The scourge of colonialism has never gone away. Many of us Brits know too little about this dark chapter in our history, yet it lingers in every corner of the previously colonised world today.
Colonialism was a collection of acts so heinous that it condemned millions around the world to lives of servitude and assimilation. The colonisers pillaged their way through so called ‘uncivilised’ nations, denouncing their cultures and beliefs as ‘savage,’ before systemically imposing Western ideology, religion and culture on the unsuspecting populations. Nowhere was colonialism so pronounced than on the continent of Africa. In the late 19th century, the ‘Scramble for Africa’ gained momentum and left almost no corner of the vast continent untouched by the colonisers.
The so-called father of African literature, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe was a prominent figure in anti-colonial ideology across Africa. His revered & seminal novel Things Fall Apart is perhaps his most striking exemplification of how colonialism arrived in Nigeria; proceeding to alienate communities from one another, before annihilating traditional belief systems and then systematically ruining the life of the novel’s protagonist, Okonkwo.
I read this novel in college and was struck by its simplicity and brilliance. As an 18 year old, I discovered a world of treachery so barbaric and absolute, that I couldn’t believe it was the creation of my ancestors in the not so distant past.
You see, as a white Brit growing up in the 90’s and 00’s, I learned mainly about our great triumph over the Nazis, and understood that Hitler and his cronies were the custodians of pure evil, to which every other murderous and inhumane regime and individual should be compared. Without a doubt, the crimes of the Nazis require our study and understanding. But what of the redoubtable acts of the colonisers?
It’s criminal, in my opinion, that revolutionary African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka & Ngugi wa Thiong’o are absent from our mandatory reading lists. Crucial to understanding colonialism is to hear from the oppressed, not the oppressor. And in Ngugi’s Decolonising the Mind, we have access to four essays that have the potential to change our understanding of the indignity of colonialism.
In recent conversations with some of my Ugandan colleagues, whose parents lived through their nation’s struggle for independence in the 1960s, we’ve spoken in depth about the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve spoken with interest and empathy about the terrible events in the USA recently and it’s sparked a conversation about race and colonisation here on the African continent.
That’s when I heard one of my colleagues say, quite innocently, “so what about us?” Of course, her intention wasn’t an attempt to renounce the current efforts of the BLM movement; it was an attempt to begin an important conversation about the dynamics of race and inequality here in Africa.
Her question sparked a surge of intrigue within me. Because so many visitors to post-colonial Africa today don’t understand the wretched policies and tactics employed by the colonisers of centuries past; there is a lack of understanding about how such events have shaped modern day society in many of Africa’s relatively new independent states. With this, in many cases, there is still the common misconception widely perpetuated that white = right and that people from countries of the ‘developed’ world need to develop countries of the ‘undeveloped’ world.
This paradigm is best explored within current development circles and you will find many organisations, often unintentionally, dishing out forms of unrefined neo-colonialism to communities where their interventions are neither wanted nor needed.
I’ve come to believe that it’s a lack of understanding, not malice, that motivates people to fall into the trap of becoming ‘white saviours.’ If only they could understand the scourge of colonialism and the history and cultures of the people they intend to work with, then much of their colonial-type behaviours could be avoided.
I praise the work of the Black Lives Matter movement and I think we all need to act. I believe that action must start with education. And if we are to consider my colleague’s question – ‘What about us?’ then we must educate ourselves about how colonialism has impacted the African continent and what we can do to avoid such acts in the future.
My recommendation is to start with the work of the three writers I have already mentioned in this post. Below is a short reading list, each of which I hope you find to be an interesting introduction to post-colonial literature and to realise that Black Lives Matter everywhere.
Things Fall Apart
No Longer at Ease
Arrow of God
N’gugi wa Thiong'o
Decolonising the mind
A Grain of Wheat
Myth, Literature and the African World
Ake: The Years of Childhood