The first time I saw a copy of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, I was in my first year at university. The book had a yellowing yellow cover and was nestled in the armpits of one of those people we not-so fondly called, ”Aluta boys.’ The first thought on my mind was, ‘what fresh hell is this?!!!‘
I being the very quiet, shy and retiring person that I am (not), asked the Aluta fellow, how he was finding the book. He then went off on such a pseudo-Marxist/OPC tirade that I determined, there and then, never to come within seeing distance of the book, these being the effects it seemingly produced. I have since then read the book for myself, and so I very, very strongly suspect that Mr Aluta never actually read the book himself, but extrapolated from the title what the book may possibly be about, and so decided to carry said book on his person always, to lend his Aluta-ness extra gravitas. Anyways, after that encounter with the Lord of Aluta, I was not to come across references to How Europe for a while. As those who know know, if you study for a law degree in Nigeria (or indeed any common law jurisdiction), you must spend all your waking seconds reading your law textbooks and law notes and law cases. Seconds taken out to read the text on street signs and massive noticeboards are massive distractions from that singular goal and not frequently indulged in. Reading a whole book not dedicated to legal study was therefore, completely out of the question.
But during my intermissions from Great Ife (the only right and proper way to refer to Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, btw), the internet arrived. I have always been a sponge for information, especially information about the continent of Africa, her peoples and her diasporas. So you can imagine what me, internet and free time combined meant. Almost every reading suggested for understanding the continent included How Europe. So I was determined to find it and read it. And I did. And then I wondered about the person who wrote it. Where was he from? What influenced him to write this? In a system of knowledge that is hegemonically Eurocentric, how did he get to point where he could write this? This article summarises what I have learnt about Walter Rodney, author of How Europe, over the years.
On the 23rd of March, 1942, Walter Anthony Rodney was born in Georgetown, Guyana (pictured above). He was absolutely brilliant in school and so in 1960, when he graduated first in his class, he won an open scholarship to the University of the West Indies (UWI). Rodney studied history at UWI Mona Campus in Jamaica, graduating with a first class in 1960. Brilliant. He then went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London from where he received his PhD in African History at the age of 24! From London he went to teach in Tanzania for a year before returning to Jamaica to teach. Absolutely brilliant and Pan-African.
But apart from being very brilliant, Rodney was also very much an activist, learning about politics first from his father, but also being influenced by the Black Power Movement in the U.S., third world revolutionaries and Marxist theory. As his chosen topics of study also show, he had a keen interest in African history, specifically in exploring counter-narratives that subverted the hegemonic understanding of African situationality in world politics and history. He understood the interconnected of hidden African histories with contemporary representations of Blackness. Rodney’s political activities were unusual because, among other things, he involved the most marginalised voices in his organising. As he became more and more involved in politics as a voice for the most disadvantaged, this had an adverse effect on his academic career. In 1968, when he was a professor at UWI, Jamaica, he travelled to Canada for a conference. He was refused re-entry into Jamaica.
After being banned from Jamaica, Rodney returned to Tanzania to teach history at the University of Dar es Salaam. During his time there, he was at the forefront of establishing an intellectual tradition which till today makes Dar es Salaam one of the centres of academic conversation on African politics and history. The dialogues, discussions and study groups he engaged in there helped him to deepen the Marxist tradition with respect to African politics, class struggle, race, African history and the role of the exploited in social change. It was within the context of these discussions that How Europe was written. He also wrote critical articles on Ujamaa, imperialism, underdevelopment, and the problems of state and class formation in Africa. Together with other Pan-Africanists he participated in discussions leading up to the Sixth Pan-African Congress, held in Tanzania, 1974. Before the Congress he wrote a piece: ‘Towards the Sixth Pan-African Congress: Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America’
In 1974, he returned to Guyana to take up the position of Professor of history, but the Prime Minister had blocked his appointment with the University. Despite this, Rodney remained in Guyana, joining the Working People’s Alliance. By 1979, he had become a leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian Guyanese government. On July 11, 1979, Rodney, and seven others, were arrested on charges of arson. The charges were later dropped. Despite being denied permission to travel by the government, Rodney disguised himself and attended Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in May 1980. On Friday, 13th of June, 1980, Walter Anthony Rodney was assassinated by a bomb in Georgetown, Guyana. He was 38 years old. It is widely believed, but not proven, that the assassination was set up by then-President Linden Forbes Burnham. No one has ever been convicted or even charged for the assassination of Walter Rodney.
One of the most tangible legacies that Rodney left behind is his writing. The most well-known of these is How Europe. Below are some excerpts from it, with particular focus on colonised education and why education especially in Africa and the African world needs to be decolonised.
238 ‘Education is crucial in any type of society for the preservation of the lives of its members and the maintenance of the social structure.’
239 ‘Indeed, the most crucial aspect of pre-colonial African education was its relevance to Africans, in sharp contrast with what was later introduced. The following features of indigenous African education can be considered outstanding: its close links with social life, both in a material and spiritual sense; its collective nature; its many-sidedness; and its progressive development in conformity with the successive stages of physical, emotional, and mental development of the child. There was no separation of education and productive activity or any division between manual and intellectual education. Altogether, through mainly informal means, pre-colonial African education matched the realities of pre-colonial African society and produced well-rounded personalities to fit into that society. ’
240 ‘in the Yoruba state of Ketu in the nineteenth century there existed a school of history, where a master drilled into the memories of his pupils a long list of the kings of Ketu and their achievements. Of course, reliance on memory alone placed severe limits on education of that type, and that is why education was much more advanced in those African countries where the use of writing had come into being… The colonizers did not introduce education into Africa: they introduced a new set of formal educational institutions which partly supplemented and partly replaced those which were there before. The colonial system also stimulated values and practices which amounted to new informal education. The main purpose of the colonial school system was to train Africans to help man the local administration at the lowest ranks and to staff the private capitalist firms owned by Europeans. In effect, that meant selecting a few Africans to participate in the domination and exploitation of the continent as a whole. It was not an educational system that grew out of the African environment or one that was designed to promote the most rational use of material and social resources. It was not an educational system designed to give young people confidence and pride as members of African societies, but one which sought to instill a sense of deference towards all that was European and capitalist.’
241 ‘In every colony, the budget for education was incredibly small, compared to amounts being spent in capitalist Europe itself.’
246 ‘There were numerous absurdities in the transplantation of a version of European education into Africa. When the Bemba children … went to school, they had no program of instruction relating to the plant life with which they would otherwise have familiarized themselves. Instead, they were taught about flowers-and about European roses at that. Dr. Kofi Busia some years ago made the following admission:
“At the end of my first year at secondary school (M fantsipim, Cape Coast, Ghana), I went home to Wenchi for the Christmas vacation. I had not been home for four years, and on that visit, I became painfully aware of my isolation. I understood our community far less than the boys of my own age who had never been to school. Over the years, as I went through college and university, I felt increasingly that the education I received taught me more and more about Europe and less and less about my own society.”
246-247 ‘Some of the contradictions between the content of colonial education and the reality of Africa were really incongruous. On a hot afternoon in some tropical African school, a class of black shining faces would listen to their geography lesson on the seasons of the year-spring, summer, autumn, and winter. They would learn about the Alps and the river Rhine but nothing about the Atlas Mountains of North Africa or the river Zambezi. If those students were in a British colony, they would dutifully write that “we defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588″ -at a time when Hawkins was stealing Africans and being knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for so doing. If they were in a French colony, they would learn that “the Gauls, our ancestors, had blue eyes,” and they would be convinced that “Napoleon was our greatest general” -the same Napoleon who reinstituted slavery in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and was only prevented from doing the same in Haiti because his forces were defeated by an even greater strategist and tactician, the African Toussaint L’Ouverture. To some extent Europeans thoughtlessly applied their own curricula without reference to African conditions; but very often they deliberately did so with intent to confuse and mystify. As late as 1949 , a Principal Education Officer in Tanganyika carefully outlined that the Africans of that colony should be bombarded in primary school with propaganda about the British royal family. “The theme of the [British] king as father should be stressed throughout the syllabus and mentioned in every lesson,” he said. He further urged that African children should be shown numerous pictures of the English princesses and their ponies at Sandringham and Windsor Castle. Whatever little was discussed about the African past in colonial schools was about European activities in Africa. That trend is now sufficiently reversed to allow the present generation of African pupils to smile at the thought that Europeans “discovered” Mount Kenya or the river Niger… The French, Portuguese, and Belgians made it clear that education at any level was designed “to civilize the African native,” and of course only a civilized native could hope to gain worthwhile employment and recognition from the colonialists. According to the French, an African, after receiving French education, stood a chance of becoming an assimilée –one who could be assimilated or incorporated into the superior French culture. The Portuguese used the word assimilado, which means exactly the same; and Portuguese colonial law distinguished sharply between a native and an assimilado. The latter was sometimes called a civilisado because of being able to read and write Portuguese. That sort of African was rewarded with certain privileges.’
249 ‘”colonial education corrupted the thinking and sensibilities of the African and filled him with abnormal complexes.” It followed that those who were Europeanized were to that extent de-Africanized, as a consequence of the colonial education and the general atmosphere of colonial life.’
259 ‘Pierre Foncin, a founder of the Alliance Française, stated at the beginning of this century that “it is necessary to attach the colonies to the metropole by a very solid psychological bond, against the day when their progressive emancipation ends in a form of federation as is probable-that they be and they remain French in language, thought and spirit. “’
Decolonisation must start with Africans recognising that education is not always educative and education is not always a gift. Education can obscure and it can illuminate. We must decide for ourselves what we want our education systems to achieve. And any set of aims that does not include freedom will be a redundant set.
What Walter Rodney’s life and scholarship show us is that it is the mind that achieves freedom last. Until the mind is captured, the body is held captive in vain. And even after the body has been released, if the mind fails to achieve its freedom, the body remains captive as it will continue to serve the ends of the captor’s captivity. The mind achieves freedom last. Without adequate scholarship such as Rodney’s, without a re-researching of what has been lost, what has been left behind (Sankofa), without a resurrection of who we were and who we can be, the mind will never be free, and so we will never be free… The mind achieves freedom last.
Campbell, Horace. “Walter Rodney: a biography and bibliography.” Review of African Political Economy, No. 18, Special Issue on Zimbabwe (1980): 132-137.
Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London, 1972.