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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Africa, History and Culture in perspective: revisiting colonial encounters

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Grasian Mkodzongi and Mariama Khan

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia



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It was Mahmood Mamdani (2017) who argued that to develop theory one needs a reference point, the theorisation of Africa, the writing of its history and its diverse cultures has been largely influenced by its encounter with colonialism. It is not surprising then that what we know about Africa’s past is largely a reflection of European encounters and stereotypes about Africa. To borrow from Chinua Achebe (2009:21) Africa  ‘like an ancient tree by the much used farm road, bears on its bark countless scars of the machete’. In our case, this machete is epitomised by countless marks left on Africa by its contact with Europe. There is now a growing body of literature which seeks to deal with the Eurocentrism inherent in the theorization of Africa, and our understanding of its history, its peoples and cultures. This scholarship seeks to among other things advance a ‘decolonial’ project whose aim is to challenge dominant narratives about Africa’s past and the developmental challenges which confront its peoples.  Following on Mamdani (1996), this scholarship (Mignolo 1995 and 2000, Wa Thiongo 1986 and 2013, Ndlovu Gatsheni 2013) presents a counter-hegemonic project which can potentially serve as a ‘reference’ point for epistemological approaches that better capture Africa’s history and culture and the root causes of the developmental challenges which confront its peoples. Colonising cultures tend to subdue the cultures of the colonised by imposing the values and beliefs of the coloniser. This process often involves violence and subjugation of colonised peoples, seizure of their lands and natural resources. Due to its brute force, colonialism can end up being ‘internalised’ by the colonised who are made to feel that their cultures are inferior and the coloniser’s culture is superior and hence to be admired. Colonialism also downgrades the spiritual and religious beliefs of the colonised in favour Christianity which is his religion. Local spiritual beliefs, which are grounded in local culture are condemned as ‘heathen or animistic’ and thus to be cleansed by conversion to Christianity. To be born again.  In short, the coloniser presents his culture as the epitome of ‘civilisation’ and that the colonised must emulate him in order to become like him. In short colonial subjugation is ‘transformative’, it is mutative. In order to adapt to the dominant culture, the colonised resorts to biomimicry as a way of fitting into the colonial matrix. To borrow from Homi Bhabha (2004:124), the creation of a class of persons African in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and intellect is the most crucial achievement of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. The internalisation of western ‘superior’ culture thus results in the homogenisation of culture as part of the broader process of ‘civilisation’. Once colonialism is internalised, the colonised is on auto-pilot. He or she will advance the cultural norms, religious beliefs and epistemological approaches popularised and enforced by the coloniser. This brings us to an argument made by Ngugi Wa Thiongo (1986:3) that ‘the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against a collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves’. A result of what is observed by Ngugi above is that the colonial encounter becomes a ‘reference point’ where all knowledge start. This is best demonstrated by the way words such as ‘pre-colonial and post-colonial Africa’ are casually used to denote key moments in the trajectory of African history. Such words carries with them problematic connotations; that the history of Africa starts with colonialism.  In short colonialism makes African history. While the periodization of key historical moments in Africa’s past including colonialism are important, they must not become a reference point for our understanding of African history and culture. For Africa existed before its colonial occupation. Oral histories that capture the diverse cultures of African people existed before colonial encounters, these must serve as a reference point in our exploration of African history and culture. It is not only Europeans who have deployed colonial encounters as the beginning of African history, Africans themselves have internalised this problematic understanding of Africa’s past and present by projecting colonialism as the beginning of their existence, their history. It is not surprising that African identities are understood through the prism of colonial encounters. The enduring legacies of the scramble for Africa, its occupation and partitioning by European imperialists has left a lasting legacy which is not only geographical in nature but is internalised in the African psyche. Today Africans from various regions across the continent proudly glorify their colonial past through references to ‘Anglo-phone, Franco-phone and Luso-phone Africa’. Colonialism makes contemporary African identities tout court. Again the process of presenting and talking about Africa’s regions, cultures and its peoples largely rely on its colonial past. It is not unusual to encounter an African who proudly introduces himself/ herself by either referring to their ‘Anglo-phone’ or ‘Francophone’ heritage. Africa’s colonial past has been sanitized, repackaged and normalised to an extent that it is common to come across advertisement for scholarships and other opportunities which refer to ‘only Francophone’ or ‘Anglo-phone’ Africans can apply. In some parts of Africa, conflicts are bizarrely fought over ‘Francophone and Anglo-phone’ identities, this is especially the case with Cameroon where those perceived to be ‘Anglo-phone’ Africans are being victimised by other ‘Africans’ who are so-called Francophone. This bizarre characterization of the conflict not only demonstrates the enduring legacy of ‘colonial’ encounters but the way colonial experiences and cultures have been internalised by Africans. How can a people with a shared history and culture go into battle against each other proudly wearing foreign identities? The enduring legacy of colonialism has shaped the identities of Africans and their culture to an extent that colonialism has simply become a reference point to Africa. A result of the above is that Eurocentric ideas about development and modernity have overly influenced many of the developmental interventions across the continent. The failure of many developmental initiatives to address poverty lies squarely on the over reliance on Eurocentric notions of development which are far removed from the African socio-cultural experience. This needs to be urgently addressed. While Africa can still learn from other cultures (including the west) it needs to chart its own path. Such a path must be based on the continent’s rich cultures, natural resources and abundant human capital. 

This book is an attempt to map out the problems of colonial encounters. It lays bare the after effects of such encounters in terms of how Africa and its peoples are understood and perceived by the world. It is also an attempt to locate colonial encounters at the centre of the developmental challenges facing the continent. It proposes a counter hegemonic project which puts the continent’s peoples and their culture at the centre of discourses of development and self-awareness.

Colonial encounters, civilisation and epistemic violence

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It is now universally agreed that colonialism has a lasting impact on the cultures it encountered. The ‘civilisation’ of native populations across colonial Africa was a common excuse given by enterprising missionaries who were at the forefront of imperial projects. It is now important to briefly reflect on the impact of ‘civilisation’ on the psyche of the ‘native’. In Africa, Europeans were fascinated by what they saw as savages, the ‘missing link’ between themselves and the apes. One of the most popular questions concerning Africans in Victorian England was: are they humans? This idea of Africans as sub-humans fascinated European imagination and spawned pseudo-academic disciplines such as craniology, social Darwinism and to some extent botany (Fara 2004). In the arts, what became known as ‘Showbiz Imperialism’ (Shephard 1986) was popularised as certain specimens of Africans were captured and transported to Europe for display. In some places, some famous Africans including chiefs and kings captured in war were decapitated and their body parts collected as trophies and displayed among other animal specimens in museums. The brutalisation of Africans during colonial encounters and their depiction as sub humans to be ‘admired’ as part of ‘nature’ has had an intergenerational impact on the personhood, identity and psyche of African people. The lasting legacy of this traumatic experience can be best understood when one encounters an African ‘educated’ in European universities or returning from the diaspora. It is not uncommon to come across such Africans who are ‘proud’ to have forgotten their ‘language and culture’ after their short stint in Europe. This memory lapse takes an incredibly short time, sometimes as little as two years. Among such Africans, it is fashionable to forget their language, culture and themselves in favour of a ‘colonially nurtured image of the colonising country’ (Wa Thiongo 2013:30). Such returning diasporans can be quite a spectacle to watch when they interact with their kinsfolk back home. The adopted accent of the European language, the mannerisms and the dressing can be a highly exaggerated expression of the dominant culture. Such Africans have also internalised the usual stereotypes of Africa. Once they arrive at the airports of their respective countries, the negative stereotypes are set in motion. The roads are bad, the government is corrupt, the infrastructure is poor, there is poor service delivery etc. The food does not test well, the water is not clean. These complaints are followed by a mischaracterization of how things are back in Europe. The transport system is praised for being efficient and on time, the roads are presented as the best with no pot holes etc. There is democracy and good service delivery. The problems of late trains and buses which affect the working people in Europe are often ignored in favour of glorifying the dominant culture.  The ‘mother’ culture, again to borrow from Ngugi Wa Thiongo idea that (1986: 3), colonialism makes the colonised ‘see their past as a wasteland of non -achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from the wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves: for instance with other people’s languages rather than their own.

The process of educating Africans has unfortunately been the major culprit in the way European cultures have been sustained and passed from one generation of Africans to the other to the detriment of African cultures. This leads us to the problems of pedagogical approaches adopted in schools across African countries. When choosing where their children will go to school, petty bourgeoisie Africans will prefer to put their children in schools that are either operated by Europeans or have a majority European children than government run public schools. It is hoped that the little contact with white children will ‘rub’ off some positive white culture desperately needed by blacks. Kids going to white owned private schools are thus captured young and introduced to a neo-colonial culture which they happily glorify at the expense of their own culture. Such children will grow up hating their culture which they are made to believe is inferior and backward.  Speaking English or French is thus a marker of ‘modernity’ and civilisation. There is thus a major challenge in understanding African cultures and history outside the colonial and neo-colonial context. This is not to say there is no scholarly effort to understand African culture without using ‘Europe’ as a reference point. We are only saying here eurocentrism has been internalised and mainstreamed in academic discourse to an extent that it has been normalised. According Ngugi Wa thiongo (2013: 3):

Colonialism did not only make communities captives of foreign economies and politics but also psychic captives through cultural control. An aspect of the control is the obsession of the colonised with the image of the ‘mother’ country. The dwellers in the colony, at least the educated upper echelon, come to more than identify with the language and culture of their colonial inheritance. They become obsessed by it almost as if they are under the spell of spiritual possession. Even the most progressive are not immune from this spirit possession by the image of the benevolent mother

Colonialism has thus cast a ‘spell’ even on some of Africa’s most progressive intellectuals. In his famous analysis of the ‘psychic’ impact of colonial encounters Ngugi Wa Thiongo (2013: 31) observed how African scholars such as Henri Lopes ‘could write with glowing terms of endearment about Francophonie and the French language’. According to Lopes, French had become a superafrican language despite the fact that…it is spoken by a minority only’. Ngugi goes on to observe how Lopes is following in the footsteps of Leopold Sedar Senghor, the former President of Senegal who ‘retained his French citizenship and chose France as the place of his retirement’. The above also applies to Toussaint L’Ouverture, the rebel slave who led the Haitians revolt against French colonialism for ‘not being able to conceive the future of Haiti without France’ (Ibid 32). Furthermore, luminaries of the Negritude movement such as Aime Cesaire though critical of colonialism could not conceive his native Martinique without France and thus opposed its independence from France. The failure to wean oneself from the mother country is thus one of the most enduring legacies of colonialism.  The problem of African intellectuals today is how to overcome the coloniser’s cultural dominance in favour of their own culture. Like Aime Cesaire, the African intellectual becomes a caricature of the European. In fact he is a European in the making. Most of the attempts at theory and philosophy are borrowed from Europe. The culture of the mother country remains his reference point. Even the language is borrowed. There is thus an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when African intellectuals master Greek antiquity/philology in the quest for originality. For if the Greeks were central to the European hegemonic project, they also influenced their African surrogates who study and theorize Africa using the philosophies of . Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Locke Freud and the more recent scholars such as Foucault etc. For example knowing Foucault and his relevance to Africa has become an intellectual quest for some Africans. It is an accomplishment to apply Foucauldian concepts to understand the state and governance in Africa. A major question that arises then is if Africa rediscovered itself and presented an alternative epistemological project grounded in its diverse cultures would this enrich epistemological approaches. Could cultures enrich each other?  If Descartes had a Eureka moment which led to his self-discovery, did he envisage that in other parts of the world, epistemological pluralism was a lived reality; that the ‘I and we’ are intertwined? These alternative cosmologies have been ethnicised, and discarded in favour of the Eurocentric hegemonic knowledge production machine. It is a totalitarian homogenisation machine. The denial of the existence of philosophical thought among the colonised symbolises the problems of the cultural hegemonic project and its attempt to supress the cultures of the colonised. It was the Belgian missionary-come philosopher Placide Tempels who rebelled against the dominant colonial narratives which denied the ‘existence of philosophical thought’ among the natives when he explored what he called ‘Bantu Philosophy’. This was after a dismal failure in his missionary work in the Belgian Congo, which forced him to reflect on where colonialism was getting it wrong in its dealings with the ‘natives’. According to Deacon (2003)

Tempels was of the opinion that the missionary and colonial undertakings were a dismal failure. The cause of the failure could be recognised in the fact that the basic premises governing the Bantu world-view and existence had not been taken into account the conversion process, and for this reason, the missionaries had not been able to provide the Bantu with anything that could be assimilated in any proper manner

Never mind his colonial entanglements, Tempels was able to bring to the fore the basic problem of colonialism. That the African had his/her own philosophy, he could think, he was not merely an infant as proclaimed by Rhodes (Millin 1936). The only problem with Tempels’  discovery was methodological, how do you try to understand African philosophical thought while using Europe as a reference point? In their quest to understand African philosophical thought, Tempels and his contemporaries faced the same problem African scholars are facing today in their attempts to advance a counter-hegemonic project. How to put Africa at the centre of a philosophical inquiry outside the prism of Eurocentrism. We are talking here of some of the pathfinders of African philosophical thought such as Pauline Hountondji (1998), Kwasi Wiredu (1998), Kwame Gyekye 1998, Tsenay Serequeberhan 1998, Valentine Mudhimbe to name a few. Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s pioneering work on the problems of colonialism and its after effects must be applauded for laying a foundation for a new scholarship that seeks to break the problematic ‘umbilical cord’ that ties the colonised to the coloniser. Others such as Fanon (2007 and 2008) were the pioneers in exposing the psychic impact of colonialism. Having struggled with the European hegemonic project, he advocated for a violent cleansing process to effect liberation, while others such as Senghour (1966), Cabral (1979) and Cesaire (1995 and 2001) exposed the flaws of colonialism and its cultural dominance. However, as noted earlier, some of them were drowned by the overpowering force of European hegemonic thought and violence.


Dr Grasian Mkodzongi (PhD University of Edinburgh) is an Executive Director at Tropical Africa- Land and Natural Resources Research Institute (Tropical Africa LNRRI) based in Harare Zimbabwe. Until 2015, he was a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Western Cape and A.C. Jordan Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town. His current research focuses on the interface of agrarian change, natural resource extraction and rural livelihoods in Zimbabwe and the southern African sub-region. He has published extensively on issues of agrarian transformation, rural livelihoods, extractives and social transformation in Zimbabwe and southern Africa. His major works are Land and Agrarian Transformation in Zimbabwe, rethinking rural livelihoods in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s land reforms, Land Reform Revisited: Democracy State Making and Agrarian Transformation in Post -apartheid South Africa (co-edited with Femke Brandt), Africa, History and Culture (co-edited with Mariama Khan).

Born in Brikama Newtown in July 1977, Mariama Khan studied at St Joseph’s High and St Augustine’s High schools, both in Banjul. In 1998, she completed her BA in International Development Studies and English at St Mary’s University of Halifax, Canada. She served in the Gambian Civil Service as an Information/Press /Publicity officer with the Department of Information Services in Banjul, and she was a Communication Officer at the Women’s Bureau before leaving for Boston, the USA where she successfully completed her master’s in media studies and Film. She has produced several documentary films mainly on gender issues. Mariama Khan was among the first female Secretary General and Head of the Civil Service and later went back to the United States where she has embarked on advanced studies and teaching.

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