To Africanize, Decolonize Or Both?

Brenda Wambui
6 December ,2016

This conversation on what it means to be African has been happening since the days of the independence struggles in many African countries, and has been a major part of African post-colonial discourse. The conversation has mostly focused on knowledge, since knowledge is the beginning of identity formation, with some commentators saying that we need to Africanize, others saying that we need to decolonize, and many saying that we need to do both.

In the words of Tebello Letsekha:

[Africanization] is a learning process and a way of life for Africans. It involves incorporating, adapting and integrating other cultures into and through African visions to provide the dynamism, evolution and flexibility so essential in the global village. Africanization is the process of defining or interpreting African identity and culture. It is formed by the experiences of the African Diaspora and has endured and matured over time from the narrow nationalistic intolerance to an accommodating, realistic and global form.

The Sankofa Youth Movement says:

By “Africanization”, we mean the embracing of our African heritage, and developing a sense of loyalty towards the Motherland – Africa. This involves adopting and promoting African culture, putting it on the pedestal currently occupied by the west.’ These reflections seem to suggest conflict between the idea of being African and the need to adopt aspects of Western culture. It is a situation that might impact negatively on the development of appropriate African curricula in education in general, and in higher education in particular. In fact, Le Grange (2007, 581) warns educators to be aware of this interaction between cultures, because it could complicate the learning process: ‘For non-Western learners, interaction between two worldviews characterizes much of their school experience, complicating the learning process and potentially resulting in cognitive conflict.’

Africanization, then, is an exercise in offering context. In learning our history. In changing our lenses. Much of the history of our continent is written by white men from Europe and North America, and this no doubt affects how the world sees us, but more importantly, how we see ourselves. For our children, it has meant a very narrow view of our continent. In many school books, the history of our continent is written in three broad categories: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. In doing so, we single out colonization as the single most important thing that has happened to Africa, and centre it.

However, there is great, uncharted territory when it comes to re-writing our history from our own perspective. To begin with, our experience as Africans should form the foundation of this revisionist history. It should capture both the unique histories of our countries/peoples, and the common history we share by virtue of coming from the same continent, being othered by the rest of the world, and experiencing many other similar challenges. We have great stories of our peoples that do not begin and end with colonization, we must capture those.

We have been taught that we have no knowledge. That we do not like to read. This is not only false, but extremely damaging, and is as a result of seeing Africa through a Western lens. Our histories must be revised and expanded, and taught to our children. They must also be inclusive.

Chimamanda Adichie says this in her talk, The Danger of a Single Story:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

If the African story has traditionally been told through the white, male lens, then the revisionist history must be inclusive. I am reminded of the constant retort I receive whenever I speak of feminism, or the LGBTQI community. I am told that they “are unAfrican.” Which then begs the question, what qualifies as “African”? Who sets the standard? Because I would argue what many consider “African” is in fact 1800s Victorian England’s intolerance, prudishness and small mindedness.

Our revisionist history must include the voices of women, of the queer community, of all other minorities on the continent. Africanization is a process in memory, both past and present. Thus even as we live our lives in the present, we are creating our history, and it is important that we tell our stories. From our perspective, and that these stories be inclusive, capturing the beauties and vagaries of every day African life, and resisting the two simplistic, prevailing narratives of our continent. Africa is not Schroedinger’s cat, that it could only ever be dead or alive; that we must endlessly speculate and bloviate on whether it is “the dark continent” or “rising.” Africa is many things to many people. It always has been, and will continue to be so.

If Africanization is a process in memory, decolonization is the removal of shackles – mental, economic, social and political. Decolonization was narrowly viewed by the West as the process in which African countries attained independence from their colonial rule, but the exit of the colonialists did not mean that the African had been fully decolonized.

In the words of Frantz Fanon:

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies.

Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler–was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the native are old acquaintances. In fact, the settler is right when he speaks of knowing “them” well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence. The settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say, his property, to the colonial system.

Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them. It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the “thing” which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.

If decolonization is the removal of shackles, what does that mean for the trauma of colonization? I believe that this is the first point at which the paths of decolonization and Africanization cross. The memory of colonization should remain alive, just not centred as the main memory. We should think about the trauma, and everything that can possibly be done to alleviate it should be done.

It is important that reparations be made by colonial powers to the people they harmed. These amends should be direct, except when doing so would lead to more harm. The most vivid example I can think of in Kenya is when some members of the Mau Mau won a settlement of 20 million pounds against the British government for their crimes during colonialism. If we are to truly have justice, all the colonial powers must atone in a similar way to the peoples they colonized, because many of these countries remain shackled years later, relegated to the “third world” due to the pillaging of their economies and the presence of extractive, oppressive institutions that have their roots in colonial times.

It is also important that we address our new colonizers, the elites in African countries that continue the oppression that stemmed from colonialism. Many African countries merely switched colonizers. One only needs to read the 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report to see the violence that our very own have occasioned on us. They too must pay reparations, and be held accountable for their crimes if we are to truly decolonize.

Decolonization involves the removal of power structures and symbols that serve to keep us subjugated, disempowered, and forever at a disadvantage. Much of this includes denial of access to the public of what should be theirs.

Access to education, for example. The mere fact that only about 1% of the children in Kenya who start primary school go on to complete university is evidence of colonization. Especially because we place high importance on university education. We are denied access to public spaces, which we have already paid for using our tax money. The Nairobi Arboretum, for example, now charges KES 50 for access. We are denied access to land, which many of the rich and politicians grab from the public and privatize, when it does not belong to them in the first place.

It becomes apparent that it is necessary for us to both Africanize and decolonize. It is important that we remove others from the centre and place ourselves there instead. That we assert that blackness is not a backdrop against which white lives play out. We are living in an age when identity politics have gained new importance, and it is important that we claim our identity and our narratives. In this endeavor, we must prioritize freedom, and human dignity. We must accord everyone their rights, and avoid creating new strata which will only serve to oppress us. If all oppression is connected, then our freedom is intersectional, and it begins at the crossroads of Africanization and decolonization.

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