A publication by and for African Youth

Issue 4: July 2001 


Sharing Experiences and Finding Meanings: De-institutionalizing our Perceptions to Nurture Our Reflective Capacities11

For some time now, I have been having a series of dialogues with many African university students who spoke of Africa’s backwardness as also its ‘biggest problem’. Famine, poverty, war and ‘backward’ cultural beliefs were often cited in an attempt to buttress the argument about its backwardness or underdevelopment. Sadly, distinctions were rarely made between causes and effects. In fact implicit in these ‘explanations’ was an allusion to an inherent defect in African cultures, the word ‘Culture’ itself seeming to conjure up images of ‘stagnancy‘ and ‘backwardness’. Comparisons were easily made with the ‘model’ countries of the West, an apparent reminder of what "we" could become! These perceptions of backwardness were however not ‘new’ as virtually all dominant Institutions both in and outside Africa-especially the schools and mainstream media- openly share these understandings.

In this article I will:

  1. Attempt to demonstrate how such views/understandings are narrow and superficial since they largely reflect a techno-colored perception of Africans and their environments. 2
  2. Briefly share some African civilizational perspectives as well as express, via my personal experiences, the need to cultivate purpose to nurture truly humane societies.

Western Technology: Identifying the smokescreen blinding us

It became evident that what many of the African students-as well the dominant institutions- hint at is the apparent absence of Western-style machines and technologies in our societies. This is the standard measure of Backwardness and, as a corollary, Progress. It also forms the basis for attitudes toward non-Western peoples and their environments! Michael Adas argues the level of a given society’s material culture, technology, (all terms defined by the European observer) did much to determine the extent to which people and civilizations were esteemed or held in contempt. Tools, canons and conceptions of space and time (all understandings particular to the Western mind) were, for many early European observers among the most tangible means of distinguishing civilized people from savages. I learnt that this notion of backwardness was however highly superficial as the following questions evoked strongly negative responses:

  • Do the senses of integrity/virtue in our communities factor in these labels of backwardness?
  • Can you attach monetary/material value to the value systems and meaning making arrangements in your community/society?

The fact that many of the African students refused to accept materialism’s suppositions as the only relevant means of gaining an understanding of human worth was heartening. However, that many still affirmed the modernist’s theories on Africa’s backwardness – even when these theories stand discredited- indicated a facile attempt at undermining the Conscience (i.e reflective capacity) and one’s lived experiences while glorifying abstractions, a exercise that is dealing debilitating blows on our efforts to find meaning in our shared experiences.

Further, these views of ‘backwardness’, ‘savagery’ etc prolong colonialism in our societies. Critical historians and archeologists are deeply going into and exposing many of these ill-informed perceptions set forth by the likes of Sir Arthur Kirby3 – perceptions which serve the agendas of Western governments and elite African intellectuals.

African Civilizational Perspectives

Having dialogues with African students while also reflecting upon some African cultural perspectives brought out deep paradoxes between what was said and what African society actually stood for. It seemed to me that Africa’s educated were ‘developing’ a society they did not want to be part of! African cultural systems and practices (typically participative processes) embody a vast array of symbols which emphasize the cultivation of the mind and reflective capacity in a manner consistent with one’s patterns of behavior and expressions. For example, education in African societies "serviced a given economic base even as it inculcated cultural values for socialization and conscientization of individuals [and] collective groups" (Mugo, 1999). The very act of repudiating one’s heritage, as the African students so easily did, is itself both a highly de-socializing as well as de-collectivizing poise.

Education in African societies nurtured societies that not only grew with the Reflective Capacities, the Spirit and the Lived Experiences as inseparable wholes, but also offered very little value for allegiance to abstract, disconnected symbols, a feature so prevalent in modern society. Education and culture were closely inter-linked processes at both the individual and collective levels ensuring self-knowledge, self-determination and self-esteem (Mugo, 1999). These processes were not limited to one institution or controlled by the state. This element of control is important in understanding why the African students could not free their perceptions of abstract institutional phenomena. In indigenous African society no specific buildings were designated as the only spaces within which culture and education could be imparted. This, apart from limiting draconian control, also greatly enhanced practical conceptions of one’s universe, its individual’s problem-posing and problem-solving capacities. When the university students pose ‘backwardness’ as a problem but remain clueless as to how such conceptions come about nor how they can be ‘undone’, it illustrates a detachment from one’s immediate sense-making universe. Conversely, education/learning in African societies was "based on a system of linkages: social life was linked with production; general life was linked with practical life" (Ntulli, 1999). This also led to the cultivation of deep reflective capacities which, in turn, led to creativity, invention and a high sense of self-esteem. Culture was alive and present in peoples’ lives. Unlike today, where it is given a fossilized character – an extinct creature frozen in time and consigned to museums - or packaged as an exotic commodity to fetch value in the open Market.

Reclaiming Purpose- A Personal Perspective

I have had the experience of being made to parrot plastic phrases without being allowed the space to conscientize/critically reflect upon the wider and deeper connotations of these phrases. Instead, I was deluged with academic material which, at best, contained irrelevant information. I connect what I went through in my educational experience with what Paulo Freire (1993), in Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls Banking Education, which treats the learners as passive recipients (‘receptacles’) at the mercy of the teacher (‘depositor’) to be stuffed with as much information as possible. It is easy to see why an African intellectual can repeatedly utter such words as under-development, backwardness, etc. without going behind the historicity, connotations and impact on society’s moral, spiritual, intellectual and cultural development. I am convinced that we still want to treat ourselves as human beings and not simply as instruments/tools/machines. By continuing these dialogues and reading through critical literature which allow for self-reflection (enable me to look at "who I am", live it and express it according to my own experience), I am now discovering afresh what these academic abstractions mean. Still, this is a process entire families and communities need to engage in, then we may cultivate shared purpose and nurture truly humane societies.



1 Those intellectual, spiritual, emotional experiences fundamental to our ‘inner voices’ – our awareness of right/wrong with regard to our thoughts and actions.

2 Michael Adas describes, "Material achievements – especially in science and technology-greatly shaped European perceptions of non-Western peoples. Cities and housing, public works and deadly military equipment became sole gauges of human worth. Civility was associated with material domination over nature." In the process, one’s reflective capacity was quashed to disregard the consequences of techno-paradise: pollution, the squandering of finite resources, and the potential for total global destruction.

3 Sir Arthur Kirby was East African Commissioner in 1958 and opined that "the East Africa of sixty years ago was a completely primitive country, in many ways more primitive than the stone age."


Africa Speaks- a collection of essays, 1966

Adas, M. Machines as the Measure of Men, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Freire, P Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1993.

Mugo, G.M. ed. African Renaissance. Capetown. Mafube Publishing, 1999.


Malcolm X: Is There Any Relevance To Africa Today?

The month of May marked the 86th birth anniversary of Malcolm X. However, as different people from different places celebrated this occasion, those of us in the struggle to envision a new Africa must ask ourselves some critical questions. What lessons can we learn from Malcolm? Which of Malcolm’s ideals do we identify with? In this article, I reflect on some of the issues that I feel inform Malcolm’s legacy and are critical as Africa’s youth struggle to define their identity in the context of neo-colonization and exploitation.


As most black leaders (in the United States of America) working in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s advocated the integration of the black community into the mainstream American life, Malcolm X was busy preaching the opposite. He maintained that Western Culture and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition on which it is based was inherently racist. Opposing the mainstream with one of the aims being the integration of traditional societies into the mainstream global economy. Disguised in nice sounding words such as ‘one village’ and ‘universal brotherhood’, the beauty of this process is that different cultures do not interact on equal ground. It is the ‘other’ communities that must integrate into the Western model, adopting their behavior, language, values, religions etc. Because the global system is designed to benefit only a privileged minority, there is no doubt that ‘integration’ can benefit only a few. It cannot change the condition of the majority of the oppressed as long as injustice, racism and the profit motive remain deeply entrenched in the global capitalist society.

The Chickens will always come home to roost

In 1963, after the assassination of U.S president John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X made a controversial statement that the assassination had represented "the chickens coming home to roost", a repayment for America’s continuing failure to end racial cruelty and hatred. This comment eventually led to his being silenced by the Nation of Islam. Although often taken out of context, Malcolm X was trying to make the point that the violent treatment of blacks had now come back to the ‘roost’ with violence against a white president. I draw two lessons from this incident. One, even in the struggle, there are those of us who still hold double standards. They demand that the struggle be confined within certain boundaries and so those who go beyond are quickly demonized. That is the reason why while most African regimes had boasted of fighting against colonialism, they were quick to persecute those who wanted to take the struggle to its logical end, i.e. continued de-colonization and resistance to the colonial legacy. Today, those who come out strongly against contemporary colonization and attack the institutions that promote this such as the World Bank, Global Corporations, schools etc. are quickly branded as enemies of development and ordered to ‘shut up’. Secondly, the evidence with which the global development machine seeks to re-order the world can only backfire on it. The recent violent demonstrations in Seattle, Davos, Genoa and other venues of World Bank, WTO meetings is only a tip of the iceberg. As the general population gets frustrated by policies that enhance poverty and seek to eradicate local cultures, they are more likely to resort to violence. One is reminded of a Frederick Douglas quote; "the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress".

The House Slave Mentality

One of the most powerful insights Malcolm X demonstrated to African Americans was the ‘field’ and ‘house’ slaves illustration. While the field slave aspired to free himself by running away from his master, the house slave loved his master. He ate the master’s leftovers, slept in the servant’s quarters and when the master was sick, he asked; "master, we sick?’ He loved his master more than the master loved himse1f. This was a powerful illustration of not only class division within an oppressed society but it exposed the oppressors’ agents within the oppressed. Colonial education policies set out to create ‘house slaves’ in Africa and the fight against colonization has always embraced the fight against our own brothers who occupied the servant’s quarters in the master’s compound.

For example, during the Mau-Mau war for freedom in Kenya in the 50s, thousands of Africans (house slaves) were slain by their fellow brothers on charges of betrayal of the struggle. After independence, Africa saw the ascendancy of some of these house slaves who proceeded to quickly mortgage their countries to the same countries that had ruled them.

Today, it is of critical importance that we identify the house slaves amongst us. Who is benefiting from the system today? It is also of critical importance to identify the institutions that continue to produce these house slaves and think about how we can create and nurture institutions committed to the agenda of de-colonization and regeneration?


One of the more serious threats that the struggle for cultural freedoms and self-determination has always had to face has been the threat of co-optation by mainstream political interests. Malcolm X has not been spared. Many groups and ideologies have claimed Malcolm without necessarily understanding what the man stood for. For example, The Socialist Workers’ parties in South and Central America, which follow the teachings of Marxist political thinker Leon Trotsky, have long viewed Malcolm X as an icon. So, too, did the Black Panther Party in the USA and various other militant, radical organizations in the late 1960s and 1970s. Some of these groups identified with his statements urging violence while others focused on his support of black nationalism. But perhaps the biggest irony is the fact that the Government which, when he was alive, treated Malcolm as a Public Enemy, now honors him by placing his image on postage stamps. Surely they do not approve of Black Nationalism, and those who espouse it certainly expect, like Malcolm, to pay the ultimate price. In Africa, Nelson Mandela was jailed by the racist system of Apartheid in South Africa. He has since emerged from his cell to become President, to pardon his former captors, and to espouse the ideal of "non-racial democracy." In 1990, on his visit to the United States, Mandela remarked that, "If today we are confident that the dream which has inspired us all these years is about to be realized, it is... because of the support...of the United States of America." Today, as he struts the globe in his role as global peacemaker, he cuts the figure of a defender of the faith more than anything else. This is not intended to be a critique of Mandela. I am only illustrating how elements that might at one time be seen to be radical can easily be co-opted into the mainstream.


Following the release of Spike Lee’s movie on Malcolm X in the early 1990s, Hollywood embarked on an agenda to make Malcolm X a subject of mass-media attention. The public was bombarded with T-shirts, caps, and posters that have commercialized his image. Today, many young people can be seen donning Malcolm X t-shirts without either having a faint clue as to who Malcolm was, nor without having an inkling of what his philosophies were. The commercialization of symbols, language and even ideals by business interests, whether deliberate or not, serves to not only line up their pockets but also divert attention from the real issues. In the U.S for example, Hip Hop music started in the early 70s as a movement articulating black conscious and nationalism but has since grown to be associated with violence, disrespect towards women and extravagant living. The same fate has befallen Reggae music, which was initially identified with the struggle of Black people in the Caribbean against exploitation and neo-colonialism. As resistance is articulated by popular culture, we must always be conscious of efforts to co-opt these through commercialization by big business interests, especially now in these days of the so-called globalization.

Malcolm X significantly elevated black consciousness in the United States (and so did Biko in Africa). He asserted in the most forceful terms that "black is beautiful", and that African Americans must take control of their own destiny. This is a message that is today reaching out to the youth of Africa who must now struggle to elevate this legacy.




[Adapted from Walter Rodney, East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, 1972]

Walter Rodney begins by defining his view of Development as "increased skill, capacity, creativity self-discipline, responsibility and material well being. The relations which develop within any given social group are crucial to an understanding of the society as a whole. But, today Development is used in a very narrow economic sense – the justification being that the type of economy is itself an index of other social features." If underdevelopment were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the USA! Bourgeois scholars very seldom grapple with the development issue in totality but instead concentrate on its materio-economic aspects alone.

"The big contradiction of Development is that it makes the majority suffer in order to make its capitalist achievements possible. One of the major ideas behind Development is a comparative one. All the countries named as underdeveloped in the world are exploited by others and the underdevelopment with which the (‘educated’) world is preoccupied is a product of capitalist imperialist and colonialist exploitation…African societies were developing independently till they were taken over by capitalist powers. One of the most common means by which one nation exploits another and one that is relevant to Africa’s external relations is trade. The whole export-import relationship between Africa and its trading partners is one of unequal exchange and of exploitation [and] the ownership of the means of production in one country by citizens of another country. When the citizens of Europe own the land and mines of Africa, this is the most direct way of sucking the African continent. Foreign investment ensures that the natural resources and the labor of Africa are stored for future extraction and exploitation."

Over the years, the players in this game of exploitation have changed but the script remains the same. Ownership, Control and Exploitation need not be done overtly anymore as subtle/sophisticated models exist for achieving similar ends. One of the most effective ways of achieving control is through indoctrination! In the colonial era naked force was used to rob people of their material possessions, break their intellectual-spiritual capacities and re-construct their social realities. Today, modern institutional structures- themselves drawing from and sharing an intellectual breeding ground with colonialism’s assumptions are helping to achieve these ends-effectively. We have controls being exerted through the instruments of international finance-loans, deceptively called ‘aid’ are used to, not only control, but also to entrench a dehumanizing culture of dependence. Worse is the mental colonization. Perhaps the most important mission of colonial education- actively being pursued today- is the ‘naturalization’ of capitalist individualism and competition, which creates slavery to the Market and blunts creative, independent thinking. The result is the tearing apart of societies’ social fabrics- a manifestation of individualistic ethos.

Europe’s Contribution to Africa’s Underdevelopment

"In the case of manufacturing, achievements in Africa have been contemptuously treated because the modern conception of the word brings to mind factories and machines. Most African societies fulfilled their own needs for a wide range of articles of domestic use, as well as farming equipment. The colonial system led to a delay in industrial and technological developments in Africa. It totally destroyed/eradicated or neglected pre-existing indigenous industries, processing of locally produced raw materials and agricultural products, building materials, pottery and cookery, iron-tools etc. It has to be remembered that traditional Africa’s technological-industrial capacities emerged out of a completely unique set of social, cultural, environmental, and economic milieu. Its ‘greatness’-if one must use this word at all- must be seen in light of its adaptability to surrounding cultural, ecological, spiritual and moral sensitivities. In contrast to its modern exterminator, it was never avaricious, exploitative, dis-empowering, plunderous or competitive. Colonialism also saddled most colonies with mono-crop economies. Each colony was made to produce a single cash crop or two and no attempt was made to diversify agriculture. To this day, many African societies lack food for internal consumption, rice, maize, and other foods have to be imported."

"In the case of slavery, the [sudden] changeover from peaceful economic activity to war-like activities [of] kidnapping, raping, humiliating, burning affected all branches of economic activity for centuries to follow. The brutal and disruptive nature of slavery prevented millions of people from engaging in meaningful agriculture and industry. Hence there was stagnation in these fields. The connection between slavery and capitalist development in the growth of England is well documented by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery. England derived immense benefits from trading and exploiting slaves –outstanding examples are provided in the persons of David and Alexander Barclay who were engaging in the slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays Banks!"

Why Today?

The reason why we think it is important to re-think these issues now is because there are myths (some 500 year-old) which are today badly affecting our intellectual/moral regenerative capacities and which we need to explode. For example, the myth that Americans (Westerners) are hardworking while Africans are lazy is as vacuous as it is racist. "The acquisition of wealth is not due to hard work alone or the Africans working as slaves in America and the West Indies would have been the wealthiest in the world. The individualism of the capitalist must be seen against the hard and unrewarded work of the masses." Such myths are in fact inhibiting our capacities to recognize that colonial/Western institutions were designed to destroy, not to respect and appreciate our wealth of experiences. It is upon such myths that we, the educated people, have forced huge sections of our people to abandon their meaning making systems ostensibly to join us in a costly march towards a narrowly defined Progress, an illusory ideal. Today, communities around the world are already conceiving of fresh ways of knowing, based on rich historical and civilizational experiences. We may want to reflect upon certain questions

  1. What kinds of questions and views should we raise and reflect upon to liberate and discover new understandings about our societies?
  2. Are there possibilities for discovering and promoting broad dialogue on certain ‘accepted’ assumptions of our time? For example, how do we re-evaluate, consistent with existing realities, the much glorified notion of "foreign investment."?
  3. Given what we know about the destructive/parasitic effects of this economic model, how do we expose its "expert- propped" views as little more than racist propaganda, comprising an extremely sketchy understanding of exploitative historical phenomena and having no connection with reality?




We have here some contemporary illustrations of how global elite, using the devices of trade/Globalization, continues to "suck the life out of the African continent" as described by Walter Rodney. One can find many examples from around the African continent of how globalization leads to the destruction of local economies and social organization, pushing people into insecurity, fear, and civil strife/violence.

Adapted from Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy (South End Press, Boston MA, 1997)

"The Somalian crisis has been interpreted as a residue of 'tribalism'. However, the civil war in Somalia is more intimately connected to the effects of Globalization in the form of structural adjustment programs. Somalia had a pastoral economy based on exchange between nomadic herdsmen and small peasants. It remained virtually self-sufficient in terms of food. Livestock made up 80 percent of Somalia’s export earnings until 1983. The IMF-World Bank adjustment programs (devaluation and liberalization of imports) in the 1980s led to an erosion of agricultural production and dragged the Somali economy into a vicious circle: the decimation of the herds pushed the nomadic pastoralists into starvation which in turn backlashed on grain producers who sold/ bartered their grain for cattle. The entire social fabric of the pastoralist economy was undone..."


Excerpted from Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalization of Poverty (Third World Network, Penang, Malaysia, 1997)

"What is the responsibility of the West in the Rwandan tragedy? First it is important to stress that the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi was largely the product of a colonial system, many features of which still prevail today. It was largely the administrative reforms initiated in 1926 by the Belgians which were decisive in shaping socio-ethnic relations. The Belgians used dynastic conflict explicitly to reinforce their territorial controls. Routine beatings and corporal punishment, by one community on another, were administered on behalf of the colonial masters. A climate of fear and distrust was installed, communal solidarity broke down and traditional client relations were transformed to serve the interests of the colonial administrator. Colonial historiographers were entrusted with the task of 'transcribing' as well as distorting Rwanda-Urundi’s oral history. The historical record was falsified: The mwami monarchy was identified exclusively with the Tutsi aristocratic dynasty, and was overall made responsible for the collection of taxes and the administration of justice…

In the early 1990s, the World Bank-IMF policies of structural adjustment created a massive crisis in the coffee economy which backlashed on the production of cassava, beans and sorghum. The system of savings and loan co-operatives which provided credit to small farmers, also disintegrated. Moreover, with the liberalization of trade and the deregulation of grain markets as recommended by the Bretton Woods institutions, heavily subsidized cheap food imports and food aid from the rich countries were entering Rwanda with the effect of destabilizing the local markets…"