One thing that strikes me quite strongly, reading and writing about Africa, is the depth to which false perceptions of Africa have sunk in our collective subconscious. While I think it is forgivable for people whose only experience of Africa is aid adverts with awfully malnourished children and news bulletins featuring some rabid warlord spouting maledictions – this delusion of utter dependence should not be replicated by Africans. This is why we have autobiographies and biographies. The person describing herself has greater insight than the person retelling the tale. A self-portrait is not a caricature. We Africans have flipped the script. We have reproduced the caricature in our understanding of ourselves, in telling our stories and understanding the heart of Africa. We have replaced the cradle of life with a heart of darkness. So I have a 5-step solution. We need to begin thinking and fast.
1. What is Africa? Africans need to revisit how Africa is defined. Take a step back from all that has been said, especially by the media. Read the works of Africans. Look at the Africa around you. If possible step out of where you live. Visit another African country. Visit a city far away from you. Read African history. Africa is not the few unscrupulous leaders we have. Africa is not lions in the Savannah or gorillas in the midst. Africa is her people. Africa has always been her people. Will always be her people. The stolen and the left behind. So look at her people. Africa is an eternal thought in the mind of God. There was always Africa. Before she was called Africa. Before the invention of Africa has the home of negativity. Ignore the countries/states. While I am not in favour of the breakup of states, we must remember that nation-states are made, not imagined. The states in Africa were imagined by people who never set foot on our tropical shores. Imagine Africa beyond the lines on the ground intentionally drawn to dehumanise. Obama once said ‘The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.’ We need to claim our identity as Africans and divorce this quest from a merely political one. We have bought into thinking we can truly be what we should be by ensuring our ‘brothers’ place in political office. How’s that working for you thus far? Go and explore, and think what it means to be African.What is Africa?
2. Colonisation and the Sense of Inferiority (Why Decolonisation Matters): Now I really do hate to bang on about colonialism. Really. However, let us say as an analogy, someone scratched you with a sharp nail. Then went away. The scratch becomes septic because the wound is not cleaned, because the damage is not understood. Do we say the scratch is in the past and fail to treat the wound? By no means! We may forgo pursuit of the culprit. We may refrain from a lengthy and arduous litigation, but we do not deny existence of the wound. We do not say the wound does not exist because it makes people uncomfortable. Make no mistake colonialism is a wound on the psyche and insult to the soul, a generational offence that lingers unacknowledged on the edges of our subconscious. And it the centre of our hearts.
Thomas Pynchon, said, ‘Colonies are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit.’ (Imagine!)
Our Africa was the Petri dish in which the experiment of empire was conducted. And while the experiment may have apparently ended, the apparatus of psychological oppression hangs on in our minds like a never-fading apparition. How did a handful of European administrators manage to shackle the African giant? By imprisoning the most important part of a people – their sense of self-worth. By making us believe that we were inferior, that our laws, customs ideas were of no value, thus our minds were captured into the colonial Black Maria and our bodies soon followed. We see vestiges of this in everyday discussions and actions: Parents failing to teach their children African languages, people using ‘that’s what they do in London’ as a trump card in arguments, skin bleaching, naming of children, the repugnancy principle, acceptance of non-African standards of beauty……. This is epistemic violence. After the guns of invasion are withdrawn and the sound of battle has ended. We still see the use of law and language to marginalize or victimize. Africans remain at the margins. The stolen and the left behind.
Patrice Lumumba of Congo is famed to have supposedly said to the departing Belgian colonists ‘Nous ne somme plus vos singes [or macaques].’ (“We are no longer your monkeys). Words are cheap. Attitudes need to change. Declaring that colonisation is ended is not the same thing as ending it. Decolonisation matters. Still.
3. Self-knowledge: The first step to changing attitudes is self-knowledge. Decolonisation has to start with the mind. A mind that is not self-aware cannot be decolonised. Africans, I believe, have a problem with self-awareness and self-knowledge, especially as concerns the nature of that self-knowledge. Arundhati Roy talks about the psychology of globalization thus:
‘It’s like the psychology of a battered woman being faced with her husband again and being asked to trust him again. That’s what is happening. We are being asked by the countries that invented nuclear weapons and chemical weapons and apartheid and modern slavery and racism – countries that have perfected the gentle art of genocide, that colonized other people for centuries – to trust them when they say that they believe in a level playing field and the equitable distribution of resources and in a better world. It seems comical that we should even consider that they really mean what they say.’
The problem with Africa is that we still trust foreign ideas more than our own. We take these false narratives, these illusions of altruism and we internalise them and make them our own. In the quest for a better world, we intuitively understand our world to be worse. And we are unaware of that state of mind. Unaware of our self-loathing. We make no allowance for our intersectionality. We are black, generationally oppressed, women, men, children, poor, third world… yet we do not speak of how these factors affect us personally. No one else can see our pain. This pain is ours, but we swallow it, we stomach it, and let it fester deep within us like fermenting cassava, its poisonous cyanide, killing us from the inside. Spit it out!
Ask a hundred non-Africans to describe Africa, there responses would be fairly similar. Ask the same of a hundred Africans… Self-knowledge unlocks the heart of Africa. Africa defies definition, but that is no excuse not to think of her. To think of what being of her makes us.
‘There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa…Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just “home.”’ Beryl Markham
This is my self-knowledge. Stolen or left behind, Africa is home, I am Africa.
4. Who Have We Been?: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
― George Orwell
There are very few things that upset me and annoy me as much as an African spouting inaccurate and derogatory ‘facts’ about Africa. A multiple degree holder once told me, ‘no African political entity had ever succeeded.’ I had to physically restrain myself, or else we would have needed industrial cleaners to clean the blood from the walls. Did he not know of the Ghana Kingdom with its riches in gold that existed for 1000 years? Or the Oyo Empire that traded far and wide? Or the Buganda and Bunyoro kingdoms of present day Uganda? Or the supposition that Africans do not know about leadership or have never experienced good leadership… All I have to say to that is… Mai Idris Alooma, Nana of Itsekiri, Askia Mohammed (Askia the Great), Sonni Ali, Shaka Zulu (kaSenzangakhona), Mansa Kankan Musa, Sundiata Keita, Alaafin Oranyan, Cetshwayo kaMpande, Ahosu Ghezo, Asantehene Opoku Ware and ASANTEHENE OSEI TUTU AGYEMAN PREMPEH II!!
And the myth that African women lack agency? Or are weak? Or docile? Oya come and read this:
Cleopatra, Moremi Ajasoro, Iyeki Emotan Uwaraye, Efunsetan Aniwura, Queen Amina of Zazzau, Inikpi of Igalaland, Taytu Betul, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Queen Nzinga, Omu Okwei of Osomari (Felicia Ifeoma Ekejiuba), Aba women’s Riot, Lagos Market women’s riot and the Dahomey N’Nonmiton (a Fon all-female military regiment).
If you don’t know who these people are or what I am talking about, shame on all the education systems in the world. Our history is a fact that happened no matter what you have heard, I dare you to act like it. I dare you to find out who we have been. Then you will know who we may become.
Answer me these questions:
Who discovered the Nile?
Who discovered the River Niger?
Who was the first person to climb Mt Kilimanjaro?
We need to be aware that schools set up by the colonial powers were primarily set up to enable communication between the coloniser and the colonised. In that sense they were mainly centres of instruction. However, they have gradually become educational institutions, though educational content in many African curricular still retains vestiges of post-coloniality. This the point of the questions I asked above. We are not the centre of our own education system.
African indigenous education emphasised training individuals to contribute to the development of their community and the benefits of a cohesive communal life. Conversely colonial education emphasised the value of the individual and de-emphasised the importance of community and culture. Where education seems to isolate the individual from her community, education and its proponents become a communal enemy. These incongruences as well as the colonial purposes of education result in an irrelevant curricular – Shakespeare taught without context – inherited inadequate teaching methods, and disengaged cohorts of students. Teaching us that Mungo Park discovered a river that those who dwelt on its banks did not declare missing.
Education is not entirely beneficial if it becomes a means by which a person’s identity, culture and language becomes obscured. Education is meant for the FULL development of the human person – the mind, the body, the heart and the soul. Nelson Mandela once said ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language… that goes to his heart.’
We fail to learn our own languages, sing our own songs, dance to our own rhythms, to the beat of our hearts, to the steady thrum of our soul. The problem is that we approach knowing from an externalised perspective. We see knowledge as something outside of us that we have to assimilate. But it is not. We need to read more, to be more self-aware, then connect what we have learnt with who we are, for the full development of the African personality that lies inside of us.
As Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley sang
‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.’
Let us find out who we have been. So that we can become who we may become.
5. Self-esteem, Pan-Africanism and Togetherness: The first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize, Wangari Mathaai said ‘our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems must come from ‘outside.’’’
We can only shed this innate belief when we accept the validity and worth of our existence. What the colonised African mind suffers from is a severe case of post-colonial internalised oppression. Even when the primary source of the oppression no longer exists with us, we oppress ourselves with our own feelings of inferiority. We think anything from ‘oversea’ will be better than ‘tiwantiwa’ just by the fact of their different sources. Aba shoemaker will make fine shoe and stamp Italy on it. As some status-conscious person once told me, even her dead body would refuse to wear lace that wasn’t Swiss or other European origin. So we import traditional attire. Until Milan fashion show features ankara, some people will never wear it.
On a very psychological level and especially in the diaspora, we see many people exhibit shame and refuse to identify as African. To this end they twist their tongues into unimaginable shapes to produces sounds completely unintelligible, in attempt to adopt an accent foreign to them. We call our languages vernacular, yet these are languages of a living people, not a jargon to be hidden from the sun.
The focus on English, French and Portuguese as languages of instruction and national communication has also contributed to the disappearance of African languages and customs. Prof E. E. Adegbija notes ‘Over 90% of African languages,…exist as if they don’t really exist; they live without being really alive. Living functional blood is being sucked out of them…’
So we live a half-life as Africans, other people tell us what should matter to us. The West tells us we should resist our ethnicities and cultures, our governments and their corruption. Our governments tell us that the West is our enemy, and that our next door neighbour is our enemy and ‘see, I built this road!’ Did they build it with their own money?
These are the symptoms of self-oppression, not being able to refute the fallacies around, because we fear the dark recesses of our own minds and fear lurking in the corners of our consciousness. If we dare to, quietly and stoutly, consider all around us, take those books off of the shelves and learn of truth that is not really hidden, we may learn one certainty. Our minds are being held captive by our own thoughts, that captivity imprisons us into a life less than we were made for.
To reclaim our self-esteem, we must speak Pan-Africanism. Together. We may individually be able to recognise anti-Blackness, but no one can dismantle it alone. Pan-Africanism is the belief that African peoples, both on the African continent and in the Diaspora, share not merely a common history, but a common destiny. Pan-Africanism is continuous work and hope and work and hope. We often do not realise that we have been pushed off into silos. But we should be lighthouses. It is important that we be lighthouses. Important that we shine together.
How did a handful of administrators manage to shackle the African giant? By imprisoning the most important part of a people – their sense of self-worth. By making us believe that we were inferior, that our laws, customs ideas were of no value.
How will we unshackle the African giant? By freeing our minds from mental slavery, by realizing that we are worth as much as anyone else, by eschewing narratives based on inferiority, by connecting once again with the Africa that lies inside of us. The true Africa whose heart is golden. Together.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – A person is a person because of people. Ubuntu. We are ujamaa. We are one African family. Together, we are Ọmọlúàbí. People bettered by community to build a better African community. Umunna bu ike, together we have power. Together. Together we are Africa. Together we are free.