to pay specific attention to questions of “how we know” about “others” (who are these others?), how do we disseminate what we know, and how we also teach and train students in African Studies and International Development. These are some of main questions  my University of Edinburgh colleague Ann Zuntz and I ask in this blog post for instance, and to which colleagues such as Marion Ouma, Hazel Gray, Sabelo Ndlovu Gatsheni, Pooja Jain and Robtel Neajai Pailey made a very remarkable contribution at an event I co-organised on Decolonising Development for the launch of the eponym Development Studies Association (DSA UK) Study Group.

I believe it is crucial to be honest about who our audiences (or publics) are when we produce knowledge in African and Development Studies. This should not be an afterthought. Therefore, whenever possible, I try to be a facilitator, or a mediator interested in co-producing ‘knowledge with’ , or creating a table for other early-careers scholars like me. This was a case at the European conference of African studies when I hosted a double panel on African feminisms, that was the case for our 2019 Dakar Symposium on Agrarian Change, Food Security, Migration and Sustainable Development which led to a special issue, and this also guided our panel on Work and Social Reproduction in Africa at the forthcoming International Association of Feminist Economics conference in Geneva at the end of June. Multilingualism and translation are key to any serious decolonial project in my opinion to reach the primary / or more diverse audiences rather than often already privileged social categories. This was the motivation behind the translation of our Talking back interview series into a book of interviews in French published by Presence Africaine in 2021. And this reminds me of something you said when Françoise Moudouthe and I interviewed you in 2019 Lyn: ‘it is in the locations where one spends most of their time that education takes place. The academy is a miniscule part of those locations. Meaning that even as we challenge the curricula within the academy, we must pay attention to the voices, practices and struggles beyond it (or cynically, marginal to it).’

Lyn: What radical acts of self-care do you practice? I am thinking here too, of something that preoccupies me more lately – of care in a world that is pervasively ableist and narrow in its constructions of what care needs are for different people.

In Senegal and in most African cultures, the self is inclusive of the community one belongs to (or one was invited to). So for me self-care happens both at an individual and at a collective level. At the individual level, as an introvert I enjoy spending time alone, reading or gardening, or with loved ones, in nature or near the sea. Sometimes I love inviting people into our home and to gather around a meal (I love cooking my own food). I also enjoy connecting with others in person or on social media (but I need to take long breaks away from the online space to recharge). Collectively, I enjoy being part of collaborative projects that serve a bigger purpose in my academic and personal communities. I have a chronic illness and recently found out that I am neurodivergent so I have developed some useful routines and coping mechanisms such as meditation, journaling and writing.

Lyn: I would like to end on a somewhat philosophical note: what do consider to be the most important question(s) confronting African feminism at present?

I think any definitive response to this very large question risks being incomplete, or worse, sound pedantic because it is a question only African feminists can collectively respond to (maybe time to revisit the 2006 Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists that Jessica Horn historicises so beautifully here?) . However, from the many interviews I have had with African feminists over the past two years, I believe the questions of freedom and liberation for all, the right to be and to thrive, self and collective care, decolonisation (as in: freedom to think about/ and own the meaning and the means of organising, dreaming and loving),  are some that are quite important. There are certainly many others, but these are some that I believe are crucial. This is illustrated by two things you responded to me in 2019 when I asked you this question in relation to African feminist research.  You first said that ‘there is actually nothing of importance that feminist academics are not already critically engaging and interrogating’ but that there was a need that ‘whatever questions we prioritise, must emerge organically from below’. You also said that it was so crucial for Black and queer women to ‘stand in their power’ because: ‘we cannot keep fighting simply in order to survive. Our struggles are meaningless and certainly not revolutionary if they don’t also offer us the serious possibility to thrive as human beings’. I think this is beautiful, so please allow me to leave our readers with these two quotes of yours. Thank you Lyn.

Lyn Ossome is Associate Professor of Political Studies at the Political Studies Dept, School of Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Rama Salla Dieng is Lecturer in African Studies and International Development at the Centre of African Studies, School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, UK  and is affiliated with the Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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