Psychological Effects of Colonization Haunt Africa

Published on 6th April 2009

The subject of colonization is one that many people would rather avoid. To some, its occurrence was a necessary evil; one that propelled the now-developed world to the heights it has achieved. To others, it's a thing apart in itself; something ancient that took place under a different set of circumstances and with a different generation of individuals. Others consider colonization and the accompanying slave trade as one of the worst injustices served to humanity.

Africa:   Gripped?       Photo:Courtesy
Whether colonization is openly acknowledged or not, there is no doubt that it has played, and continues to play, a huge part in the state of the global community. Although the physical manifestations of colonization, like the loss of natural and human resources are recognized and considered in the development discourse, the unseen psychological effects of colonization are not given the attention due. These unseen effects translate into sovereignty issues which eventually show up on the development platform, and are longer-lasting and more disastrous than they might seem.

Over the past two decades, economists have contemplated the inability of Sub-Saharan Africa to develop despite intensified efforts on both the local and global levels. A comparison is often made between the developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and those in Asia. The poorest economies can be found in these two regions, but while many Asian developing economies like India and China have made great strides in advancing their development efforts, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world's poorest and least developed region to date.

Many historians link Africa's current struggle for development to its experience of colonization. Although colonization took place in both Asia and Africa, the structure of colonization in these two regions was vastly different. While the inhabitants of the Asian colonies were, to some degree, allowed to take up leadership positions and essentially handle the affairs of their respective states, their African counterparts were not given that liberty. Instead, the traditional African governance structures and ethnic groupings were destroyed; their once revered chiefs were reduced to obsolete chess pieces and worse still, the general notion that Africans and Blacks were an inferior group was drummed home to them in the most gruesome ways possible. Consequently, African nations were set on a spiral of inferiority complex that is in motion even today. 

In many African nations, there is the notion that "foreign or white is better." Many Africans will bend over backwards to help a foreigner, but find it hard to even grant audience to a fellow African who might have a new idea. At first glance this phenomenon might seem innocent and harmless. But in societies where communal values formed the foundations of their existence, the current contempt and disregard for contributions from fellow Africans holds grave significance. As the Pulitzer Award winner, writer and historian Will Durant noted, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." The "divide and conquer" tactics used by the colonists during the "Scramble for Africa" in the 1800s is one that literally played with the minds of its victim countries and has left them confused ever since.

The level of contempt that many Africans hold for their own people has increased to the point where it is even labeled the 'pull him down' syndrome. Countries like Ghana are known for being very hospitable and welcoming to foreigners. But does this hospitality translate onto the local scene? Does it make Ghana's tourism industry one of the most dynamic? Does it in any way improve the development prospects of the nation? The answer to all these questions is no. Although development opportunities in African nations have increased over the course of time, the struggles continue because of this inferiority complex. African governments would rather grant contracts and make risky concessions to foreigners than give a citizen the opportunity to prove him or herself. The main argument given for this reluctance is the relative lack of experience on the part of the citizen. Even if this might be the case, how are individuals expected to garner any experience in their respective fields without being given a first chance?

There are many other scenarios in which this inferiority complex has played out. In 1998 the then-U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Ghana for seven hours. He was scheduled to spend his visit in the capital city, Accra. I vividly remember the hurried efforts on the part of the government to ensure that Accra was clean and renovated enough to receive its distinguished visitor. This brought to question not only the priorities of the government, but also the view of Ghanaians as undeserving or unimportant enough to live in a clean environment. Instead, they had to wait for a foreigner to visit in order to enjoy a couple of hours of cleanliness.

According to a BBC article published in Aug. 2008, a Nigeria-based group known as “Africans for Obama” held a fund-raising gala in support of Obama and proceeded to offer the Obama campaign $630,000. In a continent where poverty and health issues abound, one might wonder why the members of the group did not channel their efforts to solve the many problems in their own country, but instead jumped at the opportunity to raise funds for Obama.

In Oct. 2007, the Nobel Prize-winning DNA pioneer James Watson made controversial comments claiming that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites. Although his comments bring a lot to question, they do inquire into whether Africa's struggle with development is as much a psychological one as a resource and technological struggle. In order for African and low-income countries to make headway in their development efforts, a change in mentality concerning their own people is necessary. As the famous Bob Marley says in his Uprising album track "Redemption Song," the emancipation of a people and nation starts with breaking the chains of mental slavery.

By Jemila Abdulai

This article was also published in the Mount Holyoke News

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