The call to decolonize and the action of decolonizing are not one but many. They are expressed in different parts of the world as sister philosophies that defend the value of life beyond human life, ecocentrism, the idea of a pluriverse, solidarity, justice, human rights, the struggle for autonomy and self-determination. Many acknowledge the need for diversity.

Buen vivir is an expression of this decolonial “way of thinking, acting and being in the world”. What are other sister philosophies?

Bayo Akomolafe (Ph.D.), rooted with the Yoruba people in a more-than-human world, is the father to Alethea and Kyah, the grateful life-partner to Ije, son and brother. A celebrated international speaker, posthumanist thinker, poet, teacher, public intellectual, essayist, and author of two books, These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home (North Atlantic Books) and We Will Tell our Own Story: The Lions of Africa Speak, Bayo Akomolafe is the Founder of The Emergence Network and host of the online postactivist course, ‘We Will Dance with Mountains’. He currently lectures at Pacifica Graduate Institute, California and University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont.,


Ashish Kothari, Indian environmentalist who focuses on development, environmental interfaces, biodiversity policies and alternatives. He is one of the founder of the Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh. He has taught at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, coordinated India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process, and served on Greenpeace International and Greenpeace India boards. An active participant in peoples movements, he helps coordinate the Vikalp Sangam Global Tapestry of Alternatives processes and Radical Ecological Democracy network.

1. What is to decolonize?

B. Akomolafe: This is a good question. And I do not mean to begin my response with the age-old evasive manoeuvres partisan politicians are famous for: you know, answering difficult questions by first playing to the gallery. I mean, this really is a good thing to ask, especially now, given how popular the term “decolonize” has become, and how this popularity risks stretching the concept so thinly that it holds no weight, no tensions, no meaning. Taking care to tease out boundaries and meanings is good work.

There are many ways the concept of decolonization is deployed today – to varying effects. At least one meaning names the political and historical struggles of resistance to remove oneself from colonial status and achieve state independence. For instance, from the mid/late 1950s till 1975, because of the Second World War, a wave of political agitations swept across the continent of Africa – leading to the disinvestment of European colonial powers in about 50 African states and to the independence of said states.

Beyond these historical struggles, it seems these days everyone is trying to decolonize something or the other. A popular notion of decolonization carries with it the promise of eventual repair, a way of addressing the lurking ills of resurgent coloniality. This ubiquity of “decolonization” is such that it marks widespread desires for an indigenous return to an original arrangement, for uncovering the hidden lives of minoritarian bodies in white supremacist societies, for coming alive to the hidden curriculum in the ways our societies are organized.

I deploy the term “decolonization” in specific ways: to name the counterhegemonic practices that disturb the stability of the familiar. By this, I mean to say that the world is not populated by things, by objects, by stable identities. Instead, the world is dynamic, moving, emergent, relational, entangling, and entangled. Colonization is a form of mapmaking enterprise that seeks to extract from this mobility some kind of permanence. To do this, it will use some bodies as props and prosthetics while exalting other bodies it sees as emblematic of its world-making imperatives. I think of decolonization as the overwhelming spillage of matter that disrupts the efforts at enacting closure. To decolonize is then to crack open patterns, algorithms, and systems. Such a definition is careful about situating this agency squarely within human sociality. For me, it is not humans that decolonize as such. It is assemblages…complex heterogenous networks of relations that irrupt, spill through, deterritorialize, reframe, and remake the familiar.

A. Kothari: Several centuries of colonization, which continue today in many forms, have created patterns of thinking, acting and being amongst the colonized that are often clones (or nearly so) of how colonizers thought, acted and behaved.

In India, the British created generations of ‘brown sahabs’, whose skin color was different but who behaved with the rest of their fellow citizens in much the same way as the ‘white sahabs’. In India, as in the entire colonized world, models and institutions of governance, education, health, and economics were imposed from above, erasing or submerging Indigenous approaches that had evolved over millennia. Diverse and ecologically rooted knowledge systems and cultures, also ancient and continuously evolving, were replaced or crushed by the dominant ‘Western’ systems.

Even after gaining independence from their colonizers, most nations have unfortunately maintained neocolonial systems in various forms. Some may be continuations of the past, others may be new as a result of the global changes in technology, communications, and financialization that economic globalization has imposed. New colonizers, such as China and India, with their rising economic power, have replaced or joined the old ones, finding their own ways to exploit less powerful nations and peoples of the global South. This happens even when they act to resist the old imperial powers; for instance, the BRICS Bank, set up by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa as an alternative to the World Bank and IMF, has much the same kind of policies with regard to the forms of ‘development’ it supports, and democratic procedures are also absent.

Even our notions of time and work have been colonized. For instance, the separation between work and leisure, and the distinction between weekdays and weekends, is an imposition of the dominant Western ideology. I call all this a shift from livelihoods to deadlihoods.

It is therefore necessary to ask fundamental questions about what colonization has meant, how we are still colonized in many ways, how we ourselves, who were once colonized, are now colonizing others (including within our own nations) … and how this situation needs to be fundamentally transformed, in ways that are briefly outlined below.

2. There are other ways of being in the world. For example, in Latin America, the notion of “buen vivir”, poorly translated “a good life”, or in South Africa the philosophy of “Ubuntu”, can you relate to those notions? Do you have a name for this other way of being in the world? 

B. Akomolafe: Ubuntu is certainly more recognizable to me as a pan-African philosophy that situates wellbeing in the collective fabric of intra-connected lives. I am from West Africa and of the Yoruba people. I do not know of a single-concept equivalent that easily captures these ideas in my language. But the Yoruba articulate an idea called ‘àṣẹ’, which is often poorly translated as the Judeo-Christian “amen” (‘so be it’). It means much more. The term gestures at the creative power to transform things, the agency by which the world worlds itself, a mysterious primordial force that is culturally imagined as a power wielded by one of the most noteworthy ‘òriṣà’ (or deities/superhuman entities in the Yoruba pantheon), called Èṣù – a trickster and duplicitous archetypal force whose playfulness is the engine room of reality.

In the concept of àṣẹ, I find a thrilling posthumanist/animist story that decenters the human as the principal actor in the world. It is a way of saying that there are other imperatives, agencies, intelligences, powers, principalities, and calculations other than the ones domiciled within the modernist traditionalist subject.

As such, while ‘ubuntu’ says “I am because we are” (perhaps a direct critique of the Cartesian project and aphorism, “I think therefore I am”), àṣẹ paints a portrait of a world that won’t sit still. Within that myth are the threads of new kinds of livelihoods and subjectivities.

A. Kothari: In India, there have been resistance movements and initiatives to create grounded alternatives that are based on ancient worldviews and concepts as well as new ones. For example, the notion of swaraj, roughly translated as ‘self-rule’, is being practiced on the ground in movements for radical democracy (decision-making centered on village and urban assemblies), for food sovereignty, and community stewardship of natural ecosystems such as forests and rivers. Combined with a core focus on ecological wisdom, eco-swaraj, or Radical Ecological Democracy, involves arrangements in which all people are at the center of decision-making in their own local to landscape level forums, and make decisions with full responsibility towards other people and the rest of nature.

Learning from a myriad of grassroot movements for alternatives, a framework on radical alternatives, with a ‘flower of transformation’ (see figure below) has emerged, to show the various spheres where fundamental changes are taking place (or must take place):

  1. Ecological integrity and resilience, including the conservation of nature and natural diversity, maintenance of ecological functions, respect for ecological boundaries (from local to global), and ecological ethics in all human actions.
  2. Social well-being and justice, including a fulfilled life (physically, socially, culturally and spiritually), equity among communities and individuals, communal and ethnic harmony; and erasure of hierarchies and divisions based on faith, gender, caste, class, ethnicity, ability, and other such attributes.
  3. Direct and delegated democracy, with decision-making beginning in spaces that allow each person to participate meaningfully, and expanding from there to larger levels of governance by downwardly accountable institutions; and all with respect for the needs and rights of those who are currently marginalized.
  4. Economic democracy, in which local communities and individuals have control over the means of production, distribution, exchange and markets, based on the principle of localization of basic needs and the trade that builds on them; central to this would be the replacement of private property with the commons.
  5. Cultural diversity and knowledge democracy, with multiple knowledge systems co-existing in the commons, respecting the diversity of ways of living, ideas and ideologies, and encouraging creativity and innovation.

An holistic transformation would involve working on all these spheres, although, of course, most grounded initiatives will prioritize one or another at some point, and some may even struggle to deal with one or more of them.

It is important to highlight that the initiatives in India and across the world are extremely diverse – they form a pluriverse – but they may have a set of values and principles (ethical, spiritual) in common, including: solidarity and reciprocity, diversity, freedom and autonomy, human rights, respect and responsibility, interdependence, equality and equity, living within and with nature and recognizing its rights, dignity and inclusiveness, simplicity or the notion of ‘enoughness’, among others.


3. What does this decolonized way of being imply personally and collectively?

B. Akomolafe: I try not to parse the world into the “personal” versus the “collective”. I don’t think with such divisions. For me, the personal is already public/political/sociomaterial. The collective is already hidden, occultic, unavailable. I also do not want to talk about a “decolonized way of being” – as if it were a done deal, a state to arrive at, a pure archive of alternatives just lingering outside the status quo, something that’s already there. Instead, I think of the decolonial as embodying the processes that open up new spaces of power with the world, new cartographies, and new political imaginaries.

A. Kothari: I think one of the biggest challenges we face, especially in urbanized-industrialized societies but increasingly in rural-traditional ones as well, is the individualization and privatization of all aspects of life. The sense of ‘I am because we are’ (beautifully expressed in southern Africa’s ubuntu worldview) has declined to varying degrees as capitalist modernity has taken over. To bring back a sense of the collective, we need to understand that without interdependence and complex relationships with other people and other species/the Earth, we are only individuals adrift, without any mooring. Yet the individual is also important, and so alternative movements must create (or recreate) a balance between individual identities, creativity and a sense of self on the one hand, and the interests and identity of the collective on the other.

4. What are the challenges and struggles towards that realization of this decolonized way of being?

B. Akomolafe: I think the struggle is not to attain something. The struggle is an ongoing inquiry and openness to what the world is doing. You see, when you are in a sensorial monoculture of some kind, it becomes habitual to see and understand the world in some ways to the exclusion of other ways. Think of this repetition as a cycle of sameness, a cyclicity that reproduces the same images, the same structures of oppression, the same patterns over and again. However, this cycle isn’t pristine: it wilts and flails and fails and often ruptures. Cracks surface. It is my sense of things that cracks mark the places where the usual is challenged by its hidden tensions, offering new possibilities for doing things differently. You could envision this “doing things differently” as an adventurous line snaking away from the whirlwind of sameness I described earlier. A French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, called this a line of flight. His contemporary, Fernand Deligny, taught of these branching deterritorializations as “wander lines” (lignes d’erre) or lines of errancy. Within this conception, the struggle is to fail well, to stray away from the usual long enough for it to take root and do other things. This is the struggle of the decolonial: how do we fail well? How do we get lost? How do we exile our bodies from this cotton plantation?

A. Kothari: The challenges are enormous. The sheer power of the currently dominant system is perhaps the biggest, and alternative movements have not yet been able to figure out how to undermine this system at the macro level (though there are many examples of success on a smaller scale). This requires much more horizontal mobilization and networking of resistance and alternative movements than has been possible so far. Another challenge is that many people have been convinced, through clever messaging, that their hopes lie in the same rat race that has actually disempowered them, and that they will be able to achieve success if only they are able to beat all their compatriots. To project and promote alternative ways of life, and to convince people that these can bring as much or more happiness and satisfaction than conventional ways, and that this can be done without destroying the Earth’s life support systems, will require a huge burst of creative communication and engagement that reaches people’s minds and hearts.

5. How does your every day life look like while following this decolonized way of being?

B. Akomolafe: It looks like cooking and sweeping and thinking together and playing and paying bills and taking care of one’s autistic son and wondering if one made the ‘right’ decision in deciding not to send one’s daughter to school. It looks like holding phones and posting on Facebook and writing books and washing dishes and having disagreements with the love of your life and having nastier ones and making up with a smile and a kiss and spreading the clothes on the criss-crossing lines up on the terrace and explaining to one’s daughter that plants are intelligent life forms that would probably have things to teach us about our veganism – and then hopping on a plane to go speak in a faraway land. The decolonial is not a destination; it is approach. It is the ordinary in its pilgrimage. However, it is also the soft confidence that nothing is fully itself all by itself. Even these ordinary moments are cosmic in their dark luminosity, harbouring an ontological kernel of a notion, a seed, that reminds us there are possibilities for wonder and newness in the recognizable and the exhausted. In short, the ordinary is what the extraordinary longs to become.

A. Kothari: Every day is a mix of hope and despair; of engaging in creative activities such as writing articles and engaging with people and wildlife, while having to do mechanical things such as organizing the logistics of a network meeting; of wondering if the potential outcomes of the next travel justify its ecological footprint; of trying to figure out what to purchase to be less wasteful or do more things by hand; of wondering whether to bike to the office today, in the face of all the traffic and pollution on the roads, or resign yourself to taking a motorized vehicle; and much more! I do not think I am close to being ‘decolonized’, but one can only keep trying …

read the french translation