Colonial Education in Africa

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Colonial Education In Africa
 Walter Rodney

Rodney discusses at length the role of education in producing Africans to serve the colonial system and subscribe to its values. He notes that class stratification, which leads to neocolonialism, begins with the linking of colonial education to material gain. Rodney points out that

education is crucial in any type of society for the preservation of the lives of its members and the maintenance of the social structure . . . The most crucial aspect of pre-colonial African education was its relevance to Africans in sharp contrast with that which was later introduced (that is, under colonialism). . . . [T]he main purpose of colonial school system was to train Africans to participate in the domination and exploitation of the continent as a whole . . . Colonial education was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment.[263]

In Mission to Kala, Medza's colonial education makes him a privileged political and economic functionary in a colonial system that militates against the interests of his own people. Colonial education, therefore, creates a black elite to succeed it and perpetuate its political and economic interests in the post-independence period.

In discussing the role of colonial education, Rodney shows that the roots of neocolonialism lie in colonialism. This links African literature of the two periods because neocolonialism is the result of a historical process of class formation by colonialism. According to Colin Leys (1975), ". . . Absolutely central to neocolonialism, is the formation of classes or strata within a colony which are closely allied to and dependent on foreign capital, and which form the real basis of support for the regime which succeed the colonial administration." The neocolonial situation in Ngugi's Devil on the Cross is a legacy and a logical consequence of the situation depicted in Beti's Mission to Kala. Rodney also observes that the colonial machinery created a military elite that later became military dictators in the post-independence era. A good example is Sam, the military despot in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah.

Rodney also observes that

the educated Africans were the most alienated Africans on the continent. At each further stage of education, they were battered and succumbed to the white capitalist system, and after being given salaries, they could then afford to sustain a style of life imported from outside . . . That further transformed their mentality." [275]

Colonial education did more than corrupt the thinking and sensibilities of the African, it filled him/her with abnormal complexes which de-Africanized and alienated him/her from the needs of his/her environment. Colonial education has thus dispossessed and put of out the control of the African intellectual the necessary forces for directing the life and development of his/her society. The narrator in Dambudzo Marechera's House of Hunger, for instance, is culturally alienated because of his Western education. In Mission to Kala, Medza's role model is America. Medza cannot make decisions in relation to the needs of his society nor have a new vision relevant to African society:

Then, to make my ideas more intelligible, I decided to illustrate them with an example. I found myself (somewhat to my surprise) telling these simple people about New York . . . It was child's play to describe New York, probably because my only knowledge of it derived from the cinema. (Beti: 1964:65)

Colonial education taught Medza everything that is irrelevant to his African life. In Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain, Lucifer similarly feels alienated from his homeland because of his colonial education. In Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, Okot P'Bitek laments a situation in which colonial education emasculates the emerging African elite: "my husband's house is a dark forest of books . . . /Their manhood was finished in the classrooms, their testicles were smashed with big books." (P'Bitek: 1985: 117) In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi observes that the lack of congruency between colonial education and Africa's reality created people abstracted from their reality. Little wonder, therefore that the negritude poets try to achieve disalienation through identification with Africa, African values and African origins. They yearn for their lost identity and the lost African heritage. Leon Dumas writes that the whites "have stolen the space that was mine." Tchicaya U'Tamsi laments that the whites have left the blacks in "a dark corner somewhere . . . gone are the forests where sung and danced the inspired priestess . . . the great Western world holds me in fee . . . Something in me is lost forever."

Christianity, education, and colonial administrative systems

Rodney also analyzes the interrelationship between Christianity, colonial education, and administrative systems. In Homecoming, Ngugi says that to gain "acceptability and perpetuation, the colonialists enlist the services of Christianity and Christian oriented education . . . To capture the soul and the mind . . ." (1982). In Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the newly converted Christians renounce their traditional lifestyle, thus advancing the cause of colonialism. In Oyono's The Old Man and the Medal, Meka gives up his land to the priests:

And now lived in a small wretched hut in the village which has given its name to the mission and lay at the foot of the Christian cemetery. (Oyono: 1967: 9)

In Houseboy, Toundi renounces his natural father in favor of Father Gilbert, the head of the colonial church. In Beti's The Poor Christ Of Bomba and King Lazarus, father Drumont and father Le Guen respectively use Christianity to consolidate their control over the indigenous people and thus maintain the security of the oppressor. Gicaamba in I'll Marry When I Want notes that:

Religion is not the same thing as God.
When the British imperialists came here in 1895,
All the missionaries of all the churches
Held the Bible in the left hand,
And the gun in the right hand.
The white man wanted us
To be drunk with religion
While he,
In the meantime,
Was mapping and grabbing our land
And starting factories and businesses
On our sweat. [Ngugi: 1982: 56-7]

The European exploiters, oppressors and grabbers use Christianity as a tool to explain the manifest contradictions portrayed in African literature because of the working out of broader historical forces.

Amilcar Cabral's "National Liberation and Culture," which defines the relationship between culture and colonialism, explores the relationship between culture and social class. Cabral's analysis aids the reader's understanding of African literature by putting into its proper historical perspective the crisis of identity and its implications portrayed artistically by many African writers. Cabral defines culture as the result of economic and political activities as they appear on the ideological and idealist levels. Culture has its basis in a society's level of productive forces and in the character of the dominant mode of production. Thus,

culture is the result, with more or less awakened consciousness, of economic and political activities, the more or less dynamic expression of the type of relations prevailing within that society, on the one hand between man (considered individually and collectively) and nature, on the other hand, among individuals, groups of individuals, social strata or social classes." [1980: 141]

Culture may be dynamic, but only in the sense of being a continuing record of a society's achievements and an important element in sustaining resistance to foreign domination.

Colonialism's Destruction of Indigenous Culture

Colonialism, however, denied Africa the right to cultural development and self expression and set up a state of siege that it justified with theories about cultural assimilation. In Oyono's Houseboy, colonial culture plays the role that Cabral observes above. The implications behind Toundi's question, "what are we black men who are called French?", pervade the whole novel. He asks this when he becomes aware that his "French identity", imposed on him by colonialism, identifies him with the colonial culture and values of his oppressors. In Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain, old Mandengu and Garabha's drums with Uncle Kuruku's ndungu become symbolic vestiges of an African culture besieged by colonialism. In Oyono's The Old Man and the Medal, colonialism perpetuates cultural imperialism by setting up "whiteness" and its values as a superior quality that deserves emulation. Cabral's conclusion that National Liberation is an act of culture parallels Ousmane's views in Man and His Culture that, in tempestuous periods like that of the anti-colonial struggle, the only artistic expression is the armed struggle. Liberation struggle to Cabral rejects cultural domination by the foreign power by denying the culture of the oppressor. Thus, Cabral argues that the tie between a people's identity and the reproduction and maintenance of the social system of a specific set of institutions affects both culture and the people's intimate sense of selfhood.

Colonialism by "denying to the dominated people their own historical process, necessarily denies their cultural process." (Cabral: 142) In Mongo Beti's The Poor Christ Of Bomba and King Lazarus, the structures that the colonialists introduce affect both the people's culture and their sense of selfhood. In the two novels, Tala and Essazam societies respectively are culturally transformed by the introduction of the capitalist cash nexus, bourgeoisie religions, and European educational systems. Oyono, in Houseboy and The Old Man and the Medal, portrays colonialism as undermining and suppressing indigenous culture and its institutions. The alternatives colonialism provides for these are schools, stores, roads and hospitals -- structures that the colonialists use to impose and consolidate their own culture on the colonized thereby altering the African culture. Cabral argues that imperialist domination "for its own security requires cultural oppression and the attempt at direct or indirect destruction of the essential elements of the culture of the dominated people" (142).

Cabral also proves that culture reflects the aspirations of the "petty bourgeoisie," which, like those of all other classes, derives from their class. The new African ruling middle class is underdeveloped, has no economic power, and, therefore, reflects the culture of the metropolitan bourgeoisie with whom it economically allied itself to exploit the own people. Memebers of the new African ruling middle class have assimilated the colonizers' mentality and regard themselves as "culturally superior." Their imitative culture reflects the political and economic dependence of this class on the metropolitan bourgeoisie and this has been the focus of many African writers who deal with the theme of cultural influence. In Xala and The Last of Empire, Ousmane criticizes cultural imperialism in the Francophone postcolonial state. In Xala, Ousmane satirizes Oumi N'doye's worship of everything from France. Ousmane also uses El Hadji Kader Beye's sexual impotence ("xala") to symbolize the lack of creativity and the economic impotence of the new middle class rulers who are not, in the words of Frantz Fanon, "engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labor; it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and be part of the racket." El Hadji says to the Chamber of Commerce:

Are we businessmen? I say no! Just clodhoppers . . . We are nothing better than crabs in a basket. We want the ex-occupier's place? We have it . . . Yet what change is there really in general or in particular? The colonialist is stronger, more powerful than before, hidden inside us . . . What are we? Clodhoppers! Agents! Petty traders! In our fatuity we call ourselves "businessmen"! Businessmen without funds. (Ousmane: 1976: 91-2)

In The Last of Empire, Ousmane portrays the young generation as avid to embrace the foreign colonial culture that the older generation had fought to remove. Mamlat Soukube has an extreme fondness for clothes from Europe and America. This is a clear demonstration of cultural imperialism that the shoes and jackets that Meka buys in The Old Man and the Medal also symbolize. Professor D. Westermann in The African Today (p. 331) writes that "the wearing of European clothes, whether rags or the most up-to-date style; using European furniture . . . Contribute (from the black man's point of view) to a feeling of equality with the European and his achievements." In Devil on the Cross, Ngugi satirizes the worship, by the new middle class, of all that is foreign and their revulsion for all that is local. He portrays the new ruling class as reluctant to embrace the revolutionary culture of the masses because they have developed into an exploitative comprador class who want to remain unchanged. This artistic portrayal coincides with Cabral's objective analysis that the class character of cultures gives National Liberation a positive or negative appeal to each class.

Cabral believes that, essentially the colonial country and the neocolonial country suffer from the same problem: "Violent usurpation of the freedom of development of the national productive forces." According to him, National Liberation frees the nation's productive forces from all kinds of foreign domination. In other words, it destroys imperialist control. This helps to explain, in African literature, the initial failure by the writers to distinguish between juridical and economic independence. Anti-colonial African literature like Achebe's Things Fall Apart tended to impute African society's problems to color prejudice rather than class conflict. It was only after none of the promised benefits of independence occurred, that African writers began producing works like Ngugi's Petals of Blood that show African society's contradictions to be rooted in class conflict. Cabral believes that among the peasants, who are "the repository of the national culture," are also the source of cultural resistance. According to him, contact with the rich cultural tradition of the peasants may transform the mentality of the "petty bourgeoisie" and make them play a leading role in the struggle for national liberation. The bourgeoisie must thus commit suicide as a class and then align themselves with the peasants. There is no better, more graphic example of this than the closing scene in Ousmane's Xala where the beggars spit on El Hadji.

The quest for identity and cultural dignity is peculiar only to the petty bourgeoisie. This accounts for the negritude poetry of Senghor and other works of cultural national struggle. Cabral also shows that the culture of the people is a culture of resistance and struggle and that it historically opposes the culture of the oppressor -- that of counterrevolution and violence. Thus, in Oyono's Houseboy and The Old Man and the Medal, the colonized people's culture of resistance expresses itself in the illegal brewing of beer, in lying to whites and in manipulating the aggressive structures of colonialism to further the struggle. In Ngugi's Matigari, the main character wages a guerilla war against the neocolonial regime. According to Cabral, "the armed liberation struggle is an act of making history bear fruit, the highest expression of our culture and our Africanness. At the moment of victory, it must be translated into a significant leap forward of the culture of the people who are liberating themselves. If this does not happen, then the efforts and sacrifices made during the struggle will have been in vain. The struggle will have failed in its aims" (Cabral: 153).

Ngugi's "Writing Against Neocolonialism" shows that African literature developed as a direct response to concrete historical conditions, which transformed the function and both ideology of the African writer and the artistic forms used. Ngugi argues that the African writers who emerged after the second world war experienced three modal stages in their growth: (1) anti-colonial struggle, (2) independence, and (3) neocolonialism.

The Decade of Hope

The 1950s was the decade of hope during which most African countries gained independence as anti-imperialist movements triumphed. African writers born in this decade had an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, yet hopeful mood, which explains the assertive and optimistic nature of the writing of the period. Colonialism had tried to justify its oppression and exploitation by resorting to claims of racial superiority. The new African writer countered such claims by producing artistic works that showed that Africa had its own history, culture, and civilization that were equal if not superior to that of the imperialists. The writers saw their societies "put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self abasement imposed on them by colonialism." The most representative works of this period include Achebe's Things Fall Apart set in Umuofia, an independent and "progressive" society before the intrusion and entrenchment of colonialism. However, while reshaping Africa's distorted history, Achebe does not idealize it. He shows that African society had its own contradictions and spiritual crises before the intrusion of colonialism.

Achebe's approach sharply contrasts to the negritude writers of the same period, such as Senghor, Laye and others, whose artistic works idealize Africa. The ideological concerns of the African writer reflected the general mood of African nationalism. These writers erroneously analyzed imperialism and social situations from the standpoint of racial instead of class conflict. African writer remolded the English language to suit their subversive purposes. Thus, Achebe in Things Fall Apart and The Arrow of God used Ibo modes of expression to reflect Ibo culture. The development of the novel in Africa was also due to the rise of a class -- all the authors, Achebe, Laye, Ngugi, were members of an emerging educated African elite, and their works were directed at foreign audiences and local audiences who belonged to their own socio-economic classes.

The Period of Moral Critique

The rise of government by dictatorship throughout Africa, which characterized the 1970s, perpetuated the political, economic, and social practices of colonialism. The age of independence also witnessed the emergence of social classes and class contradictions -- a development that disappointed and shocked many African writers, who created artistic works expressing disillusionment with postcolonial African society. Achebe's A Man of the People and Armah's The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born -- the novels most representative of this period did not fully grasp the source of the manifest contradictions. They mistakenly argued that the cause of Africa's problems lay in the new leaders' lack of moral direction. At this time, writers therefore saw their role as that of transforming society (and its leaders) by means of moral enlightenment. The works of this period thus subscribed to a liberal humanist ideology that pleaded with the oppressed. In Oyono's Houseboy, the protagonist, Toundi, dies because of the oppressive neocolonial system.

The writers of this period intended the pathos and emotive power of their works to instigate the oppressors to initiate a political and economic reorganization of society in the interest of the oppressed. However, some critics maintain that the intentions (of the pathos and bitterness of these novels) were to whip the emotions of the people into revolutionary action. The artistic forms reflect the ideological content, for writers used satire and ridicule as "corrective narrative techniques" to enlighten their society morally. The despair that pervades these works, which portray the oppressed as trapped and helpless, arises in the writers' political misunderstanding.

The historical events of the 1970s revealed even more clearly the transition from colonialism to neocolonialism that had begun during the 1960s. Writers began to understand that the roots of social contradictions and conflicts lay in class differentiations not color. Some works representative of this period include Ngugi's The Devil on the Cross, Pepetela's Mayombe, and Sahle Sellasie's Firebrands. These novels portray conflict in terms of class conflict and from the perspective of the oppressed -- the workers and the peasants. The writers delegate the revolutionary vanguard role to the people themselves. The authors were implicitly disgusted with the educated elite who cannot initiate a struggle and bestow their faith in the peasants themselves or suggest ways to solve Africa's contradictions. The writer saw his or her role as that of instigating the people into a revolutionary struggle. There is also the realization that women are the most exploited in an aggressive society. Thus, Mumbi in Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat, Sophie in Oyono's Houseboy, Adja Awa Astou in Ousmane's Xala, and Waringa in Ngugi's Devil on the Cross, are all women exploited.

While socialist ideology form the basis for these works, the artistic forms of oral songs and other dynamic orature techniques show that they are directed to a new audience, the peasantry. The latter factor has led to a fierce debate about what constitutes African literature. Ngugi argues that writing in foreign languages perpetuates neocolonialism and that all African literature in English is really Euro-African literature and not African literature. Ngugi, in rebellion against foreign domination, wrote his novel Devil on the Cross in Gikuyu because "writing in Gikuyu does not cut me off from other language communities because there are always opportunities for translation" (On Writing: 155). Ngugi, however, overlooks the fact that something is always changed, added, or lost in translation." Ngugi's insistence on Gikuyu also raises the problem of the "double audience" in African literature: Since the writer wishes to address both internal and external audiences, there has to be a neutral language. That neutral language is English, but then, Ngugi considers English a colonial language. According to him, the

African writer of the 80s has no choice but to join in the people's struggle for survival. In that situation, he will have to confront the languages spoken by the people in whose service he has put his pen. Such a writer will have to rediscover the real language of struggle in the actions and speeches of his people, learn from their great optimism and faith in the capacity of human beings to remake their world and renew themselves . . . He must be part of the song of the people.

In saying this, Ngugi overlooks two problems. First, can writers say effectively, through a "native" language, what they have to say? We have to consider that sometimes we cannot find the right word to express what we feel. Indeed, Ngugi himself is not well versed in the Gikuyu he brandishes as a weapon against neocolonialism. Second, even if writers can say what they want effectively, there is no guarantee that the readers will decipher the intended message.

We cannot, however, ignore what Ngugi says about language. There is nothing wrong in theorizing on the use of a "native" language in literature, which works well in the theater; the problem is in its practicality. The one point on which I agree completely with Ngugi is his emphasis that African writers of the '80s should align themselves with the masses, even if it means risking jail or exile. For the only alternative would be for the writer to become a state functionary via self-censorship.

In conclusion, a reading of the three articles makes African literature clearer and easier to understand for they bring out the truth about African literature. They examine the political, economic and social circumstances that impelled the sensitivity and ideologies of African literature and writers on colonialism respectively. They also discuss the historical connections that make it possible to analyze African literature dealing with pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial phases of African history.

Now the way forward. One way forward is for the middle class to "betray the calling fate has marked out for it." That is, its subservience to the bourgeoisie of the motherland and the exploitation of its own people that leads to a psychic split. It should put at its peoplešs disposal "the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched when going through the colonial universities." However, there is a gradual (globalization) and consequent disappearance of the middle class which according to Scott Lash and John Urry (1993: 300), has resulted (in western societies) from the "decentralization of population and industry; the declining attractiveness of mass organizations; the increased emphasis upon the Œlocalš; the pursuit of sectional interests; the declining salience of class; and the transgression of fixed boundaries by a set of new cultural forms." In the light of this, another way forward (for the arts) is the formation of what Gramsci calls organic intellectuals -- writers who are in touch with the masses -- as opposed to the traditional intellectuals of the ruling class who write from sequestration. Having said this, literature or art in general, needs to be freed from politics and history. It must address the question of change ­- it must deal with the vagaries of virtual reality versus the humdrum of societies. It must adapt and become spontaneous in its response to things as they happen in society. It must write about today for today is tomorrow.


Achebe, C. 1987. Anthills of the Savannah. London: Heinemann.

_____. 1985. Things Fall Apart. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House.

. 1973. in (ed) Killian, G. D. "The Novelist As Teacher" in African writers On African Writing. London: Heinemann.

_____. 1964. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann.

Armah, A. K. 1974. Why Are We So Blest? London: Heinemann.

_____. 1973. Two Thousand Seasons. London: Heinemann.

reprinted from African Post Colonial Literature in English

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